St Vincent: 14 February 1797

Commodore Nelson in the ‘Captain’, 74 guns, unconventionally fell out of Jervis’s line of battle and threw his ship across the path of the escaping enemy squadron against heavy odds, engaging and capturing by boarding the 80-gun ‘San Nicolas’. When the latter ran foul of the 112-gun ‘San Josef’ in the process, Nelson boarded and captured her as well, the feat being quickly dubbed ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for boarding first-rates’.
It shall be my watchword – Touch and take.


In recent times there has been an attempt to disparage the character of Lord Nelson. He has been called ‘a natural born predator’ whose private life was reprehensible, who was mentally unstable, who allowed prisoners of war to be unjustly executed, who manipulated his own image to the point of outrageous idealization, who circulated stories of his own valour in such a way as to overshadow the exploits of others. This curious vogue for debunking and demeaning our past heroes strikes a sour note to those who, like Nelson, but in a minuscule way by comparison, have spent most of their lives in some sort of military service. Happily, when we contemplate Nelson’s character in the round, it is not difficult to show that these detractors – whose motives must puzzle the most objective of us – are profoundly mistaken, however conscientious they may have been in their search for detail.

Of course Nelson had his faults. He was vain, restless, intense, egotistic. Yet he was also lion-hearted, kindly, paternal, his name to this day the touchstone of naval excellence. He seemed to possess an unrivalled instinct for sensing the feelings of the lower deck. No wonder sailors longed for Nelson to command them. No wonder his captains were a band of brothers. Nelson was said to hold the four aces of leadership: imagination; the ability to inspire; confiding in subordinates and acknowledging their contribution to success; and above all the offensive spirit, the overriding determination to bring the enemy’s fleet to battle and then annihilate it. This last was the kernel of the Nelson touch. When he explained to his captains his intended tactics at what became the battle of Trafalgar, they were overcome with emotion.

Trafalgar was a victory which a few years later would facilitate the deployment of a British army on the south-western extremes of Napoleon’s empire, and keep it there, properly supplied and reinforced, until the Emperor’s own armies had been driven back to France by Wellington. When Nelson sighted the combined French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, he and his captains knew exactly what they were about. Nelson had repeatedly outlined to his subordinates how they would ‘surprise and confound the enemy’, bring about what he always sought – ‘a pell-mell battle’ – and so accomplish the absolute destruction of the enemy’s fleet. When he expounded his plan to sail direct for the enemy centre, then split and divide them, so that each half could be destroyed in detail – the plan which he lightly defined as ‘the Nelson touch’ – his captains were electrified by the sheer beauty of it. ‘It was new, it was singular, it was simple . . . it must succeed.’

Never were Nelson’s four aces of leadership played to more advantage than at Trafalgar. His imagination enabled him to picture the circumstances of a forthcoming battle with such clarity, such boldness and such unrivalled determination to bend the enemy to his will that his spirit permeated the whole fleet. There was no need for further signalling. They all knew what to do, although his last signal, the renowned ‘England expects . . .’ had such an effect on Napoleon, when he heard of it, that he ordered a comparable call to duty – La France confide que chacun fasse son devoir! – to be inscribed in every French man-of-war. Nelson’s second ace, the ability to inspire, was so strong that it animated the whole of his command. His confidence, his enthusiasm, his dedication to duty, and the sheer professional heights of seamanship and gunnery that had been achieved, meant that every captain who served with him aspired to be another Nelson. The third ace, consulting and confiding in subordinates, listening to their views and giving credit to their actions, produced a unique atmosphere of mutual confidence, trust and reliance. The last ace, the offensive spirit, embodied Nelson’s greatness as a fleet commander. It was an absolutely overriding resolution to engage the enemy at the closest possible quarters and utterly destroy him.

Yet it would be absurd to ignore Nelson’s shortcomings. On the one occasion that he and Wellington met – it was on 12 September 1805 in Castlereagh’s ante-room – he at first appalled the victor of Assaye by speaking of himself in trivial and self-indulgent language – ‘almost all on his side, and all about himself, and really, in a style so vain and silly as to surprise me’. Once Nelson had discovered to whom he was talking, however, it was a different matter, and Wellington later commented:

All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked with good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman . . . I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more.

Admiral Sir John Jervis, later Earl St Vincent, was not blind to Nelson’s faults, however much he admired his brilliance in command at sea. ‘Poor man,’ he observed, ‘he is devoured with vanity, weakness and folly.’ It was certainly true that Nelson made a fool of himself over his obsession with Emma Hamilton. But the explanation for it was clear enough. When the two became lovers, it was for Nelson the very ecstasy of love, and Emma was no longer obliged to simulate pleasure for he yielded to her as much as she yielded to him. They both embarked on the adventure of pleasure with the same slight anxiety about their ability to please or be pleased, and the same ease, the same trust. They were equals in pleasure because equals in love. Was not this love indeed? None but the brave deserve the fair, they say. If ever a man of heroic stature deserved the kind of love he longed for and Emma gave him, that man was Nelson. When the detractors already referred to hint that Nelson’s so-called mental instability led to his ‘suicide-in-all-but-name’ at Trafalgar, it is plain that they have not studied the letters Nelson wrote to Lady Hamilton before the battle or have understood the ardent longing he felt to return to the arms of Emma and their daughter, Horatia.

The truth of the matter was that from the very beginning Nelson had something of the poet and the mystic in him. ‘Nelson was the poet in action,’ wrote Aubrey de Selincourt, ‘in his grandest moments he ceased to belong to this world and entered a realm as visionary as Shelley’s.’ It is this which helps us to understand the emotional reaction of his captains when they listened to his exposition of the Nelson touch. It was honour which predominated in Nelson’s mind. He coveted honour in the way that both Hotspur and Prince Hal did. He even misquoted from the Crispin speech in Henry V, substituting the word ‘glory’ for ‘honour’. But the acquisition of honour and glory was not the sole key to Nelson’s character. He desired recognition as well. ‘I am the child of opinion,’ he wrote. And his first real taste of recognition came with the battle of St Vincent.

1797 was a bad year for England, sometimes described until the beginning of the Great War in 1914 as ‘the darkest hour in English history’. Europe was dominated by France, the whole Rhine delta was in the hands of the French, and their armies poised for invasion. Ireland was on the point of rebellion. Discontent was seething at home. The fleets of both Holland and Spain were at France’s disposal. The Royal Navy was abandoning the Mediterranean, and Sir John Jervis, commanding a fleet, fifteen sail of the line, had declared on 13 February 1797 that a victory was essential to England at this time, for everything was going wrong elsewhere. Clearly some striking success for Britain was needed. Admiral Jervis and Commodore Nelson were just the men to deliver such a success.

The engagement off Cape St Vincent, the south-west corner of Portugal, was remarkable for two things: first, Jervis’s admirable indifference to the daunting size of his enemy’s fleet. When the captain of his flagship, Victory, reported twenty Spanish sail of the line, Jervis replied: ‘Very well, sir.’ Then, on the next report’s being of twenty-seven ships, nearly double their own strength, Jervis retorted: ‘Enough, sir, no more of that. The die is cast and if there are fifty sail of the line, I will go through them.’ This splendid spirit so impressed a huge Canadian, Captain Hallowell, who was standing near the Admiral, that he slapped Jervis on the back, enthusiastically endorsing this defiance by saying, ‘That’s right, Sir John, and a damned good licking we’ll give them.’ That they did so was due in large measure to the tactical brilliance and remarkable action of Nelson.

Second, when Nelson in Captain, third from the rear of the British line, saw that his Admiral’s orders to the fleet might allow the two Spanish divisions to join up and bring greatly superior fire-power to bear on the British, he acted with what Arthur Bryant called the ‘instinct of genius’ and contrary to orders; indeed, contravening a cardinal rule of naval warfare, he bore out of the line of battle and headed straight for the main Spanish division. By bringing them to action, he sought to prevent their reunion with the other Spanish vessels. It was an act of the utmost daring to take on five enemy ships of the line. But the tactic succeeded. Nelson was supported by Collingwood in Excellent and he in turn was followed by Troubridge’s Culloden and Frederick’s Blenheim. What transpired was what Nelson always aimed at – a pell-mell battle in which British seamanship and gunnery would triumph. Nelson even went so far as personally to board a Spanish first-rate, the 112-gun San Josef, via the eighty-gun San Nicolas, which Nelson, as always eager for closer action, had rammed with his own ship, Captain.

This further act of cool courage appealed to the British fleet, and the use of the San Nicolas became famous as Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates. The outcome of the battle was eminently satisfactory. Four Spanish battleships were captured; the rest of the enemy fleet, still outnumbering the British, limped back to Cadiz; the junction of the Spanish and French fleets had been prevented; the threat of England being invaded was removed. Nelson himself, longing for recognition and fame, was made a Knight of the Bath and a Rear-Admiral. ‘His sudden exploit’, wrote Arthur Bryant, ‘caught England’s imagination . . . For all men knew him now for what he was. That knowledge was the measure of his opportunity. The years of testing and obscurity were over, the sunrise gates of fulfilment opening before him.’6 Nelson’s next great task would be against the endeavours and ambitions of Napoleon himself.

Yet if by chance Nelson’s Captain had not been where she was near the rear of the British line, if, say, she had been nearer the van, the opportunity to act as he did would not have presented itself. The battle might then have developed very differently. There would have been no doubt about Jervis’s intention to ‘go through them’, but the decisive action of Nelson’s cutting off one division of the Spanish fleet and pulverizing it would have been unlikely to occur. No doubt British seamanship and gunnery would have given the Spaniards something to think about, but in the end numerical superiority alone might have enabled them to avoid such a significant defeat. And then the threat of invasion might have persisted in a more menacing way than it did. After all, Napoleon, following his triumphant victories with the Army of Italy, had been appointed to the Army of England. Not that he thought much of the idea of an invasion when the British navy still enjoyed command of the seas. ‘Too chancy,’ was his comment. ‘I don’t intend to risk la belle France on the throw of a dice.’ Instead, he turned his thoughts once more to Egypt, with the ultimate view of striking a blow at India itself, where an ally, Tippoo Sultan, would be ready to cooperate with him in ejecting the British from India once and for all. So in March 1798 General Bonaparte was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Army of the East, and two months later he set sail from Toulon, himself sailing in the huge 120-gun flagship, L’Orient, taking with him his army of soldiers, scientists, artists and philosophers. With him too went nearly 200 ships, 1,000 guns, plentiful ammunition, 700 horses and some 20,000 men – later this force would be reinforced by another fleet sailing from Italian ports. The idea was to make Egypt a French colony as a preliminary move in the ultimate aim to strike at India, and bizarrely enough ‘to improve the lot of the natives of Egypt’.

In the same month Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson had re-entered the Mediterranean with a powerful squadron, bent on the traditional mission of search and destroy. The consequences of these two expeditions were to be dramatic indeed. If the battle of St Vincent had not been so decisive, if Pitt and his fellow ministers had not felt themselves secure enough to despatch a fleet to the Mediterranean, if Nelson had not distinguished himself sufficiently at St Vincent to demonstrate his eminent fitness to command a fleet, or had not recovered from his dreadful wound at Tenerife, which resulted in the loss of his right arm, we would not have found Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, writing to Earl St Vincent on 2 May 1798 with instructions which led to Nelson’s shattering victory at Aboukir Bay:

When you are apprised that the appearance of a British squadron in the Mediterranean is a condition on which the fate of Europe may at this moment be said to depend, you will not be surprised that we are disposed to strain every nerve and incur considerable hazard in effecting it.

Should St Vincent decide not to command the squadron in person, the task should be entrusted to Nelson. These were Spencer’s instructions. The decisions and actions that Nelson was now to take present us with another great If of history.

On 19 May 1798 General Bonaparte, not yet twenty-nine years old, set sail from Toulon for his great mission in the East and headed with the principal part of his expedition in the direction of Genoa. Nelson, who had sailed from Gibraltar on 8 May with three ships of the line and five frigates, learned from a captured French corvette nine days later that the French were preparing to leave Toulon with fifteen ships of the line and thousands of troops embarked on the transports. It was at this point that the power of nature intervened: a violent storm battered Nelson’s flagship, Vanguard, off the Sardinian coast, and it was only the daring action of Captain Ball in Alexander, who took Vanguard in tow and brought her to safety, that prevented the flagship’s being wrecked. The same storm, however, carried the French fleet out of Toulon and over the horizon before Nelson received both his orders from St Vincent and the reinforcements with which to carry out these orders – to pursue the Toulon fleet and destroy it. At this time Nelson had no information as to the likely destination of Bonaparte’s expedition. The instructions he had received made no mention of Egypt. Yet Nelson’s strategic instinct told him that it must be there that Bonaparte was bound for. His appreciation was strengthened when he further learned that the French had captured Malta and had sailed east on 16 June. He had already written to Spencer saying that he believed the French were aiming to possess Alexandria with a view to invading India, and this latest intelligence – false as far as the date of Bonaparte’s sailing east from Malta was concerned – made up his mind. It was unfortunate that Nelson’s acute lack of frigates precluded his seeking more accurate information. But in his overwhelming desire to destroy the French fleet and transports and acting on the intelligence he had, Nelson set course for Alexandria. Meanwhile Bonaparte had actually left Malta, not on 16 June, but three days later.

The result was that instead of chasing the French fleet to Alexandria, Nelson’s squadron was ahead of it. Yet the two fleets nearly converged. When on 22 June Nelson’s lookouts caught sight of French frigates on the horizon, he concluded that they could not be part of Bonaparte’s main force which, according to his intelligence, had left Malta six days earlier. He therefore sailed on. The night was hazy and during it Nelson’s line of battle sailed across a line on which the French fleet was converging. At dawn the following day neither fleet was visible to the other. It was, Arthur Bryant wrote, ‘one of the decisive moments of history’. There the two men were, England’s greatest sailor, France’s greatest soldier, within an ace of clashing, and had it come to that, the result could not have been in doubt: an early end to one of history’s most eminent stars, either drowned or made prisoner; some of the later Grande Armée’s most brilliant generals out of the running; Nelson’s annihilation of a French battle fleet anticipated by more than a month; no battle of the Nile or cosseting of its victor by Emma Hamilton.

And the cause of it all? Lack of frigates which, said Bryant,

robbed Nelson of a victory that should have been Trafalgar and Waterloo in one. Again and again St Vincent had pleaded with the Admiralty for more frigates: pleaded in vain. He had had to send his brilliant subordinate into the Mediterranean with too few, and these had failed him. Treasury parsimony, the unpreparedness of a peace-loving people . . . had contributed to this fatal flaw. It was to cost Britain and the civilized world seventeen more years of war, waste and destruction.

Yet we must remember that Nelson did catch up with the French fleet in the end and more or less annihilated it. He became the hero of the Nile. Those who relish attacking Nelson’s vanity should recognize his own cognizance of it. His comment on the storm which had nearly wrecked Vanguard was to the effect that he believed ‘it was the Almighty’s goodness to check my consummate vanity’, while a few years later, before Trafalgar, the West India merchants whose possessions had been saved by his vigilance voted him their thanks, and the Naval Chronicle went so far as to suggest that the praise heaped on Nelson was such that he was in danger of being made a demi-god – but for his modesty!

We may perhaps pursue this point by referring again to those who seek to tarnish Nelson’s reputation. That he longed for glory, honour and recognition is not to be denied. Indeed, in quoting Henry V’s admission to coveting honour as applying to himself, he acknowledged as much. ‘I ever saw a radiant orb suspended which beckoned me onwards to renown,’ he confided to Captain Hardy. But it was not just for himself that he sought renown. It was for England too. The most cherished praise that a military commander can receive comes not from his superior officers, but from those serving under his command. And it was from these very men that Nelson received unstinted devotion and admiration. ‘He was a man who led by love and example,’ observed Bryant. ‘There was nothing he would not do for those who served under him. There was nothing they would not dare for Nelson.’ So that when we read that Colin White, director of Trafalgar 200 (the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death), talks of Nelson’s claiming all the glory for himself after the battle of St Vincent instead of sharing it with his fellow officers, we may readily dismiss such insidious calumny. On the very morning after the battle we find Nelson writing to his friend Collingwood, who had supported him with Excellent:

‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ was never more truly verified than by your most noble and gallant conduct yesterday in sparing the Captain from further loss; and I beg, both as a public Officer and a friend, you will accept my most sincere thanks. I have not failed, by letter to the Admiral, to represent the eminent services of the Excellent.

It may, however, be noted that whereas Jervis made no special mention of individuals in his dispatch – for fear of offending by exclusion or inclusion – in his private letter to Lord Spencer he drew attention to the exploits of Nelson, Troubridge, Collingwood, Saumarez, Hallowell and Admiral Parker. Nelson’s own account of the battle, which was signed by two of his fellow officers, Captain Berry and Captain Miller, did understandably outline his own contribution to victory. It was sent to another old friend, Captain Locker, who was given permission to pass it on to the newspapers. His account did not satisfy everyone and indeed it was unlikely to do so, for just as Wellington once observed that it was impossible for a participant to recall every detail of a battle, so Collingwood commented on the difficulty for one who is engaged in it to relate all its circumstances. Jervis, with his customary sense of fairness and justice, wrote to all captains to ‘convey the high sense I entertain of the exemplary conduct of flag-officers, captains, officers, seamen, marines and soldiers, embarked on board every ship of the squadron’. He asked his captains to give his thanks and approbation to their crews.

Thus it was clear that whereas Nelson’s tactical brilliance and personal gallantry had greatly contributed to the victory, the whole fleet had shown its skill and mettle. This spirit of the British navy as a whole was what men like Jervis and Nelson had always striven for. Yet it was Nelson’s part in it all that fired the country’s imagination. Jervis had emphasized beforehand how essential a victory was to England. Now they had one, and in Nelson they also had a hero. In 1775, sailing in Dolphin from Simon’s Town to the Isle of Wight, Nelson, depressed and despairing over the bleak prospects of ever rising in his profession, suddenly experienced a surge of joy and confidence.

After a long and gloomy reverie, in which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me and presented my King and Country as my patron. Well, then, I will be a hero, and, confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger.

By 1797 he had braved dangers enough and had indeed become a hero. It was this self-surrender, as Bryant put it, that was the real core of the man. Before setting off for Trafalgar he wrote to his friend Davison that in spite of having much to lose and little to gain, he went because it was right to do so and he would serve his country faithfully. The esteem in which Pitt, the Prime Minister, held Nelson was manifested in his honouring him by accompanying him to his carriage after their last meeting. And as Nelson’s barge left Southsea to row him to his flagship, Victory, hundreds of people were there to give him three cheers. ‘I had their huzzas before,’ he told his flag-captain, Thomas Hardy, ‘I have their hearts now.’

Nelson was anxiously awaited by the fleet. ‘For charity’s sake,’ wrote Captain Codrington, commanding Orion, ‘send us Lord Nelson, ye men of power!’ They wanted him not just for his professional mastery, but also for his personal qualities. One of the captains, who made up the Band of Brothers and who had fought with him at the Nile, Alexander Ball, summed up the feelings they had for him:

Lord Nelson was an admiral, every inch of him. He looked at everything, not merely in its possible relation to the naval service in general but in its immediate bearings on his own squadron; to his officers, his men, to the particular ships themselves, his affections were as steady and ardent as those of a lover. Hence, though his temper was constitutionally irritable and uneven, yet never was a commander so enthusiastically loved by men of all ranks from the captain of the fleet to the youngest ship-boy.

Even Nelson, despite his absolute confidence in his own tactical plans and in his ships, captains and crews, was obliged to concede that nothing was certain in a sea-fight. ‘Something must be left to chance,’ he observed. Yet before closing with the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, when Captain Berry asked him what the world would say ‘if we succeed’, Nelson replied: ‘There is no if in the case.’ He was certain of success. Who would live to tell the story was a very different question. His success was absolute, and yet the question may be put: if by chance he had not destroyed the French fleet, what would Bonaparte have done after defeating the Egyptian and Turkish armies? Hauled his fleet across the desert to Suez and descended on India? Followed Alexander’s footsteps through Persia to the north-west frontier? As Napoleon himself put it: ‘Had it not been for the English Navy, I should have been Emperor of the East.’ He would not have been deterred by the hazards of any such venture. As it was, however, he was thwarted at Acre, where the Turks, aided by another sailor, Sidney Smith, put a stop to his plans, and it was by the courtesy of this same sailor in sending Bonaparte the latest news-sheet from Europe, the Gazette Française de Francfort, that Bonaparte learned of the French Republic’s perilous condition. She was at war with England, Turkey, Russia, Austria and Naples. Corfu had been lost, Zurich taken by Austro-Russian forces, northern Italy had been invaded, there was fighting in Holland. France itself was in economic turmoil. There was but one course of action for him – to return to France. Leaving the Egyptian command to Kléber, he embarked in a frigate, Muiron, on the night of 22 August 1799 and with three other vessels sailed for France, taking with him Berthier, Murat, Marmont, Bessières and Lannes. He was never to return to Egypt. Indeed, the whole Egyptian campaign had been futile.

Yet if he had not gone there, Nelson would not have had the opportunity to triumph at the battle of the Nile, and so bring about the circumstances in which Bonaparte was constrained to hasten back to France and begin the political and military intrigues which led to his becoming First Consul. It was not long after his assuming this position of power that Austria was once more in arms against France. This challenge to both the French Republic and his own position at its head led to a battle in which Bonaparte faltered and was saved by the timely action – and as chance would have it brilliant coordination – of three of his subordinates: the battle of Marengo.


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