The Battle of Trafalgar holds a special place in British history. The victory of 21st October 1805 is wound into the fabric of the nation: visitors to central London cannot help but awe at Nelson’s column and the surrounding square built in honour of his greatest achievement.
The importance of the Battle and the manner of the victory also holds a special place in the minds of British naval officers, for whom Trafalgar Day remains a source of pride and a connection with their service’s glorious past. This was true as much a century ago as it is today, particularly for one of the titans of the Edwardian Navy: Admiral Sir John Fisher.
Familiar to history for his ‘ruthless, relentless, remorseless’ reform of the Royal Navy and his championing of new weapons such as the submarine and HMS Dreadnought, Fisher was also acutely aware of the tradition in which he followed. He was fond of reminding friends and colleagues that he had been nominated as a candidate for entry to the Navy by Admiral Sir William Parker – the last officer to have been a captain under Nelson himself. This sense of history led Fisher to ensure that, when he learned that he would assume the office of First Sea Lord in the autumn of 1904, the date of his appointment was made for October 21st. Fisher relished this connection with the past, writing to supporters in anticipation of ‘our opening day on Trafalgar day’.
It is often remarked that Fisher was not a fighting Admiral – he last saw combat in 1882 during the siege of Alexandria and, despite a string of fleet commands, never led a force into battle. Yet his administration of the Admiralty began with an incident that very nearly pitched the Navy and the country into war, and one which will witness an uncomfortable parallel this week.
The year 1904 was one of rapid change in the international scene. After decades of tensions, Britain and France has signed the Entente Cordiale in April, bringing to a close twenty years of animosity and suspicion between the two in the colonial sphere. This rapprochement was threatened from the outset, however, by a war between Britain and France’s respective allies in Asia: Japan and Russia. The two Asian powers had been embroiled in a conflict for regional supremacy since February 1904, during which time London and Paris had worked hard to avoid being drawn in to the fighting in honour of their alliance commitments (to Tokyo and St. Petersburg respectively). This uneasy state of affairs was put to the test the day after Fisher arrived at the Admiralty, when Russian attempts to reinforce their faltering Pacific Fleet precipitated a crisis in the North Sea.
The Russians had faired poorly in the Far East during the course of 1904. The Japanese had caught the Tsar’s Pacific Fleet at anchor at Port Arthur and disabled several capital ships with a surprise torpedo attack in February, whereafter the Russian’s had struggled to regain the initiative against a modern, effective adversary. In an effort to redress the balance, Tsar Nicholas II dispatched his Baltic Fleet on the long journey to reinforce the beleagured Russian squadron in the east. British naval intelligence had long been sceptical as to the Russian Fleet’s efficiency, discipline, and fighting capacity, but the passage of the squadron through British waters remained a source of diplomatic tension. Relations between Britain and Russia had been strained for over a decade as the Tsar’s forces agitated along the North-West Frontier of India and the government was in no mind to aid the Russian passage. The British Fleet was thus on high alert as the Russian’s made their journey south towards the Channel.
The detail of what followed remains unclear, but it appears that the jittery Russian crews mistook a crowd of British fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank for a swarm of hostile torpedo boats and, fearful of the fate which had befallen their comrades in the Pacific, opened fire. The result was chaos. Russian ships fired upon each other, reported phantom torpedo hits, and let loose hundreds of shells at the unsuspecting fishermen. That none of the fishing vessels were sunk bore testament to the accuracy of naval intelligence’s appreciation of the Russian’s fighting capabilities, but at a time of great international uncertainty the affair very nearly escalated into a major crisis. The British Prime Minister, Arthur Baflour, was incandescent and initially inclined to unleash the might of the combined British Fleets upon the unsuspecting Russians. Admiral Fisher reported to his wife that ‘it has very nearly been war again. Very near indeed…’ The Russians obdurately refused to accept responsibility, Balfour’s brother lamenting ‘their inveterate habit of trying to take back in detail what they have conceded in the gross’. This intransigence obliged the British, who were unwilling start a war over the episode, to concede to international arbitration over the issue. In the meantime, the government closed the Suez Canal to the Russian ships, forcing them to take the Cape route to Port Arthur. The delay only postponed their fate: the Russian fleet suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese victory was so complete that the Admiralty larconically described it as ‘equivalent to Trafalgar.’
A little over two centuries since Nelson triumphed over the Franco-Spanish Fleet and some 112 years after Britain and Russia almost went to war over the Dogger Bank incident, Russian warships will again visit British waters this week. The venerable Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a number of escorts departed from Severomorsk and ports in the Baltic late last week, bound for the eastern Mediterranean. The Royal Navy and its NATO partners are preparing to escort the Russian armada on its highly provocative passage through the English Channel, which may indeed occur on the anniversary of Trafalgar itself.
HMS Dragon with Russian Aircraft Carrier ‘Admiral Kuzetsov’ in 2014 via flickr.
The US are also keeping a close eye on the Russian flagship, not least due to the risk of her long-running history of mechanical problems resulting in her needing assistance during her voyage. Fishermen in the vicinity of the Dogger Bank may also be advised to keep a weather eye on the Russian ships, if history is any guide.
The Kuznetsov will add relatively little to Russian military capability in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts on Russian military affairs highlight the chronic shortage of pilots trained to operate from her and point out that her lack of catapult launchers will preclude planes taking off with a full payload of weapons. A tacit acknowledgement of her ongoing shortcomings is the fact that she will undergo a full refit upon return from the deployment in 2017.
Nevertheless, her deployment reminds us that, as Hew Strachan commented, ‘geography provides strategy with an underlying continuity.’ Britain’s position off the north-west coast of Europe means places her, as it has done for centuries, astride the key lines of maritime communication between Europe and the rest of the world. Just as she acted as a ‘breakwater’ obstructing German ambitions to world power in Admiral Fisher’s era, geography and capability make her the European country best placed to patrol NATO’s maritime flank in the event of Russian hostility. Her will to accept this role is less clear. With the arrival of the new aircraft carriers drawing closer these are exciting times for the Royal Navy, but the government has still yet to answer the vexed question of how many escorts will accompany them. Without the necessary support, the carriers may indeed become ‘exquisite capabilities’ or worse, critical vulnerabilities for an over-stretched Fleet.
The Russian’s will demonstrate the symbolic value of a carrier when they pass through the Straits of Dover this week. Nelson, Fisher, and today’s Royal Navy will be hoping that the Queen Elizabeths will afford Britain both prestige and military power.
Image: Lord Nelson atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square via wikimedia commons.