- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. On Oct. 21, 1805, the British Royal Navy commanded by Lord Horatio Nelson destroyed the combined forces of the French and Spanish fleets off the Port of Cadiz, northwest of the Straight of Gibraltar. The demolition of the French Navy meant that Napoleon’s army could not cross the English Channel, thus making his long-relished invasion of Great Britain impossible. The great day was not only a victory for Great Britain, but for the world.

Revolutionary France was the evil empire of the era. The government spawned by the Reign of Terror espoused a radical egalitarianism that was the intellectual forebear to Communism. The ideology was empowered by a hyper-nationalism that had not existed before, but which was determined to conquer the world. France’s use of every segment of society and introduction of general conscripts made armies larger than anything ever faced and escalated the frightening concept of total war to a new scale. Napoleon’s rapaciousness across the fields of Europe would not be outdone until Hitler tried and failed to conquer the continent in much the same way.

The Battle of Trafalgar was a classic illustration of Nelson’s innovative strategy. Famed for his commitment to the principle that, “The boldest measures are the safest,” the great admiral spent many sleepless nights concocting battle plans that would surprise the enemy. At the time, warfare at sea was exceedingly predictable. Massive ships of the line with hundreds of guns would pull up alongside one another and duke it out with awesome broadsides until the more powerful force won. Victory was solely based on which warship could deliver the most poundage of shot into the hull of the enemy the quickest.

Throughout his career, Nelson had beaten superior forces by surprising and thus confusing his opponents. Because he was so unpredictable, French captains did not know how to prepare defenses against him and vacillated before responding to his attacks. At Trafalgar, Nelson aimed his ships strait at the middle of the enemy line to break the force in two. It was a very risky strategy because the massive cannons were positioned on the sides of their great ships. Heading straight ahead into the enemy line meant Nelson’s side-mounted guns were useless and exposed Nelson’s fleet to pounding from the broadsides of his targets, which were stretched in a long line with their gun ports facing Nelson’s advance.

The gamble worked. After the enemy line was split in half, English ships pounced on the more sizable contingent and left the remaining stragglers on the fringes of battle to be taken care of later. Nelson’s boldness confused the French, who could not fathom that any admiral would take risks so large with such great exposure. The resultant melee was a shockingly lopsided victory, with the French forces losing 6,000 sailors and 18 ships and the Royal Navy not losing a single vessel.

Other than the critical nature of boldness and surprise in the art of war, the Royal Navy’s victory offers some lessons for all time. For years, the British Admiralty struggled to maintain its budget against pacifists in Parliament who believed a large standing navy was too expensive. Cutting defense spending in the years before the unforeseeable Napoleonic wars would have doomed Great Britain and perhaps all of Europe. In the end, the Royal Navy won largely because it put to sail the most professional force backed by the most efficient admiralty.

In the pantheon of great warriors, Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount of the Nile and Duke of Bronte, stands as a hero for any age. After losing his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz, many thought he should have his admiral’s frock coat tailored without a right sleeve, so as not to call attention to his missing limb. The proud Nelson refused, instead pinning the cuff up across his chest beside all the medals that represented other valiant acts. He wrote that his “mutilations… are marks of honor.”

Before fighting, Nelson once assured his wife that there was no cause for worry. “A glorious death is to be envied,” he said. Such was to be his fate. Felled by a sniper shot as his flagship “Victory” fought the enemy, Nelson died in the cabin of his ship knowing he had saved his country. His last words were, “Thank God I have done my duty.” He certainly did, and history thanks him for doing so.

Brett M. Decker is a graduate student at the U.S. Naval War College.

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