In March the Agamemnon went down the Medway to Sheerness: Hood hinted that Nelson should prepare for a cruise and then join the fleet at Gibraltar. The combination of getting to sea and a letter from Hood put Nelson in fine spirits; he told Fanny that ‘I was never in better health’. While the ship completed for sea Nelson’s personal possessions arrived on coasters from Wells. A short stretch down to the Nore in mid-April demonstrated a key feature of his command: ‘we appear to sail very fast’. Desperate to join Hood, and fearful that his orders might change, he found every delay for bad weather a terrible trial. The vigour with which he drove two French frigates and a corvette into La Hougue, while cruising off the Normandy coast, spoke volumes about his anxiety to prove himself.
Nelson was anxious to get on with the war, and found another Channel cruise with Admiral Hotham’s division between Guernsey and Land’s End doubly annoying as neutral ships reported that the French Atlantic ports were full of captured British merchant ships. Not content to do as he was told, Nelson needed to know the purpose of his orders, spending much mental effort trying to understand their rationale. This was an important lesson in command: as a result of his frustration, he himself would always take junior commanders into his confidence, ensuring they understood the broader mission so they could exercise their judgement rather than relying on orders.
The purpose of the cruise only became clear to Nelson later on: because the Channel fleet would take some time to mobilise, detachments preparing for the Mediterranean were being used to cover the western approaches before proceeding to their proper station. On 25 May Hood brought his division out to join Hotham, and took command of the fleet. The master quickly took his charges in hand, conducting tactical exercises as they waited off the Scilly Isles to cover the incoming Mediterranean convoy against a French fleet sortie. An outbound East India convoy also passed through this dangerous choke point. The next day the fleet headed for Gibraltar, and Nelson called on Hood on board his flagship, HMS Victory. He was relieved to find Hood very civil, and told Fanny ‘I dare say we shall be good friends again.’ This personal warmth was vital, since without Hood’s approval Nelson would have cut a very sorry figure. Had he joined the Channel fleet, under the austere, uncommunicative Howe, his ardour for the service may have cooled.
As the fleet passed Cape Trafalgar heading for the Mediterranean, Hood detached ships to water at the Spanish naval base of Cadiz. For the first time in a century the British were welcome – inspecting the fleet, dining on the flagship and taking in the obligatory bullfight. A week in Spain left Nelson with mixed emotions: admiration for the large, well-built Spanish three-deckers, and confidence that as Spain lacked the sailors to man them they would be worth very little in battle. The failure of the Cartagena division to form a line of battle a week later only confirmed his estimate. Nor was he pleased by the savage spectacle of the bullring. For a man who would spend the critical hours of his life amidst the bloody shambles of the quarterdeck in close-quarters battle, he was remarkably sensitive about the maltreatment of animals.
Back at sea Nelson, already picked to lead one of the three divisions of the fleet, continued to ponder the purpose that led Hood to hasten the fleet out of Gibraltar Bay, confident the French ships would remain safely tucked up in Toulon. He started to keep a sea journal, a daily record of activity with reflections on his favourite subjects: men, measures and the weather. The journal was also used to produce letters home, appropriate segments being assembled with a more personal introduction for Fanny, Clarence, Locker, Edmund, William and uncle Suckling, among others. These were usually replies to letters received; he did not have the leisure to pursue a polite correspondence.
Nelson’s active and enquiring mind was soon hard at work processing the intelligence gathered from neutrals, much of it unreliable ‘in my judgement’. Rumours that the French would fit their ships with furnaces to produce red-hot shot should, he believed, have been kept from the fleet. Ever the optimist, he hoped the blockade of Toulon and Marseilles would force the French fleet to come out. Nor did he spare his colleagues, readily adopting Hood’s opinion that the first encounter between British and French warships had been mishandled. Once off Toulon he could see the enemy: rumour had it that their flagship, Commerce de Marseilles, a vast ship of 136 guns, had impenetrable sides. Nelson shared Hood’s hope that the blockade would force a battle, and picked up many more opinions from the flagship. The fast and handy Agamemnon and her dedicated young captain were constantly on the move. Consequently Hood’s offer of a seventy-four was refused – ‘I cannot give up my officers,’ he told Fanny. As the fleet was ready for battle and the war could not last long, it was the wrong time to leave a proven ship.
Cruising off Toulon, Nelson realised that Provence wanted a separate republic from Paris, but had no interest in restoring the monarchy, and that as Marseilles and Toulon were desperately short of food they might be handed over to the fleet. This might bring him home for the winter. Clearly in Hood’s confidence, Nelson told his father:
In the winter we are to reduce Ville France and Nice for the King of Sardinia, and drive the French from Corsica. It seems no use to send a great fleet here without troops to act with them.
Three days later, on 23 August, Hood signed a convention at Toulon that placed the fortress, fleet, town and arsenal in British hands in trust for a restored monarchy. Hood displayed remarkable political courage in seizing the opportunity, although his declaration was at variance with the views of the government, which was not committed to work for any specific regime in France. The example was not lost on Nelson, who would take more than one high-risk political decision in pursuit of strategic aims. Hood had taken twenty-two sail of the line, a fortress and a major arsenal from the enemy – by a stroke of the pen.
The government had considered a range of Mediterranean options, including attacking Toulon to destroy the French fleet, and securing Corsica as a fleet base. When Hood occupied Toulon in late August some in London saw it as a potentially war-winning stroke, opening the prospect of a counter-revolution. Yet the ministers had not anticipated this opening, and had no spare troops to exploit the opportunity, while Austria showed no interest in the project. After landing the troops on board the fleet as marines, Hood had to rely on Spain, Naples and Sardinia for most of his troops: Spain limited her involvement to a thousand men, yet still restricted Hood’s freedom of action, anxious that the French fleet should not pass to the British or be destroyed. Although Hood worked well with the Spanish Admiral Gravina, he found the pessimistic British Generals O’Hara and Dundas a trial, and relied on his own officers for many key posts ashore.
On 25 August Nelson was sent to Turin and Naples to inform the British ministers. Along the way he fell in with HMS Tartar, and learned that Hood needed troops as a republican army was approaching Toulon, fresh from the sack of Marseilles. Nelson’s charm, determination and professionalism helped him to obtain Neapolitan troops under the recent alliance: with Sir William Hamilton’s support, he secured four thousand men before Hood’s official request reached Naples. Royal flattery compensated him for missing the entry of the fleet into Toulon, and the chance of a role ashore.
Nelson was soon off again, however, to deal with a French frigate off Sardinia. The frigate was nowhere to be found, and he returned to Toulon on 5 October, to find the anchorage under fire, and more significantly, that;
The Lord is very much pleased with my conduct about the troops at Naples, which I undertook without any authority whatever from him, and they arrived at Toulon before his requisition reached Naples.
Little wonder: two thousand Neapolitan troops reached Toulon on 27 September, and another two thousand followed on 5 October, timely reinforcements as the republicans were already firing on the town. Only now did Nelson feel himself fully restored to the light of Hood’s favour; he relished the opportunity to follow an officer of great ability and decisive character, declaring that ‘Was any accident to happen to [Hood], I am sure no person in our fleet could supply his place.’ It is not clear whether he included himself among those lesser mortals: perhaps while Hood remained in command he chose not to reflect on the subject.
Hood recognised the abilities of his zealous subordinate, detaching him to Cagliari by way of Corsica to join Commodore Linzee. However, Nelson’s concerns were more personal. Other officers had become public figures by capturing enemy vessels of equal or greater force, earning knighthoods, prize money and promotion for their followers. He had yet to fire a gun in anger. On 22 October, he had a chance to join the heroes, encountering three French frigates, a corvette and a brig off the coast of Sardinia at 2 a.m. The Agamemnon was short-handed, having left many men ashore at Toulon, and alone, having lost contact with an accompanying frigate. Moreover, the officers on the Agamemnon believed that one of the French vessels was a battleship. Once it was light enough to ascertain that they were enemy ships, however, Nelson pursued the nearest, the Melpomene, and engaged her for four hours, leaving her badly damaged. But just as he closed for the kill the wind failed. He concluded that it would be unwise to continue the action – though revealingly, he asked his officers whether they approved this decision, demonstrating that he was still honing his leadership, fighting methods and command style. The officers agreed to repair the damaged rigging in case the French chose to resume the action. Agamemnon had lost only one man killed and six wounded, while her opponent was shattered. Nelson’s sea journal quoted a famous passage from Addison’s Spectator of 1711, concerning death, resignation and the comfort he took from the support of God. This simple faith was the bedrock of his world, giving meaning to his actions and a conviction that if God was on his side the enemy would not prevail.
Arriving at Cagliari, Nelson found Linzee far from helpful, and a belated pursuit proved fruitless: the enemy had, as Nelson guessed, run into a Corsican harbour. The squadron then headed for Tunis, where a French battleship and frigate lay, protected by the neutrality of the port. Nelson ran the Agamemnon between the two French ships, prepared for a fight and resigned his life to God. Linzee’s instructions were to persuade the Dey to allow the ships to be taken, but the Dey was too clever for Linzee, who cautiously sent back to Toulon for further orders. Nelson thought it would be best to take the French ships, pay the Dey a suitable bribe to salve his wounded pride and have done with the business. He instinctively preferred action, and was convinced that ‘the people of England will never blame an officer for taking a French line of battle ship’. This was the course for personal glory, but it was hardly worth annoying a useful neutral in order to seize the last French battleship in republican hands.
After a fruitless cruise along the North African coast Nelson received orders from Hood to take the frigate Lowestoffe under his command to look out for the frigates he had engaged the previous month around Corsica and on the adjacent Italian coast. They were a threat to British trade and allied interests, but he found them anchored close under the batteries at San Fiorenzo. Nelson was buoyed up by this further mark of Hood’s confidence and the Very handsome letter’ that accompanied it. However, far away from Toulon, he had completely misread the state of the war. With an optimism that reflected Hood’s opinions, he told Locker that the naval conflict was over, Toulon was in no danger and that even if it had to be evacuated the fleet and arsenal could be destroyed. December would prove the error of this judgement.
Arriving at Leghorn on 22 December, Nelson heard about the evacuation of Toulon, of Hood’s heroic conduct, the knavish behaviour of the Spanish, and the horrors of the republican entrance into the city. These events did not feature in his sea journal, so the letters sent to Edmund, Fanny and Clarence were fresh compositions. Although Hood’s autocratic leadership style and adversarial approach to inter-service cooperation had created difficulties at Toulon, Nelson was correct in his judgement that no one else could have carried out the task. Hood had the experience, prestige and confidence to take on such a vast politico-military mission. He kept the Republican armies at bay until mid-December with a polyglot mixture of British, Spanish, Neapolitan, Sardinian and French troops, backed by naval gunfire and sustained by his optimism. Caught between the potential for an early and decisive blow through Toulon, and the pressing but limited objectives of securing Mediterranean trade, alliances and influence, Hood waited for the troops that would secure Toulon, and used the time to spread his fleet. On 16 December Civil Commissioner Sir Gilbert Elliot heard that two British regiments were coming, causing the gloom that had descended over the beleaguered fortress to lift. Within twenty-four hours the key position at Fort Mulgrave had fallen to a French assault, forcing Hood to order the city evacuated. He had little more than a third of his fleet at Toulon when the crisis came. Little wonder the evacuation was unsatisfactory.
British Mediterranean policy collapsed because the major players –Britain, Austria and Spain – had divergent, often irreconcilable aims, while the minor powers were ineffective in the new conditions of mass mobilisation and total war. France, operating under new rules, and on home soil, could raise far more men than the ancien regime allies, and was prepared to use them with a speed and ruthlessness that smashed the ill-coordinated multi-national forces and overwhelmed the arthritic and disjointed command system of the allies. At Toulon numbers and ruthless political leadership had driven the allies out. France’s fast-moving mass armies and her young generals such as Napoleon Bonaparte, pressed on by the financial needs of the Republic and the frailty of the anti-French coalition, had deprived Britain of a mainland resting place for her fleet.
Nelson, like Hood, was quick to make the best of the situation, declaring that the cost of occupation would have ruined the country. Hood withdrew the fleet to Hieres Bay, with three French battleships and smaller craft, to wait on developments. Though disappointed on the mainland, he continued to seek a secure base: the best option was the rebellious, newly French island of Corsica, which was under inspection before Toulon fell. The island would dominate the 1794 campaign.