Horatio Nelson was born in Norfolk in 1758. He joined the Navy and rose to become the most famous naval officer in British history. He will always be remembered for winning the crucial Battle of Trafalgar. Its importance is demonstrated by the central London monument, Nelson’s column.
Nelson came from minor nobility in Norfolk. His mother died when he was young and after school, at the age of 12 he joined the Royal Navy. He was mentored by his uncle, Maurice Suckling and started aboard his ship as a seaman. He was immediately promoted to Midshipman, a junior officer.
It has always been said, that at this time, England ruled the waves. True enough, they had a navy far bigger and better than anyone else. As an island nation, Britain relied on its navy to prevent an invasion. To this day there has not been a successful invasion for 1000 years. Both Napoleon and Hitler realised the task was too great, mainly because of the Royal Navy.
The eighteenth century saw the expansion of Atlantic trade. American and West Indian colonies were growing cash crops like sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee and tea, using African slaves. The Royal Navy was vital in keeping the sea trade routes open. During this time there was an almost constant war with the French. Fighting all in the Americas, India, Africa and Europe, the great colonial powers vied for greater and greater control of trade. Nelson joined the Navy during the War of American Independence, France was aiding the colonists in seeking freedom and getting one over on the enemy at the same time.
Life on a naval ship was harsh. Sea sickness, which Nelson suffered from, was debilitating. Lack of food and water caused disease and death. The cold, the heat and the wet conditions. Foreign climates could be oppressive, the West Indies could be a death trap for the British. Yellow fever was a killer. Nelson caught malaria and continued to suffer bouts of the disease all his life. The crew were tough guys as well. A 12-year-old Midshipman telling seasoned matelots what to do, must have been a daunting prospect.
During his early years, he gained experience and promotions. He sailed in the West Indies, Central America, the USA, Europe and India. He blockaded, escorted, attacked forts, captured enemy ships, impounded their booty and even went on an expedition to find the North-West passage. This was based on a theory that you could sail to the Pacific from the Atlantic by going around the top of Canada, through the ice in summer. If this could be achieved it would greatly benefit sea trade. It was never discovered.
The defeat to America led to a period of under-unemployment, but the French Revolution had developed into the Terror and Europe was uniting against a country that had killed their King. Nelson was sent to the Mediterranean. He had his own command now. He helped in the invasion of Corsica and was stationed in Genoa, before the French captured that city. He approached his first proper action with glee. Eventually defeating the French 84-gun ship Ca Ira. He was full of schemes for raiding and amphibious assaults and was frustrated by the traditional and understandable reticence of those in command. The Royal Navy did not take risks, it did not need to.
In 1797 he was stationed off Cadiz, raiding Spanish treasure ships. He had a plan to raid Tenerife. He led one assault party, but was stuck by a musket ball in the right arm which he lost. The Spanish were better prepared than expected and the mission was a failure.
His next mission was to hunt the French fleet. They were based at Toulon in the south of France. Napoleon had amassed an army, but Nelson did not know where they were going. Battling the winds, Nelson could not prevent Napoleon slipping out of Toulon and away. Hunting for him down the Italian coast, he eventually discovered that Malta had fallen, and the French had then headed East. The probable destination was Egypt, they were discovered at Aboukir Bay. Nelson immediately ordered an attack. He was able to slip his ships through a gap in a protecting shoal and devastated the French fleet at anchor. Napoleon had lost his fleet and his army was marooned in Egypt. It was a stunning and bold victory. Nelson was given a hero’s welcome on return at Naples and then in England.
The trade embargo imposed on England by France, known as the Continental System was a problem to everybody else. Nelson was sent with Admiral Hyde Parker to the Baltic to deal with the Russians, Prussians, Swedes and Danes. At Copenhagen the plan was to continue to blockade then negotiate. But Nelson had a plan of attack. He had a damaging battle with the Danish fleet and when told to withdraw, he refused to see the signal. He got his victory, and negotiated with the Danish, but his insubordination can only have been tolerated due to his success and popularity. He was a risk taker, but kept winning.
The uneasy peace of Amiens in 1801, gave Napoleon cover to prepare to invade England. As he prepared his armies, Nelson was given command of the Med, he was stationed off Toulon, shadowing and blockading the French navy under Villeneuve. The French escaped and sailed to the West Indies, Nelson chased him but never found him. Villeneuve returned to Europe and was holed up in Cadiz, awaiting the call to prepare for an invasion of England. Nelson was waiting outside. When Villeneuve made his move, Nelson was ready. The two large navies sailed in a long line in the same direction, watching each other. Nelson made his move, the daring and innovative and now famous action of cutting the line. He sailed his flagship straight for the French and Spanish. Cutting the line, the French fleet was broken into pieces and destroyed, never to be a force against England. The result was an end to French invasion plans. Napoleon had turned towards Vienna and had his glorious day at Austerlitz. So, the French ruled the land, but thanks to Nelson, the English had complete mastery of the sea.
But it was in his finest hour that this great hero’s luck run out. Shot by a French marksmen he died as the battle of Trafalgar raged. It had almost been a suicide mission. Nelson was a man of courage, commitment and experience. He ruled not with authority, but with understanding and even love. His experience meant that he could relate to his men, then they followed. He was vain and extremely sensitive to praise or criticism, but his understanding of strategy and tactics and ultimately being able to self-sacrifice made him a winner.
He was an individual, made by the Navy, but not really like them. They must have hated the risks he took, but since he kept winning they just had to love him as the people did. He put his life on the line, when the country was perceived to be in its direst need. But as throughout English history, “cometh the hour, cometh the man.”
His final communique to his fleet before action stations was, “”England confides that every man will do his duty”.