Battles and brandy
December 7, 2005 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
For those who even stop to think of them, these battles are not even memories; they have moved up to the higher slopes of myth. Yet myths shape nations, just as a nation’s response to a long-resolved battle often says something about the state of that nation.
The battles in question took place almost exactly two hundred years ago. Each was a famous victory and, after each victory, sweeping claims were made about its impact on the future of a continent and the world.
The first of these epic struggles took place at sea. It was off the Cape of Trafalgar, the greatest and last victory of Horatio Lord Nelson. On October 21, 1805 the British fleet surprised the combined French and Spanish fleets and all but destroyed them. Twenty-two of the thirty-one French and Spanish ships were sunk or damaged. The British did not lose a vessel, despite Nelson’ s revolutionary tactic of driving directly at the enemy, thus exposing his ships to raking fire without being able to return it right away. But as the British ships passed between the enemy ones their broadside guns opened up and wreaked havoc.
What the British did lose was their leader, Nelson himself, picked off by a French sharpshooter who could not fail to notice the officer standing on the deck of his ship, the Victory, decked out in all his admiral’s finery. He was carried below, grievously wounded but clinging to life long enough to learn of his fleet’s complete triumph.
Barely seven weeks later on December 2, in a mighty land battle, the pendulum in the long European war touched off by the French Revolution appeared to swing the other way. This took place at Austerlitz, just down the road from Vienna on a patch of land now situated in the Czech Republic. The bloody encounter was called the Battle of the Three Emperors. On the one hand stood Napoléon, self-crowned just three years earlier. On the other were the emperors of Austria and Russia. They led a combined force of 90,000 men; they held the high ground. Napoléon’s army had 70,000 men. Yet when the fog of battle, and the real fog of weather, had lifted, it was to reveal a triumphant French army. Napoléon had feinted a retreat, drawing the enemy troops off the high ground in pursuit. They rushed into the fog and when they emerged, they discovered French troops on the heights they had left. The French proceeded to chop them up, leaving 20,000 Russian and Austrian dead on the field.
This, by most accounts including Napoléon’s, was the French general’s greatest victory. Napoléon was convinced that Austerlitz would change the map, and the destiny, of Europe for ever. Trafalgar, he thought, was an ‘irrelevance’.
Both men who led their forces to victory were charismatic; they were also early masters in the art of public relations. Napoléon quite literally wrote his own press releases. In those days they were called battle reports. Not surprisingly, his genius was never obscured in these missives to the public.
Nelson also had almost perfect pitch in choosing the right words or the right gesture. "England expects that every man will do his duty": was his. He sent the signal to his fleet on the eve of battle. "Kiss me, Hardy": the deathbed goodbye to his close friend and captain of the Victory, was his. "Not over the side, Hardy": was also his. He was fixed on his reputation, even after death. He wanted his body not to be consigned to the sea but to be taken back to Britain. And so it was – in a barrel of brandy.
The result was a state funeral that drew tens of thousands into the streets and along the banks of the Thames to watch the funeral barge move up the river to St. Paul’s cathedral.
It was an early example of death as a good career move.
Napoléon, in contrast, went on to fight other battles. His victory that would change the destiny of Europe forever was washed away just nine years later when he was defeated at Waterloo.
Two hundred years on, the battles were marked in very different ways in Britain and France. Trafalgar, in the land of Nelson, is portrayed as the beginning of a century of British imperial hegemony, thanks to its control of the seas. The anniversary was the occasion for a months-long orgy of books, television and radio programs, naval displays, bell-ringing and beacon-lighting. It concluded with a state dinner in the captain’s cabin of the Victory, attended by the Queen. The menu? Roast beef, washed down with French and Spanish wines. "Nelson is still our darling" was the headline over one newspaper article.
Not so Bonaparte, across the channel. His greatest military victory came and went, almost unmarked. There was a discreet 'son et lumière' on the night but neither France’s president nor its prime minister, who is known to be a Napoléon admirer, was there. A huge commemorative exhibition, planned for the country’s military museum, was cancelled for lack of funds.
Yet Napoléon has been for decades, and remains, an iconic figure in France. The muted marking of his great triumph may say more about the French political and military elite and their confusion and dispiritedness. The French president, Jacques Chirac, is an old leader, 10 years in power. His presidency is being crowned with failure. His referendum on a new European constitution ended with the voters offering him a loud ‘no’. Young North Africans and blacks in Paris’s suburbs rose up and rioted and his government seemed stunned and powerless. For more than a decade roughly 10 per cent of the working population has been unemployed. The French mode is tired and sputtering. There may simply not have been much appetite for celebrating a swaggering military leader who sought to impose an earlier French model on Europe through force.
Never mind. Four thousand people did turn up in the snow to re-enact the battle of Austerlitz. Most of them were Czech, many were German. ‘Napoléon’ himself was…American.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Nelson, or at least his glowing reputation, lives. When news first reached London of his victory, the prime minister, William Pitt, said: "England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example."
Pitt’s exertions included three bottles of port a day; he scarcely survived his admiral. Binge drinking remains a British pastime. So does offering the country as an example for Europe to follow. Margaret Thatcher did it, so does Tony Blair.
Two battles, two victories, two myths. Vive la différence.