October 21, 1805: Off Cape Trafalgar

On the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, VFR is pleased to present this article by attorney and culture critic Spencer Warren.

October 21, 1805: Off Cape Trafalgar
By Spencer Warren

Britain’s elaborate bicentenary celebrations of Horatio Nelson’s annihilating victory over the French fleet at Trafalgar off the Atlantic coast of Spain on October 21, 1805 embody the principles of national identity and concrete national culture that are major themes of VFR. Any Briton who cannot find inspiration in Nelson’s life and his heroic and tragic death—which took place at the very moment of victory—cannot be a true Briton, just as any American who cannot find inspiration in Valley Forge and the example of Washington, or in the epic settlement of our vast continent, cannot be a true American. Britain, of course, was never a “propositional” nation—at least not before the 1990’s. Recall the common expression, or at least common until recently, “King (or Queen) and Country.”

The elaborate celebrations also honor Britain’s sea heritage, which is to Britain as the American West is to us. A people’s heritage, its history and accomplishments—in war and peace—are the living source of a true nation, more than the abstract ideals invoked by neoconservative advocates of the propositional nation, who soon abandon those ideals in any case: how can you hold on to your nation’s ideals, once you’ve let go of the nation? Fortunately, enough of the old Britain survives to make this commemoration all that it should be. Among many events, an international naval review before the Queen was held in June outside the historic naval base at Portsmouth. (Unfortunately, the battle re-enactment that followed was between the “Red” and “Blue” sides—so as not to “offend” the French and Spanish, much to the disgust of Nelson’s direct descendant.) Today, October 21, on board Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory, preserved in drydock at Portsmouth and a magnificent tourist attraction, his famous battle signal will be hoisted at 8 a.m.: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” A wreath will be laid by the Second Sea Lord, as commander-in-chief of the Naval Home Command, at the places on the ship where Nelson was shot and where he died. Later, the Queen will light the first of 1000 beacons that will be lit across the country, followed by a fireworks display and a royal dinner on board the Victory. British, French and Spanish warships will lay wreaths at sea where the awful battle was fought. Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” is being performed around the country. And on Sunday, there will be ceremonies and wreath-laying at the foot of Nelson’s column (which was modeled after the column of Mars in the Roman Forum) in Trafalgar Square, and a service of celebration attended by Prince Charles and other members of the royal family will be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In addition, an enterprising couple has compiled for the living descendants of the participants in the battle a website with details on most of the crews—British, French, Spanish—who fought and died at Trafalgar. The 1805 Club has published a volume with details on the burial places of all the British captains at Trafalgar, and is restoring the seven places that are in need. (In addition to Nelson, two captains were killed: John Cooke, captain, HMS Bellerophon, and George Duff, captain, HMS Mars.) Plus there have been many programs on television and BBC radio. The ones I’ve heard on radio have not, I am pleased to write, been PC! All this makes quite a contrast with the lifeless World War II memorial dedicated on our national Mall in Washington, D.C. last year. Sadly, however, we must ask: What will the tricentenary of Trafalgar be like? Will there be a Britain as we know it in 2105?

Nelson’s Navy was a ferocious fighting machine—among the ships under his command, besides the two noted above, were HMS Thunderer, HMS Leviathan, HMS Temeraire, HMS Achilles, HMS Colossus, HMS Conqueror. In the battle the British inflicted ten times the casualties that they suffered. Nelson is an outstanding model of leadership, fearlessness, and manliness. Lord Byron called him “Britannia’s God of War.” He had lost an eye and part of one arm in earlier engagements. A tough and ruthless commander, he was nevertheless loved by his men. Long before the HBO World War II series, he referred to his captains as his “Band of Brothers.” And he was loved by the public. People would kneel before him in the streets. A devout Christian, before the battle he composed from his knees a famous prayer.

As the battle commenced, Nelson refused to remove his insignias from his uniform, lest he set a bad example for his men. This made him a target of the French marines stationed in the masts of their own ships. With 27 British ships of the line against 33 French and Spanish, he boldly divided his force into two columns and sailed directly into the enemy’s line, to divide and destroy it in close action. Here the Royal Navy’s far superior gunnery, seamanship, and fighting spirit could inflict the shattering destruction that was Nelson’s trademark. Although (or, rather, because) the lead ships would initially face the brunt of the enemy broadsides, Nelson led the first column, and his second in command, Collingwood, led the second.

An hour and a half into the battle, Nelson was felled by a musket shot, his spine shattered. He suffered for three hours below decks, repeatedly asking how many of the enemy’s ships had been sunk or captured—he wanted at least twenty. Finally, in the knowledge he had won his country’s greatest triumph (18 enemy ships, with four more later captured), he expressed his love for his famous mistress, Emma, Lady Hamilton, and died with these words: “Thank God I have done my duty.” He was 47 years old. All this is powerfully dramatized in the 1941 film, That Hamilton Woman, with Laurence Olivier as Nelson and Vivien Leigh as Emma. It was Churchill’s favorite movie—he watched it a reported eleven times.

Nelson’s seamen wept on learning of their leader’s death. His body was transported back to Britain, where in January 1806 he was honored with an imposing state funeral, first lying in state for three days in Sir Christopher Wren’s baroque Painted Hall in Greenwich, where his casket was viewed by 15,000 people, before being moved up the Thames in a grand, solemn procession to the Admiralty, and thence to Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral for the service. The music included Handel’s “See the Conquering Hero.” At the end of the service, as his casket was lowered into the crypt, his many honors were read out into the great edifice, ending with these words: “The hero who in his great moment is covered in immortal glory.” His death and funeral transformed Nelson from hero to legend, much as Lincoln’s murder sixty years later, at the climax of his labors, made him a mythical figure.

This national ritual has since been rivaled only by those given for the Duke of Wellington and Churchill. Nelson’s tomb rests in the crypt of St. Paul’s, with Wellington’s tomb nearby.

Victory at Trafalgar crushed forever Napoleon’s hopes of invading Britain. The battle was the failed culmination of his efforts begun two and a half years earlier to eliminate France’s staunchest opponent. From the time he abrogated the one-year Peace of Amiens in 1803, Napoleon had been building thousands of landing boats to transport his Grande Armée across the English Channel. Across southern England, fortifications were busily being erected, as the Royal Navy kept close watch on the French coast. Britain faced her greatest threat since the Spanish Armada in 1588. Napoleon planned to gain naval superiority in the Channel by having his Mediterranean Fleet, with the Spanish, sail first to the West Indies, eluding Nelson, and then re-cross the Atlantic to join with the French Channel Fleet. But Nelson was too dogged in his pursuit, and the two French fleets were unable to unite. As a result, Napoleon in August 1805 gave up his dream of invading Britain and led his army east against Austria and Russia. The battle at Trafalgar took place when Nelson intercepted the enemy fleet as it was attempting to return to the Mediterranean. By that point the immediate threat of an invasion of Britain had already passed, but the shattering French defeat at Trafalgar ended France as a great naval power, eliminated the threat of a future French invasion of Britain, and ensured that Britannia would “rule the waves” for the next century, a period of unprecedented international peace and economic progress.

Following the victory at Trafalgar, Britain led the coalition against Napoleon for ten long years, confining his aggressions to the Continent, before finishing him off for good at Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

America’s comparable naval victory was the Battle of Midway, on June 4, 1942. Actually, Midway was even more decisive. Thanks to the courageous decision of our commander, Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, to launch our attack aircraft at the extreme limit of their range (enabling the attack to begin earlier than it would otherwise have done and catching the enemy by surprise, before they could attack our carriers), our three aircraft carriers sank all four of the enemy’s carriers, destroying Japan’s offensive naval power for good. Our pilots also killed many of the highly trained Japanese pilots who six months earlier had led the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. After Midway, we assumed the offensive which we would never yield for the next three years, until—the Nelson way—we had utterly and permanently destroyed the enemy’s ability to endanger us. Yet the American commemoration of Midway is virtually nonexistent compared to Britain’s celebration of Trafalgar. This is a poverty in our national culture. How many Americans know about Spruance, or the pilot who led our devastating five-minute dive bomber attack, Lt. Commander Wade McCluskey?

Any great nation should cherish the achievements of its past—in war as in peace. A public ritual like the Trafalgar celebrations is necessary to take a democratic people out of their self-absorption, to lift their eyes above and beyond the common and the workaday—not to mention the widespread contemporary self-indulgence—to their heroic essence as a people. We should not minimize the traits of men of Nelson’s time that we may find alien today. We should remember them for the noble traits they embodied in their actions.

As a final note, readers will appreciate the following excerpt from the letter of Captain Henry Blackwood, commander of the frigate HMS Euryalus, written to his wife the morning of the battle:

The last twenty-four hours have been most anxious work for me but we have kept sight of them and are at this moment bearing up to come into action. My dearest dear Harriet, your husband will not disgrace your love or name: if he dies his last breath will be devoted to the dearest bests of wives. Take care of my boy. Make him a better man than his father…

- end-

A final note by LA. I just came upon the text of Nelson’s prayer that was mentioned by Mr. Warren:

Just before Trafalgar, Nelson wrote his last prayer—he often wrote prayers when preparing for battle—for England and humanity. “May the great God whom I worship, grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet! For myself, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

The webpage contains more information about Nelson’s religiousity and on how religious he really was, especially in light of his affair with Lady Hamilton. However, what strikes me most about the prayer is that for a prominent leader and man of action of that era, no matter how consistent he may have been in practicing his religion, thoughts of God were primary in the way he thought about himself and life. God—not equality, diversity, sex, money making, or any other secular value—was the organizing idea of human life, and second to God was country, and third was “Europe in general.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 21, 2005 10:01 AM | Send

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