The following is the text of the speech I delivered at the 4th Dovercourt RN-Recognised Sea Scout Group’s Trafalgar Night dinner, 18 October 2014. Many thanks to the Group for inviting me to speak.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Matthew Willis, and I’m a writer and historian with a particular interest in naval matters. I was a Cub and then a Scout at this group, so it’s a very great pleasure for me to be here and talking to you tonight.
This is traditionally the moment to talk about the Battle of Trafalgar and the memory of Nelson. I think it’s important to look at that critical moment in Britain’s history in the context of what it means to us now, but also what it meant for people at the time, especially those who were there, and to this area of Harwich and Dovercourt.
Me, delivering the address and dressed in an approximation of a Midshipman’s attire of the early 19th century
I’m going to focus a bit more specifically on HMS Conqueror, a 74 gun ship of the line that started life less than two thirds of a mile from this spot, at Graham’s yard in Harwich where the Navyard is now. Conqueror played a really important part of the battle. She fought the French flagship to submission, and her officers accepted the surrender of the combined French and Spanish fleet.
To start with the background, and just why Trafalgar was so important to us, here tonight, and to the free world in the 19th century, you still don’t need to go any further than the surrounding area. The key was trees.
I’ll explain. By 1805, when the Battle of Trafalgar was fought, Britain was more or less alone against the whole of Europe, under Emperor Napoleon I, Napoleon Bonaparte. Since Britain had gone to war with France in 1793, France had defeated all of its enemies except Britain, and an invasion of Britain had been very much in Napoleon’s mind. He had formed a vast army called ‘L’Armée de l’Angleterre’, the Army of England, which was stationed at Boulogne, just across the Channel. Napoleon even had designs on Egypt and India, hoping to create a global empire under the command of one man. With the defeat of Britain, much of the world must have followed.
The thing that stopped Napoleon, principally, was the Royal Navy. The ships that protected England were known as the ‘wooden walls’ for very good reason. They were ultimately the walls that Napoleon Bonaparte had to break down if he was to expand his empire. Napoleon famously said ‘Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world.’
The problem for Napoleon was that his ships were being bottled up in harbour by the Royal Navy. He had to get them out, get them together, and down to the channel, and fight off the Royal Navy long enough for the Army of England to get across.
But for the time being let’s go back to those trees. The fleet of the Royal Navy was built from trees, principally oaks, of the kind that used to cover this part of the world. Place names like Great Oakley and Little Oakley refer to that, and Manningtree simply derives from ‘many trees’. If it weren’t for those trees, this would be a very different place today. And that’s partly why there was so much shipbuilding in this area. Nothing on the scale of the huge Royal dockyards, but there were shipyards in Harwich and Mistley, for example, that built a number of important ships for the Royal Navy.
Conqueror would have needed around 2,000 oak trees, or fifty acres of mature forest. It’s no great stretch to suppose that some of the wood that went into her came from around here, especially as the great forests were pretty depleted by then, and smaller woods were being scoured for suitable wood, so Conqueror’s story is a truly local one.
She was ordered as a third-rate, 74-gun ship. The term ‘third rate’ has negative connotations today – something that’s not the best. But the vast majority of ships of the line in the 18th and early 19th century were third rates, and for very good reasons.
The Royal Navy’s rating system was complex, arcane and often arbitrary, it was confusing at the time and I’ve no doubt that it will go on confusing people like me for a long time to come. Fundamentally, a vessel’s rate was based on the number of guns it nominally carried – though only certain kinds of gun were counted, which is one of the reasons it can get a bit complex. Seventy-four gun ships were the most common type of ship of the line because they combined the best balance of punch, manoeuvrability and speed.
Conqueror’s guns, firing all at once, could throw about 1,600 lb of metal (*1,580) compared with the First Rate HMS Victory, which threw about 2,000 lb of metal. Conqueror had a crew of 573 at Trafalgar, compared with 820 on Victory, so you can see a ship like Conqueror packed more than three-quarters of the punch of the substantially bigger ship, and consider that some estimates suggest that nearly three times as many oak trees were needed for Victory. You might say Conqueror offered the best bang for your buck. She was a relatively new ship at Trafalgar, having been launched in 1801 – compare that again with Victory, which was forty years old.
But all those ships and cannon are only as good as the results in battle, and that’s where the men come in. There were around 18,500 men (*18,489 based on stated complements) in the Royal Navy fleet at Trafalgar – although I should probably say ‘people’ rather than ‘men’ for reasons I’ll come to in a bit. I want to give full credit to every one of those people for reasons I’ll explain.
We tend to be a bit blasé these days about Nelson’s handling of the fleet, partly because with ships powered by engines, a lot of the subtlety has gone from the way large vessels are made to work.
I went sailing on a square-rigged brig a few weeks ago, and the experience was a bit of an eye-opener. These things are really, really hard to sail.
The brig called the Stavros S Niarchos, which is about a third of the displacement of our Conqueror. And yet it needed forty or fifty people just to brace the yards round – that’s moving the spars that carry the sails to best catch the wind – on two masts. Those spars are huge – they’re like tree trunks. Probably because lot of the time, that’s exactly what they are.
And it’s not just the numbers – one command, say to brace the yards sharp up to starboard, takes a cascade of little orders for teams of people hauling on the braces for each yard – when to pull or let the rope out, how fast, when to stop, what to do next.
And every one of the people giving those little orders have to know exactly what they are doing, and when to do it. And if you’re manoeuvring a square rigger in any kind of specific way, say in battle with another ship, it becomes incredibly complex. Hundreds of tasks that have to be broken down in the right manner, at the right time, and most involve people having to work together in a co-ordinated way. Then imagine doing that in a storm or under fire. The combined French/Spanish fleet of 33 ships of the line took nearly a day to get into order after they’d left harbour before heading off.
Nelson finally caught up with the combined French and Spanish Fleet, after chasing them across the Atlantic and back, on 21st of October 1805, the day after it had left Cadiz. By now it was too late for an invasion but while the fleets existed, there was always the chance that Napoleon could try again, so Nelson was desperate to deliver a knockout blow.
But to do this, he had to find the fleet, catch up with it, and put his own ships where he wanted them. Think about all those yards, all those sails, those miles upon miles of rope, those tons and tons of iron waiting to be fired at the enemy, those thousands upon thousands of people. Each one of them had a vital job somewhere on one of those ships. The signal ‘prepare for battle’ was made at 5.40 in the morning, and the first shot wasn’t fired until after midday. So when Nelson signalled ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, that wasn’t just inspiring talk, it was a vitally important point. Every man is the key part of it. The skill and experience of the Royal Navy’s people was the telling factor.
As we know, Nelson divided the fleet into two columns, driving at right angles to the single French-Spanish column. His job was made a bit easier by gaps opening up in the French/Spanish line – again we can be a bit blasé about that, but remember these were really difficult ships to sail. From my brief experience on the Stavros, it seems to me a miracle that anyone could get these ships in any kind of order. It wasn’t just a case of ‘left hand down a bit’. Every man must do his duty, all the time, just to make the ship go.
And just to show how well Nelson understood this, he actually took his column up towards the van, the front of the enemy line, before cutting back to attack the middle. That meant that by the time the ships in the lead of the French/Spanish column knew what was going on, it was too late for them to go through the laborious process of turning the ships around, in some semblance of order, to help the ships behind.
So let’s return to Conqueror, under the command of Captain Israel Pellew, lying fourth in the windward column, the one led by Nelson aboard Victory. That puts her in almost the most dangerous spot. There was only a light breeze blowing, and the fleets took a long, long time to approach each other, during which the French and Spanish ships could fire at the British ones virtually unanswered.
Admiral Collingwood’s leeward column actually got into action first, and started attacking the rear of the line, effectively isolating it from the battle.
Victory cut the line of the combined fleet between the French flagship Bucentaure and the 3rd rate Redoutable, becoming tangled in the rig of the latter. And it was one of the skilled sharpshooters in that rigging that shot Nelson at around one o’clock in the afternoon.
The ships following Victory continued to cut through the line, firing on the Bucentaure and carrying on to find other targets.
The Conqueror though, fourth in that line, decided to focus on the Bucentaure – a more powerful ship, of 80 guns – firing a broadside through her stern, which was calculated to do the most damage, and then drawing up alongside.
Conqueror’s gun crews were certainly doing their duty. Once the battle had become a free for all, they only fired when they could shoot right through the enemy gun ports and do the greatest damage. Lieutenant Senhouse said they acted ‘with the determined coolness and skilful management of artillery men regularly bred to the exercise of great guns’.
One of Conqueror’s officers said that the British gunnery was twice as rapid as the French, and described the gunnery as ‘every shot [flying] winged with death.’
William Hicks, a young Midshipman on the Conqueror said:
‘We engaged her single-handed for an hour, and she struck to us; after her colours were hauled down two guns from her starboard side began to play on us. Sir Israel Pellew, thinking that they were disposed to renew the fight, ordered the guns which could bear on her foremast to knock it away, and her masts were cut away successfully in a few minutes. The officers of the French ship waving their handkerchiefs in sign of surrender, we sent a cutter and took possession.’
Hicks had had a narrow escape when a grapeshot struck near him. He picked up a fragment, put it in his pocket, and turning round, realised the shot had killed the first and sixth lieutenants.
By now, the Bucentaure was completely dismasted with over 200 of her company killed so Admiral Villeneueve surrendered to the Conqueror’s officers. Incredibly, throughout the whole battle, the Conqueror suffered just three dead and nine wounded. That’s an incredible testament to the skill of the Captain, crew, officers and men – people, I should say.
The reason I’ve been saying people all this time is that it wasn’t just men at Trafalgar. There are known to have been some women – we don’t know how many because they weren’t officially recorded. We know of one woman in the Royal Navy fleet, Jane Townshend on HMS Defiance. We don’t know what she did, but she might have been a powder monkey – carrying gunpowder to the guns during battle – or helped the surgeon during the battle. Ironically, we know a bit more about the women in the French fleet that were captured, who did this sort of work.
Several years earlier, Nelson had noted that not one captain in the fleet didn’t have several women in their crews, and there’s no reason to suspect this wasn’t still the case at Trafalgar. There were boys in the Navy who gave their place of birth as ‘at sea’ on RN ships, so we can carefully deduce from that that women were probably around.
And it wasn’t just men from the British Isles. The Royal Navy had men from all over the world. There were even 54 Frenchmen and 24 Spaniards fighting against their countrymen at Trafalgar. Pierre Lomac, 25, from Bordeaux, was on HMS Conqueror as was a Russian officer, Lieutenant Philip Mendal, serving as a volunteer and one of the wounded.
So if Nelson had said ‘The world expects everyone to do their duty’ in defeating Napoleon’s forces at Trafalgar, he wouldn’t have been far wrong.
By the time Napoleon was finally defeated ten years later, he still hadn’t been able to rebuild the fleet to the size that could challenge the Royal Navy and threaten an invasion again.
In honour of Nelson, all those thousands and thousands of people, and the wooden walls of Britain, please be upstanding, as we drink a toast to:
The Immortal Memory