Something for the weekend. Heart of Oak. Written by actor David Garrick in 1759, with music by Dr. William Boyce, the song is a rousing tribute to the Royal Navy. Garrick penned the song during the Annus Mirabilis of 1759 when Church bells in Great Britain and America were constantly ringing in celebration of British victories, including the taking of Quebec, on land and sea. The song was an immediate hit both in Great Britain and its colonies.
The video clip above is taken from That Hamilton Woman (1941) starring Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier. In many ways simply a historical pot boiler common for films during the period, the film also celebrates British resistance to the tyranny of Napoleon which of course strongly resonated with British audiences in 1941. It was Churchill’s favorite movie and he would frequently show it to guests during the War.
The playing of Heart of Oak at the beginning of the clip is not a conceit of the film. When British ships of the line were sailing into battle the bands of the ship would strike up Heart of Oak, always a favorite of the sailors on board. Serving in miserable conditions, sometimes pressed (“compulsorily volunteered” was the phrase), the song did reflect how the sailors perceived themselves. They were almost all ardent patriots, as they demonstrated during the fleet mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797, when the mutineers turned over to the government French agents who attempted to make common cause with them. The leaders of the mutineers told the authorities that they were entirely loyal to England, and they simply wanted redress for their grievances, which the Admiralty eventually granted. Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, where he smashed the combined French and Spanish fleets and established British naval supremacy for a century, understood the patriotism of the common seaman, which is why he sent the fleet the message, “England expects every man to do his duty” prior to sailing into the fight.
Nelson in the film is shown as saying of the decorations that he wore in the engagement, “I won them in battle? Then I’ll wear them in battle.” although he of course realized that this made him a prime target for French snipers. Nelson had previously lost a right arm and a right eye in prior engagements. At Trafalgar his luck ran out and he was killed by a French sharpshooter. However, his stance was not foolhardy. To direct a fleet action in the early Nineteenth Century an admiral needed to be on deck, and Nelson understood that the attribute prized above all others by the men he led was physical courage. Nelson was a complete cad in his personal life, but he had in abundance that quality. The men would fight much harder if they saw their officers coolly displaying complete contempt for death in action, and therefore it was necessary for Nelson to do so. Additionally, throughout his career he had struggled for better conditions for the men under his command, and they fought their hardest when led by him.