Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A killing machine

"Will you see the Victory?" everyone asks.

A trip to Portsmouth is unthinkable, it seems, without a visit to the historic dockyard. So we went to the dockyard. I found money-off vouchers at the tourist information office and bought annual season tickets, which meant that we could spread our visits out over the week.

The Victory came first.

In traditional British history, HMS Victory is iconic - the flagship where Nelson died while leading the British fleet to victory over the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar. I'm of the generation that can quote Nelson's phrases: "England expects every man to do his duty" - his message to the fleet before the battle, and "Kiss me, Hardy" - his final words. (The respectable version says that his last words were, "Thank God I have done my duty" - perhaps that version is true.) I also recall that Nelson left his beautiful mistress, Emma, Lady Hamilton, as a "bequest to the nation". The nation, as usual, averted its eyes from this evidence of Nelson's scandalous misbehaviour and Emma Hamilton died as she was born, in poverty. The nation was more concerned in the return of Nelson's body in a cask of brandy to St Paul's Cathedral where, after a period of laying in state, public mourning and processions, it was buried. It's still hard to escape Nelson memorials - the most famous if Trafalgar Square in London, where a stone Nelson stands high on his column.

The romance of Nelson takes over from the reality - the small sailor, blind in one eye, with one arm amputated, never free of seasickness. The glamour cheered Britain in later wars - Winston Churchill was a fan of the 1941 Alexander Korda film Lady Hamilton in which Laurence Olivier played Nelson and Vivien Leigh was Emma.

Visiting the Victory took me away from the myth - to some degree at least, although the decks are scrubbed and the cannon shine. The ship seems spacious - big enough to take 200 tourists at once - but its full crew was 850 men. Much was made in my school history lessons of the opportunities for advancement offered by the navy - and there were certainly chances for the midshipmen who joined at the age of 11 or 12 from their middle-class families. But midshipmen had it easy compared with the common seamen who were often taken by the press gang. These took turns to sleep in hammocks between the cannon and were punished by brutal naval discipline if they broke any minor rule.

The Victory, like all warships, was a machine for killing people. But it maintained class distinctions. The captain's cabin was lavishly furnished and he had special supplies - as did other officers. The men had no space that was their own. They were fed and provided with water so that they could, when necessary, play their part. Each cannon needed 10 or 12 or 14 men to load and fire it. Cannon balls had to be stored carefully and gunpowder was sealed away in barrels. A single rat getting into the gunpowder could cause a spark that would destroy an entire wooden ship.

The ship is kept clean and tidy for tourists. But I was reminded of battle by a notice which drew attention to the role of the ship's carpenters. During battle, a corridor was kept free for them so that they could run up and down the side of the ship, stopping the holes torn by cannon balls.

57 men on the Victory were killed at the Battle of Trafalgar or died of their wounds shortly after. 102 further men were wounded. They came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and eighteen other nations. For most of them the Victory must have been entirely unromantic - the place where they worked. The sea stopped them escaping from their workplace. And most of the corpses were slid overboard before the Victory returned with Nelson's body. And of all those killed in battle, Nelson's is the only name I know.


Yvonne said...

Yes, the reality of warships was not romantic at all. In fact the pirate ships were the best, because they were more egalitarian and democratic. And slave-ships were the worst, unsurprisingly.

Nelson was a nasty piece of work who doesn't deserve the adulation he gets. At the siege of Naples he promised safe conduct to any rebels who surrendered, and then hanged them anyway, "pour encourager les autres" (this is the origin of that phrase).

Mike said...

I think attributing pour encourager les autres to Nelson is probably incorrect. I think most people are referring to Candide (Voltaire 1759) Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres, which is a comment on the execution of admiral Byng in 1757 for failing to do his utmost in engaging the enemy. Being and admiral had its drawbacks too.

Always amazes me how cosmopolitan the crew of HMS Victory were: there were even French crew members in the battle of Trafalgar.

It's remarkable too how little time warships actually spent in battle: I seem to remember HMS Victory spent about three days fighting during its 34 year service life.