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The Terror before Trafalgar: Nelson, Napoleon and the Secret War

By Tom Pocock

The Royal Navy’s annihilation of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 was a pivotal event in European history.

Because the victory was so stunningly complete, and because Admiral Horatio Nelson died heroically in the engagement, the event has become a legend. But Trafalgar was not an isolated battle, fought and won in a single afternoon. The naval campaign had begun more than four years earlier.

The extraordinary period that followed Napoleon’s threat to invade England in 1801 became known as ‘The Great Terror’. As Napoleon’s formidable Grande Armée faced an army of English volunteers across the Channel, a secret war of espionage and subversion was being fought and new technologies of war — including rockets, submarines, and torpedoes — were developed. 

Drawing on diaries, letters and newspapers, The Terror Before Trafalgar paints a vivid picture of the years 1801–1805, and of the people wittingly or unwittingly caught up in these unique events: Nelson as he blockaded the French at sea for two unbroken years; his love Emma Hamilton waiting at home; Jane Austen and her naval brothers; the diarist Fanny Burney; the admirals, generals and politicians; and those lesser-known men — Congreve, Moreau and Pichegru — who waged the secret war in England and in France.

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