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Posted on Jan 7, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Revisiting Nelson and Trafalgar

By Luis Reis

Now that 200 years have passed on one of the most famous naval battles that ever took place in history, it’s time to look back and try to get a fresh look upon it. What made this battle so special? In order to answer to this question we must understand Nelson’s history.

Few naval commanders have received so much attention in the history of mankind. Is Nelson worth of such praise? What were his achievements by October 21st of 1805? In order to fully understand the woes that filled England after Nelson’s death, one must look back to the decade that precedes it.

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By 1795, Nelson was 36 years old, a captain of nearly 15 years seniority and in command of the 64-gun, Fourth-Rate ship of the line, Agamemnon. His experience was wide in terms of seamanship, exploration, general naval service, minor skirmishes and amphibious operations, but he had never done what most regard as the primary role of a naval officer – engaged a fleet of enemy ships in combat – or, for that matter, fought a major single-ship action.

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The first naval conflict that Nelson was involved occurred by March of 1795, while still at the Mediterranean Fleet under Vice-Admiral Hotham. The battle was insignificant but it gives early evidence of Nelson’s attitudes to combat. After capturing two French ships (the Ça Ira and the Censeur), Nelson wanted to chase the rest of the fleeing fleet but Hotham was satisfied by the capture and later was promoted to full admiral after being voted the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. The way Nelson manoeuvred the Agamemnon, was the first proof of his legendary naval tactics and wits. In arguing with his admiral, he demonstrated his belief that subordination and hierarchy were means, not ends themselves. And in his desperation to pursue the enemy, he showed his insatiable desire for victory. We have to wait almost two full years to see Nelson involved in a significant naval battle. His opportunity came on Valentines Day in 1797, when he was under the command of Sir John Jervis, who took over the Mediterranean Fleet in December 1795. Sir Jervis used influence to have Nelson promoted to Commodore so that he was eligible to command a small squadron. On 14 February 1797, off Cape St Vincent, Nelson, now in the 74-gun Captain, first showed the world his great abilities.

The Spanish fleet attempted to sail from Cartagena to Cadiz and was met by the British. The Spaniards, comprising 27 ships of the line, were sailing through the night in their anxiety to reach Cadiz and were split into two groups, in no particular formation. Jarvis had 15 of the line rigidly deployed in two columns, which he began to form into a single line of battle before tacking in succession towards the largest body of the enemy. It was a slow procedure and might have allowed the bulk of the Spanish fleet to escape. Nelson towards the rear of the British line was the first to see a more direct means of attack. He took his ship out of the line, wore round, and aimed to head-off the van of the main enemy force. In doing so he technically broke his orders, a situation which would be unthinkable to a previous generation. Jervis, however, spotted the same opportunity soon afterwards and signaled others to the same effect.

Nelson was supported by Captain Cuthbert Collingwood in the Excellent, who also fell out of the line to follow him. Nelson realized that two Spanish ships, the San Nicolas of 80 guns and the San Josef of 114, collided in the confusion. The Captain was already damaged but he took her alongside the San Nicolas. He then personally led the boarding party which captured the San Nicolas and, from her, the San Josef, one after the other. Two other Spanish ships were captured but the victory is also notable for the way in which the British triumphed against numerical odds of nearly two to one.

Sir John Jarvis was amply rewarded. He was created Earl of St Vincent, a higher rank in the peerage than Nelson was ever to attain. Nelson, who had contributed more to the victory than anyone else, was knighted and become a national hero for the first time. Two weeks before the battle, though he only heard later, the Admiralty had promoted Nelson to Rear-Admiral of the Blue. In July 1797 at the harbour of Santa Cruz in Tenerife, Nelson’s right elbow was shattered by a musket ball while he was landing on this well-defended Spanish harbour. He was immediately taken back to the Theseus, whose surgeon amputated his arm that night.

It was with the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798 that Nelson become, for the first time as a fleet commander, the hero of the hour in Britain. The Nile campaign had been an epic of naval warfare. For three months Nelson had led a squadron with virtually no reference to higher authority, making all his decisions on the basis of scanty evidence. He had been through extraordinary emotional highs and lows. He had recovered from a storm, failed and then succeeded in finding the French fleet and inflicted a uniquely crushing defeat on it. Turkey and Naples bestowed gifts and decorations on him. In Britain he received a pension and a peerage, though a baron other than an earl, because he was not a commander-in-chief. He became Baron of the Nile. There were some negative consequences that came with the Nile campaign as well. He was shot in the head and the wound left severe concussive effects. Prolonged stress now began to affect his health and state of mind; for it was in the following months that the most controversial events of his life occurred – the start of his affair with Lady Hamilton and his involvement in the execution of the Neapolitan Jacobins. His infatuation with Emma was to bring scandal and ridicule; both developments raised further doubts as to his judgment outside strictly naval matters.

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