Who is Britain’s greatest military hero? It is a perennial topic of debate among historians – but in a ComRes poll commissioned some years ago by the United Kingdom National Defence Association, the top six answers among the general public included Henry V (with 2% of the vote), Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (3%) and Richard the Lionheart (8%).
In third place, on 11%, was Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the ‘Iron Duke’ who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. In second, on 19%, came Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the ‘Spartan General’ who was one of the outstanding Allied commanders of World War II.
But the clear leader – standing alone on the quarterdeck with 27% of the vote – was Horatio Nelson, the inspirational admiral whose victory at Trafalgar is often regarded as Britain’s greatest naval triumph.
Nelson was ambitious, charismatic and almost unbelievably daring, and his victories over the French and Spanish helped ensure Britain’s dominance of the world’s oceans for more than a century. As we discover this week on The Past, however, he was no lone ‘genius’. Rather his achievements were the culmination of decades of advances in tactics, equipment and training by the Royal Navy.
In a special issue of our sister magazine Military History Matters, Graham Goodlad and Neil Faulkner look in depth at Nelson’s career and his greatest battle – and explain that for all his outstanding personal qualities, his success was largely down to an extraordinary coincidence of man, moment and military machine.
Also this week on The Past, we take you below decks, searching in the MHM archives to bring you the most complete coverage of Nelson and his times: to mark the opening of the National Maritime Museum’s new Nelson gallery, we analysed the admiral’s legend; and we also looked more broadly at the rise of British seapower and how the achievements of an earlier generation of commanders paved the way for Nelson’s final victory.
Elsewhere this week, we are catching up on a more recent chapter in British naval history: on the new edition of The PastCast (from 8 July), our unmissable podcast, Calum Henderson talks to the team working on HMS Belfast, which reopens to the public this week, and tells the famous warship’s story from World War II to the present day.
And if all that just leaves you hungry for more, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your Nelson knowledge. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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