Reprinted with permission from the Trafalgar Chronicle. Journal of the 1805 Club issue of 2011.
People who write about history and particularly those who write about noteworthy personages face a challenging question: What is the real relevance of the subject at hand? If only we could talk directly with larger-than-life figures from past history there would be much to learn from them that lifts us beyond a mere narrative of events. For example, what might we discover from a modem-day television interview with arguably the world’s most famous naval hero?
Well, suspend disbelief for a while and imagine that break-through scientific and technological advances actually made it possible to communicate with those who have left his world. Imagine what it would be like to witness a person-to-person interview with Lord Nelson by a twenty-first century television host. The transcript of the interview could run along the following lines.
Host: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to an historic television event. The interview you are about to witness has been made possible by truly historic advances in paranormal communications, breakthroughs that have provided the means of speaking in person with individuals who have passed on from this world. This will be the first interview based on this amazing capability and the first of our new series. •speaking with History’s Heroes’. We are pleased and proud to have arranged for Vice Admiral Lord Nelson to be with us here in our studio this evening. Welcome Lord Nelson.
Nelson: Thank you, I’m sure.
Host: Admiral, let me begin at the very end of your amazing career and the Battle of Trafalgar, when you said in your last moments: ‘Thank God I have done my duty’. Why did you pick those particular words at such a significant time?
Nelson: There was of course the fact that I didn’t have time for a long statement. But in a more serious manner, it was the plain truth, spoken from the heart of an officer in His Majesty’s service. And as I observed early in my career, duty is indeed the great business of a sea officer. It was at the core of everything I did as a serving officer of His Majesty’s Navy.
I wrote on the subject in a number of different ways at a number of different times. You may recall, for example, my letter to Captain Thomas Bertie in 1798. I wrote at the time, somewhat tongue in cheek, about one aspect of doing one’s duty: “I would have very man believe, I shall only take my chance of being shot by the enemy, but if I do not take that chance, I am certain of being shot by my friends”. I was of course alluding to the fate of Admiral John Byng who was shot by a firing squad of six marines on the quarterdeck of HMS MONARCH in 1757.
But to continue, at times determining one’s real duty can be devilishly hard. Duty goes well beyond written orders, which usually cannot take into account what is happening in a singular circumstance. That is why I always placed my attention on the greater object at hand. When circumstances change, the specifics of aged orders from afar usually do not suffice.
Host: But in a sense weren’t you interpreting your duty based on your personal view of matters?
Nelson: Exactly! But my personal view was the product of my experience and circumstances at the time.
Host: But didn’t that make you unpopular with your fellow officers and with many at the Admiralty?
Nelson: Admittedly so, and I certainly got into my share of scrapes with the Admiralty. For example, my inclination to determine my duty as something beyond written orders when I was in command of HMS BOREAS on the Leeward Islands station almost cost me my career. But in the course of much of my service, I relied on my anchor to windward at the Admiralty.
Host: Who was that?
Nelson: Earl St. Vincent. He supported me on important occasions. He encouraged me for instance during my days of black despair and terrible suffering from my wound after my defeat at the Battle of Santa Cruz, which by the way I have always thought of as a pivot point in my career. And of great importance, the Earl repeatedly favored me for the challenging assignments that allowed me to prove my worth in combat against England’s enemies.
Host: But Admiral, if I may persist, isn’t a naval service based on obedience to orders, rather than leaders who want to go their own way in crucial situations?
Nelson: To be sure. But there sometimes is a difference between strict obedience to an order and the idea of duty, and as one advances in the service, one is increasingly expected to be able to think and react in terms of circumstances. And I would point out that in your modem times there has been increasing importance placed on the concept of small tactical units, with leaders who must make at-the-moment decisions as situations arise. The United States Marine Corps uses a thought-provoking term in this regard: ‘the strategic corporal’
There is, however, always grave risk to one’s career, even for the most senior officers, when one acts contrary to specific orders. The American sea power visionary, Admiral Mahan, expressed the dilemma well when he wrote about my difficulties in enforcing the Navigation Acts in the Leeward Islands. In his biography of my life, he wrote: ‘It is difficult for the non-military mind to realize how great is the moral effort of disobeying a senior’. The Admiral also goes on to emphasize the special danger of such disobedience for an officer when he said: “[I]t” is, justly and necessarily, not enough that his own intentions or convictions were honest: he has to show, not that he meant to do right, but that he actually did right, in disobeying in the particular instance.
So we see that the leader who is willing to make informed judgments in combat faces double danger. First there is the physical peril of injury or death, and the second danger is potential disgrace for making an aggressive but ultimately wrong decision in the heat of the fight.
Host: It seems to me that, by your standards, it must take a special personality to develop and retain a resolute sense of duty.
Nelson: It requires a willingness to risk one’s career that is something apart from the courage to face death in combat. As I said earlier, the idea of duty is not easy to define and it involves a particular mental state.
Host: Admiral, I would like to go back for a moment to something you mentioned earlier about the Battle of Santa Cruz. Why did you refer to it as a pivot point in your career? That seems an unusual term for an action that most historians consider to be of limited historical consequence.
Nelson: The disaster at Santa Cruz cleared my mind. Following my efforts at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, I became a hero to my countrymen, and even the Admiralty leaders in London saw me as one who could triumph in battle. One might say that I had begun to grow an exaggerated opinion of my capabilities. In your modern speech, I believe you call it hubris. That special overconfidence caused me to make serious mistakes at Santa Cruz. I lacked an adequate understanding of the difficulty of the terrain, and I refused to be deterred when I had lost the advantage of surprise. Worst of all, I underestimated my opponent, General Antonio Gutierrez.
Actually since moving on to our current existence, Antonio and I have become good friends, and we discuss aspects of the battle from time to time. Only a few decades ago we were enjoying a bit of cheese and beer, and he chided me on leading like a stubborn mule during the action. I of course felt compelled to remind him that, notwithstanding, it was I who had a boulevard in Santa Cruz named in his honor, not he. In his usual manner, he roared with laughter. But then he quickly turned serious and gave me pause with his suddenly restrained demeanor and a subdued admonishment: ‘Horatio, we both know that a boulevard in your name was not worth the horribly excessive butcher’s bill for the day’s business’. He was without doubt correct, and it was that bitter truth after the Battle that had cured me of my excessive pride, my hubris.
Host: How did you manage to get past the mental and physical pain of that defeat? That had to be an extraordinary accomplishment.
Nelson: In truth it wasn’t something I accomplished. It was my mentor and friend the Earl St Vincent and my wife Fanny who dragged me past my despair. The Earl pointed out that no matter our exertion and the justice of our motives, we cannot always succeed in battle. His unshakable confidence in me was the best medicine I could have received. And it was Fanny who nursed me tenderly until the ligature fell away from my arm stump, and my wound healed. It was then that I reconciled to my ‘fin’ as a substitute for a right arm. In passing and with more than a bit of remorse, I would observe that that period was when Fanny and I were closest. I truly needed her and she responded handsomely. Sadly I must also say that Fanny never understood my commitment to my duty.
Host: Admiral I would like to move ahead and ask for your reaction to some questions about the current Royal Navy. For example, what do you think of women serving in Navy assignments that had been traditionally reserved to men?
elso11: Well now, I wonder if I should answer as a plain sailor might or as a senior office must. Let me say this: it’s not something I would have considered for a single second. When I was serving, the idea would have been considered foolish, idiotic. But god knows the times have changed.
In some ways, however, the question is irrelevant for me, and not because of the different way of thinking between my lifetime and today. It’s irrelevant because when all is said and done, on an issue such as that, it’s the civilian leaders of the service who decide. Once that sort of decision is made, the only recourse for people like me is to either conform or resign. I would say, however, that the service seems to have made the adjustment in good order. In fact I would say, they have done a good job of it. Women are serving in many roles formerly limited to men, not without attendant difficulties, but they are serving well.
Host: Admiral, while we are on a contemporary subject, may I ask you a question about a current government budget policy?
Nelson: My sense of your tone is that I couldn’t stop you with a broadside.
Host: What do you think of the ongoing cutbacks of the size of the Royal Navy that have marked recent years?
Nelson: Madness! I know government doesn’t care about the Navy, but doesn’t it know what it means to be an island nation? Please excuse my outbursts, but I don’t think people realize that it’s Britain’s survival that is at issue.
There are three things that should influence these crucial decisions by government about our Navy. The first is what are our ambitious as a people? Second is what are the potential dangers faced by our country from beyond our shores and not just now but in the foreseeable future? Third is the state of the treasury. It seems to me that the current planning by government starts with the last and ends with the last. Government and most of what you now refer to as the media are suffering from what those who still ve the capability to think strategically are calling ‘sea blindness. That blindness has, in the language of a plain seaman, put our country on a lee shore in a tempest. Madness!
Host: But many in government say we simply can’t afford to spend the money that it takes to build and maintain a large navy.
Nelson: Let me put it to you this way. The first obligation of government is to protect the people and the country. Once that is accomplished with surety, then government can think about other spending. I must confess to you that I don’t understand why it should be so difficult an idea to seize. When it comes to the country’s future safety, government should look past the ledgers to what history informs us. As I wrote when our people were under great threat in 180 I, ‘our country looks to its sea defence, and let us not be disappointed.’
Host: I can see that my question has agitated you so let’s turn to a more pleasant subject: What were the things that attracted you most to Lady Hamilton?
Nelson: Sir, you cannot be serious with that question! Well, never mind, I will give you a serious answer. There was her beauty, her charm, her grace, all expressed in her attitudes, and her devotion to England. Most important to me, however, she understood my attachment to duty and supported that commitment with considerable enthusiasm. That is what set her above all other women for me. I tried to capture that quality when I said to her at Merton: ‘If there were more Emmas, there would be more Nelsons’.
Host: Yet at the time there were many, including those at court, who were reluctant to accept her as you did, as if she were your wife.
Nelson: Looking back, expecting Lady Hamilton to be accepted in the same light I saw her was not realistic. I loved her dearly; others were ruled by convention. In truth, if I had kept her as a mistress, no one would have given it a second thought, probably not even Fanny. But even in the eyes of many of my friends, I was flaunting our relationship, and that was unacceptable in many places. Both Lady Hamilton and I-to a greater degree Lady Hamilton-paid a price for that rashness.
Host: For our remaining time, I would like to return to your final day at Trafalgar. What are your most vivid recollections of that historic day?
Nelson: One of my lasting recollections was how calm the morning was. At first light there was the faintest of breezes, accompanied by swells from the west. VICTORY’s motion in those conditions was almost hypnotic. The overcast skies added to a restrained mood. Even in the early light we could clearly see the thirty-three ships-of-the-line of the Combined French-Spanish Fleet. They were a mere nine miles away. Immediately it was apparent that the Combined Fleet was, without question, on a course to join battle. But in the light airs it was a slow-motion evolution. No matter what else might be said about our enemies that morning, there was no reticence concerning combat action.
Host: What was the mood in VICTORY?
Nelson: The attitude in VICTORY was one of the quiet intensity. The contrast between the morning’s gentle aspect and the quiet intensity of our officers and men created a unique tension. We all knew what we had to do, and there was a restrained mood about the decks. There was little conversation. And what talking there was had to do with our preparations for battle.
At 06:00 I signaled to form the order of sailing in two columns, one column with fifteen ships-of-the-line led by Admiral Collingwood and the other with twelve ships-of-the-line led by myself. At 06:30 and again at 10:00, I signaled to prepare for battle. At 11:45 I ordered the ‘England expects’ signal and ten minutes later I signaled for the fleet to make all sail possible. At noon I ordered for the fleet to anchor at the close of day, because it was clear from the swells rolling in from the west that a serious storm was imminent. Finally, at 12: 15 I ordered the signal to engage the enemy more closely. Those eight flag orders were all that were needed during the entire morning in order to launch the business of that fateful day.
Host: Was there a sense of fear that morning?
Nelson: All fears for bodily safety were suppressed. These were veteran, well-drilled sailors. There was a shared-and quiet understanding that we were sailing into an action that would be recorded in flame and cannon smoke across the pages of history. There was, however, one special kind of fear I could sense: the fear that each man felt that he might fail to do his duty to the fullest. Failure to do one’s duty to the utmost was the real specter to be dreaded.
Each man wanted to show a good example to those about him, and from my second-in-command, Vice Admiral Collingwood, to my band of brothers, to the lowest seamen in our fleet, I had absolute confidence that we would all do our duty. That was what I tried to express with my now-famous ‘England expects’ signal. The greater part of my duty was to demonstrate the utmost of confidence to the fleet, and in fact, there was little in the way of direct orders needed from me during the morning or the following action.
Host: What’s most memorable about the actual fighting?
Nelson: As we approached the Combined Fleet at roughly right angles, we were pounded with shot for what seemed like an interminable period of time. Then finally, we crossed under the stem of the flagship of the Combine Fleet’s commander, Admiral Villeneuve, who was embarked in the French 80-gun ship BUCENTAURE. As we passed, we fired a 68-pound carronade loaded with round shot and a keg of 500 musket balls through BUCENTAURE’s stern. That was followed immediately by a double-and triple-shotted broadside fired in sequence from our port guns.
I clearly remember a brief mental image of the horrible killing and maiming effect of those raking blows, as they howled along the lengths of BUCENTAURE’s gun decks. After that and until the French marksman’s musket ball found its mark, things were blur of canon fire, smoke, wreckage, and the chaotic images and sounds of mortal combat
Host: Clearly there was a great deal of courage demonstrated by both sides at the Battle of Trafalgar, but what in your opinion were the greatest differences between the fleets?
Nelson: We were superior in leadership. We were confident in one another and in the justice of our cause against Napoleon’s France. In contrast there was significant distrust between the French and Spanish captains, and Admiral Villeneuve fought with a determination founded on his knowledge that his relief had been dispatched by Napoleon to replace him. We fought with conviction; they fought to avoid disgrace.
But I am compelled to admit that it was the fighting quality of the honest seamen of our ships that was, to use a more recent term, the ‘force multiplier’ that made the difference. We officers get the public’s attention, but it is the training and raw courage of the lower decks that settle matters in the mortal combat. And as I wrote from Agamemnon to my wife in 1795: ‘Nothing can stop the courage of English seamen.
Host: Historians like to talk about the turning point in a battle. What was the turning point at Trafalgar?
Nelson: There was no turning of the tide of battle at Trafalgar. I would add, however, that the outcome was determined-the turning of the tide if you will-in the series of meetings with my captains before the action began. During those meetings we established a plan with winning tactics, and then the victory was sealed with a winning combat doctrine.
Host: Just what do you mean by combat doctrine?
Nelson: In plain terms, that’s the attitude that takes over in the chaos and horror of combat. It’s the over-arching approach that drives the situation, and at Trafalgar it was summarized in my memo to my captains of 9 October, just before the battle. At that time I wrote: ‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.’
Host: Admiral, I have a final question: given the bodily wounds and mental suffering you went through in your 35 years of naval service, would you do it all over?
Nelson: To employ one of your popular phrases: in a heartbeat.
Host: Thank you and goodnight.