Chief Navy Chaplain reflects on Battle of Trafalgar

 I was asked recently if there was a Catholic connection to the Battle of Trafalgar. I suggested wryly that the only real connection I saw was that most of the Catholics that day fought on the losing side! The Britain of 1805 was not particularly fond of Catholics. Barely tolerated they were treated with deep suspicion. Recruiting posters of the time listed the pope among the nation's traditional enemies, the French and Spanish. Hostile climate or not, British Catholics like everyone else feared the horrors of an imminent and bloody invasion by Napoleon's army much more. The British Fleet composed of twenty-three ships under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson met the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Royal Navy ships, formed in two lines, sailed directly towards the enemy thus bringing the whole of their strength to bear on the centre and rear of the enemy fleet of thirty-three ships. Leading one column HMS VICTORY cut through French and Spanish ships guns ablaze. The fighting was fierce and determined on both sides. By four o,clock it was over. Seventeen enemy ships had been taken, and one had caught fire and blown up. The French commander, Admiral Villeneuve was a prisoner. British casualties amounted to 1,678 officers and men killed and wounded. French and Spanish casualties were six times that number. Rejoicing in Britain quickly turned to mourning as the news that Lord Nelson, the architect of the victory, was dead. One hour into the battle Nelson was struck on his left shoulder by a musket fired from the mizzen top of the French REDOUBTABLE; the bullet penetrated to his spine and he died at about half past four in the afternoon aware that he had gained a great victory. His body was taken first to Gibraltar and then to London where it lay in state at Greenwich. Huge crowds lined the streets and along the Thames as the elaborate cortege came to St Paul's Cathedral for the funeral and burial. The rest is history. Napoleon would finally be defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and Britain would dominate the seas for over a hundred years. Thirteen Chaplains served in Royal Navy ships at Trafalgar. The Reverend Alexander John Scott was chaplain in HMS VICTORY. A chaplain's station during a battle was in the cockpit, deep below deck. There the scene would have been indescribable. Men cut down by shot and splinters were brought screaming below. Busy surgeons, working in the half light of lanterns amputated injured limbs and treated injuries with no anaesthetic other than rum. Through it all the chaplain moved from man to man bringing comfort and a prayer. Nelson too was brought to this place and implored Scott to pray for him as he lay dying. The scene is immortalised in the now famous tableau of his death. For many years I too served as a chaplain working mainly in Type 42 Destroyers. In these ships there is little comfort and no privacy. You are there for two hundred and eighty or so men and women most of them aged around twenty. As the weeks go by you get to know people very well and they you. You provide Church Services, you undertake small tasks, you contribute to the life of the ship. In the evenings you visit the Mess Decks. There with a tin of beer (sailors are hospitable) in your hand you watch a video for an hour or two with young marine mechanics or chefs or whoever. A Commanding Officer once said of his chaplain (not me!) "I don,t quite know what he did but when he left we noticed the difference. Over the centuries the navy has learned the value of providing spiritual care for its people placed in harm's way. Today chaplains of all denominations, including Catholic, follow in the footsteps of Alexander Scott and the hundreds of naval chaplains who have gone before them. They share the same dangers and perils of the sea, as their people serving as friend and advisor to all on board,. On the morning of 21 October I am due to attend an Act of Remembrance at Nelson's tomb in the crypt of St Paul,s. In the evening I will be on board HMS VICTORY at Portsmouth for a Trafalgar Night Dinner. In all parts of the navy similar Services and Mess Dinners will be held as indeed they are each year. A toast to the immortal memory, will be drunk and speeches will recall Nelson,s great victory. Parallels with the celebration of a saint's day are close. Though far from perfect Nelson has become a secular saint honoured and venerated by his Service and nation through annual rituals. Nelson himself though was a deeply spiritual man who knew the power of prayer. Before Trafalgar he prayed: May the great good God whom I worship, grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature of the British Fleet. For myself individually, I commit my life to him that made me, and may his blessing alight on my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.

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