(HOST) Today, October twenty first, is the two hundredth anniversary of what’s been called the most decisive naval battle, both tactically and strategically, in history. Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.
(GILBERT) Trafalgar Square, in central London, is perhaps more famous, at least to Americans, than the battle after which it is named. Some people know that the Battle of Trafalgar was an important naval battle, and some know that Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was its hero – perhaps because his statue stands atop Nelson’s Column in the center of Trafalgar Square.
In 1805 the Emperor Napoleon hoped that by combining his French fleet with the Spanish, he could defeat the British fleet
and set the stage for invading England. But in the months before Trafalgar, things did not go Napoleon’s way, and so the combined Franco-Spanish fleet set sail not for England, but for the Mediter- ranean to protect the southern flank of his operations in Austria.
Admiral Nelson caught the fleet off Cape Trafalgar on the south- west coast of Spain. As they sailed into battle, Nelson’s flagship famously signaled the rest of his fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
In a radical break with conventional naval strategy, Nelson attacked the line of enemy ships at right angles. Doing so initially exposed the English ships to the enemy’s broadsides, but once in close, the English responded with devastating effectiveness; their better trained crews could get off more volleys faster than the enemy, and Nelson’s unorthodox tactics positioned them to pour raking cannon fire through the enemies’ stern or bow, which lacked the thick oaken walls of the ships’ sides. The difference between shooting a cannon ball into the side of a ship and shooting it into the stern, from which it can travel the length of the ship unimped- ed, was, as author Adam Nicholson writes, “the difference be- tween a battle and a slaughter.”
The result was an overwhelming English victory: the British lost no ships while 22 of 33 Spanish and French ships either were sunk or surrendered. The Franco-Spanish force lost 14,000 men, the British, 1,500. Among them, however, was Nelson, mortally wounded by a French sharpshooter just fifteen minutes into the battle as he calmly walked the deck of his flagship in full dress uniform to maintain his crew’s morale.
The movie “Master and Commander” gives one some sense of naval battles of that era. Solid cannonballs and grapeshot raking the length of ships’ crowded decks blew ships and men to pieces. Adam Nicholson’s new book, Seize the Fire, Heroism, Duty and the Battle of Trafalgar offers a subtle examination of the spirit, character, and martial culture of the men and nations involved.
The Battle of Trafalgar ended Napoleon’s hopes of invading Eng- land, and ensured that England’s navy would continue to rule the waves for the next century. That, in turn, enabled Britain to main- tain its worldwide empire and protect the maritime trade that fed its prodigious wealth.
It was Nelson at Trafalgar that gave lasting meaning to the words “Rule Brittania.”
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.