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Kiss Me Hardy OR Happy Trafalgar Day

October 21, 2014


I had something of a Nelson obsession as a child.  Part of it involved having annual holidays on the Isle of Wight – which meant that pausing to visit the HMS Victory on the way was something of a ritual.  As a child, this ship struck me with a sublime rush of intoxicating immensity.  I’d walk the quarterdeck and try to imagine what the chaos all around would have sounded and smelt like back in 1805.  When we toured the gun decks I imagined myself as a powder monkey scuttling back and forth amid the insane blasts, the screaming, heaving pandemonium of wood and metal, salt water, sweat and blood.  Around the same age,  I was also given a copy of a book called The Nelson Touch by David Howarth – a popular historian who also produced very accessible treatments of Waterloo and Hastings.  I’ve a very great affection for popular historians who seem to me to occupy a pivotal and necessary literary space.  I eagerly devoured this Nelson book which is still in my possession, but in a very raggedy state having been read over and over again.

Certain of Howarth’s contentions I’ve had to relinquish.  I was informed by a “proper” naval historian that all this talk of Nelson’s medals making him more conspicuous was pretty much irrelevant.  There was no such thing as a “sniper” in the heat and smoke and rolling and pitching of naval battle and Nelson was killed not because anybody was aiming specifically at him, but merely because there was so much lead flying about that anyone walking slowly back and forth was likely to take some shot.

Howarth’s technique was to concentrate on the day itself, without too much back story.  If you want to mythologise Nelson, you want to fast forward through his Neapolitan interventions as quickly as possible.  But the day itself was perfect.  The Death of Nelson did not ruin the Battle of Trafalgar – it was the logical consummation of the day’s events.

Nelson’s plan involved splitting his forces into two long lines – breaking the longer Franco-Spanish line at something like right angles and then destroying the weaker part, breaking communications in the enemy fleet and effectively destroying it.  Once the line had been broken, then the British fleet’s broadsides could play havoc with the French and Spanish ships fore and aft.  But the plan depended on the calculation that the enemy could not fire quickly enough or accurately enough during the slow approach to disable the British during the slow approach while the British could not return fire.  In order to keep discipline during this critical approach, Nelson felt it necessary that he take the foremost position in the foremost ship. It’s one of those rare occasions when the personal courage of a commander in chief actually seems to have a tactical purpose.

Naval warfare for the past few millennia has largely been a matter of skirmishes.  The number of historical occasions on which large groups of fully tooled up warships have blasted away at one another is quite rare.  Salamis, Antium, Lepanto, Trafalgar, Jutland – such battles are separated by centuries.  Had Nelson survived this battle – having destroyed the naval strength of Napoleon – then no other comparable engagement would have ever presented itself to him.  His death at the point of this sort of victory has a kind of flawless beauty to it.  Nelson’s death is necessary to the mythology of Trafalgar and as a boy, the concept of dying at such a moment had a kind of perverse yet mythologically sanctioned erotic charge to it.  If we owe the gods a death (thought the bloodthirsty pagan in me), then surely this is how to go and when to go.

The painting, “Death of Nelson” is by Benjamin West, who is even more famous for creating the great apotheosis of James Wolfe who of course perished during the decisive battle over the Plains of Abraham in 1759.  It is said that Nelson admired West’s Wolfe painting to the point of exclaiming that he didn’t know what he’d give to be the subject of a similar painting.

Be careful what you wish for.

Or not.

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