Zach – Welcome to another episode of Minimum Wage Historian. Today we’ll be discussing the important battle of Trafalgar. The epic sea battle of England versus France and Spain. It has a funny name but it wasn’t a funny battle. With me today I have my co-host, Anna Komemne.
Anna – Always a pleasure to be here.
Zach – And next we have Hua Mulan, legendary woman soldier of ancient China.
Mulan – (Nods with a slight glare.)
Zach – And then we have Charles Martel, military leader of the Franks, known awesomely as “the Hammer.” What do I have to do to get a cool nickname like that?
Martel – You have to save Europe from invasion and destroy all your enemies by the sword.
Zach – Oh, not exactly in my schedule. And then we have Buffalo Calf Road, Cheyenne warrior woman, killer of Custer and has a battle named after her.
Buffalo – Thank you, Zach.
Zach – And then we also have Julius Caesar, dictator of the Roman Republic.
Caesar – I always love discussing empires and great battles.
Buffalo – And conquering people’s homelands and abusing the natives. (scratches chin) Now where have I heard of something like that before?
Zach – And today we have a special guest, Jane Austin. Writer of some of the most widely read books in the English language.
Jane – My, it is certainly different here than I expected. But it is good to be here. How is your family? They are well I hope.
Zach – They’re doing well.
Jane – Glad to hear it.
Anna – All of us are historians, leaders or warriors. Why is a novelist here?
Zach – For a couple of reasons. First, I’m a novelist and so I gotta throw a shout out. Second, she lived in England during this very time we’ll be discussing. She also had two brothers that were in the navy and eventually reached the rank of admiral. So, she’ll be able to give us a different perspective on this whole battle.
Mulan – Then why isn’t our buddy Napoleon here?
Zach – Do you want him here?
Mulan – Not really.
Zach – Well, he’d be a little too biased and I doubt he’d be able to look at it objectively.
Anna – Are we journalists now?
Zach – No, then we’d just have Napoleon pay us and we’d say whatever he’d want us to say. We’re historians. We’re held to a higher standard.
Buffalo – Darn straight we are.
Martel – Go Team History!
(All make an “H” symbol with their hand and thrust it into the air! Bright light appears and an “H” logo appears above table.)
Mulan – I love doing that.
Zach – Yeah, that was a good one. So, on to the main event. First let’s discuss the countries involved. Let’s start with Spain.
Anna – Spain was still trapped in the Middle Ages. They had a small aristocracy that didn’t lift a finger for work. Work was beneath them. They sat around idle and wasted the money they looted from the New World.
Buffalo – I think I’m going to need a Mountain Dew before I crack someone’s skull.
Jane – Yes, quite backwards they were. They still had two classes, the nobles and scores of helpless peasants. I imagine that that is how the nobles liked it. The enlightenment hadn’t affected them aside from the latest fashions of course. They kept their peasants ignorant, illiterate and impoverished.
Buffalo – But their sailors were great sailors, right? They did discover my homeland after all. And then robbed it and slaughtered the people they found.
Martel – Not exactly. The men on their ships weren’t sailors. Most of them were peasants that had been press ganged into the crews.
Caesar – Yes, but the British did that as well.
Jane – They did but there was a difference. Once an Englishman was put on a ship, he became a sailor because he was trained by sailors and learned his part to play. My brothers loved to talk about their profession. To become an officer in His Majesty’s Navy, one had to go through a great deal of training first as a midshipman. As a young midshipman, my brothers had to learn all manner of things such as all the knots, all the jobs, and all the ways to navigate. Only after they learned all manner of important skills for seamanship did they become a lieutenant. The Spanish didn’t have anything like that. Their officers were appointed on whims, as sport and as flights of fancy.
Zach – So, they were stuck in a time warp.
Caesar – And their two social class system didn’t translate well to the workings of a ship. The incompetent officers were aloof and didn’t communicate well with the incompetent and ignorant crew.
Mulan – They were also fatalistic. To them, a glorious and bloody defeat was more admired than a victory. As long as they withheld their honor, they counted it as a victory.
Jane – We English on the other hand, did not have the luxury of defeat. An officer in the English navy could come from any walk of life. There were commoners as officers and those men didn’t have nobility to fall back on. No. Their reputation rode on their ability to command. If they failed, their station in life decreased. If they won victory, then they rose and could even become lords.
Buffalo – So, the English knew what they were doing. What I remember was that the English were very…what do you call it? Patriotic. Yes. They loved England and they loved their individual freedom.
Zach – Right, I guess we’re talking about the English now.
Jane – Unlike Spain, our aristocracy was expected to earn their own money. Many owned farms. I wrote books to help support my family. We were, I suppose you would call them capitalists. We had a free market, low taxes and for that we prospered.
Zach – Sounds nice.
Buffalo – It does sound nice. We were doing quite well until the government decided to “help” us Cheyenne.
Anna – And now for the French. I’m so glad Napoleon isn’t here. We’d never here the end of how mighty and perfect his countrymen are.
Martel – I suppose I’ll speak for the French. We should get Joan D’Arc back here. Her with Napoleon and we could have an all French discussion! Anyway… They were in a very confused time for them. For one, they had many aristocrats from the royal era. These aristocrats played things safe, thought for a long time and were generally incompetent in their elitism and arrogance. Then you had the revolutionaries and they didn’t know who or what they were. The navy had been neglected since before the revolution and when the revolution started, many sailors simply left.
Mulan – Their logistics were in neglect. No matter how good an army is, if the logistics fail, the army fails. The French couldn’t get the lumber and material fast enough to build enough ships, so from the start they were doomed to be outnumbered. Also, the revolution destroyed the sailors individualism and pride, without those a navy falls apart. If someone said something the government didn’t like, they would be punished. The political commissars were appointed to each ship to ensure no one spoke out of line. The Freedom of Speech didn’t exist for them and they felt the effects. This affected their moral greatly. Frustration grew. This caused the land armies to be very destructive and spontaneous, but on a ship this simply doesn’t work. On a ship everything has its place and purpose. It must be orderly. I was a general and I spent more time dealing with issues such as supply than I did on battle strategy or tactics. If your soldiers or sailors don’t care about what they’re fighting for, they’re doomed to failure.
Caesar – A people must know who they are in order to fight. The way these three countries fought was an indication of their society. As Rome lived, so she fought. France was confused, paranoid and afraid and so that was how they fought. Spain was fatalistic, backwards and blind. England was aggressive, self reliant and confident and it showed at Trafalgar.
Anna – Let’s talk about Admiral Nelson now.
Buffalo – He was a short, skinny, ugly, sickly man that was prone to seizures. He also had one arm. He was also one of the most loved leaders the English ever had. To his enemies he was the fiercest opponent they ever faced. He had the ferocity of a warrior.
Caesar – And the humility of Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was a Roman general who had retired to his farm. When the Republic was in danger he came out of retirement, took dictator powers, won the war and then went right back to his farm. He was an example of Roman humility and civic duty. Nelson had this as well. He thought he was destined to be a hero and fought for his love of England. That is very Roman of him. Humble but violent.
Buffalo – I like him. He doesn’t care what others thought. He fought for what he believed in regardless of the consequences.
Jane – I heard my brothers speak of him as if he were a legend. It was a sad day when we heard that he passed on. It was a great because we had won such a victory over the French, but sad because we lost a beloved hero. He was a man who loved his country and was put in a position to save his country.
Buffalo – Save? How?
Jane – I remember that time well. People were tense. We knew Bonny…sorry, Napoleon was planning an invasion of England. We had used our fleet to blockade France but he snuck ships past our blockade whenever he could so he could amass them in the Caribbean and move in to secure the invasion route to England. This was no idle threat.
Zach – And now we come to the reason for the battle. Napoleon wanted to knock England out of the war by invading and destroying their ship yards, supplies and finances. Nelson was ordered to not let that happen. This battle was to save England from totalitarianism. The stakes were high.
Caesar – When the French and Spanish fleet saw the English fleet, they already thought in their hearts that they were dead. With that sort of fatalism, it is hard to win any battle. They outnumbered the English but knew they were out manned.
Jane – The English were better sailors and everyone knew it. A French crew could fire their cannon once every three minutes while a mediocre English crew could fire it every ninety seconds, a good crew twice as fast as that.
Martel – When the fleets met each other, the French did so in a messy, haphazard manner and the English saw this. They saw holes in their lines and this is deadly for any battle. I taught my Frankish soldiers this and drilled it into them again and again.
Caesar – The battle was won before it ever began.
Mulan – Discipline, pride, zeal and logistics. The outcome was predetermined.
Anna – The English had fought several sea battles in their recent history and always came out on top, usually a five to one casualty rate. At the recent Battle of the Nile where the English destroyed a French navy, it was overwhelming, but then the French had been confident or at least not in the throws of despair. It’s a pattern. The English kept winning and everyone else kept loosing. At Trafalgar, the ratio would be more like ten to one.
Buffalo – Okay, here’s my question. I understand that the English were better sailors, but they had the same ships, right? No country’s ships were better than the other and their cannons and guns were the same. I mean, the biggest, most dangerous ship in the battle was the “Santa Trinidad,” a Spanish ship! I can see a big victory like this when there’s a difference in tactics or technology, but does seamanship really play that big of a part?
Mulan – Aggressiveness. The English were out to destroy the enemy while the French and Spanish sat there just hoping to survive. The mind set plays a big difference.
Martel – Like that song, “Eye of the Tiger.”
Buffalo – That song you were listening to earlier? No, I was thinking more “Be Aggressive” by Faith No More.
Anna – You’re both wrong, it’s “Shoot to Thrill” by AC-DC.
Mulan – I think Anna’s right on this one.
(all nod in agreement)
Jane – Well, oh dear…um….this “aggressiveness” comes from our society. At home we receive only what we earn. If we wish to succeed in life, we have to fight for it and struggle hard for it. We are given nothing. So, we English are used to seeing our goal and going after it with every shred of zeal we have.
Caesar – Yes, this English determination came from their free market, democratic, capitalist society. You would not think that such things would make a difference in a battle, but it does. Very much so.
Mulan – Before the battle Nelson gave his men orders. I have a paper here that has a quote….where is it? Ah, here it is.
“Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight beyond all others. Shot will carry away the masts and yards of friends as well as foes…Captains are to look to their particular Line as their rallying point. But, in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”
This goes to show that he gave the captains free reign to do as they saw fit. They weren’t tightly controlled like the French and Spanish. In the French navy, the captains weren’t told the over all strategy, only the small part they had to play.
Anna – There is also another order he gave to his captains, a final one before the battle started. “England expects that every man will do his duty.” He even flew this on his flags as a message to every ship.
Mulan – And in the end, the French and Spanish fleet lost 22 ships and the English lost none.
Anna – But they lost something very important. In the battle, the English flagship, “Victory” was in the thick of the battle and Nelson was mortally wounded. He was taken below decks where he lingered on for a while but eventually died.
Zach – If you want to read more about the battle itself, then there are plenty of sources.
Caesar – I would have been proud to have Nelson in my Legions.
Mulan – A man, put in the right place at the right time. Though I think Napoleon wouldn’t agree to that.
Jane – Yes, we mourned Nelson as a country, but he did save England from tyranny. We were able to keep our dynamic, bold and individualist society…until we threw it away in favor of what England is now.
Zach – So, England was saved from invasion. The tactics, traditions, pride and system of flag communication would last almost unchanged until WWI. In the sea battle of Jutland, where Dreadnaught fought Dreadnaught, the English still quoted “England expects” and used flags to talk to each other. Go to London and you can see Trafalgar square.
Caesar – We’re finished. I’m going to order Chinese. Anyone else in?
(Mulan glares at him.)