Bob Harrison gallantly stood in, from the audience, replacing the absent speaker at January’s Glendale Local History Society’s meeting. Without aide-memoire, he introduced us to some aspects of the era of Admiral Lord Nelson and Napoleon.
We learnt thatfollowing the French Revolution, the French became aggressive and Napoleon, a master tactician, aimed to spread French influence throughout Europe, including the invasion of Britain, and thus create a French empire. At length, Admiral Nelson’s victory over the larger Franco-Spanish fleet at the decisive Battle of Trafalgar put an end to his plans for a French invasion of Britain and thus hastened the end of the long-fought Napoleonic Wars. This British victory was due to its superior naval force: our sailors were healthier and better fed, especially as the Admiralty had a better understanding of scurvy than the French. The sailors were better trained, with greater nautical and weaponry skills. Also, the development of flintlocks ─ a new canon-firing mechanism ─ made for a faster, more accurate use of these weapons. The advanced construction of British ships also proved superior to their opponents’. So too did Admiral Nelson’s successful tactics ─ aiming to break the opposition’s line of ships, causing them to disperse so that individual ships could be targeted and destroyed. Many prisoners were taken. Naval journals, log books and other records depict life on board warships.
We heard several extraordinary ‘Anecdotes from the Napoleonic Wars’. One such tale recorded how four English officers had managed to escape from captivity in France. While making their way across country in France, tired and hungry, they implored a local woman to help them ─ trying at first to persuade her that they were Dutch. In fact she recognised them as English as she had worked here. After four months being cared for in her attic they finally escaped and managed to return home. Twenty years later, one of these grateful men, having gained promotion, was able to return to France to seek out his benefactor. He found the town but was told the woman had died. After further investigation he finally found her – appearing as a bundle of rags, in a squalid room, lit by one candle, in the poor quarter of the town. Although nearly blind she spoke clearly, and after a conversation to cross reference facts, she named the four officers she had protected. The officer was able to tell her “It is Boyes!” one of the four she had named as having helped those many years previously! He repaid his debt by providing clothes and a financial allowance, plus money in trust should he pre-decease her.
Some women lived aboard, mainly wives of non-commissioned officers, and babies were born – traditionally between two canons. One baby, Sally Trunion, was cared for by fellow crew members and reared as if their own after her father was killed and her mother had died. When old enough, she was set ashore with £50 sewn into the hem of her dress!
Live animals were carried on board for food whilst at sea, but when entering battle the order to ‘Clear the decks!’ involved all livestock being thrown over-board. To this end an officer’s dog was accidentally thrown out too, but miraculously survived by being caught up in bow-head netting and, being rescued, it became the ship’s mascot thereafter.
Our speaker suggested that the Napoleonic Wars could classify as the true First World War (a century prior to the Great War of 1914-18) since it involved the major powers of Europe, North Africa, Russia and Scandinavia.
Many thanks to Bob for standing in at such short notice, and depicting an era for which the end came with the Battle of Waterloo ─ its 200th anniversary is this year.