Today is Trafalgar Day, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805, in which the Royal Navy defeated the combined French and Spanish navy. In the battle, Nelson was killed, along with thousands of seamen and officers from both sides.
Last week we were revisiting Topsham, once an important port situated by the River Exe south of Exeter. Whenever we are travelling, we try to make time to look at some of the churches and churchyards that we pass. Often these have monuments dating back four or five centuries. If these were letters or other pieces of paper in a record office, they would be considered exceptionally rare, but as gravestones or church monuments, they are seldom noticed. You do not have to travel great distances, or look very far back in time, to find interesting monuments. Right on our doorstep at Topsham, we found a monument to a seaman who had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. At the 200th anniversary of the battle in 2005, many of these Trafalgar monuments, such as this one, were restored.
The inscription reads:
WHO WAS MANY YEARS
IN THE ROYAL NAVY
HAVING SERVED IN SEVERAL SHIPS
AND AS QUARTERMASTER
ON BOARD THE VICTORY
AT THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR
JAN. 2ND 1851
Thomas Randle did not originally intend to make a career in the Royal Navy. There was always a desperate need for recruits, and most men who wanted to join the navy at that time were signed up in their teenage years – some were only 10 or 11 years old. Thomas was forced into the navy by a press gang in London in May 1803 when he was 39 years old, by which time he was a settled married man. He was lucky to survive the Battle of Trafalgar and died decades later, in 1851. He is is buried alongside the wall of St Margaret’s Church in Topsham, within sight and sound of the changing tides in the estuary of the River Exe.
Today, the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo are hitting Britain. After the Battle of Trafalgar, many men were seriously injured or drowned because a terrible storm occurred that lasted several days. At the time it was called a hurricane, although meteorologists today call it a ‘cut-off low’. The storm worked its way up the Bay of Biscay and four days later it pounded the coast of Britain. One newspaper reported that at Plymouth , “The hurricane was so tremendous, and came in such sudden squalls and flits of wind, that many persons were carried off their legs.” The news of the battle had not yet reached the country, so while the storm was raging, nobody had any idea that a great battle had been fought, Nelson had been killed and the French were defeated.
Years later, the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, drawing on memories of the people of Dorset, summed up the storm in four lines of verse:
In the wild October night-time, when the wind raved round the land,
And the Back-sea met the Front-sea, and our doors were blocked with sand,
And we heard the drub of Dead-man’s Bay, where bones of thousands are,
We knew not what the day had done for us at Trafalgar.
The battle and the storm are described in Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle by Roy Adkins (Nelson’s Trafalgar in the US), available in paperback and as e-books. Raise a glass today not just to Nelson, but to all those who lost their lives and helped save lives.