Many historians regard Admiral Horatio Nelson as the greatest war hero in British history. His reputation is based on a series of remarkable victories, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar, where he was killed in his moment of triumph.
Nelson joined the navy aged 12 in 1770 and experienced sailing in the West Indies, the Northwest passage when only 14 and in the North Sea. Promoted post-Captain in 1779 at the age of 20, his first command was the frigate HMS Hinchingbroke. Nelson was later charged with taking the young Prince William (the future William IV) to the West Indies aboard HMS Albemarle.
When the French Revolutionary Wars began in 1793, Nelson was given command of the ship of the line HMS Agamemnon and was assigned to the Mediterranean. There he took part in the capture of Corsica in 1794; while directing guns at the siege of the town of Calvi, he was hit in the face by a shower of gravel and blinded in his right eye.
Nelson first came to fame at the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797 when his initiative in command of HMS Captain helped prevent the Spanish Fleet from escaping the clutches of Sir John Jervis. At the height of the battle, he captured two Spanish ships, the San Nicholas and the San José, leading the boarding party in person from one to the other. It was highly unusual for a flag officer to lead such an attack and was even more remarkable given that the second assault was up the side of the large three-deck San José which surrendered immediately. This heroic action became known in the Royal Navy as ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates’.
Nelson suffered another serious injury in July 1797 during the operation to capture the town of Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands. During the second failed attack, Nelson lost his right arm while leading one of the landing parties in an attempt to assault the town frontally.
In 1798, in command of his own fleet of fourteen ships, he destroyed a French fleet of seventeen in the Battle of Aboukir Bay at the mouth of the Nile. It was the most overwhelming victory in the age of sail. All the key elements of the Nelsonian system were present: personal courage, tactical genius and the sharing of his innovative tactics with his captains (his ‘band of brothers’).
Nelson was only second in command of the fleet sent against Denmark in 1801, but after famously turning his blinded eye to the telescope ordering him to retreat, he carried the assault on Copenhagen to a successful conclusion. After this success, he was promoted to Vice Admiral and took command of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1803.
Finally, at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 with 27 ships of the line, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the numerically superior Franco-Spanish fleet of 33, of which only 17 escaped. Hit by a musket ball from a French sharpshooter at about 13:15 he was taken below and died on HMS Victory’s Orlop Deck at 16:30 in the knowledge that he had achieved another famous victory.
Admiral Horatio Nelson’s last message to the fleet was, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
Furthermore, Nelson’s last words were, “Thank God I have done my duty.”
The Battle of Trafalgar was one of the most important sea battles of the 19th century because it ensured that Napoleon Bonaparte would never invade Britain. It also guaranteed the British Navy’s control of the oceans, which was the foundation of Britain’s global power for over a hundred years.
Nelson’s genius was to recognise that, at this time, both the French and Spanish Navies were vastly inferior to the British in professional skills such as gunnery and ship handling and that risks could be taken to win crushing victories.
Nelson’s passion for risk-taking lost him the sight of an eye, an arm and eventually his life but, together with his remarkable charismatic leadership skills, they created a legend that inspires the Royal Navy to this day.
Consequently, Horatio Nelson was acclaimed as the saviour of Britain and was given a splendid state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Furthermore, his statue is on top of the 46 metres high and solid granite Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. Constructed in 1843, Nelson’s Column commemorates Admiral Horatio Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The statue of Nelson faces south, looking towards the Admiralty, with the Mall on his right flank, where the top of each flagpole represents Nelson’s ships.