How was your Trafalgar Day?

A semi-sequel to Journey to the End of the World, where that region helped inspire victorious tactics in Britain’s most famous sea battle. It’s been a fine year to study Napoleonic warfare, in between moaning that the UK has insufficient public holidays. 

Another Trafalgar Day over. And it’s still not a public holiday.

Slightly overshadowed by the bizarre (mostly-pre-Millennial) obsession with Back to the Future Day yesterday, it still found a sturdy showing on social media. That’s the natural home for such things these days, as Social Networks pointed out to me about Back to the Future all day. 20 year olds probably don’t grasp this – as brilliant as the trilogy is, particularly the first film – but they were surely compelled to demonstrate strange tolerance for the tribute to franchise that ended 25 years ago. Maybe they completely they ignored it. It was a rather distasteful homage to the one of the most miserable things I’ve ever heard of: the celebration of the arrival of the future which isn’t anywhere near what was predicted. Perhaps, it’s just because I dutifully watched the Back to the Future trilogy back-to-back yesterday and my head still hurts. Definitely, 20 year olds will one day fall into the same delusion of nostalgia.

Social networking is a long shout from the weeks and weeks the people of Britain, the workers farming the fields in Nelson’s home county of Norfolk included, must have waited for news 210 years ago, after the British fleet met her rivals in the culmination of the Trafalgar Campaign, the complex sequence of manoeuvres and skirmishes with the French Empire that ran for most of 1805. And then to hear it was victory, but the Vice Admiral of the White had fallen.

I’ve been genning up on Napoleonic wars this year, compelled by the BBC’s excellent adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a couple of fictions and not least The Times’ excellent History of War. One of those fascinating and essential books that everyone should own or borrow. It’s not a bloodthirsty pursuit, but defiantly human – tracing warfare from Hittite to Gulf and all the mistakes and horrors therein. I think I might also be pining for that oddity of a fascinating BBC show Time Commanders that used the Total War engine to let teams replay (and lose) historic battles that, quite unbelievably, ended a decade ago.

Beautiful Alliance

“Duke of Wellington 2” by Francisco Goya – National Gallery.

More pertinent to this year, unlike on sea where the effects of the French Revolution proved incompatible with Naval supremacy, Napoleon’s war machine was phenomenal on land. It took a few misassumptions and a lack of tactical confidence by some of his generals on the field to lose Waterloo in 1815. The Allied forces were constantly foiled by one of the greatest tactical minds, or “humbugged” as Wellington put it. A fine exponent of British wit, and associated understatement, it was a too weary to be relieved Wellington who remarked on the fields of Waterloo that “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” It was the Bi-centenary of that famous battle that’s particularly overshadowed Trafalgar in 2015.

Of course, Wellington, who once also remarked, “It is not the business of generals too shoot one another” survived Waterloo – or far more accurately, The Battle of La Belle Alliance, to become twice Prime Minister of Britain. Nelson had not survived his finest hour just under a decade before.

End of the World

Cape St Vincent, the Algarve, Portugal
Cape St Vincent in September 2015

The climax of Trafalgar truly is one of the great British victories, and came at the end of a string of triumphs for Nelson. And it’s got a bit of everything. The British fleet exceeded the French in seamanship to the point that the 1790s saw them and the combined Dutch and Spanish fleets of the Empire target only tactical advances. The numbers posed a problem, and when Nelson found himself out-fleeted by six ships at Trafalgar after Napoleon had achieved some success in drawing considerable British Naval attention to his fleets in the West Indies. So Nelson looked back to the Battle of St Vincent eight years before where he had been Commodore in a fleet that Sir John Jervis’ brilliant tactical nouse took directly through a gap in an opposing Spanish fleet double his own, to divide the fight into small skirmishes far more favourable to the British. Cape St Vincent has previously featured in these pages as the End of the World. But the beginning of the 19th century it was the centre of the world. Nelson’s Ship HMS Captain took point at that battle, with the Commodore taking half of the four ships that the British seized.


At Trafalgar it was a similar story, despite the seemingly more even odds. Nelson devised the equivalent of a handbrake turn, a gutsy manoeuvre where the British fleet sailed headlong into the enemy before turning to a line to fire. The opposing fleet’s parallel line was split in three and their ships surrounded in localised fights. It was the equivalent of infantry columns on the battlefield and immensely effective.

HMS Victory
HMS Victory, canon ready

Of course, it carried risks. One being the surprisingly close range that allowed startled riflemen to fire across ships from the rigging. And that one sharp shooting musketeer who took out Nelson’s shoulder, prompting the Admiral to remark “my backbone is shot through” as he was taken below decks. Nelson survived three hours, in the bowels of HMS Victory, just long enough for Captain Hardy of that ship to tell him that his tactics had worked and enemy ships were surrendering. A victory that would assure British sea supremacy.

Surgeon William Beatty, who had little chance of saving a Vice Admiral who was certain of his impending death heard him say – “thank God I have done my duty” – the balancing quote to the famous and much seized upon sentence Nelson had uttered that morning of 21st October before the fleets met, “England confides that every man will do his duty”. There’s an element of relief in there, but also of completeness. Of the man who’d returned to England the previous August suffering failing eye-sight and stress related illnesses a few months after Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of France, only to live long enough to hear his tactical success confirmed after pursuit of Admiral Villeneuve’s fleet took him back to sea in January 1805.

It joined other incredible facts surrounding the relatively humble Norfolk man who overcame constant seasickness, including the ligature that somehow removed itself from the amputated arm he’d sustained in battle off Tenerife when surgeons failed. Who insisted on prowling the deck of his ship barking orders in the heat of battle no matter the personal cost.

To return to The Times, they reported that on hearing the news King George III tearfully uttered, “We have lost more than we have gained.”

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square
Looking to Portsmouth

Despite all manner of antics and slight devilry away from the seas of battle that knocked the hats off some during his life, Nelson remains one of if not the best example of British stoic heroism. Although he certainly addressed his pain, he didn’t pander to it. That’s why he gets those monuments, particularly the tall one from where he stands, forever kept in his late 40s, atop the capital looking down to the Admiralty of Portsmouth. Below, the southern Plinth carries a relief that records his death, to the west the Battle of Cape St Vincent.

Give us a break

In the long autumn that misses a public holiday, mid- to late- October is the perfect time to entertain one. While the G20 nations average 20, EU countries 11 and even the hard working Americans have 10 it’s a little galling that UK gets a measly eight public holidays a year. And the name Trafalgar Day is already made, with a worthy hero right at the centre. October 21 would be ideal, or the nearest Monday. Especially now we’ve got over the excitement of Back to the Future Day.

UK autumn
Nature upset that the UK autumn doesn’t own a single public holiday.

At this time of year it really begins to bite, especially for autumn lovers like this one. We may be more mindful of national sensitivities in the European Union, and 21st century, but that can’t impugn the events of two centuries ago – nor the less than desirable circumstances that endured. American’s don’t worry talking about Independence Day in front of a Limey and nor should they.

The UK had the Eurotunnel connect France straight into Waterloo, and it was scant contriteness that shifted it to the regal King’s Cross. That former village of Battlebridge is named for the monument of George IV, son of teary George III.

Perhaps things will be different after the next EU referendum. Perhaps then business leaders will have little else to talk about than how many billions a national holiday costs us all. In a stoically heroic way of course.

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