From Trafalgar to Afghanistan - the Royal Navy compares then and now

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

As a ceremony took place this morning on HMS Victory to mark the 205th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the most important day in the Royal Navy's calendar, thoughts were spared for the modern day descendants of Trafalgar as they fight new threats in Afghanistan.

21 October is the anniversary of the most decisive naval battle under sail in British history - Admiral Lord Nelson’s triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The anniversary also marks the death of Nelson after he was fatally wounded during the action.

The hoisting of the Colours (Union Jack and White Ensign) and Nelson’s signal ‘England Expects’ marked the start of the commemoration on HMS Victory.

The central act of the commemoration was the laying of wreaths on the spot where Nelson died, one of which was placed by the Second Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command, Vice Admiral Charles Montgomery.

As well as commemorating this great victory the day is an opportunity to reflect on the history of the Royal Navy, and three Royal Naval personnel currently serving in Afghanistan have compared their jobs with their predecessors who served aboard Admiral Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, 205 years ago.

The Royal Marine

Captain Stu McLaren, from Bristol, joined the Royal Marines in 2002. He first deployed to Afghanistan on Op HERRICK 9 in September 2008, working in security sector reform around Helmand province, and served with 40 Commando in 2003/04 in Iraq.

He now works in the Defence Media Ops Centre at RAF Halton and has recently returned to Afghanistan to work as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in their media cell, planning and hosting journalists’ visits.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams are at the heart of NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan. They embody a joint military and civilian approach to stabilising Afghanistan and have the key tasks of supporting the extension of the authority of the Afghan central government, supporting reform of the security sector, and facilitating development and reconstruction.

Captain McLaren’s job is rather different to that of Captain Charles Adair, who was the commander of HMS Victory’s detachment of Royal Marines in 1805.

The Royal Marines’ duties onboard HMS Victory included guarding the ship’s powder magazines and spirit stores as well as taking part in shore raiding.

They were often positioned in the crow’s nests to fire upon the decks of enemy ships; however, this practice made Nelson nervous and he refused to allow it under his command as he was concerned that the sparks from their muskets would set the canvas sails on fire.

Nelson also believed this was a murderous practice which could never decide the fate of a general engagement.

Captain Adair behaved with great gallantry during the Battle of Trafalgar, standing on the gangway encouraging his men to repel boarders from the French ship Redoutable which was close alongside. He was eventually killed by a musket ball in the back of his neck.

Captain McLaren said:

This shows just how much we have evolved in the last two centuries. At Trafalgar the Royal Marines were sea-based soldiers and, although they were very good at it, it was all they did.

In the modern day, the Royal Marines remain one of the UK’s elite fighting forces, though now personnel are trained and expected to be able to meet much more diverse tasks.

The Logistics Officer

Lieutenant Commander Rich Wild from Glasgow is a Logistics Officer and the Deputy Chief of Staff at Camp Bastion, the main UK base in Helmand province which is home to over 20,000 British, US and NATO troops and civilian personnel.

Bastion exists for one reason: to be the logistics hub for operations in Helmand. Supply convoys and armoured patrols regularly leave its heavily-defended gates. They support the military forward operating bases, patrol bases and checkpoints spread across Helmand province where UK and other ISAF troops are providing security for the local people and taking the fight to the Taliban.

A submariner by trade, this is Lt Cdr Wild’s first tour of Afghanistan. He provides the link in the headquarters for the personnel and logistics departments in Camp Bastion and is in charge of the infrastructure and the lead for contractor liaison with in excess of 3,000 civilian contractors living at the camp.

The purser (from which the modern nickname ‘pusser’ derives), or supply officer, onboard HMS Victory at Trafalgar was Walter Burke.

The oldest man present during the battle at 69, he is famously depicted in Arthur William Devis’ painting ‘The Death of Nelson’, holding the eponymous Admiral as he died.

Pursers were not commissioned and instead were warranted by the Admiralty, but did not require professional qualifications. They did however have to provide some kind of financial surety in order to put their integrity beyond question. Their duties were to oversee supply and issue of victuals, slops (clothes) and other consumables.

Lt Cdr Wild said of his own role in Afghanistan:

Being a submariner, this is completely different from anything I have done previously. I’ve been out here for two-and-a-half months and it just illustrates the flexibility of the Service and highlights the difference between the roles we are expected to undertake in the modern world and those which would have been expected at the start of the 19th century.

The Warfare Officer

Lieutenant Phil Chisholm is the mentor to the Head of Recruiting and Personnel in the Afghan National Police for Helmand province. His job includes daily trips to the police headquarters and the two Helmand training establishments, and regular visits to the districts to advise the Combined Forces, conduct recruiting shuras and check that pay is being correctly distributed.

British and other ISAF troops in Helmand province are supporting the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces through training and mentoring so that the Afghans can provide security for their own country without the need for British and other ISAF troops to be there.

205 years ago, Lieutenant John Quilliam was the First Lieutenant onboard HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. He became known as the man who steered HMS Victory at Trafalgar.

Following severe damage to the steering system, the ship had to be steered by means of a tiller from the gunroom. Lieutenant Quilliam took charge of the operation, and with tackles rigged to the tiller they were able to steer the ship.

Perhaps, unlike some in the Royal Navy, Lieutenant Chisholm’s usual job is not so radically different to what he might have been doing if he’d served 205 years ago. Before deploying to Afghanistan he was the senior officer of the watch onboard the new Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring. He said:

For the last seven years I have driven warships all over the world, from Antarctica to the Caribbean and home again, sometimes using astronavigation techniques which haven’t changed much since 1805.

Although now, he adds, things are different:

Now I find myself in a landlocked country 800 metres above sea level, helping to build a police force. It does not get much more different than that.