It gave me a thrill to walk through the great HMS Victory again, moving from deck to deck and seeing everything shipshape and seaworthy, as though this 250-year-old warship were ready to move out and put to sea again from her dry-dock in Portsmouth, England. Striped in her distinctive horizontal yellow and black, her stern galleries, mostly reserved for officers’ quarters, were glittering with windows and richly decorated with carvings in the wood (Most of the rest of the 821 crew, cramped but well-fed, lived on the smelly lower gun deck.) The husky see-through timbering in her prow is unusual looking for any later design, but classic for the time, perhaps useful for ramming, and remindful of the safety nets once positioned there to protect sailors assigned to the rigging.
This is the third of several short travel memoirs written in the English west-country (Hampshire and Dorset) in July 2013, where I stayed with my London family at a small village cottage. My purpose here is to let readers know about some of places of interest in Thomas Hardy country, which are often left out by tourist day-trip excursions that may range out only as far as Stonehenge before returning to London. Tourist information onmost of these sites including lodging is easily accessible by Internet. This post and the previous describe two remarkable ships at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Mary Rose.and HMS Victory.
HMS Victory, and particularly Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, for whom she served as flagship (Thomas Hardy was captain), are remarkable for their place in history, particularly in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. There Nelson ignored convention and confounded his French enemy by leading, from the deck, two lines of English vessels, 27 in all, straight into a line of 33 French and Spanish ships. Ordered out by Napoleon, these were waiting parallel with the shore, off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar near Càdiz, commanded by French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. Villeneuve must have been a worried man. His fleet had already suffered one disastrous, bloody, humiliating defeat by Nelson’s ships in the Battle of the Nile.
Nelson’s fleet split their foe into three sections, firing as they entered the fray at a walking pace, straight-on instead of the usual parallel approach. At this point the French and Spanish ships had their hulls facing the English and were at a serious disadvantage — they could only fire directly outward from their decks, on a path parallel with of their attackers. As the antagonists closed, the Franco-Spanish ships had a hard time repositioning to aim at ships that had confronted them in this unconventional manner. Chaos erupted on Napoleon’s ships, of which 22 were lost. At least 7,000 seamen died. All British ships returned to port, after a loss of 1,600.
Nelson was already a famed naval commander who had lost an eye and an arm in action. He had won victories in places as far apart as Scandinavia and the West Indies. But against advice he insisted on staying on the poop deck throughout this encounter, in full dress uniform, powdered wig and all. An irresistible target, he was struck by a French sniper in that first encounter and, grievously wounded, died a few hours later. When his remains returned to England, pickled in a brandy cask – how else, when he insisted he did not want to be buried at sea? – he was received by a wildly enthusiastic populace and entombed after a huge state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral. His statue now stands atop Nelson’s Column, in the center of London’s Trafalgar Square.
Since his early years, Nelson believed that fate was written in his destiny, and he was right. As a naval commander he was no less than brilliant. HMS Victory was built as a fighting machine and it is said that every man aboard knew his place in the machine perfectly. “England expects that every man will do his duty,” Nelson would say, and they listened. In action Nelson was charismatic, intelligent, experienced, decisive, and single-minded. As an individual man his portraits convey the looks of a poet more than those of a seaman. He was slightly built but a hard master, hard enough to know that his officers and crew would follow orders without question. He was courageous, inventive, and often ready to act in a manner that might be deemed politically correct. At sea these were still the days of the cat ‘o nine tails, but I have seen no claim that he ordered its used without reason. By all accounts his men loved him.
There are people I would prefer to adopt as personal friends. Ships, however, are soulless tools of war even if we care enough of them to call them “she,” and one can feel certain awe for this thoughtless but well-furnished hulk, so carefully managed through the centuries, and open for us to see, looking as though it was ready to start loading for a new venture. The restoration, which has continued since the 1920s, is amazing. One can imagine, once the masts and sails are rigged, sailing serenely out of Portsmouth Harbor on this great ship, headed back for another battle. I’d like that, but not as an inhabitant of the lower gun deck..
After seeing Henry VIII’s Mary Rose up close and exploring Admiral Nelson’s HMS Victory, I began preparations for my return to landllubber life in New Mexico, where I expect to start work on a new book.