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Raise a Glass to Lord Nelson


Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Admiral Horatio Nelson was the Royal Navy commander at Trafalgar. Without going into too much detail, the British victory at Trafalgar accomplished very nearly the complete annihalation of a larger French and Spanish naval fleet. As much as or more than any other major military victory (with the possible exception of some of Robert E. Lee’s victories in the Civil War, or Hannibal’s victories at Cannae or Lake Trasimene), the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar can be attributed to the genius of the commander, rather than to the material and doctrinal assets at his disposal. An ordinary commander might have won a victory at Trafalgar, but Nelson employed unorthodox and, really, shocking tactics designed to achieve a battle of annihilation. Nelson paid for his victory with his life, as he took a bullet to the spine and died soon after the battle.

The anniversary was marked by the first royal fleet review since 1977, and only the fourth since 1944. The French and Royal Navies participated in a mock re-enactment of Trafalgar, without mention of the name of the battle and with designation only as “blue” and “red” teams. Trafalgar has taken on a significance well beyond its importance in the Napoleonic wars, and navies from around the world participated.

The Battle of Trafalgar cemented in the British and American mind, at least, the importance of naval power. This is odd, because the battle failed to transform the balance of power in Europe at the time. The power of France was on land, and the Battle of Austerlitz a few weeks after Trafalgar would prove far more conseqential. Indeed, while France could not defeat Great Britain without destroying the Royal Navy, Britain could make only limited forays onto the continent to harass the Napoleonic empire. Only the power of the Russian Army, combined with Prussian and British forces, was able to bring the war to a close.

Nevertheless, Trafalgar fueled the theory that naval power would provide the key to world domination. To some extent this was true, as Great Britain came to control colonies all over the world. It missed, however, the crucial importance of land power, something Bismarck, for example, understood. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan popularized these theories in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. The example of Nelson probably made the Royal Navy admirals of World War I more willing to accept unnecessary risks, a tendency which the Germans were unable to take advantage of but might have used to devastating effect. Lord Nelson himself posthumously received a square in the center of London, which is really pretty cool. The Victory, Nelson’s flagship, remains in drydock, available to tourists.

The Trafalgar fleet review evokes a couple of thoughts about the current state of Europe. If we needed another example of the lack of importance of military force in modern Europe, the Trafalgar review would prove quite useful. The Royal Navy is now, for the first time in a VERY long time, smaller and less powerful than the French Navy. This doesn’t seem to bother anyone, although both countries have fought wars about it in the past. Second, the need to generalize the naval re-enactment suggests that questions of identity remain crucial in Europe, although they no longer manifest themselves in violence. This is interesting, as it tends to confirm arguments identity conflict is malleable, rather than a given.

In any case, please raise a glass to the good admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson.

UPDATE: I am, of course, an idiot. As Jeff points out in comments, the actual anniversary is October 21. However, the observance and re-enactment happened yesterday. My response to this error? Two glasses to Lord Nelson.

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