Victory's lost sister – the wreck of the Implacable

Neal Ascherson
20 October 2005

Two hundred years after the battle of Trafalgar, when Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain, Britain is enjoying a binge of patriotism and hero-worship. Cathedral organs rumble Hearts of Oak, sea-scouts tramp giggling to war memorials, the National Maritime Museum is running a superb “Nelson:Napoleon” exhibition, and on BBC radio the usual voices debate whether Emma Hamilton was an intellectual or a tramp. And at the centre of it all is an old wooden ship.

At the peak of the ceremonies, Queen Elizabeth II dines with her sea lords on board a huge oak-hulled vessel which now lies in dry dock at Portsmouth. HMS Victory was Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar and on her deck, at the height of the battle on 21 October 1805, Nelson was mortally wounded by the musket-ball of a French naval sniper. No wonder that Victory, the only surviving ship from the battle, is a national shrine.

But within living memory, she was not the only survivor. The HMS Implacable, a seventy-four-gun warship of the line, still lay anchored off Falmouth and later off Portsmouth as a training vessel and a floating hostel for youth groups. But then the Admiralty, the authority commanding Britain’s navy, grew tired of maintaining her elderly timbers and – deaf to protests – towed her out to sea and blew her to bits.

Could the British – obsessed with memories of their martial past, and world-renowned for their reluctance to throw any noble relic away – could they, of all nations, have casually trashed one of the only two veterans of Trafalgar? They did indeed, and it's a story with long implications for public attitudes and the “heritage industry”.

The Implacable started life as a French warship, built at Rochefort in 1797. It was as the Duguay-Trouin, named after Louis XIV's most daring admiral, that she fought at Trafalgar, part of a squadron commanded by Admiral Dumanoir which entered the fight at a late stage. The Duguay-Trouin was able to blast the heavily damaged Victory with a few broadsides, but Dumanoir soon saw that the battle was already lost. He recalled his squadron and headed north towards the safety of France. But off the Atlantic coast, a fortnight later, he was intercepted by a much stronger British naval force and battered into surrender.

The Duguay-Trouin was brought back to Britain and renamed Implacable. From now on, she fought the French, winning honours for her crew of 670 sailors and marines in the 1808-9 naval campaign in the Baltic. After many years of peacetime service, Implacable fought once more in 1840 as the Royal Navy attacked and defeated an Egyptian (but French trained) fleet off the Syrian coast. Two years later, she was sailed home and “paid off” – discharged from active fighting service – and for much of the 19th century she did menial fetch-and-carry harbour duties at Portsmouth or served as a training ship. It took the Admiralty a very long time to admit that sail-training had become irrelevant in an age of steam-driven battleships, but when they finally did so – in 1904, the eve of the centenary – they put Implacable up for sale.

A majestic burial

By now, interest in relics of the past had expanded from an intellectual or sentimental pursuit to become an institutionalised public cult of national glory. HMS Victory and HMS Implacable, as the only two Trafalgar survivors, became famous and venerated. But the preservation of “heritage” was not then perceived as part of the state's duties. The cost of conserving cathedrals, castles or old warships was considered to be the responsibility of civil society – to be borne by rich individuals or by private bodies and corporations. And nobody had quite appreciated how expensive it is to maintain the complex structure of a large wooden ship, especially one which was already a century old and weakened by heavy seas, extreme temperatures, gunfire and all the other shocks to which a big sailing ship is exposed. The timbers rot, leak, grow insect-infested and warp. Extracting and treating or replacing them can be nightmarishly difficult.

Also in openDemocracy, the cultural historian Patrick Wright tells a revealing story from an alternative current in Britain’s “heritage industry”:

“The stone bomb” (April 2003)

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Victory, as Nelson's flagship, had been saved as a memorial to him (and as flagship of the commander-in-chief, Portsmouth) as long ago as 1825. Meeting her costs was something the Admiralty could not avoid. But Implacable was another matter. The wealthy coal-magnate Geoffrey Cobb saved her from the breakers by enlisting the support of King Edward VII, but the next forty years saw a succession of vain appeals for a fund big enough to meet her maintenance costs out of its income. Rich as he was, Cobb could not afford to conserve and repair the ship on his own. He used the ship for youth training courses in seamanship, and over the years its structure slowly decayed.

The Admiralty's behaviour was utterly self-contradictory. Unwilling to sell the ship to Cobb (although apparently prepared to sell it to a ship-breaker), they hung on to Implacable for decades while growing ever more anxious that the escalating costs of repair would eventually land on their own budget. During the second world war, Implacable lay at Portsmouth, near Victory. The bombs missed both ships, but Implacable's maintenance was neglected and the hull deteriorated further. The Admiralty now began to claim that her condition had passed the point of no return, and announced that they intended to “dispose” of her.

Once again, there were letters to the Times, and desperate appeals (supported as before by members of the royal family) for funds to save the old ship. But in post-1945 Britain private wealth was scarce, and public money's priority was reconstruction and debt-payment. The Admiralty declined to be moved by patriotic reproaches, while concerned bodies like the Society for Nautical Research were exhausted by their struggle to get the Admiralty to reopen Victory after the war as a public memorial.

In the end, in late 1949, the friends of Implacable accepted defeat. But now came an exquisite episode in Britain's long practice of inventing tradition and turning truly squalid occasions into pageantry. Implacable's end, though decided by nothing more noble than a lack of cash, was transformed into a state funeral, a majestic burial at sea.

First the carpenters sawed off the warship's figurehead, a towering bust of Medusa with a headful of writhing serpents. Then they removed the whole ornamental stern, a double-decker gallery of windows separated by pilasters. (Both relics now occupy a single wall in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich). Finally, on 2 December 1949, the old Implacable was packed with explosive charges and loaded with 450 tons of iron ballast. Flying the white ensign and the French tricolour side by side, she was towed out to sea, escorted by modern warships carrying a party of admirals, sea lords and other senior naval staff.

Somewhere out in the English Channel, south of the Owers lightship off the Sussex coast, the moment came. The escorting warships stopped their engines, flags were lowered to half-mast, a Royal Marine bugler in white gloves blew the Last Post, the admirals snapped to attention and came to the salute, and the charges were detonated.

That should have been the end of Implacable. But it was not. The engineers had bungled. They had made the mistake of doubling the size of the explosive charges in order to “make sure”. As a result, the explosion blew the deck off, separating it from the rest of the ship which promptly sank. The deck, however, continued to float on the surface, the two flags still fluttering in the sea breeze. Deeply embarrassed, the escort vessels hung around this jaunty remnant, hoping vainly that it would break up, until the winter daylight began to fade and they were obliged to return to Portsmouth.

Nothing more was heard of the Implacable for some days, until the planking of the upper deck washed up on the shores of France which the Duguay-Trouin had left 152 years before.

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The Struggles for Poland (Random House,1988), Black Sea (1996), and Stone Voices: the search for Scotland (Granta, 2003).

Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

“From multiculturalism to where?” (August 2004)

“Pope John Paul II and democracy” (April 2005)

“Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution’s rocky road” (July 2005)

“The victory and defeat of Solidarność” (September 2005)

“Poland’s interregnum” (September 2005)

There were long-term consequences. Those who wanted to save historic ships saw that they must organise themselves more effectively. A few years later, they managed (yet again with royal help, from Prince Philip) to save the old tea-clipper Cutty Sark and preserve her in a dry-dock at Greenwich. In 1970 the Maritime Trust was founded, followed in 1979 by the World Ship Trust which is now restoring over 400 historic vessels and has three times as many on its books. The motto of the World Ship Trust is “Implacable – Never Again”.

A sinking weight

And yet the deed of the Admiralty in 1949 was important for another reason. Britain is a society obsessed by an authoritarian concept of “heritage”, which seems to demand that nothing be thrown away and that everything which goes out of use must be preserved. A sort of cultural constipation builds up, as more and more monuments, buildings, landscapes and collections of often trivial files are designated officially as “heritage”. And yet throwing away is one of the basic activities of a species which moves across the world leaving a wide trail of broken pottery, flint chippings, dented cookpots, cartridge cases and knickers with broken elastic.

Humans junk more than they hoard. Any social institution has to excrete as well as ingest, if its metabolism is to keep working. And in reality, institutions covertly do excrete. The shredder eats the dead executive's archives and – at night – figures creep out of museums carrying cartons of unwanted Roman potsherds to the skip.

Governments now designate and commission “heritage” – the schedule of what we are not supposed to throw away. But how do they “de-designate” things? That is what remains so fascinating about the fate of Implacable. This was a deliberate act of de-commissioning an item of national heritage, for once carried out by a public authority in public. The Admiralty may have been wrong. Maybe the ship could have been saved. But at least they were honest about what they were doing and why they felt entitled to do it.

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