- Lancaster, John
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
[Trafalgar Day Address 1997 to the Naval Officers’ Association, Western Australia, by Captain John Lancaster AM RAN (Ret’d)]
Trafalgar Day provides the embodiment of what in our waning years, we may consider to be the heart of the Navy, its linch pin, although I am sure many of us held differing views many years ago, when first we joined, particularly when we were under training.
For many of us this will be the 50th (or more) occasion we have commemorated Nelson’s overwhelming victory at Trafalgar and yet some of us have never sighted the shores of England let alone Cape Trafalgar.
So why is it, year after year we seize this opportunity to commemorate a battle so far away in time and distance?
I believe it is because Nelson and his victory have grown upon us by custom and tradition to the extent that we accept Trafalgar as part of our national tapestry, as for in truth it is.
To me Trafalgar Day is still a special time of the year because in 1942, shortly after joining the Royal Navy, I slung a hammock and served in HMS VICTORY, together with many others, as part of the wartime standing Damage Control and Fire Party.
At night on the lower gun deck in semi darkness, before the air raid sirens wailed, one’s imagination was inclined to cast about leaving me, many years later, with an awareness I would now like to share with you.
I am not going to spoil a good luncheon by recounting the details of the most significant sea battle fought under sail, or deliver a monologue on our hero and I hardly feel we are in need of a history lesson, but rather, I would like to speak about what has become known as The Nelson Touch.
The Nelson Touch harbours differing meanings for most of us. I originally held the belief that the term was associated with the writings of Sir Henry Newbolt, the noted Naval Historian and Poet, where in one of his poems referring to the Georgian Navy, he uses the term in relation to Britain’s sea Captains:
“Whether their fame centuries long should ring
They cared not overmuch,
But cared greatly to serve God and the king,
And keep the Nelson touch;
And fought to build Britain above the tide
Of wars and windy fate;
And passed content, leaving us the pride
Of lives obscurely great:”
But when we look about, other meanings are revealed for example; to many, The Nelson Touch is an amalgam of the boldness and fierce fighting esprit displayed by Nelson.
To others it is his spirited leadership, tinged with his habit of delegating his authority and of keeping his Captains continually briefed and properly informed. This is reflected by the confidence and trust that was shown by his subordinates, for Nelson’s confidence in his men and sense of duty, flowed both ways.
Perhaps today we use The Nelson Touch to identify a supreme example of a leadership?
I think when the filter factor is applied, the meaning we now give to the expression is the infusion and enthusiasm Nelson provided with his own unquenchable sense of duty to all under his command, to the point where the very magic of his name was an inspiration to his people.
Nelson was no ordinary man, but the supreme example of a leader. He led from the front, some would say recklessly, within a biscuit’s toss of the mouths of the enemy’s cannon.
Nelson broke with the customs of his times by taking his captains fully into his confidence so that at the point of battle they knew exactly what was expected of them and they in turn could usually anticipate their leader’s tactics.
Other fleet commanders of the times kept their own council while their juniors bit upon the bullet!
If during an action one of Nelson’s Captains saw the opportunity to inflict damage on the enemy, he didn’t have to wait upon his Admiral’s signals before grasping the opportunity. It is hardly surprising therefore that the Captains with whom Nelson shared his thoughts and plans felt privileged, as indeed they were for the times.
Nelson referred to them as “his band of brothers”. Perhaps they were touched by Nelson’s supreme example as a leader and so, as often happens, the term was adopted into the English Language.
In reality, I believe Nelson considered The Nelson Touch to be, in fact, The Nelson Plan; his plan for the conduct of a battle.
Whatever The Nelson Touch was as Nelson perceived it, he was undoubtedly a master tactician who endeared himself to his officers and men; in fact to the whole of his fleet, most of whom had never clapped eyes upon him, although let it be said, 60 percent of VICTORY’S ships company were volunteers.
A remarkable figure for those times when the press captains quite often had to find over 50% of the crews the Fleet needed, by very persuasive methods and by warming reluctant palms with the king’s shilling.
The Nelson Touch becomes more of an enigma when we remember that apart from the severe disabilities of sight and limb, Nelson was also usually in poor health, which for a bantam of 5 feet 4 inches, was an ongoing and severe handicap, especially at sea.
So in crucible, when the volumes written about Lord Nelson are laid aside, we find he remains remarkable for his display of confident authority, courage, tenacity, his sense of duty and above all his sense of honour and commitment.
Let us remember that Britain, with a population of only 10 million, for many years had lived constantly under the threat of French invasion.
Let us not forget in 1797 Napoleon had been appointed expressly to command forces for invasion of England when, in that year, there was an abortive attempt to land at Fishguard, in South Wales, followed by unsuccessful landings in Ireland the following year.
Admiral Lord St. Vincent when First Sea Lord; (whose dispositions of the Navy had led to Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile 7 years before) had waggishly informed the Parliament; “I do not say the French cannot come, only that they cannot come by sea!” This was at a time when Napoleon reigned supreme in Europe and at the same time Russia and the Levant were being overrun.
To the people of Britain, Nelson’s spirit represented their national identity, as did the wooden walls, their sure shield. To them, this diminutive handicapped Admiral was the very essence of the Bulldog Breed, they knew he was never going to give up and they knew he would win.
He was after all, a national hero well before Trafalgar. He had a very long reach and I believe that is that we have come to regard as The Nelson Touch.
Although Trafalgar robbed Britain of its leading fighting Admiral, Trafalgar also led to the end of almost thirty years of continuous sea warfare from the Battle of Ushant in 1778, to Trafalgar in 1805.
However what it also did was to remove for all time the threat of France invading the United Kingdom and it paved the way, via the Peninsular War where Wellington was triumphant, to the ultimate victory at Waterloo, which established Britain as a world power and ushered in that extraordinary period of history which was to become known as Pax Brittanica, during which Australia gained its nationhood.
It was then that the Royal Navy, of which we were eventually to become a part, grew into the silent policeman of the world, for throughout history Great Britain and later her Empire depended on the command of the sea for her survival, prosperity and well being.
As youngsters most of us accepted this unthinkingly and the Navy and British seapower were taken for granted.
We didn’t doubt that “Britannia Ruled the Waves”, unchallenged!
As a result, here we are today speaking English and not French, and flying the flag of our choosing instead of a republican tricolour.
That proposition was a much closer run thing than most people recognise.
However, I hasten to add that we should not allow our observation and indeed commemoration, of Trafalgar Day to stop there, without recalling that 139 years, almost to the day, after the battle of Trafalgar, the greatest sea battle the world had ever known was being fought. But this battle, which in reality was a conjunction of a number of engagements, lasted not 3 hours – but 8 days.
As with Trafalgar the outcome was to alter the course of history and whereas Trafalgar saw 60 major sailing vessels engaged; 27 British and 33 Franco/Spanish, totalling 4778, guns; the companion battle involved 40 aircraft carriers, 19 battleships and many other classes of ships, including 12 Australian, totalling nearly 300 altogether.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf!!…fought between the 17th and 25th October 1944 (there will be some at the table today who participated in that battle).
The enemy lost 500 aircraft, 3 battleships, 4 carriers, 10 cruisers, 11 destroyers and a submarine. The Allies’ losses were 200 aircraft, 3 light carriers, and 4 destroyers.
I will not enlarge on this mammoth sea battle, but I do believe, that in future, we should do honour to those engaged in that monumental conflict and observe a Leyte Day, as we do with Trafalgar.
We are told comparisons are odious, but if we scan the Perth Street Directory we will find 15 Streets, Roads, Avenues, Gardens etc., all named after Trafalgar, Nelson or Victory – but not a speck identifies a battle very prominent in importance to Australasia’s history, and at that time to its survival.
Further reference to a map of Australia provides us with one “Trafalgar” and two “Nelsons”… but not a `Leyte’ in sight!
As someone once said, “We are a weird mob”.
So if I may end on a note on which I began, we are sitting here today because at one time or another all of us have been touched by that long finger of Admiralty, the finger which is quick to admonish but equally swift to reward; a finger which for 192 years has reminded us of Trafalgar and of Nelson; a finger which reaches into almost every corner of the world and in so doing has the power of uniting people who have had the good fortune to serve their countries in grey funnel ships, as Sailors and Marines; in every part of the globe, in ships wearing one of the family of white, and in some instances, red and blue ensigns.
Perhaps then, after all – this is the Nelson Touch?