Tuesday, 21 October 2014

England expects

It was on 4th November 1805 that a naval schooner reached Falmouth, a small town in Cornwall, with the news that would bring elation and grief in almost equal measure.  Some two weeks earlier, a British fleet had defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets in a battle off Cape Trafalgar in Spain.  But the charismatic British admiral, Horatio Nelson, had been killed in the course of the action by a French sharpshooter.

It was on the morning of 21st October 1805 that Nelson ordered the famous signal to be flown:

"England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty"

Some historians contend that Trafalgar was the start of the end for Napoleon, although it would be another ten years before his final defeat at Waterloo.  He - Napoleon - had intended to invade England but his fleet had been unable to gain control of the English Channel and his armies had been turned eastwards towards Austro-Hungary.  Nevertheless, the resounding defeat inflicted on the French and Spanish navies by Nelson meant that any dreams of invasion that Napoleon might have still had were now hopeless.

But even if Trafalgar was not the tipping point in the Napoleonic Wars, it could be said to be the one event that led to the establishment of the British Empire.  For the rest of the 19th century, the Royal Navy was supreme and it was because of this power over the seas that Britain was able to contain French ambitions in the Indian sub-continent and gradually exert control over much of southern Africa and substantial parts of west Africa. It was also British naval might that led to the cessation of the slave trade from Africa to the West Indies.

Nelson had gambled by adopting new tactics when the two fleets met.  Traditionally, battles at sea were fought between fleets sailing parallel to each other, thereby ensuring that all the guns on one side of each ship could be fired in broadsides.  Nelson, however, split his fleet into two columns and sailed directly at the French and Spanish ships.  Each column was to drive through the enemy fleet.  This meant that as the British ships approached, they would be under sustained fire but, having no forward pointing guns, would be unable to fire themselves.  Until they cut through the enemy fleet.  Then they would fire through the bows or sterns of the enemy ships, an action known as raking, causing considerable damage the length of each enemy ship before turning to fire broadsides at the weakened enemy.

Nelson's body was brought back to England and he was afforded a state funeral.  In January 1806, he was buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral in London, after five days of ceremonies, a demonstration of the widespread affection in which the dead hero was held.


Mike @ A Bit About Britain said...

Well remembered, BP!! I'm a proud Pompey boy! Wasn't Nelson's body brought home pickled in a barrel of brandy? I think it was. I don't agree that Trafalgar marked the start of empire, though - certainly the Royal Navy wasn't seriously challenged for a century afterwards, but I'd argue that the origins of empire were in Elizabethan times.

Brighton Pensioner said...

I too had an idea that the body was put in a barrel of either brandy or rum but couldn't be sure. As for the empire, you are probably more right than I am.

Brighton Pensioner said...

By the way, Mike, did you ever know my ancestor Simeon Waldegrave? He lived in Pompey as well. he was charged with selling beer without a license - but he did die in 1705 so I expect he was a bit before your time.