Today we commemorate one of Britain’s greatest days. Talking and thinking this week-end about Englishness has made me more conscious of the achievement on October 21st 1805, when the navy met the combined fleets of Spain and France off the Spanish coast. It summed up the best of our principles and capacities. It was an action fought to keep our own country free from foreign invasion, but also to help liberate the rest of Europe from a restless warlord who wished to enforce a false unity on the continent by force of arms.
It was victory for the underdog. Napoleon’s forces on land, and on this occasion at sea, were greatly superior. It was victory for daring and innovative tactics. The encounter followed a hectic chase of the French fleet, as Nelson tried to track it down and stop it getting to the English Channel. It was proof, if proof were needed, that training, experience, and belief in their cause, could give the British the strength they needed to vanquish the bully.
Victory at Trafalgar over the combined French and Spanish fleets in 1805 was decisive. It meant Napoleon could not complete his conquest of Europe. England by her exertions had once again ensured the ultimate freedom of many nations and peoples on the continent, as well as protecting her own. Shorn of control of the coasts, and unable to invade England to stop her independent support for the conquered countries on the continent, Napoleon fought on, only to face ultimate defeat. England, then as later, stood for liberty and the self determination of nations.
The victory was comprehensive. 17 Allied ships surrendered, and the Achille blew up . 27 English ships of the line with 2154 guns had overwhelmed a Franco Spanish fleet of 33 capital ships, with 2638 guns. The Allies also mounted more guns on frigates and smaller vessels. 4408 French and Spanish were dead, with 449 English killed in action. It is almost unbelievable that such an inferior force, attacking in the full face of Allied naval fire in a light wind that maximised the time at risk as the fleets edged closer, could achieve so much.
So what was it about that encounter that made it possible? It is true England had a charismatic Admiral who instilled confidence in his captains and men just as he struck doubt and fear into the minds of his enemies. His strategy was bold, and gave the English the advantage once the lines had closed of being able briefly to rake the French and Spanish ships through their vulnerable sterns. His leadership created a true band of brothers amongst his captains, who had considerable freedom to choose their own method of fighting in the melee which followed the clash of the fleets. The heroism of Captain Harvey and his crew on the Temeraire was an example, even on that day of formidable bravery and daring.
The English were able to manoeuvre most of their ships in the light winds from great seamanship, whilst the Allied fleet struggled to get the van of its fleet back into the action once their lines had been cut. The English shot more broadsides from superior loading and firing, and fired on the down roll into the decks of the opponents. The Allied fleet disabled English ships by firing on the uproll into the rigging, without killing so many personnel.
It was the most remarkable day in the long and remarkable history of the English and British navies. May we use wisely the freedoms they helped us secure.