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Horatio Nelson saved his nation from Napoleon’s eager grasp

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Tuesday, 31 July 2012

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This edited article about Lord Nelson originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 757 published on 17th July 1976.

Nelson, picture, image, illustration

Nelson at Trafalgar by Ron Embleton

The post-chaise rattling through the countryside, heading towards Portsmouth, carried inside it a physically broken man. Torrid suns and fever, to say nothing of constant bouts of sea sickness in all parts of the globe, had worn his frame to a shadow. At Corsica he lost an eye, at Teneriffe an arm. He carried battle wounds in his head and in his side, and what with one thing and another, should have been pensioned off by a grateful nation to enjoy the rest of his life in peace at his country residence at Merton.

Instead, Admiral Lord Nelson, the idol of the British people, was off to fight the French in the Victory, one of the largest ships of her generation.

An enormous crowd waited at Portsmouth to do him homage. Almost without exception, they had tears in their eyes as they watched him pass. The reason for the crowd’s emotional reaction to him went beyond the usual sort of hero worship given to national heroes, and was summed up aptly by the historian Robert Southey.

“He had loved his country with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his strength,” he wrote, “and therefore they loved him as truly and fervently as he had loved England.”

Nelson, who was not above enjoying his role as a hero, commented as he went aboard: “I have had their hurrahs before. Now I have their hearts.” And with that, the battered, one-eyed, one-armed admiral went aboard his ship and sailed away, taking the hopes of England with him.

The fate of England did indeed lie to a great extent in Nelson’s hands. Napoleon was now master of Europe, and only the sea power of England remained as an obstacle to his ambition. For two years Nelson had been in the centre of the vast military and naval drama, a drama which was to reach its climax in the sea battle in Trafalgar Bay.

On the 29th September, 1805, Lord Nelson arrived outside Cadiz, where he joined forces with Lord Collingwood. The enemy, under Admiral de Villeneuve, was tucked safely inside the harbour, and had no intention of venturing forth – until Nelson offered a bait too tempting to let slip. He detached a number of vessels from the fleet in a feigned expedition to Gibraltar.

Seeing the English ships now outnumbered, de Villeneuve led his French and Spanish fleet out of the harbour. At this point the English ships began to steer southwards in order to let the enemy out of the harbour comfortably.

Once the French fleet was well out to sea, Nelson gave the signal for a chase. Nelson had no great genius for manoeuvres. His object was simply a close and decisive action. “If signals are not seen or not clearly understood,” said the admiral, “no captain will do wrong by placing his ship alongside those of the enemy.”

The battle did not begin until the following day, by which time the French fleet was well in sight, off Cape Trafalgar, close to the southernmost point of Andalusia. Nelson was on deck, wearing the ribbons of all his orders on his breast. Lord Collingwood, on his ship the Royal Sovereign, was busy removing his boots in order to wear silk stockings. “If we should get shot in the leg,” he explained, “it will be handier for the surgeon.”

Shortly after, Nelson called for the signal officer. “Make the signal to bear down on the enemy in two lines,” he ordered. He then went down to make his will, which was witnessed by Captain Hardy and Captain Blackwood who had come aboard from the Euryalus. Afterwards, Nelson went up to the poop and ordered Mr. Pascoe, the signal officer, to hoist his celebrated signal: ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY.

It has been said that this famous signal was to have been worded: “Nelson confides that every man will do his duty,” and that his name was replaced by that of England at the suggestion of Hardy and Pascoe, who also pointed out that if the words ‘confides that’ were used, they would have to be spelt out letter by letter with a long string of flags. The word ‘expects’ was therefore substituted.

The first shot was fired on the English ship Royal Sovereign at noon. This salute of iron was received in silence by the Royal Sovereign, who waited until she had drawn astern of the Spanish three decker, Santa Anna, then raked her decks with a murderous fire that disabled 14 of the Spanish guns and killed or wounded 400 of her crew.

In the meantime, Nelson’s ship was moving on, silent and intent, searching for the French admiral’s ship, a task which was something in the nature of a lottery, as the enemy flew no colours. Eventually, right in front of her, lay the huge four-decker, Santissima Trinidad. Correctly divining that the French admiral’s ship must be nearby, Nelson bore down on her. As he did so, the Bucentaure, Villeneuve’s ship, and seven or eight other enemy ships, opened fire on her. Still the Victory advanced without firing. By the time she had come close enough to rake the Santissima Trinidad with her larboard guns, 50 of her men had been killed and 30 wounded.

It was at this point that the Victory came into collision with the French Redoubtable. With their yard-arms locked, Nelson was now forced to fight at close quarters with a ship whose tops were full of riflemen, a practice Nelson had always forbidden on his own ships, considering it a petty form of warfare that killed men without deciding a battle.

Already wrapped in sheets of flame, the two ships drifted slowly through the smoke of battle. Gradually, although the fighting had continued unabated, the smoke cleared a little from the decks of the Victory, enough for the marksmen to see the epaulets of the English officers. A marksman kneeling in the mizzen-top removed a cartridge from his belt that was to do more damage than all the ships of France or Spain.

On the quarterdeck of the Victory, Captain Hardy had turned to leave Nelson’s side to give an order when Nelson collapsed on the deck. Immediately, Hardy, a sergeant of the marines and two privates, rushed forward to lift him up. “Hardy,” Nelson said as they raised him, “they have done for me at last.” Nelson was then carried down to the cockpit, where he ordered that his face should be covered with a handkerchief so that the crew might not recognize him.

In the meantime, the Redoubtable’s top men had shot down 40 officers and men, destroying so many that the French, seeing the upper deck clear of all but dead or wounded, tried to board her. It was an enterprise which was to cost them dear. A boatswain’s whistle piped, “Boarders; repel Boarders,” and the order immediately summoned swarms of smoke-begrimed bluejackets to the deck, where they killed every man who had managed to board the Victory.

Below decks, Nelson’s life was now ebbing away fast. But he was still alive when Hardy returned from the fighting above to inform him that in all fourteen enemy vessels had struck. “That’s well,” Nelson said, “but I had bargained for twenty.” He lingered on for a little while longer. After murmuring some inarticulate words, he said quite distinctly, “I have done my duty. I thank God for it!”

Above, beneath the setting sun, his fleet was lying in two groups with the shattered hulks of the enemy ships all around them. The British losses had been heavy; 449 killed and 1,241 wounded. But Nelson’s wish had been granted. Twenty of the enemy’s ships had struck before the battle ended.

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