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Celebrating Trafalgar Day - and Lord Nelson - 'Down Under'

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

It’s far more common to find people celebrating Trafalgar Day, October 21 - this coming Saturday – in Britain than in Australia, but thanks to an invitation from Northbridge Probus Club on Sydney’s North Shore earlier this week, I had the opportunity to share my observations about the battle and its relevancy in Australian history with about 80 people. So grab a glass of red or beer and as you raise a toast to our famous Admiral, and enjoy these remarks. Remember, though, that Trafalgar Day is more than the commemoration of a battle – it is also a celebration of Lord Horatio Nelson’s courage, duty and leadership on the day of his greatest victory, and his greatest sacrifice.

I thank the Club for their interest in history, this opportunity and the thorough and wide-ranging question time. Here is an extract:

The Battle of Trafalgar October 21 1805

“On October 21st we will celebrate the British Naval victory over the French and Spanish fleets on the same day in 1805 as well as the tragic death of the British Commander, Lord Nelson, in the course of the battle.

At Trafalgar, outnumbered by French and Spanish ships, Horatio and his deputy, Collingwood, led two columns of British ships head-on into a semicircle of French and Spanish battleships, thereby taking the greatest amount of fire than any other ships in the fleet. Having broken the enemy line, the British columns then encircled each of the enemy wings and destroyed them. The results at Trafalgar were: 4300 French and Spanish sailors killed compared with 458 British. 22 Spanish and French ships were captured or destroyed. The British lost none.

The logic of Nelson’s plan of attack required him to put his own life on the line and he had every expectation of being killed. Indeed, he would say before each battle he fought: “Westminster or the House of Lords”, meaning he would either be dead or ennobled as a result of the battle which was about to begin. Tragically, his desire to face as much danger as the rest of the crew on Victory led to his prophecy becoming true in this battle when he was killed by a sniper on an enemy ship.

The strategic implications of the battle were significant; for Britain, the most important result was that Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain that same year was thwarted. Longer term Britain survived and, eventually, turned the tide of the Napoleonic War.

To understand why we ought to celebrate Trafalgar Day ‘Down Under’, all we need to do is consider how different our world might have been but for this victory. This was the day when Britain won lasting dominion over the seas. The consequence of gaining mastery over the seas was the expansion of the British Empire. Ultimately, Trafalgar enabled Britain to keep the sea lanes safe while infant Australia toddled onto the world scene. The huge growth in trade and the flow of emigrants from Britain under the protection of the Royal Navy, fuelled the astounding economic growth of the Australian colonies up to and beyond the time of Federation, almost a hundred years after Trafalgar. Australians have reasons to be grateful to the heroic Admiral – even though his story is not widely known or appreciated nowadays.

My Nelson Connection

My novels do not dwell in detail on this battle; the events explore happened before Trafalgar but they all contributed in different ways to the events which culminated on that day in 1805.

To understand the context of this story you begin with the proposition that Horatio Nelson is the most durable of heroes. He is memorialised by a giant statue on a huge column in the central square of London: The message is obvious - this man is at the beating heart of all that is Great in Great Britain. Like other heroes, after he died his legend grew and he was enshrined, sainted for the qualities the British most admire. This anointing began with his gigantic state funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1806, and concluded with completion of Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column 39 years later.

My grandmother on my father’s side, Bertha Eccles, was the descendant of Viscountess Francis Nelson and Josiah Nisbet, Fanny’s son by an earlier marriage, and the protagonist of my second novel, Nelson’s Lost Son. As a result we had several artefacts of Nelson at home, but talk about Horatio and Fanny was “off -limits” at our dinner table. My grandmother, whose portrait adorns Nelson’s Folly, would sniff in her slightly snobbish Edwardian manner if the topic came up and would say: “Dreadful Man!” My father would add: “Poor Lady Nelson.” Meanwhile I was bursting to know more about the Great Man, their silence only increasing my determination to understand what had happened. As I learned more about the breakdown in the marriage of Horatio and Fanny, I realised the mythologising of Horatio was a story worth exploring.

In these times in which we live statues are being taken down and history is re-examined in the light of new cultural values and beliefs. The recent discovery of many new letters including letters between Fanny and Davison, Nelson’s prize agent, now throws new light on Fanny’s personality and on the relationship between Horatio and Fanny. These letters reveal a wife who, rather than being cold hearted, dearly loved her husband, even after he had abandoned her and then treated her with great cruelty. “Set” opinion is beginning to change. I was persuaded people should know more of this story so Nelson’s Folly is now available for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

The Horatio of the Legend

The legend began before the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson had what we would call “rock star” celebrity. Many have heard of the battle of Trafalgar and Horatio’s famous signal to his sailors before the opening shot was fired: “England expects every man to do his duty.” But before this culmination there were three other battles which brought him fame and acceptance. Then came Horatio’s heroic death at Trafalgar.

In each of his battles, Horatio had a plan. Current naval doctrine of the day involved detailed plans despite the chaotic nature of naval confrontations. Usually the Admiral remained remote from the fleet action and “coordinated” the strategy and tactics by signalling his tactical decisions to his fleet who were supposed to put it into effect while engaged in ship on ship death struggles. Horatio’s approach was different. He believed that aggressive action accompanied by efficient gunnery created tactical advantage. He believed the leader should be in the van – at the head of the column - not at the rear leading the attack personally.

Nelson’s Folly describes only one of these battles in any detail – the Battle of the Nile – where Horatio’s creative daring was never more brilliantly displayed. That is because the focus of my novels is much more than naval battles. How Nelson comported himself beyond the fighting, the events that shaped his career, his relationships with other naval officers, his stepson, his brother, his mistress and his wife; these are the stuff of which my novel is crafted. I chose as my canvas the period from 1793 to 1802, the penultimate part of his career, when Horatio’s star was rising fast from the horizon to become so bright it dominated the whole sky.

After his success at the battle of the Nile, whilst recovering in Naples, he meets the seductive and beautiful Emma Hamilton. He then becomes enmeshed in a series of events which raised questions about his morals, his judgement, his self-control, and, indeed, his leadership…” There’s more details in Nelson’s Folly.

If you enjoyed this brief insight into this special day and the story behind Lord Nelson, then consider finding out more by reading my novels, where I use fiction to ‘fill in the gaps’ while respecting historical accuracy and setting. Nelson’s Folly is also available as an audiobook. Links to buy are on my homepage

Best wishes for Trafalgar Day.

"Oliver's presentation was excellent and seemed to have something to interest everyone. I guess everyone likes a mystery and hearing Oliver's hints and insights into the facts that made several great stories was very absorbing."

- Northbridge Probus Club President Ros Kenny

"I much enjoyed Oliver Greeves’ talk. He spoke well of the revered Admiral’s two lives, his foolish personal life and his heroic naval victories which had a profound effect on world history."

- Eileen, Northbridge Probus.

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