It commemorates the events of October 21, 1805, but even as recently as 2011, the UK Government considered making Trafalgar Day a public holiday. In Australia, commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar, is rare outside the Navy, but as a historian aware of the importance of the Napoleonic era, I consider this day of both victory and sacrifice still worth a toast in 2021.
Image: The Death of Nelson by Arthur William Devis 1807 National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. http://www.nmm.ac.uk/collections/nelson/viewObject.cfm?ID=BHC2894 Public Domain
My toast will be commemorating the victory which saved Britain from Napoleon’s forces at the cost of many lives including Horatio Nelson’s, arguably Britain’s greatest naval hero and certainly one of her most complex and fascinating. My toast will also be to Nelson’s Junior Officers, hard-working and willing to endure endless hardship, who played a vital yet often forgotten role in establishing Britain’s naval superiority at the time.
In this famous picture, painted by Arthur Devis, and owned by the Maritime Museum, the artist portrays the heroic death of Horatio Nelson below decks on his flagship HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar.
There is much symbolism in the painting and some poetic license. For example, Captain Thomas Hardy, pictured on the upper right, was not present at the time of death.
Apart from the suggestive reference to another famous painting – the Disposition of Christ by Caravaggio, inferring a Christ-like sacrifice - there are several elements to the painting which are part of the legend.
One small detail that attracts my attention is the figure in the top left of the picture. The young man – who is carrying the captured French battle flags - is Lieutenant John Yule. Later he also had a small role to play in the magnificent funeral procession to St Paul’s Cathedral.
John Yule’s Story
Image: John Yule – detail from an oil sketch for
Death of Nelson by Arthur William Devis
John was typical of the breed the Navy depended upon for its Commission officers. They were ambitious, hard-working and willing to endure endless hardship. Most of them were born into the lower echelons of the Gentry. Getting promotion rapidly enough to command a fighting ship was next to impossible for most of them. Yet here is John Yule, remembered because of his presence on Victory on October 21 1805 in the great battle that determined the future of Great Britain, while many of the commanders in the fleet are long forgotten.
Seven years earlier - in August 1798 - John was involved in the Battle of the Nile, arguably Nelson’s greatest triumph. He was a junior officer aboard Alexander, a battleship commanded by Captain Ball. Perhaps he was the young officer who set fire to L’Orient by throwing “combustible material” through the windows of the Great Cabin. The great ship with over a thousand men aboard exploded when the fire reached the Magazine. Ball, Alexander’s Captain later became Governor of Malta and transferred John Yule to the frigate Thalia, Captain, Josiah Nisbet, Nelson’s stepson.
John was one of the officers who were friendly disposed to his new Captain and remained true to Josiah after other officers including the First Lieutenant, the Captain of the Marine and the Master were moved on for disloyalty. (Later they had their revenge by waging a vendetta against Josiah with the Admiralty in London.) After they had gone, Thalia distinguished itself in the eyes of Admiral Duckworth.
In my follow-up novel to Nelson’s Folly, John Yule plays a new role as the person who helps Josiah reconcile with his stepfather.
The Stalwarts of the British Navy
As an author, I find stalwarts like John Yule pop up time and time again, serving on different ships in different theatres of war. In the biographies of Nelson documents a reference here, a crew list there helps build a picture of where they were. They may not have enjoyed a career like Nelson but there, in the background to the great battles, they sailed the warships, managed the petty officers and crew and thereby contributed British naval superiority.
Eventually John was promoted and evidently made enough prize money to purchase a decent house, to which he retired in the years soon after Queen Victoria ascended the throne - and five years after his friend Josiah Nisbet died in Paris.
As we remember the Battle of Trafalgar, we toast Horatio Nelson and we raise a second glass to his junior officers and, in particular, to Lieutenant John Yule.
Do you think Trafalgar Day is worth a toast? Tell us why or why not in the comments.
Image: Battle of Trafalgar by J M W Turner 1822
With thanks to the Royal Museums Greenwich. Turner’s largest painting and only royal commission is one of the jewels in the National Maritime Museum’s fine art collection. At the time, the painting provoked criticism for its non-chronological approach to Nelson's victory and its powerful allusions to the human price of Britain's triumph at sea. Discover the story behind Turner's greatest masterpiece and most controversial painting at:
Nelson’s Folly, Oliver Greeves debut novel, is available in hard copy or on kindle at Amazon.com.au and other online book stores or at The Constant Reader Bookshops in Mosman and Crows Nest, Sydney.