In his Aubrey-Maturin novels, Patrick O'Brian describes the sheer exhilaration of being a boy and sailing the world. Hell, of course, if the captain was unkind, but if the captain was fair and knew what he was doing, it was one of the best educations in the world, with mathematics, navigation and geography immediately put to use. Unfortunately Nelson's early experiences were extremely unhappy.
The sixth of eleven children, Horatio Nelson was born on September 29, 1758. He lost his mother when he was nine, and spent a few, brief years in school before going to sea at the age of twelve. His father, struggling to raise eight surviving children, was relieved to have Horatio off his hands, and Nelson undoubtedly was well pleased too. Unfortunately he was horribly seasick, and being naturally insubordinate, he disliked the navy intensely.
However, he persevered. In 1773, when he was fifteen, he inveigled a berth aboard the Carcass, which was searching for a passage to India near the North Pole. The Carcass barely escaped being crushed by the sea-ice, and Nelson barely escaped a polar bear.
A modern view of the world would call Nelson's early life a prime example of child abuse. Nelson's view assumed that boys had to be given scope and responsibility or they would never become men.
Nelson would never trade the sheer excitement of walking a deck at sea for any other occupation, no matter how lucrative or easy.
By the age of twenty the young polar bear survivor and midshipman had become ship's captain. Helped by his uncle and propelled by his own abilities he had risen very fast, but he was to find the next ten years hard going. Near death with fever several times, sued for naval decisions he had made, he spent five years on land living on half pay.
But he persevered.
Daring to head straight in
Back with a command because Napoleon was tearing up Europe, Nelson became known as an energetic captain who cared for and respected his men. He encouraged teamwork, displayed valour and had a creative disregard for orders. In 1797 he contributed to victory in the battle of Cape St. Vincent when it seemed lost.
Acting on his own initiative, Nelson sailed out of the line on HMS Captain and engaged six Spanish ships at once. His ship was immobilized by a barrage of enemy fire, but his friend, Collingwood, in the Excellent, came up on the other side and fired with such effect that the Spanish ships collided in confusion. Nelson, leading his men, boarded two of the ships and captured them.
In Nelson's view, it didn't matter what helpful boosts you received from relatives. It only mattered whether you could command and train men, exceed their courage with your own, defy hardships, and imagine and implement new and successful strategic thinking.
By then Nelson had lost the sight in his right eye to stones thrown up by enemy shot. Not long afterwards he was wounded, and his right arm had to be amputated. In the modern view of the world, his injuries would make him a victim, a "handicapped" or "challenged" person. In the sentimental view, his war wounds made him a hero.
In Nelson's view they meant nothing whatsoever. What counted was not his injuries, but his actions.
From a distance of more than 200 years the war between the British and the French under Napoleon can seem pointless. For those who did not wish to live under Napoleon's rule, or experience invasion by an enemy, the war, or series of wars, had a point. They had a point, too, for those whose countries had been conquered or who hoped to travel and trade across the Mediterranean. Napoleon's treacherous assault on Malta had destroyed the Knights of St John, who had kept piracy in the Mediterranean in check.
In the Mediterranean in 1798
In 1798, when Napoleon was planning a large expedition for an unknown destination, the Royal Navy was sent to the Mediterranean to deliver a blow that would slow him down. This left home waters with no margin whatever in the face of threatened invasion, and it left Nelson searching the Mediterranean for a fleet he couldn't find.
Nelson was the person for the job for several reasons. He pursued danger. He cared for the morale, health and efficiency of the men under his command. He believed in teamwork and in discussing strategy with his captains as his equals.
After a series of set-backs, Nelson located the French fleet off Egypt at Abu Qir Bay. Seeing the French at single anchor, Captain Thomas Foley of the Goliath, the leading ship, correctly deduced that the French had enough deep water ahead and inshore to swing. That meant that the Royal Navy had room to move, crossing the head of the enemy line and sailing down the inshore side, where the French had not cleared for action. The British won a great victory at the Battle of the Nile. Subsequent events found Nelson less competent.
A political innocent, he failed to understand Italian-French politics and interfered with pitiful effect where he had no business doing so. Artlessly vain, he was seduced by Lady Hamilton, a determined woman, who was not his wife. Enslaved by his passion, in violation of his fundamental beliefs, Nelson neglected his duty. He would be returning to it shortly, with better results.
Heroes are not and never have been perfect.
In the Baltic
Serving as second-in-command in the Baltic, where the Russians, Swedes and Danes were threatening the Royal Navy's supply of timber and naval stores, Nelson defeated the Danish Navy, famously clapping his telescope to his blind eye to avoid seeing his commander-in-chief's flag of retreat which would have plucked defeat from the jaws of victory. Nelson immediately negotiated a cease fire which saved British and Danish lives. Here Nelson's "uncomplicated approach to diplomacy showed to best effect" (Oxford DNB).
In the Mediterranean in 1803 as commander-in-chief
Peace was declared in 1802. War with Napoleon erupted again in 1803. Nelson was named commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean fleet. Again he took care of his men during the dreary blockade. He allowed ship's visits and dancing, acted as a sponsor of the world's first seafarers' charity, the Marine Society, and practiced the men in sailing and gunnery.
In 1805, the French fleet escaped from the Mediterranean. Nelson pursued with his squadron, which had already been at sea for 22 months. He had to find the French fleet before it attacked the West Indies or, by luring British ships from the Channel, allowed the Royal Navy to be overrun by Napoleon's invasion fleet. Meanwhile, though he did not know it, his old friend Collingwood, was heading out to sea, leading a squadron.
"Pell-mell battle" at Trafalgar
Joining Colllingwood, Nelson prepared to defeat the combined French and Spanish fleets and end the threat of invasion for good. His tactical aim was to "throw the enemy into confusion by swift and unexpected movements".
On occasions we must sometimes have a regular confusion, and that apparent confusion must be the most regular method which could be pursued on the occasion (Nelson).
The Royal Navy met the combined French and Spanish fleets at 11:00 am on 21 October. Nelson had only twenty-seven ships against their thirty-three. He went into action in two columns. Contrary to all precedent, both he and the cool Collingwood in their powerful flagships were at the head of their respective columns instead of in the middle. Usually admirals stayed well-protected in the centre. Leading from the front, Nelson placed himself in the most dangerous position. This underscored and affirmed Nelson's signal to his captains and men -
‘England expects every man will do his duty.’
Why England, and not Britain? England, said Churchill, was "the name by which the British Empire was then commonly described". Perhaps this is the reason that the European Union is so keen to kill England?
From Nelson's signal several conclusions can be drawn -
Expectations. Useful to have if you are interested in results.
England. Patriotism. Also useful, if you want to live free.
The Royal Navy sailed into action under full sail, closing much faster than the French expected. Nelson's strategy was an unconventional, head-on approach that concealed his intentions until the last minute. He cut nearly vertically through the middle of the combined French-Spanish fleet as Collingwood's ships cut into the rear.
The strategy was dangerous for the lead ship, but less so for each ship that followed. As his column of ships poured through, they engaged the centre and rear of the French line to great effect.
"About 1.15 p.m., as he walked through the crowded and smoking quarterdeck of HMS Victory with his flag captain, Thomas Masterman Hardy, Nelson was hit by a musket-ball fired from the mizzen-top of the French ship Redoubtable. The ball entered his left shoulder, passed through a lung, and lodged in his spine. He was carried below to the cockpit, where he lay in great pain but conscious until just before he died at 4.30" in the afternoon.
Men and women all over England wept at the news. Cool Collingwood wept on his ship.
Warm and friendly among his brother officers and equally direct and approachable to his men, Nelson shared success, mentioning men by name in his despatches, and taking more than his share of wounds.
Men and women loved Nelson for his humanity and fallibility as well as his courage.
His victories prevented the invasion of Britain by Napoleon, and contributed to an unexpected outcome - the Royal Navy took charge of the world's sea lanes, and stopped the slave trade.
In the last dispatch he wrote before he died, Nelson prayed:
May humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet.
Real heroes always are magnanimous.
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Nelson's uncle, Captain Suckling, first took him on board then sent him on a voyage to the West Indies. What we would call nepotism occurred frequently. Much as a farmer passed on his lands to his son, captains passed on the sea to their sons and nephews and the sons of fellow captains, but competence was the determining factor in advancement, and at first Nelson appeared to lack it.
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