The Immortal Memory
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Today is the anniversary of Horatio Nelson’s great victory – and mortal wounding – at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
At the time a sailor in Royal Sovereign wrote to his father back in England, ‘Our dear Admiral Nelson is killed. All the men in our ship… have done nothing but blast their eyes… chaps that fought like the devil sit down and cry like a wench.’
Admiral Collingwood confided in his official despatch, ‘My heart is rent with the most poignant grief.’
And Scott, Nelson’s confidential secretary, who had comforted Nelson as he died, said: ‘When I think, setting aside his heroism, what an affectionate, fascinating little fellow he was…I become stupid with grief for what I have lost.’
So many aspects of Nelson’s all-too-short career should be celebrated. Here are just six that have special resonance to me.
- In an age when there was an enormous divide between the fo’c’sle and the quarterdeck he openly championed the courage and skill of Jack Tar. Speaking of the officers aft on the quarterdeck and the seamen on the fo’c’sle he said: ‘Aft the more honour – forward the better man!’ It is the dedication I have in my first book
- Nelson believed in leading from the front and often performed acts of extreme bravery. In 1797, for example, when he saw a Spanish gunboat flotilla off Cadiz, the British fleet meanwhile at anchor, he called away his own admiral’s barge and with Captain Fremantle and eleven seamen was soon pulling vigorously toward the Spaniards. Inspired by the sudden intervention of their leader the British seamen raised the cry of: ‘Let’s follow the Admiral, lads!’ and made after him. A fierce, close‑in, cutlass‑clashing boat action was soon to follow. Nelson didn’t have to prove anything by getting involved like this, but there he was, right out in front.
- Nelson appreciated the importance of detailed planning but he also knew how to delegate. By inducing in his captains his own concepts of command and freely imparting his ideas and intentions to them, Nelson unlocked their initiative and reduced dependence on chancy signals. He deliberately used the concept of a band of brothers to create a tightly knit command structure, all of whom knew what he wanted without being told.
- Nelson was a man for whom courage, honour and duty shaped his life. His courage in battle is legendary. But there was also great personal courage in dealing with the many injuries and illnesses he suffered throughout his life. What person today could perform at such a high professional level with only one arm, a sightless eye, the after‑effects of malaria and other diseases, and often continual pain? And what, but an incredible belief in duty would have taken him from Emma’s arms before Trafalgar just as he’d achieved the peace he craved?
- Nelson had real humanity. The wife of Admiral Hughes described once seeing Nelson with his officers and midshipmen:
‘Among the number of thirty there must have been timid spirits as well as bold: the timid he never rebuked but always wished to show them he desired nothing that he would not instantly do himself and I have known him say, “Well, sir, I am going to race to the mast‑head and beg I may meet you there.” No denial could be given to such a request and the poor little fellow instantly began to climb the shrouds. Captain Nelson never took the least notice in what manner it was done: but when they met at the top, spoke in the most cheerful of terms to the midshipman and observed how any person was to be pitied, who could fancy there was any danger, or even disagreeable in the attempt. After this excellent example, I have seen the same youth, who before was so timid, lead another in the like manner and repeat his commander’s words.’
- Nelson had a genuine concern for the well-being all those under his command. When you read the General Order books of Nelson’s captains what stands out and what are the majority entries is not the minutiae of running the ships, or instructions for battle, but regard for the welfare and contentment of the ship’s company. There are so many, but this one seems to exemplify the rest: ‘The ship’s company are never to be interrupted at their meals, but on the most pressing occasions.’
Let us raise our glasses:
‘To The Immortal Memory.’
Nelson portrait: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; Emma Hamilton portrait: George Romney [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Nelson’s column: By Eluveitie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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