Trafalgar Day

Trafalgar Day is held annually on 21 October to commemorate the victory won by the Royal Navy, commanded by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. The formation of the Navy League in 1894 gave added impetus to the movement to recognise Nelson’s legacy, and grand celebrations were held in Trafalgar Square on Trafalgar Day, 1896. It was commemorated by parades, dinners and other events throughout much of the British Empire in the 19th century and early 20th century. It continues to be celebrated by navies of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Its public celebration declined after the end of World War I in 1918. The massive casualties and upheaval had changed the general public perception of war as a source of glorious victories to a more sombre view of it as a tragedy, for which the newly instituted Armistice Day on 11 November was created. However, Trafalgar Day was still marked as a public day each year. Around 1993, it was rumoured that John Major’s government might make it a public holiday in place of May Day, and this plan has been revived in the 2011 Tourism Strategy created by the current coalition government. The year 2005 was the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Royal Navy led Trafalgar 200 celebrations. The 2005 International Fleet Review held off Spithead in the Solent on 28 June was the first since 1999 and the largest since Her Majesty The Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee. Sea Cadets of the United Kingdom also celebrate this day usually with a parade of a town.

In Birmingham, the anniversary is celebrated by a ceremony at the statue of Lord Nelson in the Bull Ring. The statue is the oldest statue to Lord Nelson in the United Kingdom. The ceremony is led by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and involves men and women of HMS Forward, Sea Cadet Units from across the West Midlands and various civic organisations including The Nelson Society and The Birmingham Civic Society. Afterwards there is a wreath laying by naval and civic organisations and a parade marches off to Victoria Square, the public square in front of the seat of local government, where the Lord Mayor takes the salute. the statue is also regaled with swags of laurel and flowers, possibly due to its location by the wholesale flower markets of the city. This tradition was carried on throughout most of the nineteenth century and was revived in 2004.

In Edinburgh, the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill was built in memory of Admiral Lord Nelson. Weather permitting, the Trafalgar flag signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ is flown on Trafalgar Day. Looking like a tall stone telescope, the Nelson Monument contains a time ball which drops at 1 o’clock daily. In Gibraltar, the Trafalgar Day service is held at the Trafalgar Cemetery where the senior Naval Commander reads an extract from the Gibraltar Chronicle Newspaper, the first periodical to report on the Battle. Some sailors who died of wounds received in Trafalgar whilst in Gibraltar are buried there, while HMS Victory, with Nelson’s body onboard, was repaired in Gibraltar prior to sailing for Britain.

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