It happened today - May 23, 2016
OK, to quote the radio detective “The fat man,” Brad Runyon, “that statement could stand a little clarification.” For starters, today is the anniversary of the famous Battle of Ramillies on 23 May 1706. Which of course was a key victory for the Grand Alliance in the War of the Spanish Succession that decisively advanced Britain into the rank of major powers.
OK, this is getting worse, not better, right? Well, does it help that a British battleship in both world wars was called the Ramillies, in commemoration of a landmark in Britain’s long struggle to keep any one tyrant from dominating Europe and then turning aggressively outward that resulted in the acquisition of Gibraltar and also significant territory in the future Atlantic Canada? Or perhaps it will help revive Albion’s faded glory if I mention that the British commander was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, son of one Sir Winston Churchill and ancestor of another, whose brilliant career decisively advanced that family in Britain.
Maybe even that now means little. The War of the Spanish Succession might seem one of those foolish dynastic quarrels over which rich old men sent poor young ones to die. But it was part of the British attempt to stop Louis XIV from conquering all of Europe in a burst of dangerous vainglory, part of their long habit of cobbling together alliances of various sorts (in this case the unlikely lineup included the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Savoy, Portugal and on and on) to keep any one despot from dominating the Eurasian land mass and threatening the rest of the globe that culminated in the two World Wars before it became decisively America’s problem.
As for the battleship, one of five Royal Navy vessels named in commemoration of this pivotal battle in this crucial war, beginning with an 82-gun “second-rate” (the name refers to size not quality) launched in 1664 and renamed HMS Ramillies in 1706. There were also two 74-gun “third-rates” in the 18th century, a battleship launched in 1892 and scrapped on the verge of World War I, being an obsolete pre-dreadnought.
So then there’s the Revenge-class HMS Ramillies, one of five whose names all began with “R”. Laid down in 1913 and commissioned in 1917, she saw action in World War II from the hunt for Bismarck to the D-Day landings (where she fired over 1,000 shells and did considerable damage to German tanks and rail transport), as well as extensive convoy duty before being scrapped in 1948. Mind you, Ramillies and her surviving sisters were obsolescent by that point, particularly lacking speed, and she would have fared badly if she’d actually met Bismarck; even the mighty Hood and the shiny new Prince of Wales had problems with the German behemoth. But in the desperate circumstances of World War II everything had to be pressed into service regardless of its age or condition, and certainly the presence even of an aging battleship on convoy duty was a great help; her 15 inch guns remained dangerous to almost anything afloat.
In a way the heroics of a fading Ramillies in World War II are a metaphor for Britain in that era. As is the even more depressing fact that there was to have been a successor HMS Ramillies, ordered in 1964 as the fifth Resolution class nuclear ballistic missile “boomer” submarine that carried the UK’s nuclear deterrent from the 1960s through 1994. But she was cancelled in 1965.
As I said, contemplating Ramillies makes me a little sad.