Trafalgar Square

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Great men, Great battles, Great History makes. But what is behind the great man (aside from a better woman)? What is shaping the great battles, and underpinning the great histories? The weather. The British will always stand in awe of the power of the weather; but sometimes this obsession has more justification than you might think.

The Battle of Trafalgar 1815 - the mighty test of wills between the fleets of the world-conquering Napoleon and the people’s hero Lord Nelson - is one of the most famous maritime battles in British history. In only five hours of fighting the British fleet destroyed the combined forces of France and Spain, and cemented Britain’s hubristic self-belief that waves could be ruled on sheer self-confidence and natural superiority – a belief that would carry them into the next century. But despite the fact that 19th century maritime warfare is played out on uncontrollable oceans, natural forces have never been given any credit for this victory. No songs for the sea. No medals for the wind. The waves are ruled and the ruled don’t get a fancy statue.

Some historians have now been trying to put nature back into these moments of history, not to take away from the people, but to tell the story as a whole. The seamen in the battle of Trafalgar were as devoted to the weather as Brits are now and detailed descriptions of the day to day changes can be found in the men’s journals and the captains logs. So how did the battle really play out…

Nelson was sitting on the sea, waiting for the French. Admiral Villeneuve of the French Royal Navy was in the shores of Cadiz, waiting for a good breeze. His Franco-Spanish fleet was trapped and he was waiting for the right weather conditions to sneakily sail passed Nelson, head towards Naples, and help Napoleon in yet another military crusade. Nelson wanted them in open water. Villeneuve didn’t want a fight.

Any movement the Franco-Spanish fleet made would have been communicated to Nelson through a flag-system across fifty miles of water, which was dependent on a visible sky. So, when Villeneuve decided that the conditions were good enough to sail on the 19th October they were also calm enough to let Nelson see that he was on the move. Even worse for Villeneuve was the change in weather that very afternoon. The winds started to push them back to shore, and the ships became a lot less sneaky. Nelson divided his ships into two parallel lines and made a be-line for Villeneuve. Changeable winds made progress slow and confusing, but although this was bad for the British, it was terrible for the French. They couldn’t manoeuvre themselves out, and the darkness of the evening was coming.

The morning of the 21st October gave the British good visibility, the breeze allowed them a steady movement, and the previous day's weather hadn't helped the French's military movements. The battle was started, fought and won. Towards the end of the morning - as Lord Nelson was lying in Captain Hardy’s arms thanking God he did his duty - a storm began, one which lasted almost a week, arguably giving the British sailors a harder test than the actual battle.

The Battle of Trafalgar had every advantage for the British, or at least every disadvantage for the French. And fundamentally it wasn’t intelligence, military strategy, or even leadership that won this celebrated victory, it was the winds and the waves. Trafalgar is an impressive monument to a man and a victory, but sometimes successes and failures are much more dependent on the environment than we might like to admit.


 

Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London WC2N 5DN