Trafalgar 200: “England Expects That Every Man Shall Do His Duty”

Two hundred years ago today, 27 ships of the British Navy under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson won a decisive victory at the Battle of Trafalgar over a combined French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships. 22 French and Spanish ships were sunk.

Napoleon never again contemplated an invasion of Britain. The battle was a milestone in the defeat of Napoleonic France.

The Battle of Trafalgar was the most significant naval action of the Napoleonic Wars and of the 19th Century. It marked the beginning of over a century of British naval dominance.

Our British allies are today celebrating this event (go here for extensive multimedia resources).

Writing in the Scotsman (paid subscription required) today, author Arthur Herman writes:

Does anyone still care about the battle of Trafalgar? The empire which it secured 200 years ago, is long gone. The triumphal sense of British destiny, which sustained the Victorians and fed on the mythic image of Nelson dying on his flagship in the hour of victory, has vanished…The Royal Navy has shrunk away to a shadow of its former self, while Nelson has become a tarnished figure….

So it would be easy to dismiss 21 October and the great hoopla over Sea Britain as just an exercise in nostalgia for a vanished navy and empire, and for an era when the Royal Navy ruled the waves with “wooden ships and iron men.”

But that would be wrong. The secret to the battle … has to do with the very nature of the sea fight in the age of sail, the horrific din, confusion, and carnage, with 60 great sailing ships locked in close combat in an area not much more than a mile and half square, and with more than 47,000 human beings risking instant death.

…it’s worth remembering that the average British seaman at Trafalgar was not a professional warrior.

In most cases, he did not want to be there. He might have been an American or a Dutchman (there were 12 nationalities on HMS Victory alone); more likely than not he had been impressed against his will…

And yet he or she had been thrust into a battle where death or mutilation came at any moment from cannon balls, bullets and deadly wooden splinters the size of a forearm whizzing in every direction, as well as by tumbling masts and spars – a battle in which they not only endured but rose to genuine heroism and self-sacrifice.

It was the average British sailor, not Nelson, who triumphed at Trafalgar. Nelson’s plan to break the French and Spanish line and force a “pell mell battle” was as risky as it was innovative.

If he had not had British crews, the best trained in the world, under his command, he would have been steering to certain defeat. “But I knew what I had under me,” Nelson had written about his men and his victory at the Nile seven years earlier, “so I went on the attack.”

Risking death in battle, defeating the French, and then keeping the fleet together in the terrible storm afterwards – a hurricane which, we now know, probably killed almost more sailors than the battle itself. How did they do it?

Nelson’s contemporary, the military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, put his finger on it. He said there are two kinds of courage in battle. One depends on an emotional impulse triggered by patriotism or religious fanaticism or ideological fervour. It’s the kind that drove the armies of the French and Russian Revolutions, and the Japanese and Germans in the Second World War. We see it every day in Iraq’s insurgents, or the suicide bombers on a Spanish train or London tube.

The other kind of courage rests on a calm deliberate training of mind and body, until courage becomes a habit not just “in the face of physical danger, but in the face of responsibility.”

The first type of courage looks impressive; but the second, Clausewitz says, “is more certain, because it has become a second nature” to those who have it, both on the battlefield and off.

That is the kind of courage the British sailors at Trafalgar had. It’s the kind American and British sailors and soldiers showed on D-Day and in Burma in the Second World War, and show every day in Iraq in regiments such as the Black Watch. They were and are not driven by fanaticism or hate or an arrogant warrior’s code. They just know they have to stay with the job with all its ugliness and horrors, until they reach the victorious end.

In short, as Nelson himself said, they do their duty. And as long as free societies ask the best of us to keep doing that, the memory of Trafalgar should and will endure.

In our own, insignificant tribute to the heroes of Trafalgar, and those who fight for freedom everywhere, we have added this eyewitness account of the action at Trafalgar to this blog’s list of historical documents.

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