The life and legacy of Admiral Horatio Nelson
In 1805 Europe lay in the shadow of Napoleon and his newly minted French Empire. The, as yet, unmatched Grande Armée had brought most of the west of the continent to heel and were poised to do the same to the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire in the east. Little stood between Britain and her ancient enemy France but water and boats.
This vulnerability is key to why Horatio Nelson became the hero of Britain.
Despite its vast empire, Britain could never hope to match the French army in the field. Napoleon had amassed an incredibly strong body of soldiers who were well armed and well led. Compared to this force the derided British redcoats were of little consequence.
For all their martial prowess, though, the Grande Armée couldn’t float, nor could they conquer London from Calais.
To silence Britain, and her funding of any and all opposition to French expansion, Napoleon would first need to subdue the English Channel and its guardian, the Royal Navy. This was no easy task as Britain, reliant on the oceans for protection and to knit her empire together, had developed a fleet the envy of all other nations.
While the British ships tended to be better equipped than their continental counterparts, what truly distinguished them were the men. Though many men were pressed into service most who sailed under the union jack did so for the chance to secure bountiful reward. Many of these came from coastal towns and villages where sailing was as much a part of life as walking.
This maritime familiarity wasn’t restricted to the Jack Tars swinging through the rigging either and the officer class was filled with men who called the ocean home. This was particularly true of Admiral Nelson, who took to sea at just 12 years of age.
The nephew of an influential naval officer, nepotism secured Nelson his first posting and ensured the first rungs in a naval career were within easy reach. Nelson did not rise on name alone and proved himself an able seaman as he rose through the ranks during periods of relative peace. It was in war that Nelson thrived though and in which he would make a name for himself.
Tactically sound and insanely brave Nelson won the admiration of officer and seaman alike by leading his own bold missions from the front. While Napoleon made a name for himself during the French Revolutionary Wars, Nelson did likewise at sea. By the time the brilliant Corsican officer was crowned Emperor of France, Nelson, already an Admiral, had become the hero of the Nile and a thorn in France’s side. Napoleon’s mastery of war on land seemed mirrored in Nelson’s ability at sea.
The British superiority in ships and men did not ensure mastery of the waves, which would be boasted about for the following century and beyond, and the combined French and Spanish fleets still offered some threat to the larger British force in 1805.
This would all change utterly on the 25th of October, 1805 when Nelson sailed 33 ships into history and the muzzles of 41 French and Spanish ships off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast. Determined to engage the enemy in a “pell-mell” battle Nelson launched his ships into the enemy lines in two columns.
Once engaged Nelson could have little influence on the proceedings. Trusting superior British gunning and sailing would carry the day, he sent his last message to the fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, before plunging his flagship, HMS Victory, into the fray at the head of one of the columns.
By the close of battle Victory lay in ruins, yet the day was firmly carried by the British. 21 French and Spanish ships had been captured and their dead outnumbered the British ten to one. Yet King George III confessed “we have lost more than we have gained” on hearing that victory had come at the cost of Nelson’s life.
Striding across the deck of Victory, Nelson was hit with a musket ball in his left shoulder which passed through his spine and lodged just below his right shoulder. Nelson knew the wound was fatal and was carried below decks where he died three hours later.
Though Nelson did invite death by making himself so conspicuous, standing in the open in his officer’s regalia, it was not more so than any other officer; he had been shot while walking alongside his flag captain Thomas Hardy. In the vicious fray of naval battle officers on all sides were expected to comport themselves with bravery and honour, cover was eschewed to provide an example to the men. Though Nelson is seen as an exemplar of this bravery many other officers lost their lives in similar fashion.
Though the cost of victory was the loss of Britain’s greatest naval commander, it was a truly fitting end. Nelson excelled in war and, with such a stunning victory at Trafalgar, he had ensured that Britain would rule the seas unopposed for more than a century. In the face of such dominance large scale naval battles were impossible, and Nelson could never flourish in such a world.
The timing of Nelson’s death was also fortuitous for his legacy. Napoleon’s success on the continent would continue largely unchecked until his ill fated invasion of Russia in 1812 and, despite her safe shores, Britain felt isolated and cold. Nelson offered a great reprieve during these troubling times and a beacon around which the British could coalesce.
Returned to England in a cask of brandy, aboard the aptly named HMS Pickle, Nelson received a welcome befitting a British Achilles. 32 admirals, over a hundred captains, and an escort of 10,000 soldiers escorted his coffin from the Admiralty to his final resting place at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he enjoys a preeminent position among the celebrated dead to this day.
Join Tommy Graham as Talking History looks back on the life and legend of Horatio Nelson. Is he the great hero history has made him out to be? Or has time created a distorted reflection of an average seaman?