Colin White: Trafalgar Myths

Roundup: Talking About History

Colin White, in the London Independent (July 29, 2004):

[Colin White is one of Britain's leading experts on Nelson. He is director of Trafalgar 200 for the National Maritime Museum and will be publishing two books in 2005, Nelson: The New Letters' and Nelson: The Admiral']

Where is Trafalgar? When visitors to the Royal Naval Museum's Tra- falgar Experience' in Ports-mouth are confronted with this question in a multi-choice computer quiz, a surprising number of them select The Channel.

Or perhaps it is not surprising at all. For,
Napoleon had spent months of planning, and had expended millions of francs, on the creation of a special "Army of England", and a huge flotilla of transports to get it across the Channel. But in the end he was outmanoeuvred by the Royal Navy, skilfully blocked at every turn, when he tried to unite his fleets of battleships and push them into the Channel to cover his army's crossing.

Finally, in late August 1805, even he could see that his plans were not going to work. So, when he heard that Austria was mobilising an army, he turned with evident relief to the sort of warfare he understood best and struck there before the country was fully prepared.

That left the Combined Fleet under Vice Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, sheltering behind the fortifications of Cadiz, an ever-present threat to Britain. So, to deal with it, the British Admiralty sent their star player - the victor of three battles and acknowledged leader of his profession, Horatio Nelson.

He had with him a battleplan that he hoped would help the British to win a wipe-out victory. He even had a name for it: in a letter to his beloved mistress, Emma Hamilton he called it "The Nelson Touch".

Another of the Trafalgar myths is that this plan was new and revolutionary, involving tactics that no one had thought of using before.

In fact, the individual elements of the plan - such as breaking through the enemy's line or attacking in divisions, instead of in a single line - were not at all revolutionary. They had been tried out, by both British and French admirals, in the latter half of the 18th century. Indeed, we now know that Villeneuve actually predicted to his captains, days before the battle, almost exactly the tactics that Nelson would use.

What was different was that Nelson had worked on his plan well in advance and shared it with his subordinates.

In 2001, a rough sketch was discovered in the archive of the National Maritime Museum, clearly drawn by Nelson to demonstrate his ideas to a colleague weeks before the battle while he was on leave in England.

Labelled "the Holy Grail of naval history" by historian Andrew Roberts, it will form the starting point for a dramatic new examination of the battle at the very centre of the National Maritime Museum's "blockbuster" exhibition for summer next year, Nelson & Napoleon.

The two fleets sighted each other at about 6.00am on 21 October but the wind was light and so the first shots were not fired until midday. Less than four hours later it was all over.

Eighteen of the 33 French and Spanish battleships had been captured or destroyed, four escaped only to be captured a fortnight later, and the remainder struggled back into Cadiz, very badly damaged.

It was a knockout blow to both the Spanish and the French navies from which neither really recovered.

However, for the British, triumph at this extraordinary result was overshadowed by the news that Nelson was dead. Shot on his quarterdeck of his flagship, HMS Victory, at about 1.15pm he was carried down to the cockpit where, having been told of his great victory, he died at about 4.30pm.

Even his protracted death-scene, painstakingly recorded by three eyewitnesses has become the subject of myth.

The Victorians, who hated the fact that the great hero actually asked another man to kiss him, invented the ludicrous fiction that the desperately wounded admiral suddenly broke into Turkish: "Kismet, (fate) Hardy!" In fact all the eyewitness accounts agree that the kiss was both asked for and given.

Indeed, almost as if to ensure that there should be no doubt about it, Hardy kissed his friend twice - once on the cheek and then again after a short pause on the forehead.

Nelson's response set the seal on this wonderfully poignant exchange: "Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty."

Trafalgar may not have saved England from invasion but it has acquired symbolic significance that sets it apart from any other naval battle.

It was the last great battle of the sailing era - the next time two great fleets clashed again in European waters they were the steam-powered dreadnoughts of the First World War. It confirmed Britain's command of the seas and steadied her on the course that was leading her to a far-flung Empire that depended almost entirely on sea communications. It gave the Royal Navy an unmatched tradition of victory that is still potent, 200 years later....

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