Your RDA of Irony

The Glorious Annals of the French Navy

Today is the anniversary of Trafalgar and here is how you can reenact Lord Nelson’s spectacular victory in 1805. In a swimming pool set afloat 33 loaves of French bread to represent the French/Spanish fleet. To represent the British fleet, have twenty-seven people with shotguns firing at the bread. That accurately represents France’s chances at Trafalgar.

The British make much of the fact that Nelson’s fleet was smaller: Britain’s 27 ships of-the- line against 33 French and Spanish ships. Of course, the British fleet was superior in every way. The French fleet may have had newer ships…if only to replace the vessels sunk or captured by the British. (And the French sailors were newer, too…for the same reason.) But that veteran English fleet was the best in the world and led by one of history’s greatest admirals. The English victory was never in doubt; the extent of the triumph was remarkable. The French and Spanish lost two-thirds of their fleet.

Nelson likely was more fearful of the accountants at the British admiralty. At the time, naval warfare was expected to be profitable. The fleet was maintained and the crews were paid by the proceeds of captured ships and plundered cargos. The cannons were aimed to knock down masts or shred sails, leaving the enemy ship dead in the water–and ripe for looting. Sinking the ship would have ruined this financial system.

Unfortunately, in 1798 at the Battle of Nile, Nelson had proved to be somewhat extravagant. Under unerring British bombardment, the French flagship blew up. I can only imagine how the accounting office at the Admiralty reacted to that lost fortune….

“We suppose that you expect to be congratulated, Admiral Nelson. But who is going to pay for your pyrotechnics? We no longer have those 13 colonies to tax, and it is because of spendthrifts like you we don’t!”

With the proceeds of the captured fleet, Lord Nelson made a fortune at Trafalgar. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to enjoy it. A sniper demonstrated the only French marksmanship that day. Contrary to Nelson’s wishes, the money went to his widow instead of his mistress.

And but for that French sniper, Nelson might have commanded the British fleet in the attack on Ft. McHenry.

In that situation, I imagine that Francis Scott Key would have written “The White Flag Rag.”

  1. Mary Ann Jung says:

    Admiral Nelson’s protege, Admiral Cockburn, still did a good enough job of attacking MD towns that he was called the “Scourge of the Chesapeake” Although he lost the seige of Baltimore, he earned distinction for finally locking up Napoleon once and for all on St Helena. Without Cockburn, English and Americans alike might’ve been singing “Sur le Pont, Independence Gone”!

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