Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Trafalgar and English class

I was out teaching ten-year-old Min-sung earlier this evening, and the subject was the Battle of Trafalgar. Min-sung has expressed an interest in military history-- a fact that should delight Mike the Maximum Leader (whose birthday is June 15-- go visit his blog many times that day and drive up his bandwidth expenses), so I thought we would discuss naval tactics. You might think that naval tactics are inappropriate for a ten-year-old non-native speaker of English, but that's because you badly underestimate Min-sung's English ability. True, he's not a perfect speaker by any means, but he catches a lot, and as it turned out, Trafalgar fascinated him.

This year, October 21 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a ferocious sea battle that took place not far from the Straits of Gibraltar, Spain. Admiral Horatio Viscount Nelson, who at the time had only one arm and one functioning eye, was considered a brilliant naval strategist. His ship, the Victory, led the English assault against a combined Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships (Nelson had only 27 with him, including his own).

Completely forsaking tradition, Nelson decided that his angle of attack against the Combined Fleet would be close to perpendicular-- something unheard in naval warfare of the time, because most ships of the line had cannons lining their port (or "larboard," as I discovered) and starboard sides. It generally made more sense for ships to sweep past each other in parallel, thereby pointing the maximum number of cannons at the enemy.

Nelson, who knew he was outnumbered, decided instead to form his ships into two parallel lines that would attack the Franco-Spanish fleet at the aforementioned 90-degree angle, thereby breaking their line and allowing the English ships to fire broadsides off both sides as they passed through the Franco-Spanish ranks.

Here's the weird part: Admiral Villeneuve, the commander of the Combined Fleet against Nelson, very likely knew what Nelson's plan was, but for some odd reason didn't pass that information on to his captains. According to one source I read, Villeneuve was already a beaten man: he had previously suffered defeat at the hands of a much smaller English naval force, and this haunted him. On top of that, Nelson had been chasing Villeneuve back and forth across the Atlantic for the previous several months (much of it during hot, miserable weather-- further demoralizing the crews). I'd have hated to be in Villeneuve's boots: haven't you ever had nightmares where you're being chased by a one-eyed, one-armed man?

The battle was engaged when the Franco-Spaniards fired first, from long range, as they saw the English ships approaching. Nelson and his fleet held firm; the Franco-Spaniards were about to experience what has since been called "The Nelson Touch," the unorthodox battle tactic that revolutionized naval warfare.

As the fleets met at that strange angle, and as order dissolved into chaos, Nelson took the Victory to look for Villeneuve's ship, the Bucentaure. The two ships engaged; the Victory swung around behind the Bucentaure, but ended up colliding with another French ship, the Redoubtable. Fighting between the Victory and the Redoubtable was furious. Soon, both ships were in flames. Nelson had made the mistake of changing out of his usually drab, crusty, worn-out clothes to wear freshly-laundered full battle regalia. He was, unfortunately, an easy target for the waiting French marksmen, who shot Nelson along with over three dozen other officers and men. By most accounts, Nelson knew he wasn't going to survive this battle (he'd prepared his will and said many goodbyes not long before), and some historians think he had essentially dressed for his death.

The mortally wounded Nelson was taken below decks, where he requested that a handkerchief be placed over his face so none would recognize him. Min-sung wisely noted that this might have been to keep Nelson's own men from being discouraged.

The French marksmen basically swept the Victory's upper deck clean of men. The only people topside were the English dead and wounded. The French then made the tragic mistake of believing they'd beaten the English flagship, and the order was given to board the Victory.

In a maneuver worthy of James T. Kirk, the English sailors-- already feared as vicious in-fighters and well on their way to establishing their current football hooligan reputation-- huddled below decks until the boatswain's whistle gave the signal to "repel" the boarders. The English then erupted en masse and began a quick, efficient slaughter of the French.

It was an abbatoir. No Frenchman survived.

Nelson lingered on long enough to learn that the boarding attempt had been successfully repulsed. His fleet of 27 ships decimated the Franco-Spanish forces: 25 of the 33 enemy ships were either out of commission or in full retreat. None of the English ships had been taken or sunk.

Min-sung and I played out the scenario on his floor using some old wooden blocks. My student was surprisingly perceptive about how to conduct a naval battle (maybe it's from playing Starcraft so damn much). He told me a little bit about Japanese and Korean naval battles, and some of the tactics struck me as quite similar. Min-sung didn't expect the Nelson Touch, however; he was tickled by the admiral's obvious genius in doing something so unconventional.

So today, both Min-sung and I learned about the Battle of Trafalgar, a battle cherished and celebrated by my buddy Mike. October 21 isn't so far away. If you feel so inclined, perhaps you'll join Mike and all of England as they quietly (and loudly) celebrate the 200th anniversary of a major sea victory, a day that marked the beginning of 150 years of British naval dominance.

Nelson's flagship, the Victory, stands proudly in the No. 2 Dry Dock in Portsmouth, England, and continues to be manned by "Officers and Ratings" of the Royal Navy. To my knowledge, she hasn't been decommissioned. One site says she's the world's oldest commissioned warship.

My other sources:

Typo-ridden, breathless account here.

A much more thorough account here, which is where I learned that Admiral Villeneuve probably knew about Nelson's Touch.

If you dig around a bit, I believe there are some online animations of the Battle of Trafalgar.


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