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Old enemies together: Trafalgar remembered

After the pageantry of a summer sailpast at Portsmouth, followed by a re-enactment of Nelson’s funeral on the River Thames, British, Spanish and French vessels will gather on Spain’s southwest coast on Friday for the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar.

All three countries involved in the epic battle, which shattered Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans to invade Britain, have participated in a range of events in recent months as the anniversary has drawn ever closer and ships from all three nations will attend ceremonies off Cape Trafalgar. Trafalgar mania has spread worldwide, as far afield as Darling Harbour in Australia to Newport News, Virginia, which will host a museum celebration of British Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

The battle itself has thrilled professional and amateur historians alike across generations but Nelson’s role has gripped the public imagination since Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere brought ashore the original dispatch of what had happened, bearing news of his demise at the hands of a French sniper on the first day of the conflict.

The Battle of Trafalgar ended the threat of invasion by France and established British naval supremacy for the next century. Britain did not lose a single one of its 27 battleships, though 449 of its 17,000-strong force were killed — including Nelson himself — and some 1,200 wounded, while 18 out of 33 opposing vessels were destroyed.

French fatalities topped 3,000 and Spanish losses more than 1,000 with combined injured of around 1,600.

In death Nelson became glorified as one of Britain’s greatest national heroes and a giant column topped with his statue forms the centrepiece of London’s central Trafalgar Square.

At Friday’s commemoration, which will see wreaths laid at sea on the site of the battle, Spain will be represented by two vessels, including the Prince of Asturias battleship, while HMS Chatham will be there for the British contingent and the Montcalm frigate will give France a presence.

For the Spanish this week’s events are a commemoration, rather than a celebration. “It’s very good the French and the Spanish are very involved,” senior British diplomatic sources said as the delegations headed for the port of Cadiz and on to the Cape.

Spanish defence minister Jose Bono will preside over a military parade prior to the wreath-laying some 12 miles off the shoreline. Descendents of the three leaders have been invited to the gathering of some 450 people.

HMS Victory was built in Chatham and Chatham is additionally twinned with Cadiz, British naval sources said, explaining the choice of British boat to attend.

An ecumenical service is to be held at Cadiz Cathedral with a naval sail past parade scheduled for Saturday.

“Spain has taken the lead in organising this event,” British ambassador to Spain Stephen Wright revealed. “I am quite proud that the three navies of the three countries will be celebrating the commemoration of that great event.

“It will be a moving reaffirmation of fellowship at sea.” Wright described Nelson, whose exploits paved the way for a century of British supremacy at sea, as “the epitome of everything good about a military commander.

He had bravery, humanity and leadership, as well as professional skill.” The Spanish bitterly criticised the decision by French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve to sail from Cadiz to engage the British in poor conditions with Napoleon impatient for battle to commence — against the advice of Spanish commander Admiral Federico de Gravina.

In his work Cabo Trafalgar, novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte sees the Spanish bid to achieve reflected glory alongside the French as doomed from the outset.

“The Spanish knew it would be a defeat — they made a hopeless, but defiant stand,” wrote Reverte.

He said the political climate of the age did not favour the Spanish