Friday, 21 October 2011

Remembering a fine place on a grisly anniversary

It was 206 years ago today that a British fleet engaged the combined Spanish and French fleet off Cape Trafalgar in Southern Spain.

I think you’d have to say the meeting didn’t go well. Exchanges weren’t cordial. At the end, 22 Franco-Spanish ships had been captured (or in one case sunk). There had been 15,000 casualties, 4500 of them dead, though many more died of their wounds, including the Spanish Admiral who succumbed several months later. The British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, died before the battle was even over.

The French Admiral, Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve had an even more bizarre fate. He was captured and taken to England, and then sent back to France where he ‘committed suicide’ by stabbing himself six times in the lungs and once in the heart. Seven stab wounds! He must have been really determined to end his life. Or at least someone was. It at any rate shows that the ‘expedient accident’ or ‘expedient suicide’ isn’t an invention of the twentieth century but was already being pioneered in the nineteenth.

We visited Cape Trafalgar only a few weeks ago. It’s a lovely spot, crowned with a fine old lighthouse, and with beaches on either side. We watched a glorious sunset there and it was comforting that the red glow was just sunlight, and not fire or blood.

At Cape Trafalgar, looking out towards the former scene of carnage
A son and a daughter-out-law add their own grace to the coming sunset
It’s funny that a sea battle, even one that would ultimately be so crucial to the outcome of one of Europe’s great struggles, leaves so little trace of its passage. OK, OK, funny but pretty obvious, I suppose, given the nature of the sea: you don’t get shell craters or barbed wire or anything. And, to be honest, in time even the traces of land battles disappear, of course, living on only in memories, if there. Which reminds me of a story I once heard about a visit to the then Soviet Union by three giants of history, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon.

The Soviet top brass, delighted and a little overawed by such illustrious guests, lay on a wonderful visit for them, showing them everything most calculated to impress about their nation and their military. At the end of the day, they ask for their guests’ views.

‘With such an army,’ says Alexander, ‘I would indeed have fulfilled my ambition of conquering the world and moving on to others.’

‘With such logistics,’ says Casesar, ‘I would have built an empire that would have lasted to this day.’

‘With such a press,’ says Napoleon, ‘no-one would ever have heard of Waterloo.’ 

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