Copyright 1995, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel
Every year on October 21 England commemorates Trafalgar Day. One cannot use the term "celebrates," for although this holiday does commemorate one of the greatest victories at sea, it also memorializes the death of England's most beloved admiral. In the years that have passed since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 his reputation has not been surpassed, but rather has grown as the admirals of other navies have looked to his life for inspiration and tactical instruction. Although many admirals have been compared to him, none has ever been set above him. Even Raymond Ames Spruance, who won an overwhelming victory over a superior Japanese force at Midway and went on to win many other great battles of World War II in the Pacific, can never take better than second place to this extraordinary man.
Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Duke of Bronté, has become inextricably linked with the seafaring profession, to the point that anyone who studies any period of naval history after him will inevitably acquire at least a glancing knowledge of his name. But it is not only for his great battles that he is remembered, although the stunning victories that he secured at the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar would be more than enough to secure any admiral a place in the history of naval warfare. His pre-eminent position as the greatest admiral who ever lived is secured by the innovative approach he took to naval warfare. He introduced new ideas to the naval profession, new ways to conceptualize warfare at sea and new ways to think about the navy.
Horatio Nelson was born on September 29, 1758, to Catherine Nelson neé Suckling, the wife of Edmund Nelson, rector of Burnham Thorpe, in the county of Norfolk. He was the sixth child and fifth son, but two of his brothers had died in infancy. Thus he is often reckoned as the third son.1 He was a sickly child from the start and grew up small and slender. His mother died on Boxing Day in 1767, when young Horatio was only nine years old.2 This left a permanent scar in his psyche that would later bear bitter fruit. It also meant that the rector had the difficult problem of bringing up his eight motherless children by himself.
When the Falklands Crisis of 1770 arose, young Horatio saw this as an opportunity to contribute his effort to the problem and asked his older brother William to write a letter to their father asking him to have their uncle Maurice Suckling take him to sea. Captain Suckling was dubious about this idea, since he regarded the boy as being too weak to be suitable for the rough life of a naval officer. But he agreed and Horatio was enrolled on the Navy's books as a midshipman on January 1, 1771. At the time he was only twelve years old, but this was the normal age for a potential navy officer to go to sea at the time. Horatio's introduction to the Navy was singularly unpromising, for when he arrived at Chatham he was unable to find his ship and no one would direct him to it. The slender young boy wandered about the docks until someone finally took pity on him and delivered him to the Raisonnable, but his uncle (who was her captain) was not aboard and would not arrive for days. Thus he spent several nights alone before his uncle finally arrived and welcomed him to the service.3
However this did not deter the young boy, and when the dispute with Spain died down and there was no prospect for the Raisonnable getting underway, Captain Suckling arranged to transfer him to a merchant ship so that he could get some sea time. There young Horatio learned the comeraderie of the merchantmen and a horror of Navy press gangs. This helped to shape his approach to command that would make him not just respected but loved by his subordinates. When young Horatio returned to his uncle's ship almost a year later he had developed an attitude about the Navy that took a little effort to work out. But his seamanship had certainly benefitted from it, and Captain Suckling gave him command of the ship's decked longboat as a reward for his good work in navigation.4
After this Horatio served on several other ships, including an expedition to the Arctic and a cruise around Cape Horn to the Indian Ocean. There he fell victim to malaria and was saved only because his captain was able to put him on a ship heading back for England. Even so he suffered throughout his life from recurring fevers. During the delirium of his fever he had a vision of a "radiant orb" beckoning him to be a hero, with King and Country as patron. When he returned to England, health restored but face lined from the ordeal, he took his examination to be commissioned as a lieutenant. Although the regulations stated that a candidate for lieutenant must be twenty and he was only eighteen, such rules could always be bent, particularly when Maurice Suckling was now Comptroller of the Navy. Suckling was on the examining board, but didn't reveal the relationship to the other two captains until after his nephew had passed successfully. Thus Horatio Nelson was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy on April 9, 1777.5
Afterward he was ordered to the Caribbean, where he participated in his first boarding exercise in November of that year. He captured an American smuggler in heavy seas after the first lieutenant had failed.6 While he was in the West Indies his uncle Maurice died, leaving him a small sum of money and the heirloom fighting sword of his great-uncle, captain Galfridus Walpole. This became his fighting sword for the rest of his life.7 When he was not yet twenty he "made post" as a captain, which would ensure his future career. Now no officer junior to him could be promoted over his head. So long as he committed no grave offense he would make flag rank in due time. However as commanding officer of the Boreas he soon found himself embroiled in trouble, since his moral courage led him to go head to head with corrupt merchants and officials who were trading with the newly-independent Americans in spite of the Navigation Acts. After he seized four Yankee ships he was pursued by angry colonials who resented this interruption of their profits. For a time he could not leave his ship for fear of being arrested. While all this was going on, Nelson fell in love with Fanny Nisbet, the widowed niece of the governor of Nevis. He was trying to get over his infatuation for Mary Montray, the wife of the elderly commissioner of the naval forces in the West Indies, who had returned with her elderly husband to England. Nelson was so despondent that he never realized that Fanny was a total mismatch for his personality, and he proposed to her in the heat of passion. They were married soon after, but this could not erase the fact that they were not really suitable for each other.8 The seeds of future sorrow were thus sown.
Shortly thereafter Nelson was recalled home and the newlyweds spent five long years ashore, quartering with his father in the old rectory at Burnham Thorpe to save money, since a captain on half-pay made very little. However the cold winters of Norfolk proved too much for Fanny and she grew increasingly cold and concerned about her own health. This drove a wedge between her and her husband, but at the time he did not realize it because he had nothing to compare his relationship with.
With the French Revolution came opportunity, since England soon came into conflict with her traditional enemy. Shortly after Louis XVI was beheaded, Nelson received orders to take command of the Agamemnon.9 At last he was back in his own element, and he soon encountered the enemy. However not all his encounters were successful. On October 22, 1793 he encountered several French frigates and was forced to flee. But in his dispatch to his commanding officer, Admiral Hood, he claimed that one French frigate was sinking as it fled, and in a letter to his older brother he claimed that he was facing a 170-gun super-ship.10 Since his brother worked in the Navy bureaucracy, he knew that this news would be passed around and he would be seen as quite the hero for taking on a ship with twice the firepower as his own. This shows that Nelson was quite willing to do what today would be termed "spin-doctoring."
Nelson also assisted with operations in the Mediterranean. While he was in Leghorn in 1795 he had a brief liaison with an actress named Adelaide Correglia. Although this did not appear to have a sexual component, it does show that he had the attitude that it was acceptable to have liaisons while in the Mediterranean and that it did not affect one's marriage vows so long as it was not taken past the Straits of Gibraltar.11 This attitude is not dissimilar to the attitude of many modern navy officers who believe that they can have sex with Third World women and not be cheating on their wives.
During this time he conducted several joint operations with Army forces in Corsica. While besieging Calvi he was wounded in the face, destroying the sight of his right eye but not the eye itself. In a letter to his wife he wrote, "...the blemish is nothing, not to be perceived unless told." A few days later he amplified, "It is no blemish so my beauty is saved." (italics original).12 His words make it quite clear that his blind eye was not disfigured in any way. He refused to allow the pain to keep him out of action any longer than he had to. This pattern of stoicism toward the pain of wounds that were caused by his insistence on being at the forefront of battle would reappear in later actions.13 Throughout the rest of his life he had trouble with his sight, since his blind eye still responded to changes in light intensity and was apt to pain him when exposed to bright sunlight. His good eye also troubled him, although modern physicians who have studied the records suggest that much of this was psychosomatic, produced by his concern about it. He often wore a sort of shade attached to his hat in order to shade his eyes from the intense Mediterranean sun. Later, in a letter to Lady Hamilton dated January 28, 1801, he asked her to make a shade for his good eye, since it was giving him trouble again and no one else would undertake the task.14
Although Nelson fought valiantly in the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy was soon forced to withdraw to their base in Gibraltar. Not long afterward, on February 14, 1797, an English force under Admiral Sir John Jervis encountered a Spanish force off the coast from Cape St. Vincent. Nelson, who had recently been promoted to commodore by seniority, was flying his broad pendant on the ship Captain. During the action he saw an opportunity to cut off several Spanish ships and left the line of battle in order to do so, although this was contrary to the Fighting Orders. Because of his action the English force was able to take the day. As a reward Jervis was made Earl of St. Vincent (and is hereafter referred as St. Vincent) and Nelson was made a Knight of the Bath. He also was promoted to Rear Admiral, although the promotion had actually been made several days before the battle but word had not gotten to him due to the slow communications of the time.
Wanting to reward his intrepid young admiral, St. Vincent suggested that Nelson should take a force to Teneriffe in the Canary Islands to capture a Spanish treasure ship that was anchored in the harbor of Santa Cruz. Although originally opposed to a purely naval expedition, Nelson decided it was worth the risk, since it would give him both great glory and substantial prize money. He completely ignored that the expedition was not for any objective of strategic or tactical importance, since they had no plans to occupy the Canary Islands.15 The Teneriffe expedition was a disaster from the start. When Captain Thomas Troubridge's surprise attack failed, Nelson decided he had to carry through with the frontal assault on the mole of Santa Cruz. He was in the first boat to go in and was just stepping out and drawing his sword when he was struck in the right arm by grapeshot. Quick thinking by his stepson Josiah Nisbet saved his life and he was taken back to his flagship Theseus. However his arm could not be saved and the surgeon took it off in a crude operation performed without anesthetic. Here again he displayed his stoicism towards pain and was giving orders to the captain of his flagship within an hour after the operation.16
Afterward Nelson was invalided back to England to recover. At first he believed that his naval career was over, but as his wound healed he went to the First Sea Lord (roughly equivalent to the Chief of Naval Operations in the United States Navy) and the First Lord of the Admiralty (roughly equivalent to the Secretary of the Navy), assuring them that he was still able to command at sea. When he was recovered he received orders to hoist his flag on the Vanguard and proceed to the Mediterranean. There he was ordered to find the French fleet which had slipped out of Toulon. After a long chase he finally located them at Aboukir Bay (Abú Qír in the original Arabic) in the Nile delta.
Nelson's force entered Aboukir Bay in the evening and fought the battle at night, by lanternlight. Because of the poor light it was difficult to identify friend and foe.17 Nelson always claimed that it was unique in being fought at night (only in modern times has that changed, with such encounters as the Battle of Savo Island in the Guadalcanal campaigns of World War II in the Pacific, where Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner had the advantage of modern communications and lighting) and being fought at anchor.18 The French admiral, Brueys, had anchored his ships in line ahead with the weakest ships in the van (leading edge) where the prevailing northerly wind would make it hard for the stronger ships in the rear to come and reinforce them.19 Thus Nelson aimed for the weak forward ships, since he recalled actions in which anchored ships proved to be like floating fortresses.20 Mahan would later comment upon this in his Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783, although he noted that the specific circumstances no longer applied in the age of steam.21 Instead of forming a proper battle line and attacking in an orderly fashion, Nelson let his captains pounce on the weaker ships at the front. He was also willing to risk sailing right up to the shoals of Aboukir Bay in order to get inside Brueys' line.22 When they got in position they dropped their own anchors at the stern, using a special rope arrangement that would keep them from swinging to the wind and thus becoming vulnerable.23
The Battle of the Nile was an overwhelming victory. But during it Nelson took yet another wound, this time to his head when a fragment of flying iron gashed his forehead, causing a flap of skin to fall over his good eye and temporarily blind him. At first he was certain that he was a dead man, but when he understood that it was not serious he insisted upon waiting his turn for medical care with the rest of the injured. The surgeon stitched his head up and bandaged it, then implored him to rest. However he was determined to write his dispatch for the victory. When neither his flag secretary nor his chaplain proved suitable he pushed the bandages away from his good eye and set to writing it himself. At about that time the French flagship, L'Orient, was afire. When Nelson got the news he hurried to the deck in time to see the explosion, but exertion and loss of blood overcame him not long afterward and he had to go below again.24
After the Battle of the Nile he was made Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe. Many people, himself included, were disappointed that he had been given only the lowest rank of the peerage when Jervis had been made an earl (the third rank) for a much smaller victory. However he was not the commander in chief of the area, so there was no precedent for giving a higher honor to a subordinate admiral. But King Ferdinand IV of the Two Sicilies made him Duke of Bronté.
This marked the beginning of the most disgraceful period of Nelson's life. He became infatuated with Lady Hamilton, the wife of the British ambassador in Naples, who provided him with the motherly attention that his inner child longed for and neurotic Fanny could not give. His judgement thrown off by aftereffects of his head injury as well as his emotional entanglement, he seemed to have lost his edge. All his campaigning went wrong and eventually he was recalled to England. There he came to the conclusion that his marriage was at an end and abandoned Fanny, although he provided for her financial well-being in spite of the burden it created for him.
Disgusted by his scandalous behavior, the Admiralty decided that he had to be gotten to sea again and away from Lady Hamilton. Thus he received orders to hoist his flag on the St. George and join Sir Hyde Parker in dealing with problems in the Baltic. Tsar Paul of Russia, who was not much more stable mentally than King George III of England, had decided to align himself with Napoleon and reconstitute the Armed Neutrality of the North from the time of the American Revolutionary War. In this Russia was joined by Denmark and Sweden.
Nelson's own plan for dealing with this resembled Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz's island-hopping strategy in the Pacific during World War II. He wanted to deal with Tsar Paul first with the idea that Sweden and Denmark would fall out of their own accord. He saw the "Northern League" (his term) as a tree with Tsar Paul as the trunk and Sweden and Denmark as the branches. If they cut down the trunk the branches would fall. However Sir Hyde could not abide the idea of an enemy at his back who might cut off the way out of the Baltic.25 Therefore he insisted in fighting at Copenhagen before going on to St. Petersburg. The fleet regarded the Battle of Copenhagen as an unpleasant necessity rather than a joy, since the Danes were regarded as brothers rather than an enemy of England (English and Danish are both Teutonic languages). There would be no cheering on the approach as there had been at the Nile. Some of the Danish volunteers in the Royal Navy were even allowed to switch to other ships so that they wouldn't have to fight their own countrymen.26 And ironically the battle proved to have been unnecessary, for Tsar Paul had been assassinated on March 24, but slow communications prevented the news from reaching Copenhagen until April 9 (much as the Battle of New Orleans could have been prevented if news of the Treaty of Ghent could have gotten to General Andrew Jackson in time).27
Copenhagen provided new challenges for Nelson's tactical powers. Here he would be facing a fleet fighting to defend their capital city, which lay inside a heavy defense of shore batteries and walls. It was only approachable by two channels: the King's Channel, the entrance to which was heavily defended by the Trekroner Fortress; and the Outer Deep.28 The Danish captains would have the advantage of operating in familiar waters, and they had taken the precaution of pulling all navigational buoys from the approaches.29 But to Nelson all this was just something to deal with. Although Sir Hyde was nominally in charge of this operation, Nelson did all the planning. In a letter he sent to his commanding officer's flagship on March 24, 1801, he laid out his plans for the battle, detailing the Danish defenses he would have to deal with and suggest the plan of going through the Outer Deep and around the Middle Ground to avoid the big Trekroner.30
Nelson was taking a terrible chance with this plan. To a modern person accustomed to the steam-driven ships that fought the great battles of the Pacific, coming around an island seems to be a simple enough maneuver. But Nelson's ships depended entirely upon the wind for motive power. In order to carry out his plan, the wind would have to turn a full 180° as soon as he got his ships to the southern approach.
Nelson's technique was much like that of the Nile in that he planned to attack the weakest ships first and work his way up the line.31 His gun crews were also trained to fire faster than the Danes, which cancelled out the advantage of the heavier guns in the Trekroner fortress.32 Even so, the Battle of Copenhagen was the heaviest fight that he had dealt with up to that time. However it was the only major fleet engagement in which he was not wounded, although several times he came very close to injury. It was during this time that Sir Hyde lost his nerve and tried to recall Nelson, only to have him commit his second great indiscipline and refuse to see the signal through the simple expedient of putting his telescope to his blind eye. Had he obeyed he would have had to go past the Trekroner and his ships probably would have been badly mauled. Instead he was able to secure a victory and call for a truce on his terms. As a reward he was made a viscount, elevating him to the second rank of the peerage.
After Copenhagen he returned briefly to England to recover his health before taking command of the forces guarding against the anticipated invasion of England. He commanded an abortive amphibious assault on Bolougne and blamed the failure on his not personally leading it. Afterward he went ashore for two years of comfortable retirement with Lady Hamilton, firmly believing that he would never go to sea again. But in 1803, shortly after the death of Sir William Hamilton, Nelson received orders to hoist his flag aboard Victory as Commander in Chief, Mediterranean. In this command he was to blockade the French forces. For the next two years he did not go ashore (primarily because it was so difficult for a one-armed admiral to get aboard a ship in an age before modern accommodation ladders, so that he found it easiest to just stay aboard his flagship). In early 1805 the French forces under Villeneuve managed to slip past his guard and he pursued them all the way to the West Indies and back. After this exhausting chase he applied for a period of shore leave to rest and recuperate, which was granted.
However he had hardly arrived at his home and begun to enjoy the company of Lady Hamilton before he received word that the Navy wanted him to cut his leave short and resume command of the fleet blockading the French. Although he was loath to do this, duty was always the first principle of his life and he accepted. Thus he left England for the last time and hoisted his flag once again aboard Victory. Already his mind was hard at work with the plans for the battle that would destroy the French fleet.
Nelson immediately began to confer with his captains and with his second-in-command, his old friend Cuthbert Collingwood. He laid out his plans for the coming battle, plans they greeted with great enthusiasm. He also ordered that all his ships be painted buff and black so that they could easily be identified as friendly ships.33
The plan the Nelson put into action at Trafalgar was a terrible risk. If anything went wrong he could lose everything, but if he succeeded he would win a greater victory than any admiral before him had. Only his personality and reputation held the captains to it and only his boundless self-confidence held him from doubting the wisdom of his own plan.34 Nelson divided his fleet into two columns and attacked at right angles to the Combined Fleet of France and Spain. Nelson commanded the weather column (the one closest to the wind) while Collingwood commanded the lee column (the one downwind). Nelson first aimed for the head of the Combined Fleet, then turned for the twelfth ship, hoping to take on Villeneuve's flagship. But when he failed to locate the flag in the chaos of battle, he told his flag captain, Thomas Masterman Hardy, to take his pick. Hardy aimed for the Redoubtable, which was commanded by the tiny firebrand Jean Lucas, who was even smaller than Nelson.35 As Victory closed on Redoubtable, she was able to fire a damaging broadsides into Bucentaure, Villaneuve's flagship. Then Victory hit Redoubtable and the close fighting began.36
Nelson was not the only innovator at Trafalgar, for Captain Lucas had decided to counter the superior British gunnery and ship-handling with a decapitation strike. He had trained his musketeers to an incredible level of precision and sent them aloft with orders to aim at the officers. When they were dead, the main force would attempt to board the leaderless ship.37 Thus Nelson met his end, struck down by a bullet fired from above. He survived for several hours, tormented by terrible pain and thirst. His death agonies were recorded in excruciating detail by his chaplain, Dr. Alexander Scott, who attended him to the last. After Nelson was dead, the entire fleet was plunged into genuine mourning that overwhelmed any sense of triumph at the tremendous victory that they had just won. Even tough old Captain Hardy spent the rest of his life shadowed by grief for the loss of his little friend.
John Keegan, in his book The Price of Admiralty, argues that Nelson's death was an almost inevitable result of his development of a purely offensive system of naval warfare, as opposed to the Duke of Wellington's defensive warfare, and thus he died in his first true general engagement. His death was an exemplar of the agonies of a mortally wounded man in such a war.38 Keegan points to the high share of casualties among officers on both sides at Trafalgar. The Royal Navy lost Nelson and two captains, while the Combined Fleet lost six captains, a commodore and three admirals. Redoubtable, which took the heaviest beating, had almost all its officers killed or wounded.39 However his argument that Nelson's death was inevitable seems as much a product of growing up steeped in the Nelson legend as it is sound ballistic analysis. Captain Hardy was walking beside Nelson at the moment of the fatal shot, and a few degrees difference in its trajectory could have put it through him instead (much as only a few degrees separated Mayor Cermack of Chicago and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Governor John Connelly of Texas and President John F. Kennedy, and had the bullet followed a slightly different trajectory at either of these assassinations history would have changed unrecognizably). And accounts of the Battle of Waterloo provide plenty of incidents in which Wellington was standing beside a member of his staff when the aide was badly wounded or killed. A few degrees' difference in the trajectory of the shot could have sent Wellington to join Nelson in eternity many years earlier.
Nelson's death became an occasion for national mourning. He was given a state funeral and buried in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, almost directly under the dome. His elder brother William was made an earl, although he had done nothing to deserve the honor and afterward distinguished himself primarily by making himself thoroughly odious to the rest of the family through his greed. The admiral's widow and sisters were all given substantial allowances from the treasury, but his beloved Lady Hamilton was abandoned to die in poverty and alcoholism, tended only by their daughter Horatia.
But the true measure of Nelson's life is the effect it had on his chosen profession. In his career, cruelly cut short as it was, he managed to introduced more novel ways of fighting than many other admirals who lived out a full lifetime. His innovations fall into three major areas: tactics, command and control, and personnel relations.
Nelson introduced four major tactical innovations: the amphibious assault, combined operations, the "crossing the T" maneuver and the concept of total victory. Ironically enough, he was not able to fully exploit the possibilities of amphibious operations or the "crossing the T" maneuver because of the inadequacies of the technology available to him. Both of these innovations would only come into their own when the technology had advanced to the point that they could become effective.
The best example of the amphibious assault is the disastrous attack on Teneriffe. Nelson planned it out in great detail, but the technology at his disposal was simply not equal to the task. In a letter to Jervis (soon to be made Earl St. Vincent), he produced a detailed discussion of the possibilities for such an attack, dealing with wind speeds and directions and the possibility of using transports to run army troops in. His overconfidence becomes painfully clear in his comment of "the business could not miscarry."40 But miscarry it did, and he carried the painful reminder of that failure with him for the rest of his days. The ships were totally dependent upon a wind that would blow them into the harbor well enough but would make it difficult to withdraw. And to actually storm the beaches they had only oared boats rather than modern powered landing craft such as saw so much use in the island campaigns of the Pacific in World War II, or on the beaches of Normandy in D-Day. Perhaps Nelson recognized these limitations, for he was an early proponent of the advantages of steam propulsion over sail, although it was in its infancy at his death. By contrast the Admiralty rejected steam power until forced to accept it or be rendered an inferior power.41 It is interesting to imagine what Nelson might have done had he survived Trafalgar. Perhaps he might have been able to create a modern navy in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Nelson had more success with combined operations, that is operations in which army and navy work in co-operation. All his campaigns in Corsica, including Bastia and Calvi, were done in combination with army forces. He kept the two services functioning together so well that he was soon nicknamed "the brigadier" by the army officers.42 In several letters to Lord Hood (the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean at the time) he discusses specifics of the defenses and his plans for the attack, which was almost entirely carried out on land.43 He, a naval captain, was effectively functioning as an army officer, and he did well enough at it to win the respect of his subordinates. He also corresponded on the subject with a German general and Ambassador Drake.44 He also originally planned the Teneriffe expedition to be a joint operation with Army forces, but was unable to get troops. At first he was strongly opposed to the idea of a purely naval attack, but when he heard of a treasure ship putting in there he changed his mind and St. Vincent was able to persuade him to try the naval attack, with disastrous results.45
He had more success with his idea of attacking the enemy fleet at right angles (the "crossing the T" maneuver), although here again the technology available to him was not really equal to the task. Early (1500's) battles between sailing gunships had been performed "in line abreast" (head-on) instead of "in line ahead" (alongside the enemy) because admirals still thought in terms of ramming and boarding instead of broadsides gunnery. But this changed by the seventeenth century, when admirals began to recognize that coming alongside their enemy enabled them to bring all their guns to bear against the enemy.46 By the close of the eighteenth century the line-to-line plan of battle had been established by standing order, but its effectiveness was destroyed by the problem of maintaining communications. An admiral couldn't get a simultaneous attack because his orders had to trickle down the line of battle from one ship to the next, since the closer ships obscured the view for more distant ones.47 Pre-Trafalgar battle doctrine also dictated a lengthy exchange of gunfire before closing for a boarding fight.48 However Nelson had come to believe that this was no longer feasible. In a discussion with Captain Keats during his brief period home before Trafalgar he said that there simply wasn't time to fight a battle by sheer cannonpower any more. Instead he would divide his force into columns and attack abreast, hoping that it would confuse the enemy so badly that they wouldn't know how to react and he would be able to take the day.49 He partly based his plan upon Admiral Rodney's success at the Battle of the Saints, April 12, 1782, which was the first example of breaking the line (sailing through and attacking on the leeward side).50 However Nelson took it even farther with his right- angles approach, which had one powerful drawback. Because sailing ships carried fixed guns that could only fire from the side, rather than rotating turret guns, the right-angle approach exposed ships to fire before they could shoot back. This can be seen best in the following diagram:
However Nelson believed that large ships such as Victory and Royal Sovereign would be strong enough to take this sort of battering.51 Many post- mortems of Trafalgar criticized Nelson for this, and more than one hundred years later the Admiralty warned officers that they should not take Trafalgar as an example for their own tactics.52 Geoffrey Bennet, in his book Nelson the Commander, claims that the traditional image of Trafalgar is wrong and Nelson didn't use the "crossing the T" maneuver at all.53 Whatever the truth about Trafalgar may be, as the power of modern turreted battleships became impressed upon a new generation of captains and admirals, "crossing the T" became the ideal of battle for the blackshoe navy. Only when the aircraft carrier and the submarine superseded the big-gun ship did the concept of the line of battle finally die away to be replaced by a complex, three-dimensional battle in which a ship could be menaced from above and below as well as from another surface ship.
Nelson was also the first admiral to aim for total victory in naval warfare,54 although his example has so ingrained the idea into the naval mind that it was only natural that Spruance should aim to annihilate the Japanese force at Midway. After the Battle of the Nile, when Nelson first put the principle of total victory to practice, the results even stunned him and he remarked, "Victory is not a name strong enough."55 But as he overcame the initial shock at what he had accomplished, he began to recognize the importance of totally destroying an enemy force. He then began to say, "If we had taken ten ships out of the enemy's eleven, and let the eleventh escape, being able to take her, I could never call such a good day."56 It has been wondered if he might have been able to capture or destroy all the ships at the Nile if he hadn't been wounded and put out of the action. However this ignores the problem of fatigue. After six hours of straight action the men were dropping at their posts from sheer exhaustion, and even Nelson couldn't have overcome that.57
Nelson also made notable innovations in the concepts of command and control. Most notably he is known for his emphasis on flexibility for individual commanders and on creative disobedience. However he did not hesitate to exploit the innovations of others to the fullest. For instance he quickly recognized the importance of Admiral Home Popham's new signal book, which enabled frigates to telegraph information to their commander- in-chief over as much as two hundred miles with only five frigates in the chain.58 Understanding the possibilities of this system, Nelson retrained his captains to best use his new tactics which would make for victory at Trafalgar.
The idea that an individual commander as the man on the spot should have the flexibility to deal with the situations as they came was a central part of Nelson's battle doctrine. He had a talent for communicating his ideas and plans to his captains so well that they understood what he would want them to do in any specific battle situation and carried it out as well as though he were there.59 Thus he was able to keep his orders general. In his orders for the assault in Teneriffe, item six noted that his captains were "at liberty" to send more men and to land under Troubridge's direction rather than have to get specific orders from Nelson.60 He also had the battle plan for the Nile worked out almost two months before he actually entered Aboukir Bay. His was the master plan and he left the details to individual captains, believing that they had the good common sense to innovate and act independently.61 Foley's decision to go inside the French line at the Nile when he saw the opportunity fits perfectly with Nelson's philosophy of independence of command.62 Nelson's orders to his captains at Copenhagen were also quite bare and simple. He expected them to apply these general details to the specific situations they encountered as the battle unfolded.63 Finally, Nelson's famous memorandum circulated before Trafalgar gave Collingwood full latitude to fight his whole line as necessary.64
The concept of creative disobedience flowed naturally from his philosophy of independence of command. If his subordinates should have the freedom to deal with situations as they came up, he should be able to take the initiative as a subordinate in a battle, even if it meant ignoring orders. The first great example of this was his "famous indiscipline" at the battle of Cape St. Vincent, where he pulled out of the line of battle in order to interdict the Spanish flagship, thus allowing the rest of the British fleet to catch up and get into fighting position.65 However this involved breaking the standing orders that no ship was to leave the line of battle without permission from the senior admiral.66 Oliver Warner claims that no other subordinate officer has taken such an initiative as Nelson did at Cape St. Vincent,67 although he does not make clear whether he is comparing Nelson only to other officers of the Royal Navy or officers of all navies (which would also require examining the history of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, which had its fair share of gung-ho admirals who didn't always mind Nimitz). Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, editor of Nelson's letters, suggested that Jervis didn't praise Nelson for his success because Calder, Jervis' flag captain, pointed out that Nelson had disobeyed standing orders to stay in the line of battle and that praising such disobedience would set a bad example for future officers.68 However Jervis is recorded as having responded to Calder's criticism with the remark, "... if ever you commit such a breach... I will forgive you also."69
The second famous instance of creative disobedience took place at the battle of Copenhagen, and has become a byword for creative disobedience. When Sir Hyde Parker lost his nerve he put up the signal #39, which called for a general withdrawal (at the time Popham's signal system had not yet come into use, so admirals were limited to a very simple vocabulary of numbered orders). Nelson ignored it and told his signal lieutenant to keep his own signal for close action up. He then turned to Colonel Stewart and asked him if he knew what signal Parker had up. He then put his spyglass to his blind eye and said, "I really do not see the signal!"70 After the battle was over Sir Hyde claimed that he had made the recall signal in order to give Nelson an excuse to retreat if he needed to, in order to spread the blame instead of leaving the entire onus for defeat upon Nelson.71 However this has the air of a man attempting to cover his act in the post-mortem, since it was clearly a general order rather than one made to Nelson's flagship alone, and there was no sign that it was permissive rather than an order. In any case Sir Hyde Parker was relieved of command and never went to sea again.
The final area in which Nelson made innovations was that of personnel relations. In this area he seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the best way to manage a situation. His innovations fall into two general areas: the concept of reciprocal loyalty and that unquantifiable management technique that has been called "the Nelson touch."
Reciprocal loyalty is the idea that one must give loyalty down the command hierarchy in order to gain true loyalty (as opposed to obedience through fear). Nelson seems to have understood this instinctively, although his year of service on a merchant ship at the very beginning of his career may well have helped to shape that instinctive understanding into practical action. His career shows many examples of the way in which he stood by his subordinates and saw to their welfare. Near the end of his years ashore, between the time of the storming of the Bastile and the execution of Louis XVI, certain elements of English society were becoming restive with the possibility of freedom promised by the French Revolution. While many aristocrats and country gentry were responding with hysteria, Nelson started looking for the cause of the problem and its solution. He went around the Norfolk countryside talking to ordinary people about their grievances and put the knowledge he gained to work.72 He also did his best to improve conditions aboard his ships and to see to the welfare of the sailors under him and their families. After the Battle of the Nile, Nelson wrote a letter to Lord Spencer (then First Lord of the Admiralty) asking after the welfare of the fourteen-year-old eldest son of a Marine officer who was killed aboard his flagship in that engagement.73 After the Battle of Copenhagen he wrote several letters trying to get recognition for his brave followers. In a letter to St. Vincent he expressed his belief that the commanders at Copenhagen should be given medals.74 In a letter to the Lord Mayor of London he claimed that he wouldn't complain if his reputation were the only thing involved, but he had the bravery of his subordinates to consider and wanted them recognized.75 And shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar the bosun who loaded Victory's mailbags forgot to include his own letter home to his wife. When word of this got to Nelson the mailship was already a good way out, but the admiral called it back to pass the one letter, remarking that the bosun might well fall in battle the next day.76 These small concrete actions won his sailors' love in a way that no amount of grand speeches and posturing could ever have.
Nelson also loathed the cat-o-nine-tails, the multi-strand whip that was the most common method of punishment in his time. He argued that it could ruin a good man and would only harden the troublemakers. Tradition holds that he never ordered any man flogged.77 However he permitted it in the ships of his subordinates and there is at least one recorded instance early in his career that he ordered men on his ship flogged, immediately after taking sailors from a press-gang.78 Nelson also let Hardy sentence many men to be flogged after he became Commander- in-Chief, Mediterranean, which seems to indicate that his great responsibilities prevented him from exerting his personal influence on his flagship's crew so much as he had when he was a captain or junior flag officer.79 However he was able to shape Collingwood's attitude toward punishment. Although Collingwood was a harsh disciplinarian he was not a flogger, instead preferring alternative punishments such as short rations, extra duties or the stern lectures about the importance of good behavior that came to be dreaded among his sailors.80
The expression "Nelson touch" has been applied to so many things that it almost loses its meaning for such lack of specificity. However it clearly refers to a mode of leadership that depended upon personal inspiration. Nelson's personality was critical in his leadership role, enabling him to inspire all his captains to learn his new concept of naval warfare before Trafalgar.81 Even Mahan remarked on Nelson's extraordinary ability to inspire his subordinates to great efforts.82 Part of this was Nelson's essentially positive attitude towards problems. To him a problem was an opportunity to overcome difficulties and accomplish the impossible, rather than a reason to find excuses not to fight, as Villeneuve often did.83 With this positive attitude he was able to fill his subordinates with an eagerness to join him in his plans. He also was willing to take the blame for problems rather than try to shuffle the blame off to his subordinates. He blamed himself for the problems in finding the French fleet before the Battle of the Nile, while many admirals would have passed the blame to his flag captain, Berry.84 This willingness to take his fair share of the blame for failure gave his subordinates confidence to take risks with him because they knew he wouldn't try to claim that it was all their fault if things went wrong. Nelson also had an almost instinctive feel for what would give a particular person confidence in him. When Sir Hyde Parker was behaving coldly to him at first, Nelson sent a gift of a turbot, a fish he knew Sir Hyde had a particular fondness for. This peace offering melted the ice between them so that Sir Hyde took the younger admiral in his confidence and let him command the detached squadron that actually did the fighting at Copenhagen.85
The term "Nelson touch" seems to originally have referred to the circular which he sent around the fleet on October 8, 1805, laying out his battle plans that would become Trafalgar.86 This memorandum had an effect that astonished even him. He himself used the term in his last diary, referring to sending Collingwood the "Nelson touch."87
However important all these innovations may be, they mean little if they were not implemented by succeeding admirals. Much as Nelson's name has been connected with the leadership of the Royal Navy, he was never its head. He died a vice admiral, which would be three-star rank in the modern insignia system. To have made admiral of the fleet (the British equivalent of a fleet admiral) he would have to have lived to 1844, at which time he would have been eighty-seven.88 However it is interesting to speculate as to how he might have served as First Sea Lord or even First Lord of the Admiralty, given his innovative nature and quickness to grasp the possibilities of others' inventions. Certainly he had the talents that would have been required. During the long blockade of Toulon he revealed a strong talent for administration, and he recognized the importance of time, remarking that "five minutes may make the difference between victory and defeat."89 If he had survived Trafalgar and been able to write up his ideas he might well have become a sort of sea-going Clausewitz, but that task would instead wait for Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American who had little actual fighting experience, as compared to Nelson's extensive list of actions.
Unfortunately his successors in the Royal Navy rejected his lessons because they weren't his equals mentally.90 At the close of the Napoleonic Wars they reimposed the old Fighting Instructions and the single line ahead formation. This scheme was retained for more than one hundred years, and only at the opening of World War I was it finally set aside.91 The leadership of the Royal Navy allowed the glory of Trafalgar to blind them to the point that they came to believe that they were destined to always win and therefore no longer needed to maintain the drills that had put Nelson's fleet at the top. They found ways to explain away the successes of the American frigates in the War of 1812 instead of learning from them.92 Most telling of this shift of power was the fact that several gun crews aboard the frigate United States under Stephen Decatur had originally served under Nelson aboard Victory and painted those names over their gunports to show their continued love for the dear little admiral, even if they had abandoned his navy.93
And it has been the United States Navy that seems to have best taken Nelson's lessons to heart and applied them. For instance Admiral Halsey regularly followed principles of reciprocal loyalty that Nelson would have approved of, seeing after the welfare of his subordinates and always taking his fair share of the blame for operations that went wrong. And even the much maligned Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel, who was treated so unjustly after Pearl Harbor, followed many practices that could have been taken straight from Nelson's ideas of command and control. As Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CinCPac) he held regular conferences with his task force commanders and passed every scrap of information he had to them.94 And Kimmel's famous order to Halsey when the latter asked how far to go in dealing with a Japanese threat while going on the expedition to reinforce Wake Island after the war warning of November 27 came through shows perfectly the Nelsonian principle of independence of command. Kimmel simply told Halsey, "Goddammit, use your common sense." Halsey called it the finest order he had ever received and commented that it gave him full authority as the man on the spot to deal with situations as they came up, and that Kimmel would back him to the hilt on his actions.95 In return for this implicit loyalty Halsey gave his own unshakable loyalty, vociferously defending Kimmel against his attackers and pointing out how Kimmel had done the best with a situation that was actually set for failure.96
However it is easy to point out similarities between Nelson's way of handling things and that of Halsey and Kimmel. This does not prove that they learned these techniques from Nelson. Without concrete proof that the ideas of Nelson were studied by them at the Naval Academy or otherwise common in the United States Navy, one can make the case that these men simply made an independent rediscovery of the same principles that Nelson instinctively understood so many years earlier.
There is evidence that Nelson's ideas were adopted by the United States Navy. Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great American theorist of sea power and coiner of the term, wrote a two-volume biography of Nelson and regarded him as the greatest exemplar of the principles of sea power. Furthermore the United States Navy produced an official edition of Southey's Life of Nelson that was given to every officer and rating in the Navy at one time.97 And Nelsonian language and imagery frequently makes its appearance in American naval history. For instance a biographer of Frank Jack Fletcher referred to a class at the Naval Academy as being a "band of brothers."98 And when Samuel Elliot Morrison criticized Fletcher's conduct in the relief of Wake, saying that he should have ignored Pye's order calling him back to Pearl Harbor, he couched the criticism in terms of Nelson's action at Copenhagen.99 In fact "to put the spyglass to the blind eye" was an expression for creative disobedience that was instantly understood by all American admirals, which indicates that they understood the importance of Nelson's action there. Finally, a board of inquiry that investigated an incident in which six American destroyers crashed into rocks because they were lead onto them noted explicitly that Nelson did not blindly follow his superior's orders at either Cape St. Vincent or Copenhagen and secured victory at both battles because he knew when to disobey orders.100
It is sadly ironic that Admiral Lord Nelson's life and the lessons he taught have been best appreciated by the navy of a nation that he regarded as a rebellious rabble, while his own beloved fleet abandoned or distorted them even as his broken body was being laid to rest in St. Paul's Cathedral. But he would appreciate the irony that the United States Navy is now the largest and most powerful navy in the world while the Royal Navy ranks a mere ninth among the world's fleets.
Nelson, Horatio, Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Duke of Bronté. The Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson. Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, ed. London: Henry Colburn. 1845. 7 vol.
_______. Nelson's Last Diary. Oliver Warner, ed. London: Seely Service. 1971.
_______. Nelson's Letters to his Wife and other Documents 1785-1831. George B. P. Naish, ed. London: Navy Records Society. 1958.
Bennet, Geoffrey. Nelson the Commander. London: B. T. Batsford 1972.
Bonnet, Stanley. The Price of Admiralty: An Indictment of the Royal Navy, 1805-1966. London: Robert Hale 1968.
Bradford, Ernle. Nelson: The Essential Hero. London: Macmillan 1977.
Fenwick, Kenneth, editor. Southey's Life of Nelson. London: The Folio Society 1956.
Halsey, William F. with J. Bryan III. Admiral Halsey's Story. New York: McGraw- Hill 1947
Hibbert, Christopher. Nelson: A Personal History. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 1994.
Howarth, David and Stephen Howarth. Lord Nelson: The Immortal Memory. New York: Viking 1988.
Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty: War at Sea from Man of War to Submarine. London: Hutchinson 1988.
Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. Boston: Little, Brown 1990.
Pocock, Tom. Horatio Nelson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1988.
Pope, Dudley. The Great Gamble. New York: Simon and Schuster 1972.
Regan, Stephen D. In Bitter Tempest: The Biography of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. Ames: Iowa State University 1994
Warner, Oliver. Nelson's Battles. New York: Macmillan 1965.
Copyright 1995, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel
This paper was originally written for a class in European Intellectual History, taught by Professor Niles Holt, Illinois State University.
Home | Naval History | Reading | Writing | Fandom | Gallery | Articles | Bookstore | Personals | Work at Home | Link to Me
Want to look for other titles of interest?