“England expects that every man will do his duty”
The 29th September marks the 258th birthday of one of the most celebrated naval heroes in British history. In 1758, Lord Horatio Nelson was born in Burnham Thorpe.
Nelson’s nautical career began at the age of 12, when he joined the ranks of the British Navy as midshipman. Ascending rapidly in his career, Nelson traversed the oceans of the world and by 20, earned the rank of Captain.
In 1779, Spain joined the French in the war against Great Britain, siding with France and the American colonies. In retaliation, Nelson raided Spanish holdings in the West Indies and Central America. However, in the years that followed, Nelson fell from grace, becoming unpopular through the impassioned enforcement of the Navigation Acts – this restricted England’s carrying trade to English ships. He received no new naval commissions between 1787 and 1792, but when war broke out the following year, war broke out with France. Nelson sprung to the frontlines, gifted the arsenal of the 64-gun wielding Agamemnon.
Lord Horatio Nelson served in the Mediterranean, where he battled valiantly at the port of Toulon and assisted in the capture of Corsica. While participating in the siege of Calvi, Nelson lost sight in his right eye after being struck by debris from French artillery.
In February 1797, acting heroically and without fear, Nelson single handedly battled an entire squadron of Spanish ships which lay in wait for a British fleet off the coast of Cape St Vincent in Portugal. For this act of bravery, Nelson was awarded a knighthood and promoted to the post of rear admiral. Months later, Nelson would lead an assault on Santa Cruz de Tenerife to a losing effort. In this battle, he took a shot to the right arm, which required it to be amputated.
Following his recovery, Nelson a chased French expedition to Egypt, where he successfully destroyed the fleet, a victory known as The Battle of the Nile, taking place in August 1798. With this victory, Nelson made an enemy in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, along with his crew, was stranded with his army in Egypt. Nelson was hailed as a hero, and would go on to Naples, where, despite having a wife at home in England, he began an affair with the wife of a British minster. Nelson would assist the King of Naples in his efforts against republican revolutionaries, but was beckoned back to England after refusing an order to take ships to Minorca. However, upon his return, Nelson was made a vice admiral instead of being punished.
In 1801, Nelson found himself in a fierce battle with Danish forces at the Battle of Copenhagen, where he was ordered to withdraw by his superiors. Choosing to ignore the command, Nelson raised his telescope to his blind eye, reportedly citing, “I really do not see the signal”, emerging victorious within the hour. In appreciation of his battle skills, Nelson was made an Admiral and Viscount before being recalled to England to protect the Channel against a suspected French invasion. In the year that followed, a brief truce was created with the French. During this period, Nelson lived with his mistress and the minister’s wife in the countryside.
This peace lasted only a year before war once against broke out with French forces. To combat his adversary, Nelson was given command of a fleet in the Mediterranean. He managed to block off the French port of Toulon, where a French fleet was trapped for almost two years. Throughout this duration, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte planned to invade Britain. He was arguably the catalyst behind the Spanish declaring war on Britain, and in 1805, ordered French and Spanish combined forces to break through Nelson’s barricade, converging as a single, fearsome fleet in the West Indies. Napoleon hoped his army would conquer the English Channel, assisting an invasion force of 350,000 to invade Britain.
In March of 1805, a French Admiral by the name of Pierre de Villeneuve managed to break through Nelson’s blockade with his fleet due to bad weather. Enraged, Nelson gave chase, following de Villeneuve’s fleet to the West Indies. Here, de Villeneuve found himself alone in the Antilles, a location that had been previously planned as a ‘meeting point.’ The French Admiral soon retreated to the port of Cadiz in Spain, where a Spanish fleet were stationed. Napoleon called off his attack, and the British, much like at Toulon, created a blockade around Cadiz.
In October, Napoleon commanded Villeneuve to run the blockade, sailing to Italy to assist in a French campaign. Villeneuve made it out of Cadiz on October 19th accompanied by a fleet of 33 ships, consisting of both French and Spanish forces. However, just two days later, Nelson caught the French Admiral off Cape Trafalgar. Nelson split his 27 ships down the middle, and signalled words of infamy from the flagship Victory, citing, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” In the five hours of fierce combat that followed, the British annihilated the enemy fleet. 19 ships were destroyed and Villeneuve was captured, a clean sweep for the British fleet. However, 1,500 British navy soldiers were killed or wounded in the heavy fighting that ensued. The battle was at its fiercest around the Victory, where Nelson was hit in the shoulder and the chest by a French sniper. He was taken down below, where he fought for his life, succumbing to death’s cold embrace 30 minutes before the end of the battle. His last words, upon being informed that victory was within British grasp, were “Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.”
A martyr to the cause, Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar ensured the French would never invade Britain again. Nelson received a glorious funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, with a column erected in his honour in the freshly named Trafalgar Square, with numerous streets renamed in his memory. The HMS Victory, where Nelson won his most spectacular battle and took his last breath, sits in its dock in Portsmouth to this day.