Our battle to fathom the truth about Nelson and Trafalgar

Plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Nelson's victory over the French were announced yesterday. But it is time to strip away the myths, says Colin White
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The Independent Online

Where is Trafalgar? When visitors to the Royal Naval Museum's 'Tra- falgar Experience' in Portsmouth are confronted with this question in a multi-choice computer quiz, a surprising number of them select The Channel.

Where is Trafalgar? When visitors to the Royal Naval Museum's 'Tra- falgar Experience' in Portsmouth are confronted with this question in a multi-choice computer quiz, a surprising number of them select The Channel.

Or perhaps it is not surprising at all. For, like so many great historic events, the Battle of Trafalgar has attracted numerous myths - and one of the most persistent is that it saved England from invasion. This, in turn, conjures images of French battleships looming off Dover with Nelson and his brave captains zooming in among them like sail-powered fighter pilots.

The truth is that when the Combined Fleet - and let us not forget that there were 15 Spanish ships present as well as 18 French - sailed from Cadiz on the morning of 19 October, 1805, it headed not north but south, through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. And Napoléon and his Grand Army were many hundreds of miles from the Channel, in Austria. Indeed, the very day after the fleet sailed, they beat the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm.

In other words, by the time Trafalgar was fought on 21 October 1805, plans for the invasion of Britain were outdated and a new campaign had begun.

Napoléon had spent months of planning, and had expended millions of francs, on the creation of a special "Army of England", and a huge flotilla of transports to get it across the Channel. But in the end he was outmanoeuvred by the Royal Navy, skilfully blocked at every turn, when he tried to unite his fleets of battleships and push them into the Channel to cover his army's crossing.

Finally, in late August 1805, even he could see that his plans were not going to work. So, when he heard that Austria was mobilising an army, he turned with evident relief to the sort of warfare he understood best and struck there before the country was fully prepared.

That left the Combined Fleet under Vice Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, sheltering behind the fortifications of Cadiz, an ever-present threat to Britain. So, to deal with it, the British Admiralty sent their star player - the victor of three battles and acknowledged leader of his profession, Horatio Nelson.

He had with him a battleplan that he hoped would help the British to win a wipe-out victory. He even had a name for it: in a letter to his beloved mistress, Emma Hamilton he called it "The Nelson Touch".

Another of the Trafalgar myths is that this plan was new and revolutionary, involving tactics that no one had thought of using before.

In fact, the individual elements of the plan - such as breaking through the enemy's line or attacking in divisions, instead of in a single line - were not at all revolutionary. They had been tried out, by both British and French admirals, in the latter half of the 18th century. Indeed, we now know that Villeneuve actually predicted to his captains, days before the battle, almost exactly the tactics that Nelson would use.

What was different was that Nelson had worked on his plan well in advance and shared it with his subordinates.

In 2001, a rough sketch was discovered in the archive of the National Maritime Museum, clearly drawn by Nelson to demonstrate his ideas to a colleague weeks before the battle while he was on leave in England.

Labelled "the Holy Grail of naval history" by historian Andrew Roberts, it will form the starting point for a dramatic new examination of the battle at the very centre of the National Maritime Museum's "blockbuster" exhibition for summer next year, Nelson & Napoléon.

The two fleets sighted each other at about 6am on 21 October but the wind was light and so the first shots were not fired until midday. Less than four hours later it was all over.

Eighteen of the 33 French and Spanish battleships had been captured or destroyed, four escaped only to be captured a fortnight later, and the remainder struggled back into Cadiz, very badly damaged.

It was a knockout blow to both the Spanish and the French navies from which neither really recovered.

However, for the British, triumph at this extraordinary result was overshadowed by the news that Nelson was dead. Shot on his quarterdeck of his flagship, HMS Victory, at about 1.15pm he was carried down to the cockpit where, having been told of his great victory, he died at about 4.30pm.

Even his protracted death-scene, painstakingly recorded by three eyewitnesses has become the subject of myth.

The Victorians, who hated the fact that the great hero actually asked another man to kiss him, invented the ludicrous fiction that the desperately wounded admiral suddenly broke into Turkish: "Kismet, (fate) Hardy!" In fact all the eyewitness accounts agree that the kiss was both asked for and given.

Indeed, almost as if to ensure that there should be no doubt about it, Hardy kissed his friend twice - once on the cheek and then again after a short pause on the forehead.

Nelson's response set the seal on this wonderfully poignant exchange: "Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty."

Trafalgar may not have saved England from invasion but it has acquired symbolic significance that sets it apart from any other naval battle.

It was the last great battle of the sailing era - the next time two great fleets clashed again in European waters they were the steam-powered dreadnoughts of the First World War. It confirmed Britain's command of the seas and steadied her on the course that was leading her to a far-flung Empire that depended almost entirely on sea communications. It gave the Royal Navy an unmatched tradition of victory that is still potent, 200 years later.

Perhaps most important, Trafalgar was also the swan-song of Horatio Nelson. It is arguable that, if Nelson had not been killed, we would not be remembering the battle so elaborately next year. His death, almost at the very moment of victory, added a bitter-sweet quality to the story that raised it above a common Boys' Own paper tale of broadsides and boarding parties.

Even so, although Nelson was undoubtedly one of the greatest heroes this country has ever produced, he is remembered today as much for his human qualities as for his prowess in battle.

An explicit love letter from him to Emma Hamilton recently broke all records in the auction room. Some of the most popular exhibits the National Maritime Museum is planning to display in Nelson & Napoléon are the personal relics of his relationship with Emma Hamilton. The rings they exchanged in a quasi-marriage service; the cup and miniature knife he bought while on leave in London in late August 1805 for their beloved four-year-old daughter, Horatia.

Nelson's presence at the very centre of the story of Trafalgar reminds us that this is above all a story about people and their experiences of war. Not just the sailors and soldiers but those whom they left behind as well. And it is a story that we share with our friends across the Channel and in Spain. Trafalgar is their battle too, which is why the National Maritime Museum's exhibition will link Nelson with his great adversary Napoléon.

Those who fought on the British side came from every part of the country - and even from overseas. It is, therefore, not just a tale for those who live by, or who are interested in, the sea. As the novelist Patrick O'Brian, who did so much to bring this period alive once wrote, the story of the deeds and the people of Nelson's navy, is the British Iliad.

Next year, 2005, we will be celebrating Britain and the sea. A huge and ambitious programme of events is being co-ordinated from Greenwich, under the banner of SeaBritain2005. People of all ages, and from all backgrounds, will be invited to take a fresh look at our continuing, and economically vital, relationship with the element that surrounds us.

At the beating heart of that celebration will be The Trafalgar Festival - an exciting programme of events, conferences and educational initiatives relating more specifically to Nelson and the battle itself.

Not a perpetuation of the hoary old Victorian myths. But, instead, a celebration of a living and vibrant story that is being refreshed by modern research.

Colin White is one of Britain's leading experts on Nelson. He is director of Trafalgar 200 for the National Maritime Museum and will be publishing two books in 2005, 'Nelson: The New Letters' and 'Nelson: The Admiral'

One million will see spectacular 'Parade of Sail'

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar will see an exhibition on the lives of Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, a Tall Ships race featuring 3,000 young people in Newcastle, schools around the country involved in tree-planting ceremonies and an International Festival of the Sea.

It seems as if the whole nation will be educated during the celebrations, to be known as SeaBritain 2005.

But not everything has been smooth in the lead-up. There has been concern in the Navy among retired and serving officers that the project has not been getting enough money and that plans have been left to the last minute.

Many also believe that the Government's lack of support was down to a fear of offending the French.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman has denied this. The issue was funding, she said, given the number of Second World War anniversaries being celebrated by surviving veterans. The Navy is still chasing private sponsorship for the events.

The exhibition at Greenwich, which will examine Nelson and Napoleon's love lives as well as their military exploits, will display the uniform in which Nelson was killed, and is to run from 7 July to 13 November.

The Newcastle race, featuring competitors from 20 different countries, is set for 25 July to 28 July. Organisers hope more than one million people will watch the "Parade of Sail" on the last day of the event.

A four-day International Festival of the Sea is to be held in Portsmouth from 30 June to 3 July and will feature a huge fleet of ships and boats as well as theatre, historical enactments, water activities and street performers.

"Trafalgar in the Woods" will see 27 woods planted by schools from across the country - with each to be named after one of the 27 British battleships that took part in the Battle of Trafalgar.

A symbolic recreation of Nelson's waterborne funeral procession from Greenwich to Whitehall is planned for 16 September. Organisers hope to enter the Guinness Book of Records by producing the largest flotilla seen on the Thames in modern times.

A final weekend of celebrations is planned across the country from 21 October 2005 - 200 years after Britain's greatest naval victory.

Louise Jury and Andrew Clennell