June 28, 2005

Fleet Review for Trafalgar 200

The Queen of England, in a fit of attempted relevance, overlooked the British fleet in an International Fleet Review yesterday - the first since her 1977 silver jubilee. The preparations are for the 200th anniversay of Trafalgar this October. The Battle of Trafalgar was set in southwestern Spain near Gibraltar in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was threatened with invasion and had formed a naval blockade of France.

Admiral Lord Nelson commanded a British fleet of 27 ships against 33 French and Spanish ships. Though Nelson died in the battle, he was widely regarded as a larger than life hero for his command of the engagement, during with the French lost 22 ships (two out of every three) and the British lost none. A sniper on the French ship Redoubtable shot Nelson in the shoulder, piercing his lung. Nelson did not die until four hours later, shortly after the battle was completed, and was conscious during the engagement. As the two fleets sailed toward each other, Nelson strung up a 31-flag message (each flag representing a number 0-9) that said, "England expects that every man will do his duty." The message is still repeated and paraphrased in Britain today. The HMS Victory, Nelson's flag ship, is still commissioned as a museum ship and sits in dry dock in Portsmouth; it flies the 31-flag message every October 21st.

The Battle of Trafalgar meant that Napoleon's plans to invade England, which Napoleon himself seemed to have been doubting or delaying before the battle, were well out of reach. His naval ability to protect landing craft was already doubted by Napoleon, but this battle drove the point home. It allowed the British to focus on fighting Napoleon on the constinent instead of playing defense.

More than that, it cemented the position of the British as the ultimate naval power of Europe and the world. That position would never even be challenged until the 20th century and German failed attempts to beat Britain in a naval arms race. The French never again attempted a major naval engagement against the British.

The re-enactment of trafalgar, for political and diplomatic reasons, will pit the Red and Blue Fleets against each other. This way the ceremony seems less about defeating the French and Spanish.

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