Nelson- the British Hero
Britons have every right to make October 21st a date in the diary as one of reflection and commemoration. It was the day, 198 years ago which witnessed the greatest achievement of one of our nation's greatest heroes. Trafalgar and Nelson, until a generation ago, were names that inspired every schoolchild and enthused them with patriotic pride.
The story of Horatio Nelson and his achievements is a truly inspiring one. He was a leader of men, a brilliant strategist, a tireless and selfless worker to a noble cause, indeed one worthy of the label "a hero".
He was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk to the Reverend Edmund Nelson and Catherine Suckling Nelson on the 29th September 1758. His mother died when Nelson was nine. He learnt to sail on Barton Broad on the Norfolk Broads, and by the time he was twelve, he had enrolled in the Royal Navy. His naval career began on January 1, 1771, when as a 12 year old midshipman he reported to the warship Raissonable, commanded by his maternal uncle. In 1777 he was a lieutenant, assigned to the West Indies, during which time he saw action on the British side of the American Revolution. By the time he was 20, in June 1779, he made captain; the frigate Hitchenbroke was his first command.
The following year, Nelson was once again responsible for a great victory over the French. The Battle of the Nile took place on August 1, 1798, and as a result, Napoleon's ambition to take the war to the British in India came to an end. The forces Napoleon had brought to Egypt were stranded, and Napoleon himself had to be smuggled back to France. For his efforts, Nelson was granted the title of Baron. Not content to rest on his laurels, he then rescued the Neapolitan royal family from a French invasion in December. During this time, he fell in love with Emma Hamilton -- the young wife of the elderly British ambassador to Naples. She became his mistress, returning to England to live openly with him, and eventually they had a daughter, Horatia.
Unlike many of his naval predecessors Nelson was keen to experiment and test new ideas of naval engagement. He rehearsed his battle plans rigorously, often challenging a century of naval tradition which was fast becoming outdated as ships themselves were changing. He rose rapidly up the ranks of the Senior service and in 1799 he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Red, the fifth highest rank in the Royal Navy. Two years later on January 1, 1801, he was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue (the fourth highest rank).
Within a few months he was involved in the Battle of Copenhagen (April 2, 1801), which vanquished the fleet of the Danes, in order to break up the armed neutrality of Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The action was considered somewhat underhanded by some, and in fact Nelson had been ordered to cease the battle by his commander Sir Hyde Parker. In a famous incident, however, he claimed he could not see the signal flags conveying the order, pointedly raising his telescope to his blind eye. His action was approved in retrospect, and in May he became commander-in-chief in the Baltic Sea, and was awarded the title of Viscount by the British crown.
Napoleon was amassing forces to invade England, however, and Nelson was soon placed in charge of defending the English Channel to prevent this. The armistice of the Peace of Amiens was not to last long though, and Nelson soon returned to duty. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean, and assigned to the HMS Victory. He joined the blockade of Toulon, and would not again set foot on dry land for more than two years. After the French fleet slipped out of Toulon and headed for the West Indies, a stern chase failed to turn them up and Nelson's health forced him to retire to Surrey.
On September 13, 1805 he was called upon to oppose the French and Spanish fleets, which had managed to join up and take refuge in the harbour of Cadiz, Spain.
On October 21, 1805, Nelson engaged in his final battle, the Battle of Trafalgar. Napoleon Bonaparte had been massing forces once again for the invasion of the British Isles. On the 19th, the French and Spanish fleet left Cadiz, intent on clearing the Channel for this purpose. Nelson, with twenty-seven ships, engaged the thirty-three opposing ships.
His last dispatch, written on the 21st, read:
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. 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.
As the two fleets moved towards engagement, he then ran up a thirty-one flag signal to the rest of the fleet which spelled out the famous phrase "England expects that every man will do his duty".
After crippling the French flagship Beaucentaure, the Victory moved on to the Redoutable. The two ships entangled each other, at which point snipers in the rigging of the Redoutable were able to pour fire down onto the deck of the Victory. Nelson was one of those hit: a bullet entered his shoulder, pierced his lung, and came to rest at the base of his spine. Nelson retained consciousness for some time, but died soon after the battle was concluded with a British victory. The Victory was then towed to Gibraltar, with Nelson's body on board preserved in a barrel of brandy. Upon his body's arrival in London, Nelson was given a state funeral and entombment in St. Paul's Cathedral. According to legend, the rum ration used to preserve his body was given to naval men and came to be known as "Nelson's Blood", a possibly deliberate echo of the Communion ritual.
Nelson was noted for his considerable ability to inspire and bring out the best in his men, to the point that it gained a name: "The Nelson Touch". Famous even while alive, after his death he was lionized like almost no other military figure in British history. The monumental Nelson's Column and the surrounding Trafalgar Square are notable locations in our capital to this day, and Nelson lies buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. The Victory is in existence, and is in fact still kept on active commission in honour of Nelson it is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord; she can be found in Number 2 Dry Dock of the Portsmouth Naval Base, in Portsmouth.
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