October 21, 2007

October 21 | Horatio Nelson

September 29, 1758 - October 21, 1805: Age 47

Anyone who has been to Trafalgar Square in London has seen Nelson... or at least his statue. He's the one up at the top of the column in the centre of the square. He's also the most popular war hero in Britain.

Nelson embodied a number of the qualities essential to heroism in his time: he was an excellent seaman, a brilliant strategist, a charismatic and inspiring leader, and a beloved comrade. Two people contributed greatly to his success: Lady Emma Hamilton, the love of his life, with whom he carried on an open affair although she was married to someone else, and Napoleon. His living openly with Lady Hamilton made people uncomfortable enough that he got sent into the field a lot to reduce national embarrassment. And Napoleon provided the perfect enemy.

Nelson's greatest and last triumph was the Battle of Trafalgar.* Before the battle, Nelson had this famous message conveyed to his fleet by means of signal flags: "England expects that every man will do his duty." In fact, he had wanted to say "Nelson confides that every man will do his duty" but the signalman asked to change "confides" to make it easier to translate into flag language, and another officer suggested "England" instead of "Nelson".

The strategy in those days was to get alongside an enemy ship in such a relationship with the wind and currents that your ship had more manoevrability than theirs. Nelson was renowned for his ability to come up with creative and unpredictable tactics; this Flash animation shows what he had the fleet do at Trafalgar and it's easy to see why it worked. The fleet approached from the lee — the weak side — then suddenly cut through the enemy line and engaged the ships from the windward or stronger side. It worked beautifully, however, during the battle the masts and sails of Nelson's ship Victory became entangled with those of the French Redoutable, and snipers in the topmasts of Redoubtable began firing down onto the deck.

A bullet entered his left shoulder, pierced his lung, and came to rest at the base of his spine. He stayed conscious for about four hours. He asked not to be thrown overboard (the normal burial for a soldier at sea) and that those present ensure Lady Hamilton was taken care of. To his comrade Captain Thomas Hardy, he said "Kiss me, Hardy". Hardy kissed him twice. After the first, Nelson said "Now I am satisfied". After the second, he said "Who is that?" and, when he saw it was Hardy, "God bless you, Hardy." Later, he said, "Thank God I have done my duty," words that brought tears to the eyes of millions when they were reported to the nation. Finally, "Drink, drink. Fan, fan. Rub, rub." These, his actual last words, referred to relief of the various discomforts he was suffering: a drink for thirst, then a fan for the heat (even in October it was warm below decks), then for someone to rub near his wound. He died at 16:30.

Nelson's body was preserved in a cask of brandy. It was always difficult to keep sailors away from any kind of spirits, but apparently it was managed this time through 24 hour armed guard. There was a rumour that sailors had drained the cask, and for years "tapping the Admiral" was naval slang for having a drink. However the barrel arrived, sealed, with no appreciable reduction in volume. The bullet that killed him was removed from his body and is now on public display in Windsor Castle. He was buried a coffin made from the mast of a ship he had defeated in another famous battle, inside a sarcophagus originally created for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey at the time of Henry VIII. When Wolsey fell from favour, Henry had confiscated but never used it.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Battle of Trafalgar

* I happen to know that my own great-great-great grandfather also died in that battle, fighting on the English side.

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