We feature in this interview with Real Men of Genius, Vice-Admiral, Lord Nelson, who has been described as the
most famous fighting admiral in history.
His tactics were sometimes unconventional but he had excellent strategies and displayed inspirational leadership. It has been written that the seas were his playground.
Nelson displayed great courage and personal leadership and inspired loyalty from his men. He exposed himself to the same hazards of battle and lost an eye and an arm and, eventually, his life in the process.
Lord Nelson, we understand that you joined the Navy in 1771 when you were just 12 years old. Can you tell us a little of your family circumstances, please.
I was born on 29 September 1758 in Norfolk. I had ten brothers and sisters. I had one overriding ambition, which was to go to sea.
When I entered the Navy I joined a ship commanded by my uncle and before long became a midshipman and undertook officer training. At 20 I became a captain and undertook service in the West Indies, Baltic and Canada.
What about marriage?
I met Frances Nisbet while in Nevis and we were married in 1787. When I returned home, Fanny later followed me and we lived in Burnham Thorpe where for five years I suffered half pay because there was no command for me in peacetime.
Ultimately French action changed all that, didn’t it?
Yes, after the French annexed the Austrian Netherlands in 1793, I was recalled to service and commanded HMS Agamemnon. Within a few days the French declared war. We saw service in the Mediterranean and I assisted in the capture of Corsica.
After that I prepared an assault on Calvi during which I was struck in my right eye by flying debris. We triumphed but there was no repairing the damage to the eye, and I lost the sight of it.
Three years later you were promoted to Commodore and ordered to command the ships blockading the French coast?
Yes, but by October 1796 the French advances meant that it was becoming very difficult to supply our ships in the Mediterranean and we were evacuated to Gibraltar, capturing a Spanish frigate on the way.
We are told that as a commander you were well known for your bold action, but didn’t always follow orders to the letter?
You may say that, but if I hadn’t done so would I have defeated the Spanish off Cape Vincent in 1797?
Was it there that you lost your right arm?
No, that was at Santa Cruz. As I was going ashore I was hit by a musket ball that fractured my arm in several places. It was necessary to amputate most of the arm, but I still had my legs and one arm and I was still able to issue orders to my captains.
You then returned to England and moved to London with Fanny in order to obtain medical attention for your arm?
Yes, I spent a few months recuperating with Fanny before I was given Vanguard and sent to Cadiz as reinforcement to follow Napoleon’s fleet. We took Malta, although the French had already left, but eventually I tracked them to the Nile.
And took them completely by surprise, I think?
It was our tactics that surprised them. We found them at anchor and their firepower was surely superior to ours. However, I ordered our ships to advance and attacked from both sides. They didn’t expect that and were totally unprepared.
Weren’t you wounded yet again?
Nothing to speak of. I was struck in the head by a piece of shot which temporarily blinded me, but the surgeon bandaged it and I recovered. I destroyed Orient , their flagship, and three other ships, and captured nine.
Only four vessels escaped. Napoleon’s fleet was destroyed and his Egyptian forces were stranded. Strategically it was a significant victory.
Honours followed from various quarters, not least of which was a peerage?
Yes, I took the title Baron Nelson of the Nile but it was rather less than I had expected because the Prime Minister had already indicated that I would be given a Viscountcy.
You frequently returned to Naples where I understand you were entertained by Lord and Lady Hamilton, and your friendship with Lady Hamilton blossomed?
Not to put too fine a point on it, I fell in love with her. She accompanied me on many occasions when I attended events held in my honour and subsequently bore my child.
Which led to the breakdown of your relationship with Fanny?
You were promoted to Vice-Admiral in 1801?
And very shortly afterwards Emma gave birth to our daughter, Horatia. I then sailed to the Baltic where the Danish and others had formed an alliance to break the British blockade. I advised an attack on the Danish fleet and was given permission to proceed.
But I understand that three British ships ran aground and you were ordered to withdraw?
Yes, because we also encountered heavier fire than anticipated, but I raised my telescope to my blind eye and exclaimed, “I see no signal”. Both fleets were heavily damaged, we called a truce and I negotiated a lengthy armistice.
You then became commander-in-chief in the Baltic and awarded the Viscountcy you so richly deserved?
I think so. I returned to England but it wasn’t long before Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain and I had the honour of defending the English Channel to prevent it. A peace agreement was struck in 1801 and I returned home to stay once again with the Hamiltons.
After being appointed commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean you were given HMS Victory as your flagship?
Yes. By the beginning of 1805 the French had eluded our blockade and in early September news arrived that they had combined fleets with the Spanish and were anchored at Cadiz.
We arrived at Cadiz at the end of September and planned our strategy. Although fleets generally lined up against each other and blasted each other with broadsides, I was well aware that we had fewer ships than the combined French and Spanish fleets.
My men had trained well for such a battle and were able to fire ten times faster than our opponents so I sailed directly at them in separate columns. We were thus able to use our canons on both sides and attack double the number of ships.
But you were hit by sniper fire?
My back was shot through. Hardy told me that enemy ships had surrendered. I knew I was finished so I asked him to kiss my forehead and muttered my last instructions. I had done my duty and died within a few hours. I thought it fitting that my remains were interred at St Paul’s Cathedral.
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