Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Date to Remember

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson led a fleet of 27 ships-of-the-line into the definitive naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. He tackled a combined French and Spanish Fleet numbering 33 ships-of-the-line including the giant Santissima Trinidade with her 136 main guns. They also had two 112 gun ships, the Principe de Asturas and Santa Anna.

Nelson's tactics were revolutionary and extremely risky, but they worked. His two divisions of ships cut the Franco-Spanish line into three sections and his ships then proceeded to annihilate the centre and rear of the enemy fleet while those in the van, mainly Spanish, could - or wanted to - do little to help.

One reason for this was that HMS Victory, herself a big ship with 104 main guns, passed directly across the stern of the French Commander-in-Chief's flagship. Her first savage broadside, preceded by the lethal fire of the 68 pdr Carronades on her forecastle, rendered the Buccentaure unmanageable with her steering shot away and her gun decks turned into a carnal house. Worse, for Admiral Villeneuve, most of his staff died in the fusilade - and as a result, he was more or less cut off from his fleet and unable to pass his orders, or enforce them. Nelson's second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Collingwood led the second division in the 100 gun Royal Sovereign. One can only imagine what the conditions were like - even the exhibition at the Museum in Portsmouth can only convey a very basic idea of it.

In a battle of this sort, individual ships found a target and hammered away at it until one or other could no longer continue. At Trafalgar the carnage was appalling, but worse was to come. Having captured around 10 French and Spanish ships when battle finally ceased, the British found themselves compelled to anchor and attempt to patch up ships and rigging so they could sail to Gibralter for more permanent repairs. The weather, however, had other ideas. In the storm which blew up, a number of ships sank, many more were driven onto the rocky Spanish coast and wrecked. The storm killed more men than the battle with the French losing over 13,000 men, killed wounded and captured to the British 1,666 killed and wounded.

The battle put an end to Napoleon's ambitious plans for an invasion of Britain, and he turned his attention Eastward instead. A move that led directly to his abortive invasion of Russia and Waterloo. I shall be raising a glass to Nelson, Collingwood and all the brave men (and women) who took part in this momentous battle, setting us on the path to our present. A pity our current crop of so-called leaders have forgotten all the lessons of history - if they ever knew them.

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