In mock Trafalgar, red wins, blue loses

Battle: Admiral Nelson's great victory is re-enacted, without mention that the British beat the French and Spanish.

June 29, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PORTSMOUTH, England - Call yesterday's festivities here marking the greatest naval victory in British history what you want: commemoration, anniversary, demonstration, celebration - something honoring one of the country's proudest moments, the victory over the French and Spanish navies in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Just don't say the British were gloating. There could be trouble.

In fact, in typical British fashion, the country managed to hold an extravagant mock battle at sea yesterday without ever mentioning that the ships on the winning side were British and that the losers represented the French and Spanish routed in 1805 by the one-eyed, one-armed Adm. Horatio Nelson.

"We heard there were some political considerations about how the re-enactment would be portrayed," said Jan C. Miles, captain of the Pride of Baltimore II, one of 167 vessels on hand from around the world for the commemoration. "That's a battle I wouldn't want to address."

Nelson's great-great-great-granddaughter, Anna Tribe, 75, couldn't resist. Calling the two sides reds and blues rather than England and France and Spain was "pretty stupid," she told the British Broadcasting Corp.

"I am sure the French and Spanish are adult enough to appreciate we did win that battle," said Tribe, Nelson's closest living relative. "I am anti-political correctness. Very much against it. It makes fools of us."

About 250,000 people turned up on England's southern shore to mark the day as part of a commemoration lasting months. The festivities featured a parade of ships, an air show and then the vessels moved into position for the re-creation of a generic Napoleonic sea battle, followed by fireworks and a lighting of the fleet.

In some ways, 200 years is a mere blip in time, at least when considering the state of Anglo-French relations these days. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac have been waging their own battle over the future of the European Union.

Theirs, of course, is a war of words and nothing compared with the Battle of Trafalgar, which historians consider one of the most spectacular naval engagements in history.

Its outcome affected the fortunes of Europe. The British victory ended Napoleon Bonaparte's plans to invade England and guaranteed its control of the oceans - and much of the world's wealth - for more than a century.

The battle occurred on Oct. 21, 1805, with 27 British vessels facing 33 French and Spanish ships off Cape Trafalgar, a low headland in southwest Spain.

Nelson signaled his fleet: "England expects that every man will do his duty."

His plan was a departure from traditional tactics: Instead of approaching the enemy ships in a parallel line and firing broadsides as they passed, the admiral ordered his fleet into two columns. The first would attack head-on; the second would attack at a right angle, breaking up the enemy line. He led the first column himself, destroying the enemy flagship Bucentaure, leaving the other Spanish and French vessels leaderless. By nightfall, his captains had wrecked the enemy fleet.

The Franco-Spanish forces lost 22 ships. The British fleet did not lose one.

But Nelson, who stood boldly on the quarterdeck of his ship Victory as the battle raged, was mortally wounded by a French sniper. The admiral died four hours later, and a legend was born. At his funeral in London, a 1 1/2 -mile procession filed behind his coffin.

Today, London's Trafalgar Square, the site of a soaring column with Nelson's statue on top, is one Britain's most famous landmarks.

"In all of the naval battles, you could call this one the most remarkable," said Geoffrey Bull, an 80-year-old veteran of the Royal Navy who in June 1944 manned a ship at Omaha Beach that helped provide cover for Americans landing in Normandy on D-Day.

"I think this red-blue political correctness belittles what a battle it was," he said. "I think it belittles the French sailors as well because they died fighting and they deserve their recognition just like our lads do."

The lads, though, were honored by Queen Elizabeth II, who stood in a stiff wind aboard the icebreaker HMS Endurance, reviewing the ships from around the world.

The queen wore a blue dress and blue hat and elbow-length white gloves. Wearing black shoes with heels and clutching a black purse, she looked a bit more like she was headed for a night of bingo than a day on rough seas in her role as Britain's Lord High Admiral.

As the column of ships passed by the queen, sailors doffed their caps and gave a circular wave in deference to the days when the royal family funded the British navy.

In a written message, the queen said the presence of such a large international fleet showed how highly other nations regarded Nelson, one of Britain's greatest military heroes.

"Admiral Lord Nelson's supreme qualities of seamanship, leadership with humanity and courage in the face of danger are shared among our maritime community today. He could wish for no greater legacy," the monarch said.

The French, by the way, showed few signs of 200-year-old bitterness.

While there are no commemorations in France of Trafalgar, the country did send the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, four other vessels and Vice Adm. Jacques Mazars, who said he liked the idea of the re-enactment not being between countries.

The re-enactment called for 17 ships from five nations, and, though it was all supposed to be fake, plenty of flash was on hand. The mock battle involved 10 tons of gunpowder, state-of-the-art pyrotechnics and a replica 18th-century frigate portraying Nelson's Victory.

And while the French and Spanish sensibilities would be considered, there was a nod to the battle itself: An actor was to portray Admiral Nelson leading the fleet, then getting shot and dying bravely.

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