Daily Mail said:Blasted from the French guns at the speed of sound, the 32lb cannonballs could punch their way through the solid oak hulls of the English warships. But, during the opening, blood-spattered salvoes of the Battle of Trafalgar, many found much softer targets in the form of human flesh.
One of the first to die aboard the flagship HMS Victory was John Scott, secretary to lord Nelson. One minute the two men were pacing the decks together amidst the deafening cacophony of gunfire, the next Scott was lying dead in a pool of his own blood, his body cleaved into two ragged halves, courtesy of the French.
If Nelson felt any fear for his own life, as he watched Scott's mutilated remains being heaved overboard, he didn't show it.
The Battle of Trafalgar by John Callow, 1875[/align]
'I'll give them such a dressing down as they never had before,' he said of the Franco-Spanish forces ranged against him. And he was true to his word - although he'd sacrifice his own life in the effort.
This week, a new tribute was paid to Britain's most celebrated naval victory with the unveiling of the latest artwork to be displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The 1:30 scale replica of HMS Victory, inside a huge acrylic bottle, has been painstakingly created by Turner Prize-winning artist Yinka Shonibare, who says he designed the work 'to celebrate Nelson's legacy'.
It is a worthy tribute. But no monument, including Nelson's Column itself, can come close to capturing the full drama of the butchery and bravery seen off the Spanish coast on that historic day in October, 1805.
'As we advanced, destruction rapidly increased,' recalled lieutenant Paul Nicholas of HMS Belleisle, who reported seeing one young recruit's head shot clean off in the early stages of the fighting. 'My eyes were horror struck at the bloody corpses around me, and my ears rang with the shrieks of the wounded and the moans of the dying.
'At this moment, seeing that almost every one was lying down, I was half disposed to follow the example and several times stooped for the purpose, but a certain monitor seemed to whisper, "Stand up and do not shrink from your duty." '
That sense of obligation was famously encouraged by Nelson shortly before the slaughter began, with the issue of a signal which originally read 'England confides that every man will do his duty.'
When the signaller pointed out that the word 'confides' was not in the signal dictionary and would have to be spelt out letter by letter, Nelson agreed to replace it with 'expects' instead. As it would have to be repeated down the fleet, (and Nelson next wanted to send what turned out to be his last signal, 'Engage the enemy more closely'), he agreed to the change.
The Day After the Battle of Trafalgar by Richard B. Spencer[/align]
As the Victory flagged his immortal message to the fleet, a great cheer went out from ship to ship. But as hinted at by the ship in a bottle in Trafalgar Square, not all of those expected to serve so faithfully were actually English, or indeed British.
The model ship's 37 sails are decorated with African motifs, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the English fleet. More than a third of the Victory's crew was recruited from countries at the very ends of empire, including Africa, America, and the West Indies.
Some were press-ganged, others joined the Royal Navy for a life of adventure or to escape slavery in their own countries. But all found themselves fighting in a common cause, to thwart the military ambitions and tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte.
After crowning himself Emperor of France in 1804, Napoleon was determined to conquer much of Europe, including Britain. He spoke contemptuously of the English Channel as 'the ditch which will be crossed when anyone has the audacity to attempt it,' and he had already made several attempts to land his troops on British soil by other routes.
In 1797, a French expeditionary force had actually managed to disembark on the Pembrokeshire coast before being repelled and, by 1805, there were two huge French armies gathered in garrisons at Boulogne, ready to cross the Channel.
With fears of invasion growing as Napoleon bullied Spain into an uneasy alliance with France, the Royal Navy mounted a blockade of the major French ports, preventing their ships from putting to sea. It was overseen by Napoleon's implacable opponent, Horatio Nelson, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet.
Despite suffering severe seasickness throughout his life, and losing his right arm and the sight in his right eye during previous heroic actions against the French and Spanish, Nelson was revered as a national hero and a naval genius.
Then 47, he had spent 35 years of his life at sea and led from the front, inspiring great devotion among his sailors and helping forge a Royal Navy which was highly disciplined, welltrained and, just as importantly, wellfed. By contrast, the French navy was beset by sickness and low morale and had been hit hard by the Revolution which helped bring Napoleon to power.
Many of its officers had been minor aristocrats who fled France in fear of the guillotine, leaving a second-rate division of less experienced men to take their place. These over-promoted replacements included Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, a timid and cautious man who had narrowly escaped being killed by the British at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and had lived in fear of Nelson ever since.
It was Villeneuve's misfortune to be pitted against his nemesis at Trafalgar. Since 1803, his fleet had been holed-up in the port of Toulon, on France's Mediterranean coast, but in March 1805, much to Villeneuve's disquiet, Napoleon ordered him to evade the British blockade and sail out through the Straits of Gibraltar and on to the Caribbean.
Napoleon hoped this would lure the British into a chase, taking them away from home waters. He proposed that Villeneuve should then give the British the slip and join up with their Spanish allies to mount an invasion of England while Nelson was still looking for them in the Caribbean.
After several attempts, Villeneuve finally managed to escape Toulon and meet the Spanish ships as planned but, after a long chase which indeed took them to Martinique and back, Nelson blockaded them into the port of Cadiz in south-western Spain.
He resolved to deal their combined navies a final and fatal blow and his chance came when Napoleon accused Villeneuve of being too cowardly to leave Cadiz and ordered him to set sail for a naval base in French-controlled Naples.
On the evening of October 20, Villeneuve's fleet ventured south out of Cadiz towards the nearby Cape of Trafalgar. Waiting for them nine miles over the horizon, Nelson had only 27 ships compared to Villeneuve's fleet of 33, and half as many men. But he also had a surprise tactic in mind.
Since ships' guns were mostly along their sides, battles were generally conducted with the vessels in each fleet lined up end to end, firing 'broadsides' at the enemy. The Franco-Spanish fleet was arranged in exactly such a way and expected the English to sail towards them at a right angle and then turn to face them in parallel.
Instead, Nelson proposed to sail straight through the enemy line, firing through the length of their ships from bow to stern and causing far more damage than hitting them sideways on.
'It will bring forward a pell-mell battle and that is what I want,' Nelson told his officers. Pell-mell meaning rushing chaotically, but in the event it was to be more of a slow and steady annihilation.
At dawn on October 21, the British fleet divided into two. One squadron of 15 ships, led by Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign, would attack the rear of the enemy line. The remaining line of 12, headed by Nelson on HMS Victory, would aim for the vanguard.
As they sailed towards the enemy, the order to prepare for battle was given. The crews were given small firearms to use in close combat and the decks strewn with sand to absorb the blood that would soon flow.
A storm was due to break later that day so Nelson knew that he had to act quickly to engage his opponents, but just now there was little breeze and the British ships could only creep towards their targets with unbearable slowness. Until they had reached the Franco-Spanish lines, their unarmed bows were vulnerable to the devastating fire of the enemy broadsides and, as the French and Spanish opened fire, the English butcher's bill soon reached triple figures.
Those men not dismembered by cannonballs were crushed under tumbling masts or speared by flying splinters of English oak, as deadly as shrapnel.
On HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson and his Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy had a near miss when a cannonball shot so closely between them that a splinter took the buckle off one of Hardy's shoes. Ignoring this warning, Nelson persisted in parading around the deck in his full regalia, despite the pleas of his aides who argued that it would make him an easy target for the French.
At ten minutes past midday, the Royal Sovereign became the first English ship to breach the Franco-Spanish line. Finally able to retaliate, she let loose a pitiless barrage of cannonballs into the Spanish flagship Santa Ana, the largest of its kind in the world, under the command of Admiral Ignacio Alava.
With 340 casualties, including the Admiral, the Santa Ana soon surrendered to the Royal Sovereign. Further along the enemy line, however, HMS Victory was still under sustained fire from the French.
Fifty of her men had been killed or wounded, and she was still not in a position to open fire but she sailed menacingly onwards. One French observer described her as 'like some phantom, unassailable by mortal men, the mute slow-footed minister of fate.'
At 1pm she finally crossed the enemy line, pouring fire into the stern of the French flagship Bucentaure, commanded by Admiral de Villeneuve. He survived and later surrendered, but the English onslaught brought death and destruction to the entire length of his ship, killing dozens of its men at a time.
One cannonball was said to have ricocheted around the hull like a deadly pinball, killing or wounding some 40 men, and soon the Bucentaure was a smoking wreck, with nearly 200 of its sailors killed, a quarter of its crew.
'The dead, thrown back as they fell, lay along the middle of the decks in heaps, and the shot passing through had frightfully mangled the bodies,' recalled one account.
Next the Victory turned its attention to the French vessel Redoubtable, ramming it with a resounding crash so that their riggings jammed together and their cannon were almost touching. The two ships pounded each other at close quarters.
'Every gun was going off,' remembered Lieutenant Lewis Rotely who was on Victory's middle deck. 'Reports louder than thunder, the deck heaving and side straining. I fancied myself in the infernal regions, where every man appeared a devil. Lips might move, but orders and hearing were out of the question. Everything was done by signs.'
Both ships were so enveloped in smoke that it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe, but at 1.25pm the thick black clouds parted for a few seconds. This was long enough for a sniper high in the rigging of the Redoubtable to spot Lord Nelson on the decks of the Victory and fire a musket ball which hit him in the top of the shoulder, perforating his lung and smashing his spine.
'They have done for me at last, Hardy, my back bone is shot through,' he said and, as he was carried down to the surgeon on the lower deck, he placed his handkerchief over his face, resigned to his fate.
As he lay there in the dim candlelight, surrounded by the torn limbs, terrible burns and agonised cries of the men under his command, the fighting continued above. The Frenchman who had shot him was himself hit by musket-fire from a midshipman from the Victory. He fell to the deck shortly before the shattered wreckage of the Redoubtable disappeared into the depths, taking most of its crew with it.
Up and down the Franco-Spanish line, battles of similar ferocity were fought out until one by one the enemy ships lowered their colours as a sign of surrender.
Nelson's spirits appeared to revive as he heard cheer after cheer from the victorious English ships. But at 4.30pm, assured of Villeneuve's defeat, he died of his injuries.
During the fighting, some 4,400 French and Spanish sailors were killed, ten times the number of British casualties. Although 18 enemy vessels were destroyed, the Royal Navy did not lose a single ship and the Battle of Trafalgar established Britain as the world's pre-eminent naval power for more than 100 years to come.
Back in Britain, public joy at this triumph was dampened by news the death of the much- loved and respected Lord Nelson. When his body was brought back to Britain, preserved in a barrel of brandy, it was laid to rest in a wooden coffin made, as he had requested, from the mast of the French flagship L'Orient which had been destroyed during the Battle of the Nile.
He was given a state funeral at St Paul's Cathedral and in 1840, 35 years after his death, work began on Nelson's Column, which features four bronze reliefs cast from captured French cannon and shows the victorious admiral facing towards the Admiralty, and Portsmouth, where HMS Victory is still docked.
As for the model of HMS Victory in a bottle, it will be replaced in 18 months with a work by another artist. For now, however, it stands as a very modern memorial to the Royal Navy's finest hour, and the brave British souls swallowed by the deep.
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