Admiral Horatio Nelson
“Duty is the great business of a sea officer; all private considerations must give way to it, however painful it may be.” Horatio Nelson
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I have always been fascinated by the life of Admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. In fact I still have a biography of Nelson written for young people and published by American Heritage Publishers that I bought when I was in 5th Grade.
Those who follow my writings know that I am fascinated by people who are often courageous, brilliant, and masters of their field of expertise, yet flawed. I think that is one reason that I like history, because if we really study it, we find that even the greatest men and women who have ever lived and inhabited the pages of books, are often little different than us. Horatio Nelson is one of those individuals.
Since I read little biography of Nelson a lot of water has passed under my keel. But even today, about 45 years later I still am fascinated about the very heroic and flawed man who commanded the British Fleet at Trafalgar and was mortally wounded at the moment of his greatest victory.
In 1805 Britain was facing the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s French Empire which was allied with Spain. All Napoleon had to do was have he combined French and Spanish naval might to defeat the Royal Navy and a least for a time control the English channel to allow the French invasion force to land.
It was a daunting challenge to the British but the force the Royal Navy send to hunt down the combined fleet of France and Spain was commanded by the diminutive one eyed, one armed victor of the Battle of the Nile and Battle of Copenhagen Admiral Horatio Nelson.
When the French Fleet under the command of Charles Villeneuve escaped into the Atlantic aided by storms which forced Nelson’s Fleet off station in early 1805. Nelson assumed it was heading to Egypt and sailed into the Mediterranean in pursuit. He found out that he was wrong and that Villeneuve had sailed to the Caribbean he went after him. Barely missing contact with the combined French and Spanish Fleet Nelson followed it to Cadiz where the Combined Fleet took refuge.
Villeneuve’s task was difficult. Though he outnumbered the British force his crews were inexperienced and because the ships had been blockaded for many years not trained to the standard of French forces in earlier times. Likewise many French naval leaders had not survived the bloodletting of the Revolution or been killed in action at the Battle of the Nile. In order to execute Napoleon’s strategy he would have to take his Combined Fleet out of Cadiz, rendezvous with another French Squadron from Brest, defeat the Royal Navy and gain control over the channel.
However Napoleon changed the plan and on September 16th 1805 ordered the Fleet to break out of Cadiz and sail to Naples, however Villeneuve had misgivings and deliberating with his Captains and Spanish Allies remained in Cadiz. That changed on October 18th when Villeneuve gave the order to sail despite light winds. His decision was based less on strategy or tactics but the fact that he had discovered that he was to be relieved of command and that his relief was on the way to Cadiz.
Nelson was a controversial and often contradictory man. He was the son of an Anglican Priest, a man of faith who struggled in marriage and had an affair with Lady Emma Hamilton which bore him a daughter and eclipsed his marriage. He was a man of valor who lost an arm and eye in battle and led his sailors to victory time and time again. He was loved by the men who served under him but the target of the jealousy of officers who disapproved of him.
When Villeneuve attempted to break out on October 18th Nelson was alerted by the screen of frigates conducting the close blockade of Cadiz. Nelson began to pursue and when Villeneuve discovered this he attempted to return to Cadiz. On the morning of the 21st the fleets drew closer, Nelson with 27 Ships of the line mounting 2148 guns against the Combined Fleet of 33 Ships of the Line mounting 2568 guns. It was a battle that many a British Tar believed held the fate of the nation.
Nelson was less than orthodox in is conduct of battle. Instead of laying alongside the French line he opted to split his force into two columns and break the French and Spanish line with the intent of the total destruction of the enemy force in close combat where the individual superiority of his ships and sailors . It was a risky strategy of the approach meant that the Combined Fleet would if properly handled could possibly use its superior firepower against a few British ships at a time.
As his Fleet approached the Combined Fleet Nelson penned a prayer:
“May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory: and may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it: and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet.
For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully.
To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend.
Amen. Amen. Amen.”
At 1145 Nelson had his signalmen hoist the signal that would go down in history. ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. The signal as composed by Nelson said that ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. However that signal was more complicated and the Signal’s Officer LT Pasco informed Nelson that “Expects” was in the signals vocabulary where “confides” would have to be spelt requiring extra lifts. Nelson concurred.
In the slow run up to the Combined Fleet the British took a beating, but when the British broke the French line and opened fire the battle took a different turn. Following Nelson’s orders his captains and his second in command Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood took the fight to the enemy.
Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory delivered he opening broadsides into the stern of Villeneuve’s flagship the Bucentaure with devastating results. After passing Bucentaure the Victory was engaged in close combat by the 74-gun Redoutable and the ships became locked together. Redoutable was commanded by one of the finest Captain’s in French Fleet, Captain Lucas who had trained his crew well including in close combat. His marksmen took a deadly toll of Victory’s crew exposed on the upper decks and one of his marksmen mortally wounded Nelson as the British Admiral walked his flagship’s quarterdeck.
Nelson is Mortally Wounded
Nelson was carried to the sick bay of Victory where as he lay dying he continued to receive updates on the battle. Knowing a storm was coming he gave orders for his ships to anchor. Upon being informed of the number of French and Spanish ships taken he whispered “Thank God I have done my duty” and Nelson’s Chaplain noted Nelson’s last words as “God and my country.
By the end of the battle the British had captured or sunk 22 of the 33 French and Spanish Ships of the Line including Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure and the largest warship of time the 130 gun Spanish behemoth Santisima Trinidad. On the night of the battle and the days following the British Fleet and the survivors of the Combined Fleet were battered by a massive storm causing much more suffering, misery and loss of life as badly damaged ships succumbed and sank or ran aground on the shores of Cape Trafalgar.
The battle broke the naval strength of the French and Spanish and removed the threat of invasion from Britain. Napoleon hid the defeat from his people and calling it a victory, but throughout England it was celebrated even as Nelson was mourned.
The Battle of Trafalgar epitomized the courage of Nelson and the Royal Navy. As an officer of the United States Navy I tip my hat and drink a toast to Admiral Nelson.