- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

LONDON — As the 60th anniversary of D-Day fast approaches, with the leaders of France, Britain, the United States and Germany using it to try to mend fences over Iraq, plans are being made for yet another big battle anniversary that may have a subtler, but just as significant, political consequence — the 200th anniversary next year of the Battle of Trafalgar.

The 1805 battle off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar saw the British Royal Navy crush the combined navies of France and Spain and ensured that Britain was not only saved from invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte, but had dominance over the world’s seas for the next 140 years.

The British have revered the hero of Trafalgar, Lord Horatio Nelson, ever since. His monument looks out over the whole of London from Trafalgar Square. Nelson’s ship Victory, on whose decks he was killed at the height of the battle, is still in commission as the navy’s principal flagship in Portsmouth Harbor, and navies the world over still look to the Nelsonian tradition as the epitome of naval leadership and courage.

But the 200th anniversary, on Oct. 21, 2005, comes at a somewhat awkward time politically. It could well be less than a month from a general election in which Europe and Britain’s place in the world could be significant issues.

The main public events, including a rare review of ships off Portsmouth and several days of international seafaring celebrations, will be held in better weather in midsummer next year. But even that could be caught up in political campaigning if an election were to be held at that time.

Or, if an election were to be held earlier, the anniversary events could be caught up in campaigning for a referendum on the European Constitution; both Labor and the opposition Conservatives have promised to hold a referendum early in the term of the next government.

“This is an interesting one. So much of historical significance flows from the Battle of Trafalgar,” said naval historian Eric Grove. “The French and Spanish were never again able to challenge the British at sea in any decisive way.

“It encouraged the British to build up their worldview and empire, and forced Napoleon to focus on being the major land power in Europe, with Britain intervening on the Continent from the sea more or less as it chose. It’s been that way, pretty much, for most of the past century and a half. We’ve had sea power; they’ve had land power.”

Ninety-five percent of Britain’s trade is still conveyed by sea. The country still has Europe’s largest maritime fleet, employing 250,000 people. Some 60 percent of that trade is still outside Europe, with booming economies in countries such as India, China and the United States.

The Trafalgar anniversary may once again remind British voters that there may be at least as many opportunities outside of Europe — where they have seen years of relative economic stagnation and increasing control from Brussels — as there are inside.

But there almost wasn’t going to be a Trafalgar event. The Treasury balked at providing extra funds for the cash-strapped navy, which had to find $16 million of the event’s estimated $21.3 million cost by commercial sponsorship, ticket sales and merchandising.

And it’s not that the navy will have much to show off anyway. Unlike 1805, when the navy had 706 fighting ships, today it has 73, and many of them are expected to be on duty around the world next summer, or back in Britain for refit.

The navy has had Spithead Reviews since 1415. But the last — in 1977, for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee — had to be filled out with NATO ships and others, and an even greater call for foreign vessels has gone out this time.

France is expected to send its biggest ship, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The United States is expected to send at least a carrier, and almost 100 other vessels are expected to come from Spain, Russia, Germany, Japan, Argentina and 22 other countries. There will also be 20 merchant vessels and 30 tall ships.

The review on June 28, 2005, will be followed by a drumhead service to mark the sacrifice of all sailors through the ages, followed by a weeklong Festival of the Sea at Portsmouth.

“We will be commemorating, not celebrating, Trafalgar,” Cmdr. Tony Higham, deputy director of Trafalgar 200, told UPl. “It is to mark the bravery of the French and Spanish in the battle, too. It won’t be as big as in the past, but it will be the broadest in terms of quality and nations involved.”

As for France, a spokesman at the French Embassy in London said his country regards Trafalgar as just another historical anniversary, not an occasion to be gloomy at defeat.

“It was 200 years ago. We don’t make a fuss about Austerlitz [the battle in December 1805, in which Napoleon defeated the combined armies of Russia and Austria and established French power over most of Continental Europe]. We are close friends with Germany now, and they occupied France only 60 years ago. We would rather stress the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale with Britain.”

At least for the navies, however, the Trafalgar anniversary is expected to be an occasion for reflection on how a smaller, better-trained and better-led force was able to outclass a larger, more powerful opponent, a lesson that largely had been lost 100 years later. Britain’s Home Fleet almost lost to a smaller, more daring German foe at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

The navy, still considered the second-most powerful in the world, is expected to continue shrinking in size over the next few years as a result of budget pressures. But Adm. Alan West, chief of the naval staff, said it is becoming more effective with new equipment. More critically, it will require even better skill and leadership.

“Nelson’s qualities are relevant to our time and very much worth recognizing and reflecting upon,” he said.

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