Trafalgar Day Service, 2014

First published: 25th October 2014 | The Rev. John Morris


The Rev. John Morris was a Naval Chaplain who served at sea and with the Royal Marines. His speech was given at the Trafalgar Day Service in Exeter Cathedral on Sunday 19 October 2014. Rev. Morris is now vicar of The Bourne with Tilford (Farnham). He wishes to acknowledge that some of the information in his sermon was taken from the BBC website.


I am honoured to be asked to preach again in this glorious cathedral. A few years ago I had the privilege of standing here on remembrance Sunday and I asked my wife whether in her wildest dreams she had ever imagined me being here again. The pulpit in the cathedral isn’t the right place to relate her exact words, but lets just say that it appears I don’t feature in her wildest dreams… Looking down I’ve just received a look. If anyone’s freezer is short of freezing power I think I can point you in the right direction for help. I notice that there are few heads nodding in sympathy – and they’re all men.

During the engagement at Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805, the Royal Navy annihilated the greatest threat to British security for 200 years, but lost Britain’s national hero in the process. In that bitter sweet victory Britain’s control of the oceans was guaranteed for years to come and it formed the basis of her global power for over a century.

By 1805 Nelson was already a national hero, and considered the ultimate naval commander. His elevated conception of war ensured that every battle he fought was used to solve major strategic problems, and his many successes ensured he was the only contemporary to rival Bonaparte as ultimate exemplar of total war. Nor did Bonaparte disagree – he kept a bust of Nelson in his private quarters.

Nelson developed the art of war at sea to the new, terrible form he characterised as ‘annihilation’ to counter the war effort of Napoleonic France. He did so by taking the command system of Admiral Sir John Jervis, the tough old officer who taught him how to keep a fleet efficient, and melded it with the genius for battle and strategy he developed while serving under Admiral Lord Hood.

In 1803 the Peace of Amiens – a temporary armed truce between Britain and France – broke down, and for nearly two years British strategy rested on the defensive, waiting for the French navy to make the first move. Late in 1804, however, Spain joined the war as an ally of France, giving Napoleon the ships he needed to challenge Britain.
This was the context of Trafalgar. Napoleon was looking for an opportunity to strike at Britain, without having to fight Nelson and the Royal Navy – while all his attempts to attack British interests were thwarted by expert seamen of the Royal Navy who countered his every move.

Thus, when Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, Commander of Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet bottled up in a safe haven at Toulon, broke out into the Atlantic in early 1805, Nelson chased him all the way to the West Indies and back in the most daring of all his campaigns.

By September 1805, however, Villeneuve’s fleet were back on this side of the Atlantic and had found shelter at Cadiz. They were out of reach again but ideally positioned to attack British trading ships or Britain itself.

Villeneuve’s fleet had to be destroyed.

It was with considerable relief and excitement that Nelson learned that Villeneuve had put to sea. And thus we come to the momentous moments of the battle itself. The enemy had reversed course during the morning, heading back to Cadiz, leaving their line confused. Now the fleets were off Cape Trafalgar, and the British sailors had time to eat a good meal in preparation for the engagement – although their opponents may not have had such healthy appetites. Nelson waited for Villeneuve to show his flag, so he would know where to strike.

As Victory bore down on the enemy line she had to endure heavy fire from the allied line, without being able to reply. Round shot came smashing through the flimsy bow of the ship, killing and wounding the men on the upper deck. John Scott, Nelson’s Public Secretary, was standing on the quarter deck talking with Captain Thomas Hardy, when a shot cut him in two.

When a splinter hit Hardy’s shoe, tearing off the buckle, Nelson observed: ‘This is too warm work to last for long’. Fifty men had been killed or wounded, and the crew of the Victory had yet to open fire.

At 12.35pm the concave enemy line allowed the Victory to open fire at last, shrouding the ship in smoke. Soon afterwards the Victory ran right under the stern of the French flagship, the Bucentaure, and fired a double shotted broadside that made the enemy ship shudder, and killed or wounded over 200 men. Admiral Villeneuve was the only man left standing on the quarter deck.

With his flagship entwined with Redoubtable, Nelson was shot in the left shoulder by a French marine. Piercing his lung and lodging against his spine, the bullet caused Nelson to fall to the deck with the exclamation, “They finally succeeded, I am dead!” As he lay there he was supported by Sgt-Major Secker of the Marines (And having spent much of my service time with the Royal Marines I am duty bound to remind everyone that the Marines have been supporting the Navy ever since).

As Nelson was taken below for treatment, the superior training and gunnery of his seamen was winning out across the battle. As Nelson lingered, the fleet captured or destroyed 18 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet, including Villeneuve’s Bucentaure.
Around 4:30 PM, Nelson died just as the fighting was concluding. Taking command, Collingwood began preparing his battered fleet and prizes for a storm that was approaching. I am honoured to learn that one of the descendants of Collingwood is with us here today. Assaulted by the elements, the British were only able to retain four of the prizes, with one exploding, twelve foundering or going ashore, and one recaptured by its crew. I am sure that sailmaker John Murch and his son serving on HMS Belleisle would have been busy in the thick of the work of trying to save the ships and I am delighted that one of his descendants is also with us here today. Of the 33 ships of Villeneuve’s fleet that had departed Cadiz, only 11 returned.

One of the greatest naval victories in British history, the Battle of Trafalgar saw Nelson capture/destroy 18 ships. In addition, Villeneuve lost 3,243 killed, 2,538 wounded, and around 7,000 captured. British losses, including Nelson, numbered 458 killed and 1,208 wounded. In the wake of Trafalgar, the French ceased to pose a significant challenge to the Royal Navy for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. Without doubt, the battle of Trafalgar changed the history of the world.

So is today just a chance for us to reflect on a glorious victory over the French? After all, when the French complained that the channel tunnel rail link initially ended at Waterloo station – saying that it wasn’t really very good for the entente cordiale to rub salt into an old wound, someone retorted that it was no problem – you can name your end of the line after a battle that you have won!

(I told that story at a dinner in Boston with Americans and French sitting round. The French shrugged their shoulders but the Americans were horrified. You can’t say that about the French they said. I replied, why not – they are French.)

But there are lessons to learn and lessons about our Christian lives of service that we might compare and contrast with what happened all those years ago. I stand here as a Christian, as a priest of the Church of England and I whilst I can celebrate the victory that was won, I cannot celebrate the loss of life or the savagery of war. So what can we learn?

Pressed men. When we think of recruiting for 18th century Royal Naval ships most of us have an image of press gangs. This is not entirely true. Yes there were press gangs but they were looking for Seamen – trained men on the whole. But besides which there were plenty of volunteers. It was a way to get rich and Nelson was a ‘lucky’ captain. Prize money was shared by the fleet and those in sight of a prize being taken and everyone stood a chance of bettering themselves.

There is a rumbling discontent that Christian service is all take take take. If it isn’t the church wanting money, then it‘s this fear that if you let Him God will take over. God forbid you might even get enthusiastic about religion! But Paul talks about service as being perfect freedom. The faith that I walk in is a faith of liberation and freedom. The freedom of being in Christ is one of being fully yourself and allowing God’s image to grow and flourish in you. There are no chains, just a freedom of service that the men of Nelsons fleet understood when they bent their wills to the discipline of running a ship of the line. As we give our lives to Christ and live in his name and in his service, we should feel no sense of burden, but we should realise that only in Him do we find ourselves and become truly who we are meant to be.

Secondly I want to talk about luck for a moment. This might seem rather strange coming from a priest but Nelson was known for being a lucky Admiral. But there’s an old saying that you make your own luck. Some of you might be thinking how religion might be alright for others but it isn’t really for you. It’s for other people as God doesn’t seem to listen to you. But in our lives we readily practice, rehearse and train if we want to achieve something – and we all know the old truism that the more you practice the luckier you get. And in the next breath I hear people saying that they can’t get close to God, but they never bother to practice. Some even manage twice a year at Christmas and Easter. Its like visiting relatives that you don’t get on with very well! Nelson knew that anything worthwhile needed discipline and practice and his good fortune was no coincidence. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us in this about the way we practice our faith or say our prayers.

And finally, I want to mention Nelsons private life. Most of us know that Nelson’s private life would have kept the tabloid press in stories for years. I was told once that Nelson himself claimed that the marriage licence wasn’t valid South of Gibraltar. Now don’t start getting too worried. You are not about to hear me suggesting that we ought to follow his example! Betraying those who you love is hurtful and wrong and cannot be condoned. Yet the truth is that despite his failings Nelson still succeeded.

Times change, but people don’t. The Naval Divisional Handbook used to have a picture of a sailor inside the front with the caption that said something like, “The greatest single factor of the ship”. I have had Commanding Officers in despair over the ineffectiveness of some of their officers and senior rates. They know their jobs backwards, but they utterly fail to get the most out of their command.

Choir Conductors always wish they had groups of people with perfect pitch, who can sight read without fault, who blend and have tonality that is perfect. In reality they get to select the best of those who volunteer. The BEST conductors rehearse them and get an amazing sound. They use what they have got and inspire and train them to produce something that is bigger and better.

The amazing thing in all of this is that God plays the hand that we deal him and somehow despite our failings he manages to get things done. Nelson knew that truth. Yes he was a brilliant strategist. Yes he knew the enemy and their weaknesses. Yes he could see the bigger picture and see what needed to be done to influence events, but he also knew and loved his crew and got the very best out of them. I am going to stop that metaphor or analogy right there before I start suggesting that Nelson was God like. He was anything but God like and he was very definitely a fallen man! Yet he acted in faith and with faith. Among the things that survive him are the heartfelt prayers that he wrote. He went into battle praying to his heavenly father, and he died thanking God that he had done his duty. Despite his human failings he achieved great things. The lesson for us all is that God uses us despite our best efforts to get in his way.

Today we remember a great victory. History was changed and we live in a free country and we don’t all speak French or Spanish as our first language! Of course Trafalgar will always be associated with Nelson. The man who fell and whose last words were, “Thank God I’ve done my duty.” If we can learn anything for our lives from him, it’s about service, discipline in our discipleship and how God can use us despite our human frailties and failings.

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