Nelson, Trafalgar and the Meaning of Victory by Andrew Lambert

View Original / Andrew Lambert / History Today

DeM Banter: Where are the Lord Nelsons today? Another thing to ponder…has America already seen her Trafalgar? The British Empire dominated the seas for so many decades…perhaps greater than a century…and then there was Jutland. Was that the beginning of the end for the British at sea? So… has the US seen our Jutland? Maybe it is just time to go to bed….

Andrew Lambert explains why Nelson’s life and death should never be forgotten.

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, oil on canvas painting by JMW Turner, c. 1806, Tate BritainOn October 21st, 1805, the Royal Navy ended the greatest threat to Britain, and her world position, since the Armada but in the process Admiral Lord Nelson died. In death, Nelson, like King Arthur and other national saviours and redeemers, was recreated as a secular deity.

Six thousand Frenchmen and Spaniards were killed or wounded at Trafalgar as well as 1,700 Britons; nineteen enemy ships were taken and sunk; but the immensity of the victory at Trafalgar transcended such mundane calculations. It guaranteed British control of the oceans, and the creation of a unique global power that would endure for more than a century. The iconic value of the two names Nelson and Trafalgar for the British state was immense: they would be combined in many forms, most obviously in the centre of imperial London.

Nelson was the greatest warrior that Britain ever produced. The unchallenged master of war at sea remains a vital part of the British national identity, a refuge in times of crisis, the inspiration for bold and decisive action. His name and example filled the rhetoric of that other ‘Great Briton’, Winston Churchill, through the darkest days of the Second World War, while the film Lady Hamilton was his favourite entertainment throughout the war. We might not need him as a war-god today (the threats we face are more insidious), but we still need those talents that Nelson brought to his art: insight, intelligence, judgement, leadership, commitment and courage. The world would be a smaller place without him.

Next year, ships from Spain and France, joining vessels from every other navy with a soul, will be at Portsmouth, the home base of the Navy since Nelson’s time. His flagship HMS Victory has been restored, museums and galleries will present new and old versions of Nelson and bookshelves and souvenir stalls will groan under the weight of matter that can only induce indigestion. But the celebrations will also give us an opportunity to understand his place in a twenty-first century national identity. We need to do more than turn him into a one-dimensional hero, or simply repeat the catalogue of events and achievements with which he is associated. We need to think about our past, to understand how it was created, both as event and as record, in order to decide for ourselves what is important.

Over the past two centuries many Nelsons have been created, most of them far removed from the man of flesh and blood. He has been made into both god and villain, sometimes worshipped sometimes ignored; yet he remains the icon of the British state in adversity, associated with the ultimate sacrifice, the greatest devotion and the highest form of human endeavour. His greatness lay in rising to every challenge, in working above and beyond the professional expertise of a naval officer to become a strategist and statesman in pursuit of his nation’s interests. He had the courage to act when others waited for orders, and the genius to be right on almost all occasions.

He remains an inspiration, tangible proof that mankind can achieve immortality in a secular age. We should be careful with our heroes. Nelson remains the ultimate expression of those qualities that made Britain free and wealthy.

It is not possible to consider the meaning of Nelson and Trafalgar over the past two hundred years without undertaking a fresh examination of the underlying historical reality. It has been customary to study Nelson as a naval commander and his talents were unequalled in this sphere. His professional skills were exceptional, as were his seamanship, tactical acumen, operational insight, intelligence assessment, speed of thought, leadership and judgement: in all these areas, he was, without doubt, the ultimate exemplar of the art of the admiral, and his unique abilities enabled him to render the complex business of naval battle simple for his followers.

Yet beyond all this, and to a greater extent than almost any of his predecessors, contemporaries and successors in the Army or Navy, Nelson viewed war on the grandest scale. He saw battle not as an end in itself, but as a means of advancing wider national aims; his concerns were the broadest aims of his country: to protect British political, commercial and religious institutions from French aggression and to increase national prosperity.

It was this elevated vision of his art that made Nelson the only contemporary fit to stand alongside Bonaparte as exponent of total war in the revolutionary age, a point Bonaparte himself recognised by keeping Nelson’s bust in his private quarters at the Tuileries.

Nelson fought each of his major battles – the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar – with distinctly different tactics, because each had to serve a different purpose, and was fought in different circumstances. At the Nile in August 1798 he annihilated the French fleet, capturing eleven of the thirteen enemy battleships, marooning Bonaparte’s army in Egypt and reversing the balance of power in the Mediterranean, to pave the way for a renewed European alliance against France. He sought to exploit the superior seamanship, gunnery and initiative of his fleet to annihilate the enemy rather than accepting a limited, inconclusive battle, and these ideas had been instilled into his ‘Band of Brothers’, the captains of his fleet, in the weeks before the battle. It was an unprecedented feat of arms in its scale, in its daring assault on the enemy line and in its effect on the balance of power in the Mediterranean – but in the aftermath Nelson, unlike other admirals of his day, did not wait to clear up the prizes and go home for his reward. Instead, eager to divide his fleet to exploit his victory, he sent separate squadrons off to pursue different strategic missions, burned any prizes too badly damaged to be repaired quickly and to sent the others back to Britain. Battle was only the beginning.

At Copenhagen in April 1801, Nelson was anxious to remove Denmark from the Armed Neutrality, a hostile coalition that challenged Britain’s right to use economic blockade as its primary weapon against France. But he did not want to go to the extremes of the Nile. His objective was to clear the way for the British fleet to proceed swiftly to attack Russia, which was the head and heart of the coalition. The battle was fought in a very difficult situation where the slightest mistake could cause disaster; it had to be micro-managed, and when three ships ran aground he had to demonstrate his resourcefulness and speed of thought immediately to rearrange the line and save the day. Once he had persuaded the Danes to accept an armistice, Nelson’s instinct was to hurry on to Russia, but the Russian elite murdered their wayward Tsar Paul and ended their threat to British interests.

On his return to Britain, Nelson commanded the Channel defences, exposing the hollowness of the threat of invasion by which Napoleon hoped to bounce the British into peace on his terms. Instead Nelson’s great prizes in the Mediterranean, Egypt and Malta, were secured(after the battle of the Nile, Nelson’s fleet had blockaded the French in Malta and supported the Maltese insurrection) and the island-fortress was taken by British force in 1801. The Peace of Amiens in 1802 was thus an armed truce between France, the land power that dominated Europe, and Britain, the sea power that now controlled the oceans and the trade of the world. Nelson accepted this outcome, and defended the Peace from his seat in the House of Lords to which he had been elevated in 1798.

Nelson learned his skills in command and naval tactics from Admiral Hood (1724-1816), but developed the administrative and logistical routines of Admiral Sir John Jervis, Earl St Vincent (1735-1823), the tough old officer who taught him how to keep his fleet ready for anything year in, year out. Nelson used this combination of strategic genius and practical management to increase the impact of naval power as a counter to the rampant, dynamic armies of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. By ensuring that France could not use the sea to extend her reach beyond the European mainland, he transformed the strategic value of naval power in war. As directed by Nelson, naval power was a unique instrument that gave Britain global control over the oceans, blocking and destroying any attempt by the French fleet to escape the limits of Europe, while securing trade for Britain with the rest of the world to replace the European markets that were now closed to her.

For all their virtues, St Vincent was no tactician and Hood could not have run a modern campaign; Nelson could do both, and better than either man. Without Nelson’s battles and his equally important, if less spectacular, campaigns after the collapse of the Amiens truce, Britain could not have survived the threat of the destruction of her commercial system, which would have ruined the state and forced a pathetic capitulation.

In 1803 the Amiens truce broke down. Prime minister Henry Addington, under pressure from the French, took Nelson’s advice and refused to evacuate Malta as required under the terms of the truce, then declared war before Napoleon was ready. For the next two years British strategy rested on the defensive, waiting for the French to make the first move and leave themselves exposed to a devastating counter-attack. The British were blockading the French fleets in Brest and Toulon, destroying the French maritime economy and waiting for Napoleon to try an invasion. If Napoleon tried to invade England or Ireland, attack the West Indies, or return to Egypt, his force would be wiped out.

This was the context of Trafalgar. In 1805 Napoleon sought an opportunity to strike at Britain without having to fight Nelson and the Royal Navy. Facing an imminent land war with Austria and Russia, Napoleon had to act soon, but his schemes to attack British commerce or invade were brought to nought by the skill and insight of British admirals, who anticipated and countered his every move. Perhaps the most remarkable of his actions was Nelson’s pursuit of the Franco-Spanish fleet led by Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve to the West Indies, whither it had been sent to dislocate British naval strategy by threatening the valuable sugar islands. In September 1805 the largest Franco-Spanish fleet was at Cadiz, handily placed either to attack Britain’s allies in the Mediterranean, or to sortie into the Atlantic to attack trade, or to invade Portugal or the British Isles. It had been blockaded since 1803 when the war was resumed but now it had to be destroyed. Nelson was the man for the task; he responded to the call of duty without hesitation.

After a brief rest ashore, Nelson joined the fleet off Cadiz in late September. His presence electrified the officers and men under his command as he explained his new plan for decisive victory at his table in the great cabin of HMS Victory. He had worked out the plan to ensure they could be wiped out in a single battle, removing the need for Britain to stand on the defensive.

Nelson’s arrival unsettled Admiral Villeneuve, the enemy commander in Cadiz. However, Napoleon first ordered Villeneuve to leave Cadiz to support an attack on Naples, and then, disgusted by his failure to set sail, sent a replacement. Stung by the insult, and wrongly believing Nelson’s fleet was one third weaker than his own, Villeneuve put to sea on October 19th, hoping to avoid a battle. In fact his thirty-three battleships faced twenty-seven British vessels. Nelson let them get to sea, anticipating their every move. At dawn on the 21st he was in sight of the enemy, and ordered his fleet to form into two columns for a novel, direct approach, exposing the flimsy, unarmed bows of his leading ships to the full weight of enemy broadsides. He needed to close with the enemy as fast as possible because an approaching storm gave little time to finish his task. He himself had to lead the line of battle, because only he had the skill and judgement to settle the point of impact and ensure that the enemy flagship and command centre was taken out in the initial attack. This would reduce the enemy to a leaderless collection of ships, which he could rely on his efficient, battle-hardened captains to wipe out in the remaining hours of daylight. He therefore calculated on taking or destroying twenty enemy ships as the ideal result of the battle.

While his wonderful Trafalgar Memorandum and verbal briefing explained the larger picture for his subordinates, he knew that not all were men of insight. For the simple fighting men among them he left them a straightforward message, if you cannot do anything more intelligent, engage the enemy at close quarters.

Nelson devoted much time and thought to building the morale of his officers and men. He walked around the flagship, showing himself to the crew; he was their talisman, their guarantee of success. He also composed and sent the immortal signal, ‘England Expects That Every Man will do his Duty’. His first choice had been ‘England Confides’, which would be read as ‘has confidence’, or ‘trusts’, but that could not be sent easily, so he fell back on ‘Expects’. What he meant to say was Nelson trusts the men will do their duty, a far more positive signal, and this is why they cheered him. As they did so they could see he was leading them into battle, setting an example of courage and confidence that they had only to follow. By leading in this bold and public way Nelson made it easy for everyone else to be brave.

The need to control the pace and direction of the main blow, thereby giving the second column, led by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, the freedom to destroy, settled Nelson’s role at Trafalgar. Characteristically, he took the hardest part himself. Despite heavy enemy fire, the Victory drove under the stern of Villeneuve’s flagship, the Bucentaure, inflicting terrible damage with her first broadside. The decisive blow had been struck, and with his supporting ships now also coming into action, the battle was as good as won. As Nelson paced the deck with the captain of the Victory, Thomas Hardy, commenting on the handling of the ships that were joining the battle, he was mortally wounded by a musket-ball. He died three hours later just as the last guns of the battle fell silent. It was the ultimate in heroic deaths: Nelson had the time and the audience to settle his private affairs, clear his conscience and issue his motto, ‘Thank God I have done my duty’.

No one could deny that he had. He had inflicted a blow on the navies of France and Spain from which they could never recover. Trafalgar, as the battle was named by George III, crushed the naval power of the enemy, with total losses of more than twenty ships. It also destroyed their morale. The Spanish and French had in the main fought like heroes, but even so they had been utterly beaten.

As well as the climax, Trafalgar was the coda to Nelson’s achievement. He had already destroyed Napoleon’s maritime strategy and invasion plans by pursuing Villeneuve to the West Indies and back, while the intelligence he sent ahead had enabled Admiral Calder to intercept Villeneuve’s fleet off Cape Finisterre (Spain) and block their attempt to enter the Channel. It was in the broad strategic awareness shown in such actions that his true genius was shown best. Other commanders would have won on October 21st, but not half as well; only Nelson, with his apparent ability to read the enemy’s mind and counter his moves, could decisively sink the strategy of the enemy.


Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College London. His book Nelson: Britannia’s God of War has just been published by Faber and Faber.

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