It happened today - April 11, 2016
Well, first of all, as you can tell by the word Roads, it was a naval battle. And the word Basque is a tipoff that it wasn’t in Spain. It was in fact off the former Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle during the Napoleonic Wars. And Britain sort of won but not very.
The key action was a fireship attack on the French fleet. And it succeeded in driving all but two of the French ships aground. But in the next three days the British were unable to finish the French off, and they continued to operate out of the Basque Roads until the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
One British officer finished himself off. Captain Lord Cochrane, who led the fireship attack, accused commanding Admiral James Gambier of insufficient aggressive spirit. Gambier demanded and won a court-martial and his acquittal ended Cochrane’s naval career.
So what? Indeed. The battle is one of a great many such “on this day in history you fought where?” items that drives home for me George Macdonald Fraser’s observation in Quartered Safe Out Here that “the size and importance of an action is no yardstick of its personal unpleasantness.”
Fraser himself was in the British army in Burma in the final months of World War II. And while that war was clearly a key turning point in world history, the Allied victory vital to freedom and decency, and the Asian theatre a crucial one, his actions and those of his comrades there in 1945 were not that important.
It takes nothing away from their sacrifice. It takes just as much guts to go in harm’s way regardless of the importance of the action or the nature of the outcome. And ordinary soldiers and sailors don’t get a say in commanders’ decisions and aren’t accountable for them. But as Admiral Mountbatten put it in his first address to his troops on being made Supreme Commander in South East Asia: “I hear you call this the Forgotten Front. I hear you call yourselves the Forgotten Army. Well, let me tell you this is not the Forgotten Front, and you are not the Forgotten Army. In fact, nobody has even heard of you.”
Likewise showing up with scars you got at Basque Roads would have drawn blank stares even from people willing to cheer heartily for the victory over Napoleon. Of course you never know, if you put on a uniform and go into battle, whether this action will turn out to be a key victory, a crucial missed opportunity, or a minor victory, defeat or draw that helps buy time for critical actions elsewhere. But it must still be a bit annoying when someone who was at Trafalgar gets free drinks at the bar, and you’re stuck at the back talking to a hatrack.