The secret of Trafalgar is obscured by the simplicity of its conception. On 29 September 1805, 15 of his captains dined with Nelson aboard the Victory in celebration of his 47th birthday. Anticipating battle with the combined Franco-Spanish fleet then at anchor in Cadiz harbour, he took the opportunity to explain his plan.
Instead of sailing parallel to the enemy fleet in line-ahead formation, such that full broadsides could be fired as soon as possible by as many ships as possible, the British fleet would be formed into two divisions and these would sail directly towards the enemy line, cutting it at right-angles into three segements. That was it. He called it ‘the Nelson touch’.
The assembled captains were stunned. Some were overcome and shed tears. But all approved: ‘It was new – it was singular – it was simple!’ Nelson explained that ‘no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy’.
Yet this was not some whimsical device, nor even simply the instinctive cunning of a master of war. It was something deeper, with roots going back to the very origins of British sea-power in the late 17th century – the final consummation, in a sense, of more than a century of accumulating maritime experience and success.
The rise and rise of the Royal Navy
1688 was the year in which the Glorious Revolution confirmed the outcome of the Civil War. The events of that year signified that Britain would not become an absolute monarchy: it would remain a polity in which the power of decision would be vested in a Protestant Parliament formed of men of property – a collective social elite formed of nobility, gentry, merchants, and bankers. Commerce and colonies were thereafter a central preoccupation of Britain’s ruling classes. The island race became an imperial race, and the spearhead of empire was, of course, the Royal Navy.
The value of British overseas trade increased ten-fold during ‘the long 18th century’ (1688-1815). Britain became the dominant power in the Caribbean, North America, and India. The Navy expanded from a strength of 173 warships in 1688 to 732 in 1809.
By Nelson’s time, the Navy was Britain’s greatest industry. The Royal Naval dockyards at Plymouth, Portsmouth, Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, and Sheerness were the country’s biggest employers, with some 15,000 on the roll, many of them highly skilled workers. The dockyards themselves were huge complexes of dry docks, worksheds, mast ponds, storehouses, saw pits, and roperies (a man-o’-war required 20 miles of rope for its rigging). The warships themselves were among the largest workplaces of the age, a 100-gunner having a crew of 837 men in 1807.
Dockyards and warships
The dockyards sucked in commodities from all over Britain and beyond: 11,100 tons of bread per year; 9,500 tons of meat; wood from North America and the Baltic (it required 4,500 tons of timber to build a 74-gunner); iron from the Weald, the Forest of Dean, and the Black Country; and much else.
The huge labour force was also of diverse origin. Only 51% of the men of Nelson’s Navy were English: 19% were Irish, 10% Scottish, 3% Welsh, and the remainder were foreigners.
Most peacetime Royal Navy sailors were volunteers, attracted by the lure of adventure, by the prospects of making a fortune in prize money, or more prosaically, among the labouring poor, by the appeal of wages, food, and shelter. Life in the Navy was not always as bad as caricature would have it. The food was often much better than that of the poor in civilian life, with ample rations of pork, beef, biscuit, vegetables, butter, cheese, oatmeal; also of beer, rum, wine, and brandy; and including bottled lemon and lime juice to prevent scurvy.
There were worse things than being a Jack Tar in early 19th-century Britain. Nonetheless, wartime demand for ships’ crews could not be met without the press gang, which operated in coastal towns with full legal authority to abduct men for service on the King’s vessels. Ideally, the press gangs went for skilled sailors; at a pinch, pretty well any unfortunate would do.
In contrast to the Army, where the purchase of commissions prevailed – with the inevitable consequence of idle and incompetent aristocratic officers – the Navy recruited and promoted officers largely on the basis of merit.
Influence and patronage were important, especially in the early stages of a career. Nelson’s experience was fairly typical: the sixth child of a Norfolk parson, the 12-year-old Horatio joined the Navy at Chatham with the support of his mother’s brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, a childless widower who treated his nephew as a surrogate son.
Nelson was effectively apprenticed to Suckling, receiving an excellent education in his trade, then being helped to gain his lieutenant’s commission and command of a frigate. Promoted captain in 1779 – at the very young age of 20 – he gained valuable military experience in the American Revolutionary War.
But from the outset, Suckling could have done little for his protégé had Nelson not been conscientious and diligent. Naval officers could not purchase commissions; they had to pass exams. In consequence, the Navy created a corps of professional officers highly skilled in sailing and in war.
Few were aristocrats: the typical naval officer was certainly ‘a gentleman’, but usually one from solid gentry, merchant, or professional background rather than titled family. Again, Nelson, the son of a parson, was typical. The Navy, with its career open to talent, breathed the pure air of the bourgeois revolution – unlike the Army, which would be plagued by entrenched class snobbery all the way to the killing-fields of the Somme and Passchendaele.
A revolution in naval warfare
The size, experience, and professionalism of the Royal Navy increased throughout the long 18th century. Nelson is perhaps inconceivable in 1705 or 1755. When he shot to fame and notice in 1797, playing a leading role in Admiral Jervis’s victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, he was a consummate professional, a master of his trade, the living embodiment of a military tradition that had been honed to a peak of perfection. And, supreme in his understanding of the rules of naval warfare in the age of sail, he was able to transcend them in a brilliant new synthesis.
Here is how Andrew Lambert explains it in a new National Maritime Museum volume published in association with the opening of their new gallery:
Nelson’s achievement was not the product of genetic heritage, undaunted courage, or lucky accident. He possessed an educated mind, one that never stopped gathering and processing information, assessing ideas, and using the accumulated understanding to achieve his aims. This commitment to career-long education distinguished him from his peers, moulding the genius that enabled him to transform the art of war at sea from the prosaic to the sublime.
The problem for which Nelson supplied the ‘sublime’ solution was simple enough:
Battles fought by evenly matched fleets of wooden sailing ships armed with heavy cannon were rarely decisive. Linear battle was an exhausting attritional business. The only way to win was to kill or incapacitate so many of the enemy crew that they could not fight or sail the ship. In most cases this took hours, and the losers had ample opportunity to escape before they lost too many ships.
The result was that naval victories failed to confer maritime supremacy: the defeated enemy simply sailed away, made repairs, and continued in play. Thus Nelson’s preoccupation with battles of annihilation. ‘It is annihilation the country wants,’ he told his officers before Trafalgar, ‘not merely a splendid victory.’
This was the simple truth. Admiral Villeneuve’s combined Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships anchored at Cadiz lay positioned to threaten the British Isles, to attack Britain’s allies in the Mediterranean, or to disrupt the country’s Atlantic trade. The Royal Navy had spent the previous two years in thrall to Villeneuve’s fleet, endlessly searching, watching, chasing, often ignorant of its whereabouts, never certain of its intentions, and unquestionably thrown onto the defensive by its very existence. Nelson’s aim was to destroy it – and thereby effect a profound shift in the balance of global military power.
A military genius
There was more to Nelson’s genius than his formula for a battle of annihilation. His physical courage was phenomenal. He fought in the front rank of landing and boarding parties, and he exposed himself, conspicuous in his admiral’s uniform and decorations, on the quarterdeck during close ship-to-ship combat. It cost him an eye, an arm, and eventually his life. But it created a bond with his men, not just the captains who were his ‘band of brothers’, but with the ordinary sailors and marines of the fleet.
A charismatic communicator and a caring commander, Nelson was idolised by the lower decks. He may have been vain, priggish, and chauvinistic, but he was never arrogant or distant in his relations with his men – unlike so many contemporary officers, whether naval men like Admiral Collingwood, who was too wooden to be liked, or army generals like the Duke of Wellington, whose aristocratic caste prejudices created an impenetrable social barrier.
Nelson’s courage and charisma, combined with his superlative professional expertise, provided the platform for his consummation of the British naval tradition at Trafalgar. It provided him with a superb instrument of victory: a fleet that was highly motivated, well trained, and absolutely confident in his leadership.
Of the 837 men on a 100-gun man-o’-war, 1% were commissioned officers, 1% warrant officers, 14% inferior or petty officers, 20% marines, and 64% ‘the people’ – that is, the ordinary seamen. These men formed the disciplined collective workforce of what was, at the time, the most complex artefact in existence; in this sense, there was nothing else in the contemporary world quite like a ship-of-the-line.
But, explained veteran sailor Samuel Leech in 1843, ‘the crew of a man-o’-war is divided into little communities… [and] these eat and drink together, and are, as it were, so many families’.
The small units Leech had in mind were the ‘messes’ of six to eight men who shared a table at mealtimes, slept in neighbouring hammocks, and, in the inferno of battle, worked a gun together. Deep emotional bonds and strong mutual loyalties made each ‘mess’ a microcosm of the moral fabric of Nelson’s fleet.
The greatest test of that fabric was an exceptionally rare event: full-scale battle between opposing main fleets.
The new gallery
Nelson, the greatest naval genius of the age of sail, perhaps indeed the greatest admiral of all time, provides the inevitable anchor of the new ‘Nelson, Navy, Nation’ gallery at the National Maritime Museum. Curator Quintin Colville is clear, however, that the concept at work is Nelson in context, not Nelson under the spotlight.
The gallery explores the naval history of Britain during ‘the long 18th century’ (1688-1815), and in particular the relationship between the Navy and the British people. Nelson is seen as the culmination of a century of war, and the aim is to tell a wider story, with a large cast of characters, and a strong narrative of growing maritime power and projection.
As well as being academically rich and educationally effective, this approach has the advantage that it unlocks the whole of the rich collection held by the museum, and provides for a display that can reach out to many audiences.
That said, there is a framework. The Nelson gallery is not concerned with empire and slavery. Other recently refurbished galleries – ‘Traders: the East India Company’ and ‘Asia and the Atlantic: slavery, trade, and empire’ – address such issues fully. The framework here is the nation – the making of the nation, a growing national identity, and the way in which the Navy in general, and Nelson in particular, became supreme expressions of nationhood.
Not that this is any kind of sanitised history: images and objects tell a rounded story. The press-gang, the lash, and the gallows are part of it. The mutinies at Spithead and the Nore have their own display. The shocking violence of naval warfare is represented by samples of round-shot, bar-shot, and grape, and by the pikes, cutlasses, and pistol-clubs used in hand-to-hand fighting. The grim horrors of the orlop deck are symbolised by the surgeon’s instruments – the amputation knife, the bone saw, and a tourniquet that looks like a thumb-screw.
But the story is broadly positive, with Trafalgar as its climax, and the apotheosis of the stricken hero and genius represented by a stunning display of early 19th-century celebrity culture – mugs, pitchers, Toby jugs, medallions, chinaware, samplers, snuff-boxes, fans, and much else, all with a Nelson theme.
Still, however much we acknowledge and approve the contextualisation, nothing can detract from the extraordinary power of the three most compelling exhibits: the stockings stained with the blood of the loyal secretary cut in half by round-shot; the breeches cut open when the wounded admiral reached the cockpit; and the coat with the musket-ball hole at the front of the left shoulder, and part of the epaulette shot away.
The face of battle
At Trafalgar, the 33 Franco-Spanish ships-of-the-line were engaged by 27 British. The action was decided by thousands of cannon firing round-shot (32lbs of cast iron travelling at up to 900 miles an hour and designed to smash ship’s timbers), bar-shot or double-headed hammer shot (spinning through the air to cut through sails and rigging), and tiered grapeshot (designed to cut down enemy crew).
Round-shot crashing through the side of a ship could cut men in half, crush them beneath their own guns, and shatter timbers into lethal flying fragments. Bar-shot could be just as deadly: a single missile destroyed a file of eight marines as the Victory closed on the enemy line at Trafalgar. Grape was used at close range, especially to scythe down the men on an opposing upper deck.
Muskets, boat guns, and volley guns were used by both marines and sailors when ships were at close-quarters, and a range of formidable hand weapons – pikes, cutlasses, axes, and pistols (which doubled as clubs) – were used when boarding an enemy vessel or repelling boarders from one’s own.
The battle was fought amid clouds of black-powder smoke, with the ear-splitting roar of endless detonations, and on decks awash with water and gore.
Nelson fought only four such battles in his career. In a sense, these brief moments of chaos and carnage, each lasting a few hours only, represented the culmination of years of training and high-seas voyaging. Everything hinged on what some tens of thousands of men did when they faced this ultimate test.
The secret of victory
Nelson’s crews had a critical advantage: their gunnery was faster, more accurate, and more deadly. Relentless training at sea meant that British crews loaded, rammed, hauled out, hoved with handspikes, and then fired their cannon at a faster rate. They also used an instantaneous flint-lock firing mechanism (in contrast to the slow matches employed by the French and Spanish), which meant that British gunners could discharge at an ideal moment on the ship’s roll. And whereas their enemies tended to target masts, sails, and rigging in order to disable opposing ships, the British fired into the hull with the aim of destroying gun-power and capturing a prize.
To maximise the British superiority in gunnery, three things were desirable: first, that the range should be as short as possible; second, that round-shot should be fired along the length rather than across the width of enemy vessels; and third, that the greatest possible weight of shot should be brought to bear on each enemy ship in turn.
To achieve this, Nelson sailed directly into the enemy line in two divisions. The disadvantage was that his ships faced full broadsides from the enemy on the approach with no opportunity to respond; thus there were 50 men down on the Victory before the flagship opened fire on 21 October 1805. But once the Franco-Spanish line was broken, the British ships were able to concentrate on smashing one enemy ship after another with point-blank broadsides from two or three vessels at a time.
Nor was escape easy. With the opposing fleets close and entangled, the French and Spanish crews found themselves in a tight embrace, unable to flee, such that they could be pounded into submission.
Nelson achieved his greatest ambition: he crafted one of history’s most complete battles of annihilation. His friend and colleague, Cuthbert Collingwood, understood ‘the Nelson touch’:
He possessed the zeal of an enthusiast, directed by talents which nature had very bountifully bestowed upon him, and everything seemed, as if by enchantment, to prosper under his direction. But it was the effect of system, and nice combination, not of chance. We must endeavour to follow his example, but it is the lot of very few to attain his perfection.
Nelson, Navy, and Nation: the Royal Navy and the British people, 1688-1815, edited by Quintin Colville and James Davey, is a fine collection of essays by leading experts covering all the main themes addressed in the new gallery, complete with superb illustrations of many of the images and objects on display. Costing £20, it is published by Conway/National Maritime Museum.
With thanks to The staff of the National Maritime Museum, in particular Jenny Stewart and Quintin Colville, for their help in the preparation of this article.
Images: © National Maritime Museum.