Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

"The Greatest Sailor Since the World Began"

I have not space to tell the whole story of Nelson's life, and so must pass over many gallant deeds, and begin with the action which, I may say, first made him really famous. It was the 14th of February, 1797, and Nelson, who was then thirty-eight, was in command of the Captain, a 74-gun ship in the fleet commanded by Sir John Jervis. England was then at war with both France and Spain, and Jervis was very anxious to prevent the Spanish fleet from joining the French. He met it on its way northwards—it was bound for Brest—and as it happened, gave an order which would have let it slip by, but that Nelson, who knew better what was to be done, chose not to obey it. But it is not my business now to describe the battle—it is known by the name of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent—but to say what part Nelson took in it. The Captain, after engaging with other Spanish ships, closed with the San Nicolas, an 84-gun. While the action was going on, the Spaniard got entangled with another man-of-war, the San Josef  Nelson's ship had been a good deal knocked about; its foremast was down, and its wheel shot away; it certainly, therefore, could not sail to any purpose. Accordingly he called for the boarders, at the same time ordering the helm to be so put about that his ship should get quite close to her antagonist. Our men jumped on board, and Nelson was soon after them. While he was receiving the Spanish officers' swords, some shots were fired from the San Josef . Nelson called for the boarders again, himself scrambled aboard, and hastening to the quarter-deck received the captain's sword. There was but very little fighting; neither ship offered any serious resistance. But it was a very notable thing thus to take two ships, as it were at a blow. People at home could not say too much in praise of the captain of a seventy-four who took an eighty-four, and passed over its deck to take a 12-gun ship on the other side. His fellow-officers talked of "Nelson's patent bridge for boarding first-rates." "The quick perception that the ships were beaten, that the Captain  was useless in the chase, the determination not to lie idle when anything could be done—all this was Nelson's own." And his own too was the bold disobedience to orders, without which there might not have been any battle at all.

In the following year it became known in England that a large expedition was being fitted out in the French port of Toulon. No one knew whither it was to go. A squadron under Nelson was set to watch the harbour, but the French fleet got out during a gale of wind. Nelson's squadron was made much stronger, and he was sent to search for the enemy. He had already guessed the truth. The French were bound for Egypt, and were thinking, after they had conquered that country, of going on to India. It is a wonderful thing that he should have found out what does not seem to have been so much as thought of by the Government at home. For some time he searched for the French fleet in various parts of the Mediterranean, but could not see or hear of it. He even went to Egypt, but it had not then arrived. The search was begun on June 7, and it was not till July 28 that he learnt that the French had been seen on June 30 near the island of Candia, sailing eastward. This made him feel sure that it had gone to Egypt. Thither he sailed, and on August 1 he found the enemy, thirteen ships-of-the-line and four frigates, at anchor in Aboukir Bay. The bay is to the east of Alexandria, between that city and Rosetta. Nelson had twelve ships-of-the-line and one frigate. One of his ships, the Culloden, struck on a rock before the battle began, and remained there till it was over. On the whole, the French fleet had 1198 guns and 11,110 men, against 924 guns and 7478 men on our side. But our ships were in a better condition, and the crews better disciplined.

The French fleet was anchored in line, about three miles from the shore. The English ships, none of them firing a gun till quite close to the enemy, began with the end of the enemy's line, and beat them, we may say, one by one. The battle began about 7 p.m. In about two hours' time the five ships first attacked were conquered. At 10:30 p.m. the Orient, 120-gun, which bore the admiral's flag, blew up. All night the fight went on. When it was over, nine  French ships had been taken, and four  destroyed. Four escaped. A more complete victory has never been won than the Battle of the Nile.

In 1801 the English Government found it necessary to declare war against Denmark. I cannot fully explain their reasons, but I may say so much. England was engaged in a desperate struggle with France; Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, while professing to favour neither side, acted in such a way as likely to help France and injure England very much. On April 2 Nelson, with nine ships (three ran aground in attempting to follow) passed up the channel on which Copenhagen is situated, and anchored opposite the floating batteries belonging to the Danes. At 10 a.m. the battle began. Three hours passed. The English ships had suffered much; two of those that had run aground had hoisted signals of distress, and none of the Danish batteries had been silenced. The admiral in chief command—Nelson was acting under his orders—hoisted the signal, "Leave off action." But the admiral had sent the captain of his ship to explain that Nelson might obey the order or not, as he thought best. Nelson preferred not to obey, and, as usual, was quite right. "Leave off action?" he said, when the signal was reported to him. "Not I." "You know, Hardy," he went on, speaking to the captain of his ship, "that I have a right to be blind sometimes," and putting his glass into his blind eye, said, "I really do not see this signal." In an hour's time it was no longer doubtful which way the battle would go. Most of the Danish ships and batteries had ceased to fire. The Dannebrog, the ship of the Danish commander, blew up, and every one on board, except those who jumped into the water, perished. At half-past two Nelson sent a letter to the Crown Prince of Denmark in these words—"Lord Nelson has orders to spare Denmark when no longer resisting; but if the firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire all the floating batteries which he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them." In the end a truce for twenty-four hours was made; after this an armistice for fourteen years, and finally a peace.

Horatio Nelson


Four years later England was in greater danger than ever. Napoleon was bent on invading her; if he could have got command of the sea, there would be nothing to prevent his crossing the Channel, and putting on her shores armies so large that it would have scarcely been possible to resist them. This command he never was really likely to get; the last thing that Nelson did for his country was to make it impossible. Till the very end of the war—and it lasted for nearly ten years after the battle which I am about to describe—there never was any question about England ruling the sea. France did not even attempt to dispute it.

On September 15, 1805, Nelson sailed from Portsmouth in the Victory. On the 28th he joined the British fleet, which was then lying off Cadiz, and took the command. The French admiral, Villeneuve, was lying in that port, and was not at all anxious to come out. But Napoleon threatened to take away his command if he did not, and on October 19-20 he came out. Nelson during this time had been busy explaining to the officers who commanded under him his plan of battle. When the time came, every man knew exactly what he had to do. Generally, we may say, the plan was the same as it had been at the battle of the Nile—to attack first one portion of the enemy's fleet and then another with a superior force. As at the Nile, the enemy, a combination of the French and Spanish fleets, was superior in the number both of ships and guns—thirty-three ships with 2601 guns to twenty-seven with 2294. At half-past eleven a.m. on Oct. 21 he made the celebrated signal: ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. Half-an-hour later the Royal Sovereign  came into action. For some time she was alone, with several French and Spanish ships firing at her, but with so little skill that she received very little damage. Her own fire she kept till she was quite close, and then discharged it with terrible effect. Almost exactly the same thing happened with Nelson's ship the Victory. At least half-a-dozen Spaniards and Frenchmen cannonaded her. They did some damage, but not a fifth part of what she did to the Bucentaure, the French ship into which she discharged her broadside. Nearly four hundred men were killed or wounded by it. But it was with another ship, the Redoubtable, that the Victory  became finally engaged. The Frenchmen were driven from their guns by the superior fire of the English. But they had a number of men on their top-masts, and these kept up such a fire on the upper decks of the Victory  that it was impossible to stand there. Nelson would never allow this kind of fighting to go on from the ships which he commanded. He was afraid of their being set on fire, a thing which he had seen happen. About half-past one in the afternoon a shot from the top of the mizzen-mast struck him on the left shoulder, and passing through the epaulette, the lungs, and the spine, lodged in the muscles of the back. He fell on the deck. When Hardy, who was his flag-captain, endeavoured to raise him, he said, "They have done for me at last, Hardy." "I hope not," answered Hardy. "Yes; my backbone is shot through." He was carried below, and lingered in great pain for three hours. At times he was unconscious. But he seems to have known that a victory had been won. "Ten ships, my lord, have struck," said Hardy to him. "But none, I hope, of ours," he answered. Later on he heard the total number. "God be praised!" he murmured; "bring the fleet to an anchor." The dying Wolfe was also thinking up to the last of his duty as General. About half-past four he died, his last words having been, "Thank God! I have done my duty." Unfortunately, Admiral Collingwood, who succeeded to the command of the fleet, would not anchor. The consequence was that, as the weather became bad, some of the prizes were lost and others were recovered by their crews, who had to be set at liberty, if the ships were not to sink. Four only of the prizes were taken into Gibraltar. Four others, however, which had escaped from the battle, were taken by another English squadron on November 4. These were all in fair condition, and one of them is still afloat, being used as a training-ship. Of the eleven that escaped into Cadiz, not one was ever used again. Practically, the French and Spanish fleets were destroyed.