The Death on Nelson
"The death of Nelson," says the poet Southey, "was felt in England as something more than a calamity; men stared at the intelligence and turned pale, as if they had heard of a loss of a dear friend. An object of our admiration and affection, of our pride and of our hopes, was suddenly taken from us, and it seemed as if we had never, till then, known how deeply we loved and reverenced him."
It was on September 29, 1805, his forty-seventh birthday, that Admiral Lord Nelson arrived off Cadiz in the Victory, charged with the task of crushing the combined navies of Spain and France and so dealing the death blow to the scheme which Napoleon cherished for the invasion of England. Napoleon had amassed a huge army on the coast in the neighbourhood of Boulogne and he required the fleets to protect his passage across the Channel - once there he would depend on himself entirely to crush the impudent "Nation of Shopkeepers."
Lord Nelson realised, therefore, that when the Franco-Spanish fleet at last ventured out of the port of Cadiz, where they had been hiding, he must deal them such destruction that would prevent them from sailing on to Boulogne. The fate of England was in his hands.
To a friend in Italy, Nelson wrote: "Here I am watching for the French and the Spaniards like a cat after the mice. If they come out, I know that I shall catch them, but I am almost sure that I shall be killed in doing it."
This premonition of death seems to have been very strong in his mind. On October 20, he said to some of the midshipmen: "To-morrow I will do that which will give you younger gentlemen something to talk and think about for the rest of your lives, but I shall not live to know about it myself."
To Collingwood, his second in command, he wrote: "They surely cannot escape us. I wish we could only get a fine day. I send you my plan, as far as a man dare venture to guess at the very uncertain position the enemy may be found in; but, my dear friend, it is to place you perfectly at your ease respecting my intentions, and to give full scope to your judgment for carrying them into effect. We can, my dear Coll, have no little jealousies; we have only one great object in view - that of annihilating our enemies, and getting a glorious peace for our country." And then he summoned all the officers of his fleet and explained his plan of action. It was a most skilful plan. So quietly had Nelson arrived off Cadiz that the enemy supposed that only Collingwood lay outside the harbour - they knew nothing of the reinforcements brought up by Nelson. And Nelson's plan was a bold one - one which Collingwood unaided could never have carried out.
The British fleet consisted of twenty-seven ships. These were divided into two columns, one under the command of Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign., the other under Nelson in the Victory. If, as Nelson prophesied, the enemy were drawn up in line, Collingwood's column was to thrust through and crush the rear of the line while Nelson's would break the centre to the van. Foreseeing that smoke might make the reading of signals impossible, he ordained that "no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy." Thus he emphasised the fighting tradition of our navy.
It was on October 19 that Villeneuve, the commander of the enemy fleet, acting upon orders received from Napoleon, slipped quietly out of Cadiz. But Nelson's eyes - his frigates - were watchful. Whatever movement the enemy made was reported immediately by a chain of signals to where Nelson lay, far below the horizon. The cat was preparing to pounce on the unsuspecting mice. Nelson did not wish to strike at once, in case Villeneuve managed to regain the safety of the port. Nelson's chance had come at last; he must not, for the sake of his country, let it slip away.
Seeing that battle was imminent, Nelson retired to his cabin and wrote the last letters to his loved ones in England - to his little daughter Horatia and to Lady Hamilton.
To his daughter he said:
"My Dearest Angel, -
To Lady Hamilton he wrote thus:
"My Dearest Beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom. The signal has been made that the enemy's combined fleet are coming out of port. We have very little wind, so that I have no hopes of seeing them before to-morrow. May the God of Battle crown my endeavours with success; at all events, I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the battle. May Heaven bless your prayers, from
Nelson and Bronte.
By three o'clock on the afternoon of Sunday, October 20, the entire Allied Fleet were on the heels of the enemy. And they sailed unseen by those whom they chased. The cat even then was not ready to pounce.
The morning of the 21st broke rather mistily, but the combined fleets of the enemy could be seen quite plainly from the decks of the Victory. The cat had come up with her prey. All told the enemy possessed thirty-three ships, and as the sun rose its rays were caught by the dazzling white sails of the armada of mighty three-deckers and galleons. The enemy's superiority was greater in size and number of guns than in numbers - but the British sailors saw only the beauty and splendour of the spectacle that lay before them. It was remarked what a fine sight the armada would make at Spithead!
Nelson was on deck soon after daylight. He was dressed, as usual, in his admiral's frock coat, and on his breast he wore the four stars of the orders with which he had been invested. It was known that there would be riflemen on board the enemy craft and that his life would be particularly aimed at, but although it was discussed by certain of his officers no one dared to entreat him to change his dress or cover the stars. "In honour I gained them and in honour I will die with them," he had once said.
The wind was now blowing from the west in light breezes and there was a long, heavy swell on the sea. At 6.40 a.m. Nelson ordered the signal to be made for the fleet to bear down upon the enemy in two lines. The men started to clear the Victory for action, and Nelson walked round the decks speaking with the workers, encouraging them. When all the movable fittings were being cleared from the cabins, Nelson requested the officer in charge of operations to be careful in the handling of Lady Hamilton's portrait. "Take care of my guardian angel," he said.
Earlier on he had signalled the captains of all his frigates to come aboard. He now, therefore, requested Captain Blackwood and Captain Hardy to come to his cabin to witness a document which he had written before going on deck. It was a document in which he had pointed out the value of the services rendered by Lady Hamilton to England.
"Could I have rewarded these services, I would not now call upon my country," he wrote, "but, as that has not been in my power, I leave Emma Lady Hamilton therefore a legacy to my king and country, that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her rank in life."
He also left to the beneficence of his country his "adopted daughter," Horatia Nelson Thomson, desiring that in future she should use the name of Nelson only.
"These," he concluded, "are the only favours I ask of my king and country, at this moment when I am going to fight their battle. May God bless my king and country, and all those I hold dear. My relations it is needless to mention; they will, of course, be amply provided for."
After the two men had signed, Nelson made the following entry in his private diary.
"At daylight saw the enemy's combined fleet from East to E.S.E.; bore away; made the signal for order of sailing and to prepare for battle; the enemy with their heads to the Southward; at seven the enemy wearing in succession."
Nelson went on deck again, greeted the captains of the frigates who, by about eight o'clock, were all on board the Victory', and made a final tour of inspection.
The two fleets were now slowly drawing together and excitement among the men ran high. Nelson, himself, was in excellent spirits. He was confident that victory would be his - and he was most anxious to come to grips with the enemy.
Captain Blackwood records that: "About ten o'clock Lord Nelson's anxiety to close with the enemy became very apparent: he frequently remarked that they put a good face upon it; but always quickly added: 'I'll give them such a dressing as they never had before.'"
Blackwood tried to persuade Nelson to go aboard his (Blackwood's) frigate, the Euryalus, to keep him out of danger, but Nelson would not hear of it. Blackwood realised that all the enemy captains would be on the look-out for the Victory, and the marksmen would easily be able to distinguish the slight, one-armed figure of England's most famous admiral. Getting on towards eleven o'clock, with the enemy about three miles away, Nelson went below again. A few minutes later Lieutenant Pasco went to the admiral's cabin to make a report. He stopped dead on the threshold. Nelson was kneeling down, writing. He was in an attitude of prayer - and these are the words he was penning - his last written words.
"May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen."
Lieutenant Pasco waited for him to rise and then made his report, but the private grievances which he also wished to communicate to Nelson were never spoken. "I could not," records Pasco, "at such a moment disturb his mind with any grievances."
When Nelson went on deck again it was somewhere about 11.30 a.m. The lee line of the British Fleet was now closing in upon the enemy.
He turned to Blackwood and asked if he did not think there was a signal wanting. Blackwood answered that he thought the whole fleet seemed very clearly to understand what they were about. Nelson pondered awhile and then gave to Pasco the signal which will live for ever in naval tradition: England expects that every man will do his duty. When, at 11.35, the signal was made, the fleet received it with a great shout of acclamation. Roll upon roll of cheering surged over the waters. The men were ready to follow their beloved admiral to the death.
"Now," said Nelson, "I can do no more. We must trust to the great Disposer of all events, and to the justice of our cause. I thank God for this great opportunity of doing my duty."
The French admiral, on board the Bucentaure, pointed out to his officers the new manner in which the enemy was advancing. "Such conduct cannot fail to be successful," he said.
Just before noon the first gun of the engagement was fired. Some of the enemy vessels immediately ahead of the Victory fired single guns to ascertain whether she was yet within range.
Nelson, perceiving that the shots passed over him, told Blackwood to rejoin his frigate.
Blackwood saluted and turned to go.
"I trust, my lord," he said, "that on my return to the Victory, which will be as soon as possible, I shall find your lordship well and in possession of twenty prizes..."
"God bless you, Blackwood," Nelson replied quietly. "I shall never speak to you again."
At last the Victory came within range. With a scream a shot tore its way through one of her sails. The Victory drove on steadily, ruthlessly. Then, with a crash that shook the heavens from horizon to horizon, every ship within firing distance opened up against the British flagship.
Rigging was dismantled and fell into tangles on the Victory's decks - but still she drifted on, her guns, as yet, silent.
The fire now was heavy. Cannon balls whined through the air incessantly. Nelson's secretary was struck down while talking to Hardy; a clerk who took his place suffered the same fate.
It was some forty minutes before the Victory was strong enough to bring her guns to bear and all that time she had to suffer a terrific bombardment. The men bore it bravely and calmly.
Suddenly a shot passed between Nelson and Hardy, and a splinter of timber tore off the buckle of Hardy's shoe and bruised his foot. Nelson stopped pacing up and down - glanced anxiously at his friend.
"This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long," he said.
At four minutes after twelve the Victory opened fire from both sides of the deck. Crash after crash rang out.
With her first broadside that raked the Bucentaure from stem to stem, 400 men were killed or wounded. The clouds of heavy smoke from the cannon poured forth in billowing masses. Nelson and those about him were made black as sweeps.
Soon the Victory became wedged in tightly between enemy ships. The Neptune and Redoubtable raked her with withering fire. The Victory replied, depressing her guns so that the shot should not pass right through the enemy vessels and do damage to their own. The press was so great that no one could tell how the battle was faring elsewhere.
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