Great War Commanders: Horatio Nelson

Horation Lord Nelson

Horation Lord Nelson

Like so many other men of small stature throughout history, Nelson was not only a successful seaman and admiral, he was popular with his officers and men. Given that naval authority in the 18th/19th century was backed by more than ample application of the lash, this popularity is excessively rare. Indeed, when Nelson was shot down dead during the battle of Trafalgar (1805 q.v.) half the crew of his ship Victory were in tears. You had to be really bad to be flogged in any ship under Nelson’s command.

Horatio was a Norfolk man, born in 1758 the son of an Anglican priest. Despite his puny frame he entered the Royal Navy as a Midshipman when he was twelve. In just eight years he had risen in rank to Captain! This is unprecedented, as Captain in the Navy is equivalent to full colonel in the Army. Many good sailors were still First Lieutenant at 36, and it should be added that Nelson had no rich family relations to give him a good push upwards.

This time (1793) was one of the many whenBritain and France, instead of being two friendly old ladies were at war. ‘There’s something about Perfidious Albion that gets my goat’ said Frenchmen to each other; ‘Trust the bloody Frogs to let you down!’ siad the British to anyone who would listen. Horatio had a command under Admiral Hood in theMediterranean, where he was blinded in one eye during a successful attack onCorsicain 1794. Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican by nationality, so Nelson might well have winked his good eye.

Operating under Admiral Jervis’ command Nelson played an important part in the British victory over the Spanish fleet (no easy task) at the Battle of St. Vincent (1797). This was the first of many occasions in which the brilliant seamanship of the little man from Norfolk attracted the attention of the British King and his Admiralty, at the same time helping to makeBritainsafe from foreign attack.

It was also in 1797 that Nelson was promoted to rear-Admiral and made his single mistake: deluded by bad intelligence, he decided to attack Spanish ships moored in the harbourof Santa Cruz de Tenerifein the Canary Islands. The port was well defended by a brave officer called Gutiérrez and a fierce garrison of islanders. Nelson lost many sailors killed by furious Canarios, lost an arm in the crossfire and had to withdraw. Historians make a serious mistake when they state that Nelson was trying to invade the island Tenerife, using Santa Cruz as a start point. He was doing nothing of the kind. He thought there were a number of important French and Spanish warships in the harbour, and they were his target. There would have been no point or gain if he had ‘done a Drake’ and assaulted (or burnt) the town. Besides, Nelson was an officer in the British Navy, not a corsair.

Minus an eye and an arm, Horatio went on to Toulon, where a large French fleet managed to escape him and get toEgyptwith a large French invasion force under Napoleon himself on board. The man from Norfolk found this fleet at anchor in a place called Aboukir Bay, near Alexandria, and there achieved one of his most convincing victories, amply demonstrating his strength of character and daring. Soon he was off to Napleswhich he took from the French. He also met the wife of the British Ambassador, one Lady Emma Hamilton. The little man started an affair with this lady that lasted the rest of his life, though he was married.

In 1801 he was sent on an expedition to destroy the Danish fleet in Copenhagen. One should not be confused: Napoleon had taken Denmark under his wing, and the fleet was dangerous to British interests. It was here that the much-loved incident occurred when Nelson was signalled from his his superior officer (Sir Hyde Parker) to break off the assault. The flags waved, but Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and said to his officers, “I see no signal.” They attacked, and won. The legend of‘the ‘Nelson touch’ had begun. The King made Nelson a Viscount.

After the Peace of Amiens ended in 1803 the French fleet was in Toulon, but again managed to break out under Villeneuve, who set out to join other French and Spanish fleets in the West Indies. The plan was then to sail back to the Channel and enable Bonaparte to invade England, but this other little man changed his mind and directed Villeneuve to sail for Naples. Nelson received this intelligence, and set out from Cádiz. The combined French and Spanish fleets met Nelson’s off Cape Trafalgarand the most famous sea battle in history took place. The English won it, but at the cost of Admiral Nelson, who was killed by a sharpshooter high up in the rigging of the French flagship. Horatio Nelson famously died in the arms of his second-in-command, Hardy, remarking “Kismet, Hardy,” meaning Destiny. He was 47.

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