October 21, 1805 –
The social order of the western world hung in the balance.
Britannia’s mighty empire hailed its heritage of Magna Carta, Parliamentary rule, and “God and my right” in the face of a revolutionary invader. The war coffers of her far-flung realms were strained to the breaking point by the horrors of war on the continent of Europe. But now, the enemy was crossing the narrow channel that had been her natural defense since the invasion of William the Conqueror seven centuries before.
Napoleon was coming.
The War of the Third Coalition was a final, many at the time said desperate, attempt to stop the spread of revolution and chaos that was sweeping Europe one kingdom at a time. What hung in the balance was no mere geopolitical chess game. It was the survival of civilization as they knew it.
The French Revolution had begun decades earlier when Charlemagne’s ancient kingdom of France came face to face with the inevitable consequence of its centuries-long course. The Bourbon Dynasty’s refusal to change its political institutions, reform its economy, or otherwise adapt to the new ideas of liberty or equality made this breaking point a foregone conclusion.
When chaos erupted across the countryside of France and beyond, its mantra was liberty, as progressive movements to the present day have begun.
But from the chaos, a demagogue emerged to capture the imaginations of millions unaccustomed to their new freedom with ambitions of eternal grandeur.
Napoleon Bonaparte promised freedom at first, safety when he was established, and, finally, empire for its own sake.
The Holy Alliance pitted the non-revolutionary peoples of western civilization against the conflagration, only to find themselves devastated by the tactical brilliance of the emperor. Britain’s economy was strained beyond any wartime expenditure in its long history. The colonial empire could hardly sustain the sacrifices that His Majesty’s government asked of the taxpayers.
Napoleon, emboldened by the success of his earlier conquests, reached higher still. He built a navy to contend with the fleet that had commanded the oceans since Elizabeth I led her country to victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Now, facing near-certain doom if the Emperor crossed the channel successfully, Admiral Horatio Nelson commanded 27 ships of the line against a combined French and Spanish fleet of 33. The numbers were against the Royal Navy, as was the history of her unsuccessful wars against Napoleon.
Nelson’s last message to the fleet was simple. Encoded in the signal banners of his flagship, the message came down:
“England expects every man to do his duty.”
In those waters off the coast of Europe, Admiral Nelson rolled the dice of a nation on a risky strategy. He broke from the conventional wisdom of confronting the enemy on their own terms and singling off to exchange broadsides ship-by-ship. Instead, he split his fleet into two columns and hit the opposing ships of the line perpendicular to their formation, knowing that a misfortune in battle would cost Britain her freedom.
As smoke obstructed the scene of the battle, a sniper took aim aloft in a French vessel and fired. Admiral Nelson fell to the deck with a musket ball through his chest. Shortly after news of the victory resounded across the British fleet, he laid his life upon the altar of his country.
Admiral Nelson’s sacrifice on this day in history marked a turning point in the war against Napoleon, and we can always remember the cost of the freedom won through stopping the advance of tyranny.