Episodes: Trafalgar and L’Aigle

Certain moments where, depending on which side you support, either the heroism or depravity of human tenacity shines through.

One such moment was during the Battle of Trafalgar. One of the largest clashes of sailing ships ever, anyone who knows anything of that era knows that Trafalgar was a resounding victory for Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. His orders were simple: sail closer and engage, with special reliance placed on superior seamanship and gunnery. Clearly it worked. Of 33 Spanish and French ships that Nelson engaged (while outnumbered by a significant margin), 19 were either sunk or captured.

Each captain mostly fought on his own as Nelson was a firm believer in his men, and rightly thought that a well trained and experienced set of captains working within a larger scheme could better judge and evaluate each situation. The captain of the HMS Defiance believed that the French Ship-of-the-Line L’Aigle had surrendered; he was wrong.

With all small boats on board disabled and believing that all they had to do was occupy the large French vessel, the boarding party swam the intervening distance and boarded. When they realized their mistake it was too late to turn back, so this small crew took on the larger ship while the gunners continued to pound the Aigle until it truly did surrender.

Now this would not be exceptional in that the distance was not far and these men could literally spend months or even years shipboard, but they did so in the midst of a huge battle, one in which massive firing platforms with hundreds of times the artillery of any army of the day were pounding away at each other. And the target had them outnumbered.

This is but one moment amidst one of the greatest naval battles in history, and entirely separate from another moment where arguably the greatest admiral ever to sail died, yet it shows something about people. Imagine for a moment that you are one of the British sailors. At first you approach the French and Spanish fleet perpendicularly and they begin firing before you are able to respond; the roar of cannon and splashes from the cannon balls hitting the water is nerve-wracking, but does not actually deal much damage. As you approach the line, the entire ship rocks as you launch broadside after broadside into the enemy with devastating effect. At this point they are able to respond and deal some damage, but most is done on the first broadside, theirs long expired and yours just sent into their ships. It turns into a slogging match and suddenly your captain chooses sailors to swim over to the enemy, large with boarding hooks, daggers, and swords, since while swimming it will be impossible to keep powder dry.

You hit the water and there is a comparative still after the constant motion on the deck of the ship. Knowing your target, you start swimming and then climb up the side of the ship. It is then that you discover that the enemy did not surrender, but in fact you are fighting tooth and nail, while your comrades still on your ship launch more cannon shot into it. Imagine the relief you feel when the enemy does actually surrender.

Then take a step back and imagine the absurdity yet basic pragmatism of this situation. Surrender was not an option, especially since they were winning the battle and the French probably would have just killed them; leaping back into the water would have been cowardice and they still could have drowned or been crushed by one of the massive boats. No, their options boiled down to kill or be killed and so this small crew, from the outnumbered fleet, on the enemy vessel their own was still pummeling fought.

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