Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Trafalgar Day

I don’t approve of war. It’s no way to solve problems, and it’s not what Jesus would do. However I do find military history interesting, and always have. As with anything, you can learn lessons from past battles which are of use in everyday life. Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, so here are two lessons from history from that battle - one from each side.

Firstly, from the winning side. The British Admiral, Nelson, is the obvious hero of the battle. He came up with a winning plan; his ships were better organized and won the day. Nelson’s British fleet was outnumbered in terms of ships and guns, but had better technology: British naval guns could be fired five times as quickly, and also more accurately. Taking this into account, his force was vastly superior. His plan was one of brute force. He sailed his ships as quickly as possible, straight into the opposing force. He knew that at close range his better guns would blast the enemy ships to pieces, even in the face of superior numbers. His plan worked, and the British destroyed most of the opposing fleet without losing a single ship. From then on, Napoleon’s fleet were powerless to challenge British domination of the seas. Brute force works.

The lesson here? Nelson’s ships were superior, but his tactics made the most of their superiority. In any situation, know your strengths and play to them. My small group at church looked at 2 Kings 4:1-7 recently, the story of Elijah and the poor widow. Four words struck me from the story, which can be applied in any situation: Elijah asks the widow, “what do you have?” Nelson had better guns, and used them. When faced with difficulty, don’t fret about your weaknesses: ask yourself, “what do you have?”

For me, though, the greatest heroism of the battle was shown by a French ship, the Redoutable. It was a fourth-rate ship of the line, one of the weaker ships in the battle. It nonetheless sailed straight for Nelson’s flagship, the Victory. Although heavily outgunned, it managed to get alongside the Victory and was on the verge of boarding it when another British ship, the Temeraire, intervened and saved the day. Who knows what would have happened had they succeeded? Facing impossible odds, the Redoutable met the enemy head on and kept fighting until 85% of its crew were dead. Famously, a sniper from this brave ship fired the shot which killed Nelson.

The lesson? When the two fleets met, a British victory was all but assured. In the event the bravery of the Redoutable nearly turned the battle; and the death of Nelson took all the gloss off the victory. Sometimes you enter a situation which seems genuinely impossible. If you give up, defeat is certain. But the braver option is to give it your best, to go out fighting (metaphorically speaking). And if you do, it’s never too late to make a difference.

Thousands of people died at Trafalgar, 600 on the Redoutable alone. I hope one day we’ll learn enough to say that we will never go to war again. But in the meanwhile, those who fought and died that day can still be an example to us all.

Originally posted 2005-10-21


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