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Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Immortal Memory

History is littered with dates, and each year is full of annivesaries. Some mean a great deal to a great many people, like July 4th or December 7th. Others are now have no relevance outside of historical journals, their emotive pull long-faded from popular memory. Who now cares what day the Battle of Cannae was fought on, a day of ill-omen for centuries. Yet more mean something to a few. And today is one of those day for me.

I come from a naval family. Not only that but I am historically minded. Dates and anniversaries do have a relevance for me even if they don't for others. Thus it should come as no surprise that today is a day of special significance to me. For today is the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

The best way to understand Trafalgar is a modern analogy. From the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens in 1803 England had been concerned of the threat of invasion. An enemy with a vastly superior army was only hampered by the Channel, England's trusty Moat. All they needed to do was to control the Channel. It was 1940. It was the Battle of Britain of a former age. And like the Nazi invaders of recent times the Continental would-be conqueror was denied. He was denied, and his eventual defeat was assured.

On the 21st October 1805, the Combined Fleets of France and Spain clashed with the British Fleet, commanded by Lord Nelson. Inflicted upon them was probably the most crushing naval victory since the Greeks annhilated the Persians in the waters around Salamis millenia before.

The deck of a ship of war is no place of safety. There are no headquarters miles behind the lines. For anyone in Portsmouth I urge them to visit HMS Victory. One of the largest warships of her day, she seems impossibly small from within. The horror of war must have been compacted into a tiny space, just a few feet across. At about 1.15 Nelson, who had long history of personal bravery, was hit by a musket ball in his shoulder that lodged into his spine. He had already lost an arm and an eye, but this wound was to prove his last. He lived long enough to know that he had won. He died at about 4.30pm.

Less than five hours earlier, as the lines of British ships sailed inexorably into the Franco-Spanish Fleet, Nelson had sent a signal to the fleet. It ran "England Expects Every Man to do His Duty". Nelson's final words had a similar theme: "Thank God I have done my duty".

The euphoria of that sensational victory has always been tinged by the knowledge of its most famous casualty. For that reason alone, the memory of that day is inextricably linked with Nelson himself. I was hearted, and surprised, to see that in the recent populist Great Britons contest Nelson managed still to secure a place in the top of this nation's heart.

In the Royal Navy there are a series of dinners at this time in memory of Trafalgar, and of Lord Nelson. My father invited me to one some years back. The toast to Her Majesty was given sitting down. And then, with great solemnity that fascinated as I watched, we all rose, and toasted Lord Nelson's Immortal Memory.

To Lord Nelson.

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