Nelson may have been history’s greatest admiral, and Trafalgar its greatest naval victory. But the concept of ‘genius’ sometimes applied to great commanders – as if it were some innate characteristic – is too simplistic. Genius is created by the interaction of individual, personal experience, and military context. Nelson and Trafalgar can only be understood as the consummation of a new way of naval warfare developed over several decades by Britain’s Royal Navy.
It involved mastery of sailing by a professional officer corps of the highest quality. It involved relentless drilling in gunnery until crews could load and fire at two or three times the rate of their enemies. It involved the testing and refining of a new tactical doctrine that overturned the naval practice of two centuries.
Nothing at Trafalgar was entirely new, except that the war machine had been brought to an absolute peak of perfection, and the new method was applied more completely, more uncompromisingly, than ever before. Nelson and Trafalgar were the finishing point of a revolution in naval warfare.
Nothing quite like it had ever happened before; and nothing quite like it would ever happen again. Just as generals fantasise about their own ‘Cannae’, so admirals fantasise about their own ‘Trafalgar’. But history does not work like that. There were very particular things that made Nelson and Trafalgar possible. So great was the British advantage that the French and Spanish crews were beaten men before the guns opened fire.
So great was it that all attempt at manoeuvre was eschewed. No deception or cunning were employed. Of subtlety, there was none. The British ‘charged’ headlong into the enemy line and engaged ship-to-ship at point-blank range, the opposing vessels often laced together by collapsed masts, spars, rigging, and sails, until the enemy vessels had been reduced to blasted hulks and heaps of bodies.
It took this form because the disparity in fighting power was so great that the British admiral knew that he needed to do no more than enable his captains to lay their ships alongside those of the enemy; this was all, and then his work was done.
So Nelson was not a model for admirals everywhere: he was the embodiment of a particular military system at a particular moment in military history. Nor was Trafalgar a model for naval victory for all time: it was made possible by circumstances peculiar to European naval warfare in 1805.
Our special this time takes a close and critical look at both the career of Horatio Nelson and his greatest and final victory.
Britain’s greatest admiral
Admiral Horatio Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, on the brink of his greatest triumph, sealed his reputation as a British national hero. He was mourned not only by those who served under him but by the nation at large, becoming only the third non-royal Briton to be awarded a state funeral.
To this day, long after other admirals of his age have passed from popular memory, Nelson’s name is instantly recognisable. So too is the physical image of the slight yet dauntless figure – he stood just 5 feet 4 inches tall – who had lost both the sight in his right eye and his right arm in combat.
His death was the subject of several major works of art, including a giant wall painting in the Palace of Westminster. Quite apart from the renowned column in Trafalgar Square, there are at least ten other monuments to him across the English-speaking world. These range from ‘Nelson’s needle’, overlooking Portsmouth harbour and funded by the crew of HMS Victory, to a stone pillar in Montreal and a bronze statue in Bridgetown, Barbados.
How did Nelson attain his near-legendary status? This article highlights the leadership skills that took him to the top of his profession, while a companion piece provides an in-depth analysis of his last battle.
The making of a commander
As the son of a vicar, growing up in rural Norfolk, it was far from obvious that the young Nelson would spend most of his life at sea. But, as with so many other 18th-century naval commanders, it was a family connection that set him on a maritime career. Aged 13, he benefited from the patronage of his maternal uncle, who captained a ship guarding the approaches to the Thames Estuary.
A combination of ability and good fortune ensured a rapid rise for the young Nelson. After gaining experience of seamanship as far afield as the West Indies, the Arctic, and India, he returned home to find that his uncle had been appointed Controller of the Navy – a promotion that helped Nelson reach the rank of lieutenant.
A posting to the frigate Lowestoffe brought another useful connection: the ship’s captain, William Locker, who had served with the great Admiral Hawke. From Locker, he learned the value of the daring and aggressive tactics that had brought victory for Hawke at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759 (see MHM August/September 2020).
By the age of 21, Nelson was captain of a frigate, giving him an opportunity to exercise independent command. He married a young widow and cultivated a link with King George III’s son, Prince William Henry, on a tour of the West Indies. But, for all his evident talent and industrious networking, Nelson’s career seemed to have stalled.
His fortunes were turned around by the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France in 1793, an event which coincided with his appointment to command the 64-gun ship-of-the-line Agamemnon in the Mediterranean.
Here Nelson began to perfect his style of leadership, as he took part in a series of actions, including a blockade of Corsica. During a landing to besiege the town of Calvi, he was blinded in his right eye when enemy gunfire threw up a pile of stones in his face.
He also began to show impatience with his more-cautious superiors. In March 1795, Agamemnon took the lead in pursuing and attacking a larger French ship, but Nelson was dismayed by the failure of the fleet commander, Admiral Hotham, to press home his advantage.
‘My disposition can’t bear tame and slow measures,’ he confided to his wife, adding that had he been in charge, ‘either the whole French fleet would have graced my triumph, or I should have been in a confounded scrape.’
In July, he took the risk of blockading the officially neutral port of Genoa, which was falling under French control, in support of Britain’s Austrian ally. Nelson was showing the independence of mind that would in time elevate him above his peers.
Reputedly his favourite ship, Agamemnon was under Nelson’s command in the Mediterranean for the first three years of the French Revolutionary Wars. It was a third-rate ship-of-the-line – a two-decker warship designed to fight in line of battle, a naval tactic in which opposing columns of ships fired at each other from their broadsides. Agamemnon was known as ‘Eggs and Bacon’ by its crew, as sailors preferred homely names to the Classical ones favoured by the naval authorities. The ship took part in the Battle of Trafalgar, then was wrecked four years later off the South American coast.
A national figure
Two years later, under a new and more-decisive commander-in-chief, Sir John Jervis, Nelson first emerged as a figure of national renown. Jervis was a tough disciplinarian but also an effective team leader, who took his captains into his confidence and bonded with those, like Nelson, who shared his proactive approach to warfare.
Aboard a new ship, HMS Captain, in February 1797, Nelson was one of Jervis’s commanders when they encountered a Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent, on the southern coast of Portugal. The Spanish were on their way to link up with a French force to launch an invasion of Britain.
Outnumbered by 27 to 15 ships, nonetheless the British initially had the upper hand, driving through a gap in the Spanish line. But Jervis’s manoeuvre then looked likely to fail as the leading Spanish ships moved to attack the British rear.
This was where Nelson came into his own, taking his ship out of line to block the enemy. Captain took heavy punishment from the larger Spanish vessels, but compensated with a superior rate of fire from its 32-pdr cannon and 68-pdr carronades. This bought time until support arrived.
The two ships opposing Nelson, the San Nicolas and San Josef, became entangled, enabling him to lead boarding parties, under heavy fire, to capture each in turn. It was a remarkable achievement, even allowing for the fact that the Spanish had been under heavy attack from other British ships.
Cape St Vincent had been a joint effort and the victory was not Nelson’s alone; but he had clearly understood Jervis’s intentions and had shown courage in taking the initiative. He was quick to manage the ensuing publicity, taking care that his version of events reached the British public. The press wrote admiringly of ‘Nelson’s patent bridge for boarding first-rates’, ensuring that he was the star of the action.
The keys to success
‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.’Nelson
Promoted rear-admiral, by the following year Nelson had a fleet of his own and was charged with seeking the French in the eastern Mediterranean. At the beginning of August 1798, he located them on the coast of Egypt.
The French ships lay at anchor in Aboukir Bay, 20 miles north-east of Alexandria, where they had disembarked Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. The invasion force was supposed to win control of Egypt and then to threaten British-held India. In frustrating these plans, Nelson achieved his first major victory as a fleet commander. What was the secret of his success?
He had shown his willingness to lead from the front at Cape St Vincent, but there was more to it than that. He built a strong relationship with his officers and men, so that they understood his expectations and gave him unstinting loyalty.
Like most naval leaders of his day, he could be harsh in administering punishment – setting aside religious scruples, for example, to approve the execution of mutineers on a Sunday. But, more importantly, he instilled discipline and teamwork by keeping his crews busy, constantly reinforcing vital skills by training in seamanship and gunnery. Nelson was a popular commander. The mourning for his loss at Trafalgar would stand testimony to the genuine regard that his men had for him.
With his captains, whom he dubbed his ‘band of brothers’, Nelson formed a close bond. Unusually for admirals of his time, he took his subordinates into his confidence and shared information with them. His personality made them want to serve him. ‘He is so good and pleasant a man,’ wrote Captain Edward Codrington, ‘that we all wish to do what he likes, without any kind of orders.’
Informal discussion was reinforced by the circulation of a ‘public order book’ from one ship to another. From this, Nelson’s captains learned his views on battle tactics without a need for detailed instructions. They understood what he had first learned from William Locker – that the key to victory was to take the enemy by surprise, and attack with speed and aggression. ‘No captain can do very wrong,’ he stated, ‘if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.’
Nelson’s ‘band of brothers’
Nelson took this phrase from Henry V’s famous speech before the Battle of Agincourt in the Shakespeare play to describe the 15 ships’ captains who were present at the Nile. The term implied an equality and a sense of comradeship among the officers. It enabled Nelson to avoid the kind of professional jealousy that had followed the victories of some earlier admirals, who had failed to recognise the contribution of their subordinates. Some, such as Thomas Hardy, the flag captain of HMS Victory at Trafalgar, would serve under Nelson
Victory at the Nile
The Battle of the Nile, or Aboukir Bay, brilliantly showcased Nelson’s style of combat. His opponent, Admiral Brueys, believed that he occupied a secure position, with his ships anchored in line of battle in a bay protected by rocky shoals.
It was late afternoon on 1 August when the two fleets sighted each other, and Brueys assumed that Nelson would not risk an attack so close to nightfall. Against expectations, Nelson ordered an immediate attack, using lanterns to enable the fight to continue after sunset. His approach was devastatingly simple: his captains were to position themselves alongside each of the enemy ships and engage them in battle.
Taking the risk of running aground in the shallow water, the lead British ships cut across the head of the French line, firing on them from the shore side. The French were unprepared for action from this angle and their losses were heavy. Nelson and the rest of the British fleet engaged them from the seaward, catching them in a deadly crossfire. They worked their way down the French line until they reached the 120-gun Orient, a giant three-decker believed to have been the largest warship in the world at the time.
Orient damaged the Bellerophon and drove it off, but then caught fire when sailors from another British ship, Alexander, threw combustible material aboard. Gun crews kept up a relentless fire so that the French were unable to quench the flames, which eventually spread to the magazine, with predictable results. The noise of the ensuing explosion, and the hail of shattered timber, momentarily halted the fighting.
Aboukir Bay was a decisive victory. Only two of Brueys’ 13 ships escaped, leaving Napoleon’s army stranded in Egypt and his dreams of Middle Eastern domination in ruins.
Although the French Navy had put up a good fight, they were no match for Nelson’s leadership and the discipline and gunnery of his well-trained crews. Nelson himself was conscious of the battle’s importance, supposedly saying at the outset that ‘before this time tomorrow, I shall have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey’. In a fitting tribute, he was created Lord Nelson of the Nile.
The next two years, however, were something of an anti-climax. Remaining in the Mediterranean, Nelson found himself defending the royal family of Naples against the continuing French threat. He was drawn into the complex politics and diplomacy of the Neapolitan state, a field of activity for which he lacked the necessary skills.
More significantly, he embarked on a passionate relationship with Emma Hamilton, the much younger wife of the British ambassador. The ménage à trois that developed, with the compliance of Emma’s husband, scandalised opinion at home. Many of Nelson’s peer group began to fear that his colourful private life had begun to distract him from his public responsibilities.
Redemption in the Baltic
An important development in the Baltic theatre allowed Nelson to retrieve his reputation. This was the formation, in the autumn of 1800, of the League of Armed Neutrality. It was an agreement between Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia to resist Royal Navy searches of non-combatant ships for French contraband. Britain regarded this as a pro-French alliance, which threatened its access to northern European sources of timber and naval stores.
The Admiralty chose the elderly and cautious Sir Hyde Parker to command the British fleet despatched to challenge the Armed Neutrality. Nelson, still under the cloud of the Hamilton affair, was appointed his second-in-command.
He chafed at Parker’s timid refusal to confront the Russian fleet, which represented the heart of the enemy alliance. Instead, at the end of March 1801, the British fleet arrived at Copenhagen, where the Danish had unwisely anchored their ships along the approaches to the city. This made it possible for the Royal Navy to attack them one after the other, repeating the tactic that had served so well at the Nile.
Nonetheless, the formidable defences of Copenhagen, which included ships, forts, and floating gun-platforms, made this a more challenging prospect than the Egyptian encounter. Parker hesitated, but eventually allowed Nelson to make an assault.
He had to enter a narrow strip of shallow water, the King’s Channel, between the harbour and a large shoal, the Middle Ground, on which three of his ships ran aground. Nelson, aboard the Elephant, pressed on, and his ships engaged the Danish defences. They met strong resistance, especially from the floating batteries, but began to make headway.
At this point, Parker signalled that Nelson should discontinue the action. In one of the best-known instances of disobedience in naval history, Nelson told the captain of the Elephant, ‘I have only one eye and I have a right to be blind sometimes.’ He then placed his telescope to his sightless right eye and declared that he did not see the signal. Had he withdrawn at this point, it would have been disastrous, as his ships would have had to retreat in front of Copenhagen’s still-intact northern defences.
Instead, with losses high on both sides, Nelson approached the Danes for a truce, backing his proposal with a threat of continued bombardment. He was fortunate that the Russian Tsar Paul I, at whose behest the Danes had joined the Armed Neutrality, had just been assassinated. This made them more willing to come to terms.
Copenhagen was a much closer and bloodier victory than the Nile. Yet Nelson’s superiors recognised his decisive contribution and decided to appoint him in Parker’s place as overall commander in the Baltic. He had gambled, and his luck had held. The Danes had not been decisively defeated, but a significant threat to British interests had been lifted.
Climax of a career
By the summer of 1801, Nelson was back home, with a more low-key appointment to command the forces guarding against a French invasion in the Channel. He enjoyed more than a year of rest after the Peace of Amiens, signed in March 1802, provided a temporary lull in hostilities.
He was fêted as a national hero when he travelled with the Hamiltons to visit Sir William’s estates in South Wales. His fleeting visit to Monmouth incidentally inspired a local family to assemble an impressive collection of Nelson memorabilia, which can still be seen at the town museum.
The ending of the brief truce with France in the spring of 1803 led to Nelson’s rapid recall to head the Mediterranean fleet. He was now aboard HMS Victory, the 104-gun first-rate ship-of-the-line with which his name will always be associated. His task was to thwart Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain, for which he was assembling an army at Boulogne.
It was vital for the Royal Navy to prevent the enemy’s Mediterranean squadron, under Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, from escaping into the Channel to take part in such an assault.
This involved Nelson in a prolonged blockade of Toulon – a monotonous and demanding assignment that required constant activity to keep his ships supplied and in seaworthy condition, while maintaining the health and morale of the crews. The strategic situation became more challenging when Spain once again combined forces with France, potentially outnumbering the Royal Navy.
Villeneuve managed to evade the blockade twice, and on the second occasion, in May 1805, it was reported that he was heading westward across the Atlantic. This posed a serious problem for Nelson. Did the French intend to attack British possessions in the West Indies, in which case was it his duty to pursue them? Or was this a devious manoeuvre to lure him away from home waters in support of the planned invasion of Britain?
Nelson decided to give chase, and when the French turned for home, he followed them back across the Atlantic. He reached Gibraltar in late July, while Villeneuve took refuge in Cadiz.
This epic pursuit was a preliminary to the final reckoning between the two antagonists, on 21 October 1805, off the south-west coast of Spain.
Nelson was to lose his life at Trafalgar, leaving a peerless reputation as a master tactician and leader of men at sea. The ‘immortal memory’ would be toasted by his successors for two centuries to come.
Nelson’s remarkable courage and willingness to take risks, his ability to spot an opportunity, and his determination to achieve total victory have guaranteed his place among the greatest of naval commanders. •
Born at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, son of clergyman
Joined navy as midshipman
Captain of frigate Hinchinbrook
Start of French Revolutionary War; given command of Agamemnon
Lost right eye in action against French on Corsica
Took part in Battle of Cape St Vincent; appointed rear-admiral; lost right arm in attack on Santa Cruz, Tenerife
Destroyed French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Egypt
Defeated Danish forces at Copenhagen
Commander-in-chief of Mediterranean fleet aboard Victory
Pursued Admiral Villeneuve’s fleet to West Indies and back; killed in hour of victory at Trafalgar
Ceremonial funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral
Graham Goodlad teaches History and Politics at St John’s College, Southsea, and is a regular contributor to MHM.
Click here to read Military History Matters' Neil Faulkner's analyses of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Roger Knight (2005) The Pursuit of Victory: the life and achievement of Horatio Nelson (Allen Lane).
John Sugden (2005) Nelson: a dream of glory (Pimlico).
John Sugden (2012) Nelson: the sword of Albion (Bodley Head).