Trafalgar Day 2013 St Mary's Nottingham
Sermon by Rev Christopher Harrison
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There have not been many times in our nation’s history when we were threatened as seriously as we were in the early 1800s. Napoleon had emerged from the chaos of the French Revolution as a leader who was able to restore some unity to France, but with the allure of foreign conquest as one of the prizes he offered. He was indeed a remarkable military leader as well as a politician of rare skill, and much of Western Europe soon fell under his sway. Britain, however, remained defiantly independent. Our naval expertise had been a key factor here, as we kept up the pressure on the French and its allies, notably Spain. Many years of seafaring in Britain, with skills refined and developed by dint of our being an island nation, stood the Royal Navy in good stead. We had a naval reach which encompassed the globe. We had a considerable number of good ships, but inevitably the costs of maintaining these and building new ones placed a heavy burden on the national Exchequer.
Napoleon, however, was not to be deterred from his ambition to invade England. The British people began to be anxious and unsettled as Napoleon swept everything before him to the east. When would he turn his attention to the country which lay to his west? Great Britain, however, had in Admiral Lord Nelson a leader of the fleet whose skill and expertise were unrivalled anywhere in the world. For some years, the Royal Navy had settled down for the long game of imposing a blockade on the French ports. This impeded France’s ability to trade, and also prevented the French navy from being as active as Napoleon would have liked. In 1805, however, Napoleon took his plans to invade England to a new level. His aim was for the French and Spanish fleets to break through the blockade, prepare for battle in the Caribbean, and then break the British defensive wall which patrolled the English Channel, which would permit the invasion barges to reach our shores.
As we all know, of course, this was not to be; but it is always worth reminding ourselves of the likely consequences if Nelson had been defeated at Trafalgar instead of being victorious. In the event, Nelson used a daring and unorthodox plan to defeat the French and Spanish fleets, even though our ships and men were considerably outnumbered. A double column of Royal Navy ships attacked the French and Spanish navies head on, even though this was very dangerous and risky as the first ships in particular were very vulnerable. At 11.45 am on 21st October, Nelson sent his famous flag signal, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. The battle was fierce, but was over within a few hours. Nelson’s daring and the determination and skill of his officers and men proved decisive, in particular the leadership also shown by Vice Admiral Collingwood. Nelson himself died at 4.30 that afternoon, having been wounded three hours earlier, his final words being ‘God and my country’. The cost of victory was high; some 1,700 British men lost their lives in those few hours, but there were 6,000 enemy casualties and nearly 20,000 prisoners were taken. Nelson became a national hero, and Napoleon abandoned his invasion plans. Before long, Napoleon was to find that the war on the land would also turn against him and result in his ultimate defeat at Waterloo.
It is of course hard to think, today, of this nation being at war with France. We must give thanks for the many years of peace in Western Europe, with co-operation at a political and economic level, which have followed Second World War. But of course we must also give thanks, today, for the legacy of freedom and peace on these shores to which the Royal Navy has contributed over very many years. Our region’s Sea Cadets play a vital part in ensuring that the skills of seamanship and all the associated aspects of naval life, both on the ocean waves and while on shore, are handed on from one generation to the next. We acknowledge and thank all those who give their time to ensuring that this happens, that high standards of professionalism and discipline are maintained – while also giving you cadets experiences which you will remember for a lifetime, whether or not you take a naval career. But we also today recall the memory of all those who have given their lives while serving in the Royal Navy. Our readings today remind us of the power of the sea, which we can contend with but never fully tame. Combine that with the perils of battle at sea, and we cannot fail to admire all those who have served our nation in the Royal Navy over the years, and to give thanks for all those who, in doing so, made the ultimate sacrifice.
This nation has a long tradition and history of exercising influence and power around the world, and the Royal Navy has always been part of this. In military matters, and in the field of foreign policy more generally, there are often difficult decisions to be made between when to use force and when to seek other and more peaceful ways of achieving one’s objective. When we were resisting Napoleon, there was little or no choice in the matter. At Trafalgar, our nation proved pivotal in turning the war against Napoleon. Today, though, questions are increasingly asked about just what role a small island nation like ours can have in matters of peace and war, in spite of the professionalism of our armed forces and our contribution to international alliances such as NATO. But I ask you to consider this. When the USA was preparing for a possible military strike against Syria earlier this year, we were approached for support. Parliament was recalled, but voted against this. Other nations then also expressed their doubts. The Americans paused, and another strategy was drawn up, this time through the United Nations. The full outcome of the search for chemical weapons remains to be seen, of course, but at present at least a further ratcheting up of the conflict in Syria has been avoided. The effective and timely action of the democratic Parliamentary process in this country may well prove to have been of far greater importance in the Syria crisis than anyone realised at the time.
This is just an example of the way in which this country’s influence can be disproportionate to its size. The same applies to the Royal Navy, with its longstanding pedigree and all the qualities which its traditions embody, as well as the respect that it commands the world over. As we remember Trafalgar, then, let us also look to the future – and to the great contribution our cadets and our navy will make to our national life for very many years to come.