Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge


"Of Nelson and the North

Sing the glorious day's renown,

When to battle fierce came forth

All the might of Denmark's crown."


The news of Nelson's great victory spread over Europe rapidly. The Italians were specially pleased at Napoleon's defeat, since he had overrun their country.

"Oh, brave Nelson!" cried the Queen of Naples, a sister of Marie Antoinette, bursting into tears. "God bless and protect our brave leader. Oh Nelson, Nelson, what do we not owe you,—Victor, saviour of Italy!"

England's navy had grown very formidable. She had within a short time defeated the Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent, the Dutch fleet off Camperdown, and the French fleet off the coast of Africa. Three fleets had been destroyed, but the great northern fleet yet remained. There was the fleet of Russia, begun by Peter the Great a hundred years before, the fleet of Sweden, and the fleet of Denmark. And these three northern powers now united, to destroy the growing strength of England's sea power.

Brilliant leader though he was, Nelson was only second in command on this expedition against the northern fleets. His chief was Sir Hyde Parker, a man who finally intrusted the command practically to the hero of the Nile.

Nelson joined the fleet at Yarmouth in Norfolk, England, in the autumn of 1800. He found the admiral nervous at the prospect of "dark nights and fields of ice."

"I hope," said Nelson, "we shall give our northern enemies that hailstorm of bullets, which gives our dear country the dominion of the seas. We have it; and all the devils of the north cannot take it from us if our wooden walls have fair play."

So eighteen great battleships fought their way across the stormy North Sea to Denmark. Their orders were to negotiate, if possible, rather than fight; so when they arrived at the northern point of Denmark, known as the Skaw, they anchored, and a messenger was sent forward to negotiate under a flag of truce. The delay irritated Nelson sorely.

"I hate your pen-and-ink men," he said; "a fleet of British warships are the best negotiators in Europe. While negotiations are going on, the Dane should see our flag waving every time he lifts his head."

But the eighteen battleships, with their tall masts and huge wooden hulls, stood without the Sound, and the northern powers decided to fight. A rumour reached the admiral that the defences of the Danes were very strong, and that Copenhagen one of the finest capitals in Europe, was literally bristling with guns. His indecision was overruled by Nelson.

"They will grow stronger every day and ever hour," he cried. "On your decision depends whether our country shall be degraded in the eyes of Europe, or whether she shall rear her head higher than ever."

The die was cast, and the fleet sailed on between the coasts of Denmark and Sweden till the island of Zealand was reached. There were two ways round the island—one by the Sound and Copenhagen, the key to the Baltic, the other by the Belt. Another discussion arose.

"Let it be by the Sound, by the Belt, or any other way," cried Nelson impatiently; "but lose not an hour."

The batteries at Elsinore fired on the ships, but they swept proudly on through the Sound and anchored near Copenhagen. Even Nelson was astonished at the threatening appearance of the enemy's preparations. The Danish ships bristled with cannon, the entrance to the harbour was protected by a chain, and batteries commanded the entrance. It was suggested that the three northern fleets would surely defeat the English at last.

"So much the better," said Nelson excitedly, as he paced the deck of his ship; "I wish there were twice as many. The greater the number, the more glorious the victory."

It was April 1, the night before the battle. Nelson, who had been working hard all day, sat down to dinner with a large party of his officers. He was in the highest spirits.

"To-morrow," he had just written home, "will, I hope, be a proud day for England."

He slept little all night, receiving reports of the wind from hour to hour.

When morning dawned it was fair. Every plan was made for the attack.

It was just ten o'clock when the

"Sign of battle flew

O'er the lofty British line:

.     .     .     .     .     .

There was silence deep as death;

And the boldest held his breath

For a time."

Slowly towards the Danish ships, drawn up in line of battle outside Copenhagen, came on the English, until the thunder of guns rolled from end to end of the battle-line. It was a narrow channel, and shallow, and the first English ships ran aground, throwing out all Nelson's plans.

For three hours the fighting continued: the admiral watched with anxiety the growing danger of Nelson's position. The Danes, old sea-rovers as they were, fought with a splendid courage, and fearing for his fleet, the admiral ran up a signal to "Cease action!"

Meanwhile Nelson was pacing his quarter-deck in great excitement.

"It is warm work," he said. "This day may be the last to any of us at any moment. But mark you," he added with feeling, "I would not, be elsewhere for thousands."

Then suddenly from the mast-head of the flag-ship flew the admiral's signal. Nelson did not see it. They told him of it.

"Cease action?" he cried, as if he could not understand. "Fly from the enemy? Never! Never!"

Then turning to one of his officers, he said bitterly, "You know I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes." With these words he put the telescope to his blind eye, exclaiming with some humour, "I really do not see the signal!"

"Keep my signal flying for closer battle. Nail it to the mast!" he said with emphasis. And the battle raged on fiercely. By two o'clock the Danish fire grew less, and as the smoke cleared away the Danish flagship was seen drifting in flames before the wind, with her miserable crew throwing themselves overboard from every port-hole. The battle was practically over, and again Nelson had won the victory. Under a flag of truce he sent a messenger ashore with terms addressed to "The brothers of Englishmen—the Danes."

"Out spoke the victor then,

As he hail'd them o'er the wave:

'Ye are brothers! we are men!

And we conquer but to save;—

So peace instead of death let us bring:

But yield, proud foe, thy fleet,

With the crews, at England's feet,

And make submission meet

To our king."

"I have been in one hundred and five engagements," said Nelson; "but this is the most terrible of all."

So the Danish fleet was destroyed, and Nelson returned to England the victor of Copenhagen.