Back to the original sources…

One of the great pleasures of being historically-minded in this, the early 21st century, is the trend among modern historians to return to the original sources rather than relying on what previous generations of historians have said and written.

Let me give you an example.

In 2005, for the final conference celebrating the British victory at Trafalgar, the Inshore Squadron were called upon to do a ‘show and tell’.

Now the official story has always been daring and well-seasoned British sailors led by the great Nelson against French numpties led by the depressive Villeneuve–with the expected result.  Through Nelson’s daring at executing a thing called ‘capping the T’, the British broke through the Allied line and routed them.  The British won, and destroyed the combined French and Spanish navies.

But, as they explained, whilst they were thinking about this exercise, and preparing for it, it occurred to them that perhaps they maybe should read the ships’ logs from those ships involved in the action on 21 October 1805.

So they did.

They also constructed a series of tiny boats to represent the ships involved in the day’s action and they moved them, incrementally, across a large platform, in correspondence with locations given in the ships’ logs as the battle would have unfolded.

They took their investigations still further and began to consult with the weather reports for the period and other early 19th century documents, like those about the consistency of British gunpowder as opposed to that of the French.

The combined results were startling.

And several questions which had previously appeared unanswerable suddenly became all too transparently obvious.

Why had the French been such bad shots, with many of their cannon balls going into the air and missing the enemy altogether or straight into the water?  Well, the French were bad shots, but it wasn’t exactly their fault as the Inshore Squadron found.

It’s true they didn’t practice with live ammunition, unlike the British who did.  However, it also transpires that on many of the French ships that October day, the crews were over 60% landsmen.

They weren’t sailors.  They didn’t know how to fire a cannon.  They didn’t know how to sail.

Then, to make matters worse, as the Inshore fellows found, there was a hurricane brewing off the coast of North America and the huge swells of that storm were washing eastward–straight into the guns of the French and Spanish ships.  Only the most skilled and seasoned gunners would have known exactly when to fire so that the cannon ball didn’t go straight into the water or fly uselessly upward on the rise of the swell.

To make matters worse, Napoleon had ordered the captains of the French and Spanish ships to line their ships up so that there would be a French ship, then a Spanish ship, then a French ship, then a Spanish ship…This was meant to encourage integration.  What it actually did was prevent communication or coordination.  (Oops.)  It did foster chaos, however.

And then there’s the matter of gunpowder.  Because, due to the Industrial Revolution which was trotting along quite nicely, thank you, the British had developed a much more powerful gunpowder.  This was down at a place in Hampshire called Buckler’s Hard.  In fact, it was so powerful that it blew the cannons apart.  So they diluted it by combining it with the older, weaker gunpowder.  And what did this mean?  Only that the British cannon fired a great deal farther.  Which at sea is quite an advantage.

So you might say, the French had the decks stacked against them.  (Sorry about the pun.  Couldn’t resist.)

Then finally the Inshore Squadron discovered–through pushing those little boats along as outlined in the logs–why the French van (that’s the front of the line, for you landlubbers) didn’t move, didn’t rush to aid the centre of their line once it became apparent that the flagship with Nelson was doubling back and not sailing straight into them.

(This next probably won’t make sense to any but those who know the battle positions already–and for that, I apologise.)

The answer is because once one saw the positions of the ships that morning, with a line of British ships heading for the van–even once Nelson had begun to double back to break the French line closer to the middle–from the vantage point of the French look-outs, there was still a line of eight ships heading right for them.

It wasn’t until four hours into the action that it became apparent to the French van that none of the British ships were going to attempt to break through–they were all following Nelson’s lead.  And by then, it was too late for them to do anything much.

All of this, I can assure you, caused much amazement and shaking of heads when it was first presented at that 2005 conference and sent all the assembled academics and historians back to their…well, not their drawing boards, but their laptops probably.

But the thing is, this kind of research is happening all the time now.  Scholars such as Charles Esdaile, Colin White, Dominic Lieven, Adam Zamoyski are searching out the original sources and reading those documents and letters and journals in the original languages.  And it’s causing all sorts of rethinking, forcing us to reconsider what we thought we knew, showing the huge gaps in our understanding of the past, telling the same stories perhaps, but from a different, often antithetical point of view.  Forcing us to re-examine all those long-established ‘truths’ about what happened…

I admit, it causes me to shake my head a great deal, to compare texts, scratch my head and often start again.  But on the whole, I think it’s dashed exciting!

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6 comments on “Back to the original sources…

  1. Huzzah!!
    It’s like I always said…histories are full of (this word deleted by site administrator).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      And now I’ll spend the evening guessing what word was deleted by the site administrator. Ha ha ha.

  2. “Decks stacked against them.”

    I’ve ruined you for polite society, I have. 😀

    • M M Bennetts says:

      You only think you’ve ruined me for polite society because you’ve never smelled my riding boots…I was ruined long before I met you, believe me.

  3. Oh, that’s terrific. Loved your story here. I think so very, very often we trot out what the last generation of historians found out, quoting them as sources. Yet often, the stories they told were prejudiced by modern circumstances. (eg WW2 is still happening, Napoleonic War is Britain’s Triumph etc) It seems we need distance (time) to be able to consider the facts properly.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      And we need to go back to the original sources as often as possible. Because otherwise, history becomes a little too much like a game of Chinese whispers played over the generations.

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