First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, signing the First Day Cover commemorating Trafalgar 2005. Image courtesy www.Defenceimages.mod.uk © MOD
Fifty-seven-year-old Admiral Sir Alan West, the First Sea Lord, was in cheerfully reflective mood as he looked back on the bicentenary celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
They might not have happened on anything like the scale they did if Sir Alan and his Admiralty colleagues had not been determined to hoist the flag for the Royal Navy.
Diplomatic in victory, Sir Alan is tactful when asked about reports that the Government tried to sink the Navy's plans to push out the boat to honour its greatest hero, Horatio Nelson.
"The government said that because of pressure on resources,” he explains, “there were no funds to do it. But I did get approval for four million pounds".
Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory, as it looks today. Photo: Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum.
Sea Britain, co-ordinated by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, raised millions of pounds in sponsorship for the rest. In a salute to the public, Sir Alan says, "It has been the most wonderful year. I believe people in Britain felt something about this, and also about Nelson."
Sir Alan, who stands down in February 2006, is something of a hero himself. Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his role in the Falklands War, his ship, HMS Ardent, was sunk with the loss of 22 crew and around 60 injured.
"When you lose a ship like that you keep in touch forever," he explains, adding that the families of some of the deceased send him Christmas cards every year, and seek his advice on family matters: "It is really quite touching," he says.
Inevitably, the most famous ship on the radar this year has been Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, built at Chatham dockyard, but now at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Elsewhere, museums and heritage sites the length and breadth of the UK responded with a varied programme of exhibitions and events.
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by JMW Turner, 1824. © National Maritime Museum, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection.
Bookshelves have also been bedecked this year with works by maritime historians critically reappraising the Navy's greatest victory.
Amongt them, Professor Roger Knight's book, The Pursuit of Victory (2005) describes Nelson's frank, consensual and informal leadership style, compared with the formal system of ‘doctrine’ then more usual.
Admiral West explains that, at Trafalgar, Nelson deviated from the standard battle line - two lines opposite each other firing – “because he knew Britain needed a battle of annihilation to stop the threat of invasion".
In other words he took a real risk "but he understood it,” says Sir Alan, “and was also genius enough to make sure every captain understood what he intended to do. The last signal he always put up was 'engage the enemy more closely'".
Sir Alan does not think doctrine is any less important today, although he adds that what the Navy now pushes is Mission Command. "This is where you ensure all those below you understand what you want to happen,” he says. “They are then empowered to do things. The more of that you can get the better, and the further you can push it down the tree, the better.”
“That's what Nelson was very good at, and that is what we really push very hard today, but there have been times in our history when we haven't been that good at it"
An aerial view of the vast Naval base at Portsmouth Harbour.
Observing that as the Victorian times marched forward through to the First World War, Sir Alan thinks we probably lost some of that flexibility. “If you look at the Battle of Jutland (the only major fleet action of World War One), one could argue that there was less flexibility for our forces. Perhaps if they had been imbued with this sort of 'Nelsonian' view it might have gone slightly differently.”
Napoleon Bonaparte observed in 1815: “If it had not been for you English, I should have been Emperor of the East.”
But while Nelson was indeed English, according to the Ayshford Trafalgar Roll, just over half the able seamen at Trafalgar were English (53 per cent) followed by the Irish (21 per cent). Ireland had a much bigger population compared with England and Scotland. It was before the potato famine. The Scots were the next highest at seven per cent, although many more may have gone to England and been recruited there.
One important change since Nelson's day is that women can now serve on board ship. "This has created a better environment," says Sir Alan, adding: "Indeed, we could not run a Navy, with the high quality people we need today, if we didn't have women."
Death of Nelson (detail) by Daniel Maclise. © National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery.
The Royal Navy continues to evolve and although there are political questions about its size and future role the commemoration of Trafalgar has made 2005 an important year for the ‘Senior Service’.
In pressing ahead with impressive celebrations of this momentous battle, Lord Nelson, who was hit by a French bullet on the deck of the Victory, would have been left in no doubt that England had indeed done its duty this year.
Veronica Cowan is a freelance journalist.