21st October is one of those dates that many people in Great Britain recognise as having special significance, because this is Trafalgar Day, the day on which Admiral Lord Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 but lost his life thanks to a sniper’s bullet.
The Battle of Trafalgar was like many British victories down the centuries, whether at sea or on land, that was won against the odds. Nelson had a fleet of 27 ships at his disposal, including his flagship “HMS Victory”, as against a combined French/Spanish fleet of 33 ships. However, by the end of the day 19 of the latter fleet had been sunk, crippled or captured whereas the British fleet was still intact. The British lost 1,500 men as against the French losses of 14,000 killed or captured.
Nelson’s triumph was due to his decision to throw away the rulebook in terms of naval warfare. Instead of the two fleets lining up so that they could fire broadsides at each other, Nelson went for a frontal assault, with two columns of ships breaking through the French lines before the latter could get into position to fire at the British ships.
However, Nelson’s decision to be among his men at the height of the battle was to prove personally fatal. The medals glinting on his uniform offered a tempting target to a French sniper high in the rigging of “Redoubtable”, and his shot shattered Nelson’s spine. The Admiral died three hours later, knowing that victory was assured.
Trafalgar was one of the most decisive naval victories of all time, because it ensured British domination of the seas, meaning that any plans Napoleon Bonaparte might have had for an invasion of Britain went out of the window. Although the final defeat of Napoleon was ten years away (at Waterloo) all future battles would be fought on land.
As for Nelson himself, a hero’s funeral awaited him at St Paul’s Cathedral, and London’s most prominent memorial to a commoner, namely a 17-foot high statue atop a 150-foot high column in Trafalgar Square, which was laid out specifically to commemorate his greatest victory. However, it was not until 1843 that the famous statue was put in place.
© John Welford