History / Martin Robson

Why does the Royal Navy still celebrate Trafalgar Night?

Tomorrow night, Dr Martin Robson, author of A History of the Royal Navy: The Napoleonic Wars, will speak at the Trafalgar Night After Dinner Speech at MOD Corsham. In his speech, which you can read below, he discusses the Battle of Trafalgar and its significance, over 200 years later.

Art, Napoleonic Wars, Battle of Trafalgar, William Clarkson Stanfield

Looking back to the events of 21 October 1805 from the perspective of 2015 it seems that so much has changed. The life of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and his death at the Battle of Trafalgar seem a world away. We have witnessed 210 years of technological change, from wooden built sailing ships to steam and iron armour, from roundshot shot to exploding shell, we have seen the development of war under the sea in the form of submarines, mines and torpedoes, and above the sea with air, UAVs and ISTAR. We live in a nuclear world concurrent with the rise of the non-state actor. We benefit from (mostly) instant global communications. What does the son of a Norfolk parson and the events of a naval battle still have to say to us?

If you take a moment to think about the Royal Navy in the Age of Nelson – what springs to mind? Perhaps the whiff of gunpowder, the startling victory won that day and the cruel twist of fate that cut down the hero in his hour of glory? Or perhaps a picture of floating hell holes manned by the dregs of society hoovered up by the dreaded press gang? Or maybe Churchill’s quip that the Royal Navy was all about rum, sodomy and the lash? Some myths continue to perpetuate. If, however, the Royal Navy was like Churchill and others portrayed how was it so successful over 22 years of conflict with France, Spain amongst others? How did it win six major fleet battles and a host of smaller engagements?

This auspicious year, 2015, has seen a number of other major historical commemorations with Waterloo 200 on 18 June and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain on 12 July. The focus in the UK was very much on the role of the British Army under the Duke of Wellington winning Waterloo and the Royal Air Force defeating the German Luftwaffe in 1940. Yet, both victories were joint, with the Royal Navy playing a role, and allied. Think of all the brave Polish, Czech, Commonwealth pilots who took to the skies to defend the UK in 1940 and, of course, the role of the Royal Navy in providing the ultimate bastion against German invasion. An invasion, that it turns out, was highly unlikely but one that if launched would have been smashed by the Royal Navy. At Waterloo Wellington’s polyglot force included Dutch Belgians, Brunswickers and of course the Prussians turning up in timely fashion. As for the Royal Navy, Waterloo had in fact been won a decade earlier, on 21 October off Cape Trafalgar by the fleet under the command of Nelson, a subject to which we will return in due course.

So let’s turn to Nelson and what he has to say to us today. He was not just a ‘Great Britain’ but perhaps the first modern celebrity with the controversial private life to boot. Unlike a previous generation of Admirals, men such as Rodney, St Vincent, or his great contemporary Wellington, Nelson seems so human, so modern. He had his foibles and he made mistakes. He was sometimes ruled by his heart not his head. His pride cost many men their lives and Nelson his right arm at Tenerife in 1797 and his conduct at Naples in 1798 was a dereliction of duty. But he reflected upon and learned from his mistakes.

In 1805 he showed immense morale courage and leadership as Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. When the French fleet under Pierre Villeneuve eventually escaped into the Atlantic, having picked up some Spanish ships at Cadiz, Nelson focussed on his prime object, destroying that fleet and started a transatlantic chase to the West Indies. Nelson, like many others, believed Villeneuve’s voyage was a feint to draw naval force away from home waters but it still had to be dealt with. While Nelson’s operational object was to defeat that French and Spanish fleet, thereby preventing any possible French invasion of the British Isles, he understood the wider strategic purpose was also to safeguard British colonies and trading interests in the West Indies. ‘I was in a thousand fears for Jamaica,’ Nelson wrote concerned about the about the damage Villeneuve might cause, ‘I was bred, as you know, in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions’. The fears for Jamaica were well founded, the island accounted for half of all British investments in the region. Nelson understood the true centre of gravity of the British war effort was maritime commerce.

The chase to the West Indies reminds us of the fact that Trafalgar was a campaign, not just a battle fought on 21 October 1805. In fact the Battle of Trafalgar was not even the most decisive moment. That came on 22 July off Cape Finisterre when Admiral Robert Calder’s 15 sail of the line prevented Villeneuve’s 20 sail of the line from entering the Channel. In a masterstroke of strategy Calder has been purposely positioned there by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, who had received intelligence that Villenueve’s combined fleet was heading back from the West Indies. The invasion threat was over as Villeneuve headed south for Cadiz giving Nelson the opportunity to catch him. So why don’t we commemorate Calder’s Action Night? Simply put, it is the allure of the Nelson story and the fact that Trafalgar was the most decisive tactical battle of the Age of Sail.

The Nelson story remains important today due to his radical consensual leadership style; in stark contrast to the norms of the time. He held dinners onboard his flagship HMS Victory to talk tactics and to ensure his subordinates bought into his tactical vision:

The Officers who came on board to welcome my return, forgot my rank as Commander-in-Chief in the enthusiasm with which they greeted me. As soon as these emotions were past, I laid before them the Plan I had previously arranged for attacking the Enemy; and it was not only my pleasure to find it generally approved, but clearly perceived and understood.

Nelson explained the effect to Emma: ‘it was like an electric shock. Some shed tears, all approved – It was new – it was singular – it was simple!’; and, from admirals downwards, it was repeated: ‘It must succeed, if ever they will allow us to get at them!’ Here Nelson hit upon the crux of the matter, for two years he had been frustrated for the French and Spanish had avoided battle, would they now provide him with that opportunity? Nelson was worried they would not and so decided upon a highly aggressive, even perhaps foolhardy, plan. He assumed that the French and Spanish fleets would not stand up to him but would run for port. That drove his thinking.

You can read the full transcript of Dr Robson’s talk over on the University of Exeter’s Strategy Blog, here

History of the Royal Navy, Napoleonic Wars, Martin Robson, Book, Reading, I.B.TaurisA History of the Royal Navy: The Napoleonic Wars is out now

Dr Martin Robson is a Lecturer in Strategic Studies as the SSI. He is the author of A History of the Royal Navy: The Napoleonic Wars, (London: I.B.Tauris, 2014) and The Battle of Trafalgar, (London: Conway, 2005).


Image credit: The Battle of Trafalgar by William Clarkson Stanfield

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