Sunday, 26 January 2014

Battle of the Nile

The sad  news that the closure of the Portsmouth Dockyards will end 500 years of naval ship building coincides as  a major exhibition on Admiral Lord Nelson opens at the Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The exhibition presents the legendary deeds of  Britain’s greatest and most charismatic  military leader.

Horatio Nelson achieved national prominence firstly with his daring exploits during the Battle of St Vincent in 1797 when the Royal Navy squadron was under the command of Admiral John Jervis of Meaford near Stone(  Given that the county is land locked, Staffordshire has produced great naval officers of the stature of Jervis, Anson and Gardner). But Nelson’s international fame was firmly cemented at the Battle of the Nile of August 1798 when he led the fleet against a larger French force supporting Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Showing audacious leadership his fleet annihilated the French culminating in the flagship, L’Orient   exploding killing the French commander Brueys and all but one hundred of the ship’s crew.

The immediate result of the battle was the collapse of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the lifting of any threat to Britain’s control of India. Napoleon abandoned his army to its fate and returned to France.

 The battle cost Nelson 218 killed and 677 wounded, while the French suffered around 1,700 killed, 600 wounded, and 3,000 captured. During the battle, Nelson was wounded in the forehead, exposing his skull. Despite bleeding profusely, he refused preferential treatment and insisted on waiting his turn while other wounded sailors were treated before him.

News of the victory reached Staffordshire in November where the news was greeted euphorically in Cheadle.

The Staffordshire Advertiser reported of “the rising spirit and the glowing ardour of this little but loyal town, a procession of many hundreds of the inhabitants carrying lighted torches and emblematic devices of victory marched through Cheadle escorting the post”. The crowd enjoyed a roasted sheep washed down by large amounts of “stout old October” finishing the hilarity of this festive evening”.

Elsewhere the crushing victory was celebrated on the highest hills of the district. On top of Thorpe Cloud on the 29th November 1798 a sheep was roasted and a large bonfire lit, “a considerable quantity of ale was given by Hugh Bateman of Ilam to above 100 persons assembled there from neighbouring villages terminating the thanksgiving of the day on the summit by repeated toasts to the health of Lord Nelson and to the continued success of His Majesty’s arms”.

Wonderfully, the “Advertiser” ended its report with the words “it is the transcendent glory of this island alone, to shine with the lustre of a superior planet amidst the dim horizon of political darkness”

Now, as then, the Royal Navy has a special place in the hearts of this island nation.