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Horatio Nelson - A politically incorrect hero


Statue of Nelson with his right arm missing, in Trafalgar Square.

On Trafalgar Day, we remember the politically incorrect hero Horatio Nelson, who began life on board ship as a small, seasick boy.

In his Aubrey-Maturin novels, Patrick O'Brian described the sheer exhilaration of being a boy and sailing the world. Hell if the captain was unkind, but if the captain was fair and knew what he was doing, one of the best and most exciting educations in the world, with mathematics, navigation and geography learned on the wave. 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 HMS Carcass, which was searching for a passage to India near the North Pole. The Carcass barely escaped being crushed by sea-ice, and Nelson barely escaped being devoured by a polar bear.

A modern view of the world would call Nelson's early life an example of child abuse.

Nelson knew that he had to be given scope and responsibility or he would never become a man.

By the age of twenty the young 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. Nevertheless, he persevered.

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 HMS 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.

To Nelson 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, his injuries would make him a victim, a handicapped or challenged person.

To Nelson losing his right hand and the sight in his right eye meant nothing and did not unduly perturb him. He was concerned with living, not nursing his injuries.

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 despotic rule, or experience invasion by an enemy, the Napoleonic wars had a point. They had a point, too, for those whose countries had been conquered and devastated by Napoleon's armies and longed to be free.

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. As noted, he pursued danger. He cared for the morale, health and efficiency of the men under his command. And 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 HMS Goliath 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. Nelson immediately ordered his ships to split into two divisions: One cut across the head of the line and passed between the anchored French and the shore while the other engaged the seaward side of the French fleet. Trapped in a crossfire, the leading French ships were battered into surrender, and 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. Artlessly vain, he was seduced by Lady Hamilton, a determined woman, who was not his wife. Distracted by his passion, he neglected his duty. He would be returning to it shortly, with better results.

As Nelson would be the first to tell us, heroes are not and never have been perfect.

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).

Peace was declared in 1802. Napoleon began another war of aggression 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 trained his men in sailing and gunnery.

In 1805, the French fleet escaped from the Mediterranean. Nelson pursued with his squadron, which by then had been at sea for 22 months. He had to find the French fleet and prevent it from attacking the West Indies or facilitating Napoleon's invasion of England. Meanwhile, his old friend Collingwood was heading out to sea, leading another squadron.

Linking up with 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' in a 'pell-mell' assault.

It had excellent possibilities as a carpe diem strategy, but Nelson had other rare qualities indispensable to success.

Warm and friendly among his brother officers and equally direct and approachable to his men, Nelson shared hardships and achievements, mentioning men by name in his despatches, and taking his share of wounds.


JMW Turner's depiction of the Battle of Trafalgar / Collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Royal Navy met the combined French and Spanish fleets at 11:00 am on the 21st of 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 Collingwood in their powerful flagships were at the head of their respective columns instead of in the middle. Usually senior officers stayed behind and well-protected in naval battles. 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, explained Churchill, was 'the name by which the British Empire was then commonly described'.

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. (DNB)

Men and women all over England wept at the news. Cool Collingwood wept on his ship.

Men and women loved Nelson for his humanity and fallibility as well as his daring 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 ended the African 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 are always magnanimous.

Comments (1)

patrick Gigliotti:

At age nineteen I was in Dublin Ireland traveling Europe, doing my year abroad. I was awakened in the middle of the night when the windows of my B&B rattled. Being a Californian I of course thought,"earthquake" and promptly went back to sleep. At breakfast I asked the other guests and owner if they had been awakened. They all feigned ignorance. An hour or so later I learned that Nelson's Pillar had been blown up. Being a SoCal boy I had no idea who Nelson was, but, I decided to find out. Thereafter I read several books about Lord Nelson and learned to admire the man. That I believe was in 1965 or 66. Earlier that year I saw the not yet famous Yardbirds perform at a small club in London. All in all a hell of a year, not the least of which was a month in Ullapool.

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