Horatio Nelson: From Frail Boy to National Hero

Nelson on the deck of HMS Victory after being shot by a sniper. Artist: Benjamin West. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Nelson on the deck of HMS Victory after being shot by a sniper. Artist: Benjamin West. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

by Ray Setterfield


November 27, 1770 — Often maggot-infested, the food was disgusting, living quarters were tiny and discipline was extremely strict, with the threat of lashing punishment by the cat-o’-nine-tails ever present. Winston Churchill would write of such life as “nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.” Welcome to the 18th century world of the British Navy.

No wonder there were few volunteers. Most crewmen – who might not see their families again for years – had been press-ganged into service.

The Government, at war with Napoleon’s France from 1793 to 1815, claimed a permanent right to seize men of seafaring experience for the Navy, a practice formally known as “impressment.” It was vigorously enforced in English coastal towns.  

Those press-ganged into service were usually sailors on leave from the merchant fleets, but could easily be ordinary apprentices or labourers. 

The life of “rum, sodomy and the lash” was by no means all that awaited the unfortunate press-gang victim. He was on board for a reason – war.

And he would have served aboard one of 136 ships-of-the-line – that is one with 50 guns or more. Soon, he could find himself engaged in a naval battle.

Dr Sam Willis is one of the world’s leading authorities on maritime and naval history. He says that in such a conflict seascapes were shrouded by so much gunsmoke that, in the midst of battle, visibility beyond a few feet was all but impossible.

He adds: “Confusion begat chaos, well-laid plans disintegrated, and random acts tipped battle one way or another.

“Wind and swell, tide and current, light and dark, were all capable of ruining the best plans. The ships’ rigs were so vulnerable that a single lucky shot could cripple any warship.

“The sudden death or injury of a ship’s officers could bring a crew to a standstill and the sudden death or injury of a large portion of the crew could bring the officers to standstill. Neither could work without the other and both were vulnerable. As a rule, nothing ever went to plan.”

On this day, a frail twelve-year-old boy stepped voluntarily into this seething world of filth, fear and uncertainty, determined to make his way in the world. He was the sixth of eleven children born to the wife of a clergyman in the rural UK village of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk.

His name was Horatio Nelson and he was to become one of England’s greatest-ever military leaders and a national hero.

After enlisting he was appointed a midshipman and began officer-training aboard HMS Raisonable – a 64-gun ship-of-the-line captured from the French.

Nelson was only 14 when he experienced sailing in the West Indies, the Northwest Passage and in the North Sea. Promoted post-Captain in 1779 at the age of 20, his first command was the frigate HMS Hinchingbroke.

From 1793 until his death at Trafalgar in 1805 he led a long series of battles but not without considerable personal cost. He was blinded in his right eye at Corsica in 1794 and lost his right arm at Santa Cruz in Tenerife three years later.

One of his most stunning victories came in 1798 when, in command of 14 ships, Nelson destroyed a French fleet of 17 in the Battle of Aboukir Bay at the mouth of the Nile.

Historians say that the overwhelming victory resulted from all the key elements of the Nelsonian system being brought into play: personal courage, tactical genius and the sharing of Nelson’s innovative tactics with his captains – the men he called his “band of brothers”.

Three years later Nelson was only second in command of a fleet sent against Denmark when the famous “blind eye” incident occurred.

Ordered to retreat, he turned to his flag captain, Thomas Foley, and said: "You know, Foley, I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes.” Then, holding his telescope to his blind eye, said: "I really do not see the signal!”

Nelson went on to win the battle and was rewarded by promotion to Vice Admiral.

His last and most famous victory came on October 20 1805 when the French and Spanish fleets put to sea off the southern coast of Spain where the Battle of Trafalgar took place. Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to crush the British Navy and invade the country.

The Franco-Spanish fleet consisted of 33 ships carrying 2,600 guns and 30,000 men. Nelson had 27 ships with 2,150 guns and 17,000 men.

Before hostilities began Nelson sent his famous signal to the fleet: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

They did more than that. Twenty-two ships of the 33-strong Franco-Spanish fleet were destroyed, while the British lost none. And the Battle of Trafalgar crushed Napoleon's hopes of establishing naval superiority over Great Britain.

But Nelson paid the ultimate price for his victory. He was shot by a French sniper as he paced the deck of his ship, Victory. Taken below decks, he died three hours later. He was 47.

London’s streets were lined with weeping people at his funeral as he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

In London’s Trafalgar Square stands the country’s memorial to one of its favourite sons. Nelson’s column, 170ft (51.8m) high and erected in 1840, is crowned with a statue of the man that the poet Byron referred to as “Britannia's God of War”.

** Although massive in stature as a national hero, Nelson was a small man, standing only 5ft 4in (1.62m) tall and of slight build. Surprisingly suffering from seasickness all his life, he had a weak constitution and was frequently ill with bouts of malaria and dysentery. Perhaps it was all a legacy of that dreadful food dished out to young sailors . . .

Related Articles:

** Nelson’s Dying Words: Save Emma. May 12.
** A Salute to the Military Genius Napoleon Bonaparte. Oct 30.

Published: November 18, 2019

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