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|Nelson : A Character Study||W H Fitchett|
|Nelson's Genius for Leadership||C J Britton|
|Nelson's Religion||A J Russell|
NELSON: A CHARACTER STUDY
(An essay from "Nelson and his Captains by W H Fitchett (1911))
"Thine island loves thee well, thou famous man
The greatest sailor since the world began!"
Nelson is the one sea-captain of the Napoleonic war who has stamped his image imperishably on the imagination of the English-speaking race.
Whether, indeed, Nelson was in a technical sense "the greatest sailor since the world began," need not be discussed. In the art of taking care of ship and canvas in rough weather some of his own captains probably surpassed him. In the genius that welded fleets he was supreme! And in the great drama of the Napoleonic wars there are - for the man in the street - only three supreme names, that of Napoleon himself, of Wellington, and of Nelson, and Nelson was as great on sea as his two rivals in fame were great on land.
This work is an account, not so much of Nelson as of his captains - the man of the Nile and of Trafalgar. "They," said Nelson, of a group of his captains, "are my children, they serve in my school, and I glory in them." And we cannot understand the "school" without some clear mental image of the master who stamped his impress so deeply on it. . . . . . .
Nelson's figure when set against a background of mighty battles, seems unheroic in an almost absurd degree. Haliburton makes his Sam Slick describe Nelson as "that cripple gaited, one-eyed, one-armed little naval critter." In these days when the foot-rule and the stethoscope and the examination paper are the tests by which our embryo Nelsons and Wellingtons are chosen, the future hero of the Nile and Trafalgar would infallibly have been rejected. Nelson was mean in stature. "A little man with no dignity and a shock head," is the description by a lady who saw Nelson - no doubt with unfriendly eyes - after the Nile. "The merest boy of a captain I have ever beheld," says Prince William Henry of him when he met him in New York in 1782, when Nelson was twenty-four years old, and already in command of a frigate.
"A little man and far from handsome," is Sir William Hamilton's description when Nelson made his appearance in Naples in 1793. Nelson at that date was, no doubt, curiously fragile in appearance, and with the empty sleeve which Santa Cruz gave him, and the half-blindness he owed to Corsica. His face, even in after-years, when bronzed with the sea winds and scarred with battle, was hardly - with its pouting lips, half-melancholy, half-boyish eyes, and careless hair - the face of a war leader. Only rarely, indeed, amongst his many portraits and busts do we catch a gleam of the expression his sailors must have seen on Nelson's face when the guns were beginning to speak. Thakker's bust of Nelson, with its masterful profile, its eager fighting look, and the deep line from the base of the nostril to the chin, gives, it is true, a curious impression of power. Even more, in Flaxman's fine bust, the resolved line of the lips, the challenging eyes, give us a hint of what may be called Nelson's battle face.
But in most of the portraits, the sensitive mouth, the curving lips, the set of the eyebrows, all tell of the emotional side of Nelson's character. He was vehement, moody, swinging to opposite poles of emotion with strange readiness; now drooping, now exultant, and intense alike in his hates and his loves, there was a strain of the woman in him; of womanly vehemence, of womanly sensitiveness, of womanly - not to say half-shrewish - temper. It was the woman in him which explains that pathetic "Kiss me, Hardy," in the last scene of all. His hate of the French has in it a strain of feminine shrewishness. His belief in his comrades, in his ship, had in it more than a touch of feminine exaggeration. The half-feminine side of Nelson's character is seen in his simple and unashamed delight in flattery. Lady Hamilton's emotions and superlatives, her tears, her apostrophes, her swoons would have turned the stomachs of most men.
It is said sometimes that Nelson had no sense of humour; and that is not quite true. There was humour, though of a somewhat grim sort, in his description of himself at Corsica: "I have all the diseases there are," he wrote, "but there is not enough in my frame to fasten them on." There was humour again in his letter to the Duke of Clarence, explaining the loss of his arm at Santa Cruz: "I assure your Royal Highness," he says, "that not a scrap of that ardour with which I served our King has been shot away!" Was there not humour, again - of what may be called the iron sort - in the incident at Copenhagen, when Nelson lifted his telescope to his blind eye, and declared that he really could not see his admiral's ignoble signal to recall? But it needed, perhaps, the thunder of a great battle to kindle Nelson's sense of the humorous.
Under ordinary conditions it emerged too seldom and too scantily. A pinch of the genuine salt of humour would certainly have made vain the flatteries and the fascinations of that passé and decidedly over-plump charmer, Lady Hamilton.
But his moods came and went with bewildering rapidity. Nothing can be more tragical than Nelson's gloom when the dark hour is upon him. Thus, after his failure at Santa Cruz, he writes to Jervis: "I am become a burden to my friends, and useless to my country." His career was ended! On the other hand nothing could be gayer or more audacious than Nelson's self-confidence during his moments of exaltation. He was still an almost unknown post-captain when he wrote to his wife: "One day I will have a long Gazette to myself. I cannot, if I am in the field of glory be kept out of sight.... Not a kingdom or a state where my name will be forgotten." There was a touch of unreasoning extravagance in his occasional outbursts of discontent at the supposed slowness of promotion. It is customary to say that Nelson, the sixth child - one out of eleven children - of a country parson, had no official influence to help him in his career.
But his uncle, Suckling, was Comptroller of the navy, and Nelson, by some charm of manner, as well as by his fine gifts, won one powerful patron after another, from Parker to Jervis. The mere dates of his commission show how swiftly he rose. He was only twelve when, without the formality of an examination, he became a midshipman. At fourteen he was captain's coxswain in the Carcass, and on his way to the North Pole. When nineteen years he was second lieutenant of the Lowestoft, and in command of her tender, a schooner named the Little Lucy. At twenty he flew his flag in command of the Badger, a brig; he was only twenty-one when put in command of the Hinchinbrooke, a small frigate, and scarcely twenty-two when, as senior naval officer, he led in the San Juan expedition. His service was broken by much sickness; yet, in August 1781, he was in command of the Albemarle, a 28-gun frigate.
There, it is true, came a gap of wasted time. Nelson went on half-pay, and occupied himself in falling in, and out, of love, and with trying in vain to learn French; but in 1784 he was in command of the Boreas, and was senior captain in the West Indies. Then followed more than four years of married life, half-pay and general unrest and grumbling. Nelson was on half-pay from December 1787 to January 1793 - five long, wasted, fretful, unhappy years, when he contemplated giving up the sea altogether. But in January 1793, when not yet thirty-five years old, he walked, as its Captain, the quarterdeck of the Agamemnon, "without exception," as Nelson himself wrote, "the finest 64 in the service." Nelson, by the way, had as many fond illusions about his ships as a youth for the first time in love has about his mistress.
The same year he was commodore under Hood, and in command of the naval forces in the siege of Calvi. In August 1796 he hoisted his broad pennant as commodore of a squadron of frigates. At Cape St. Vincent, where he won imperishable fame, he was only thirty-nine. He fought the Battle of the Nile when he was not yet forty.
The mere chronology of Nelson's career thus proves that he suffered from no official neglect. The sense of discontent which burned in his blood, and so often stains his correspondence, was due, in part, to the hypersensitive, not to say feminine, side of his nature. In part, again, it may be traced to that almost constant experience of ill-health he was doomed to suffer. Through some of the most crowded years of his career, Nelson was little better than a semi-invalid. He had a frail constitution to begin with. "What has poor little Horatio done, who is so weak," asked Suckling, his uncle, when asked to take Nelson as a midshipman, "that above all the rest, he should be sent to rough it at sea?"
And a body frail by original make was inhabited by a restless, fiery, and vehement spirit, all too strong for its fragile case. Goethe's description of Hamlet, "an oak tree planted in a vase," might be applied to Nelson. During his early years his slender body and pain-sharpened face made every kind-hearted woman who made contact with him eager to nurse him. Mrs. Locker, the wife of his first captain after Suckling, was his nurse; so was Lady Hughes in turn. His tireless energy, with its relapses when the fierce stress for a moment was over, tore his frail body almost to pieces. He could take care of everybody's health but his own. He might have been a pillule absorbing hypochondriac but for the fiery indomitable spirit that burned within his dyspeptic and overstrained body, and forbade the shaken nerves to yield, and the tired muscles to rest.
Nelson was driven back from the East by sickness while yet a lieutenant. He brought the seeds of a deadly fever with him in his blood from the San Juan expedition. His health broke down again after a period of service in the West Indies. He knew months of pain and completest weakness after his wound at Santa Cruz. He fretted himself into a fever in his great sea chase after Brueys, and believed himself to be in serious peril of dying of a broken heart. His health failed again after the Nile. "I never expect," he wrote to Jervis, "to see your face again." He drooped like a chronic and hopeless invalid in the sunshine of Naples, and when breathing the atmosphere of Lady Hamilton's adoration. He was threatened with blindness; he was "worn out and left-handed," as he described himself. "I am almost finished," he wrote to Admiral Goodall. The cold and exposure of the Copenhagen operations were all but fatal to him.
When on Cannel service off Boulogne he was racked with a perpetual cough, driven almost mad with toothache, and - most ignoble distress of all - he was perpetually seasick! His cough-shaken, pain-racked body, and pity of his officers. He was rheumatic, he had incessant pains of the heart, he was tormented with "the constant sense of the blood gushing up the left side of my head." "Dreadfully seasick," he wrote; "always tossed about, and always seasick." And this was the year before Trafalgar! "Nothing," he wrote to Lady Hamilton, "can be more miserable and unhappy than your poor Nelson. My heart is almost broken."
And yet the keen, clear, heroic spirit burnt like a flame within the shattered, fragile, pain-tormented body. It is difficult indeed to recall any other great figure in history who carried such a burden of physical disabilities as did Nelson, and grumbled over them so loudly, yet triumphed over them so completely.
And it moves one's wonder still to remember that this fragile, undersized, half-womanly figure, if not "the greatest sailor since the world began," was the greatest sea-warrior the world has ever seen. He was even more - he was almost, if not quite, the most terrible fighter, whether on sea or land, war has known. Admiral Colomb dwells with wondering emphasis on "that tremendous desire for personal distinction, that delight in confronting danger, that awful singleness of destructive purpose" which built Nelson's monument in English history.
Courage is of many sorts, from the hot-blooded temper that danger exhilarates, to what is sometimes called "two o'clock in the morning" courage - the cool, unshrinking valour, which is independent of all physical conditions, and which Wellington held to be the rarest kind of courage. Nelson, it may be claimed, had both kinds of courage, and had each in perfect measure.
Battle intoxicated him, and yet left him cool. It was like a fierce wine poured into his blood; but it steadied while it exalted every sense. There was something humorous in the pity he expends on Troubridge when the Culloden went ashore at the Nile, and its unfortunate captain was compelled to watch his comrades, to use Nelson's phrase, "in the full tide of happiness," smashing up the French fleet, while he himself could take no part in the peril and glory of that process. To be in the passion and perils of a great battle was, for Nelson, to be "in the full tide of happiness."
At Copenhagen, when the Danish bullets were covering the quarterdeck of the Elephant with splinters, Nelson turned to Colonel Stewart, with the remark, "This is warm work, and this day may be the last to any of us at any moment." Then he added, with emphasis, "But, mark you, I would not be elsewhere for thousands." Collingwood knew his admiral well, and, as the Royal Sovereign led into the tempest of fire at Trafalgar, he said to his captain, "Rotherham, what would Nelson give to be here." Nelson, on his part, gazing at the far-stretched menacing line of Villeneuve, was just then saying to Hardy, "what would poor Sir Robert Calder give to be with us now?"
Perhaps the most perilous hour in Nelson's stormy life was that of the boat combat by night in the Bay of Cadiz. He himself described it as "the greatest peril he had ever known." His boat, with twelve officers and men, stumbled, in the blackness, on a Spanish gunboat with a crew of thirty officers and men.
How desperate was the fighting which followed may be judged from the circumstances that of the Spaniards eighteen were killed and all the rest were wounded. Nelson's own life, in the hand-to-hand struggle, was twice saved by the devotion of his coxswain, Sykes. And yet, in all Nelson's references to that incident, it is plain he regarded it as one of the most ecstatically delightful moments of his whole career.
Nelson's fighting qualities - the speed of his stroke, the swiftness of his onfall, his audacious daring, and the bloodhound-like tenacity of his spirit - are perhaps most strikingly illustrated in the two signal failures of his career - the San Juan expedition and the attack on the treasure ships at Santa Cruz.
Nelson, when he commanded the naval detachment in the San Juan business, was only a lad of twenty-one. The climate as deadly, the rain incessant, the country almost impassable. It took seventeen days of desperate toil to force the boats of the Hinchinbroke up stream until the fort of San Juan as reached.
Nelson was for leaping, without a moment's delay, on the fort, and that instinct was as wise as it was daring. But the soldiers were pedants. They insisted on beginning their approaches with tedious formality. Nelson found his advice rejected, yet he toiled in the trenches and batteries with furious energy, while men died fast on all sides with sickness, and out of his 200 sailors, 145 were dead. Nelson, too, would probably have died but that fiery spirit gave him no time to be sick. He was "the first in every service, whether by day or night," wrote the very soldier who had rejected his advice for an instant attack. "There was not a gun fired but was pointed by him or his chief engineer." Nelson brought a shattered frame and fever-poisoned blood back from San Juan, but he had given a proof of supreme fighting qualities.
In the blackness of the failure at Santa Cruz, again, Nelson's figure as a leader of men stands out in lines at once luminous and noble. He was forbidden by his orders to land in person; and to that circumstance is, perhaps, due the failure o the whole expedition. Troubridge commanded the first party that landed, and hesitated to attack the heights which overlooked the town, where Nelson would not have hesitated for an instant. But Troubridge's failure, according to Nelson's keen sense of honour and duty, created a new obligation for him. He must attack again, "for the honour of our kingdom and country ... and that our enemies may be convinced that there is nothing an Englishman is not equal to." And Nelson decided he must command in person. "I felt the second attack, " he wrote, "a forlorn hope; I never expected to return." But, as Nelson read his duty, the obligation to attack was peremptory.
So, in the blackness of the night, he led his tiny squadron of boats, carrying 1000 seamen, and swung hither and thither by the vast seas, in an attack on the unknown and rocky shore, hedged with a roaring surf, guarded by great batteries manned by not less than 8000 Spaniards.
The mole and the shore gleamed with hostile fires, and were swept with bullets as the boats struggled up. The Fox, a cutter carrying 180 men, was sunk by a single shot. Nelson, in the act of landing, had his right arm shattered, and fell with the blood pouring from the torn artery. The arm was tightly bound, and the boat, with Nelson lying in it half unconscious, was slowly pulled back to the ship.
Nelson rallied, however, at the sight of the perishing crew of the Fox, and, with his single uninjured arm, helped to save many of the drowning men. His boat carries him to the side -not of his flagship, but- of the Sea Horse, whose captain, Fremantle, is ashore fighting. Nelson, though his ship offered him what, at the risk of his life he needed -instant surgical help - refuses to go on board. He is told his life is in deadly peril; then I will die," he says, "rather than alarm Mrs. Fremantle by her seeing me in this state when I can give her no tidings of her husband."
He has come back from defeat. His men are dying on that black shore, where the guns are still roaring; he himself is suffering anguish from a deadly wound, and the worse anguish of failure. Yet he remembers a wife's fears, and refuses, even for the sake of securing help for his own wound, to arouse them.
When he reached the Theseus, his flagship, he refused help in mounting the ship's side. "I have got my legs left," he said, "and one arm;" and, with his right arm hanging loose and bloody, he clambered, holding by one hand, up the black side of the Theseus, and called for the surgeon, as he stepped on the deck, to bring his instruments. "I know I must lose my right arm and the sooner the better." He suffered amputation without a word, and within a few hours he was writing a letter with the unaccustomed fingers of his left hand to tell Jervis the story of his failure. As a picture of daring, of generous feeling, and of the triumph of the heroic spirit over pain and weakness and defeat, war does not offer many pictures nobler than that of Nelson on the night of the "failure" at Santa Cruz.
if Nelson had the courage which finds in peril itself an intoxication,
he had the
cooler and finer courage that gives a new clearness to the eye, and a new energy to the will, as
the peril increases. This indeed is a paradox of Nelson's character as a battle leader. Before the moment of action he frets, he doubts, he desponds. But the instant of action finds him cool, easy, confident, almost gay. He is all fire before the fight, but ice - and dynamite - in it. The fret and intensity of his eagerness before a great battle sometimes clouded his judgement. This, it is sometimes contended, explains why he overran Brueys in the great sea-chase of 1798, and why he left Alexandria before his enemy had arrived. He was too eager. He had weighed every possible chance in that sea-chase - except the chance that he might overrun his prey; which was exactly what happened. Had he been as cool when he sighted the two frigates off Malta on June 22, as he was on the evening of August 1, when he was laying his ship alongside the Spartiate , he would certainly have secured the opportunity - for which he longed, and which would have changed the current of history - of "trying Bonaparte on a wind." The fever and eagerness of the chase, the passion to overtake his foe, which burned like white flame in his blood, clouded his judgement, and well-nigh broke his heart. Nelson was almost without sleep or food during the chase; but the moment the Zealous signalled that the enemy was lying in Aboukir Bay, Nelson went to dinner! He could eat now.
The perilous edge of battle, in a word, where human anxiety is apt to grow acute, was, for Nelson, the point where his anxieties ended. All his agitations suddenly crystallised into a single purpose translucent as a diamond, and as hard. He doubts himself before the guns begin to speak; but at the first shot doubt falls from him like a garment.
It was this combination of unlike types of courage which made Nelson one of the most terrible fighters of all history. He could follow his enemy with the fierce and tireless energy of some bloodhound round the world, as he pursued Brueys or Villeneuve ; and could then run in on his foe, at sight, with silent and deadly purpose, as he closed on the French line in Aboukir Bay when the sun was setting.
Nelson, of course, fought with brain as well as broadsides. Admiral Colomb, a quite competent judge, says that Nelson in action with an opposing fleet, "stands more nearly as a specially inspired being than any great man of modern times." He certainly brought to his business as a fighter, and in a supreme degree, the mystic, undefinable, yet magical gift we call genius. He saw with luminous vision exactly the problem before him; assessed the weight of every factor with perfect exactness; shaped in his swift brain a compact and flawless strategy, and then drove to his chosen goal with unswerving purpose. "In the presence of the enemy -in Hotham's action, at St. Vincent, at the Nile, at Copenhagen, and Trafalgar -it is quite impossible," says Admiral Colomb, "to conceive of more perfect tactical knowledge, applied in more perfect style, with greater decision of purpose, or more sustained determination" than in the case of Nelson .
There was, in a word, method, calculation, knowledge, behind Nelson's most audacious feats. When he boarded and carried the two Spanish three-deckers at St. Vincent he was only acting on that opinion of the Spaniards which he had formed when he studied the Spanish fleet at Cadiz in 1793. "I am certain," he then wrote, "if our six barges' crews, who are picked men, had got on board one of their first-rates, they would have taken her. The Dons may make fine ships; they cannot make men." It was with less than "the crews of six barges" that Nelson, at St. Vincent, clambered up the lofty hulls of the San Nicolas, and the San Josef , in succession, and captured them both.
And yet, curiously enough, while nothing could be simpler than Nelson's plan at the Nile, or more faultless than its execution, critics of a certain school would have us believe that nobody has ever been able to comprehend that strategy, or to express it in accurate terms! James is hopelessly wrong. Ekins is a fellow-offender of equally desperate quality. Mahan is only a little less wrong than James. Even Nelson's captains, though they carried out Nelson's strategy, did not, we are assured, understand it. Speaking of the Nile, Admiral Colomb says, "Even his own flag-captain, the most gallant Berry, did not know how the battle had been fought, nor why Nelson fought it in that particular war." Just in the same fashion, we are told, Collingwood did not understand Trafalgar!
But is Nelson's strategy, after all, of so cryptic a quality that even the experts can neither comprehend it nor explain it? The truth is, Nelson's strategy" was merely perfect, common sense applied to the business of war. His aim, like that of Napoleon, was always to be superior in numbers and strength at the point of attack. "I have always believed," said Nelson, "that one Englishman is equal to three Frenchmen;" and, personally, he was cheerfully willing, with his single ship, to meet these odds. "Take you a Frenchman apiece," he said to his captains, when in pursuit of Villeneuve, "and leave me the Spaniards." But in his great sea-fights his plan was always, if possible, to throw three English ships upon one French ship!
Thus, at the Nile, he found his enemy lying anchored in a long-drawn line, head to the wind. Nelson's leading ships crossed the head of the line and engaged the Frenchmen to larboard; the later British ships anchored on the outside of the same ships, including the Leander, that is, were concentrated on seven French ships, the French tail practically taking no part in the fight. "By attacking the enemy's van and centre," says Nelson, in one luminous and oft-quoted sentence, "the wind blowing directly along their line, I was able to throw what force I pleased on a few ships." The plan was the perfection of simplicity and of intelligibility.
The plan at Copenhagen was practically that of the Nile, modified by local conditions, and was only spoiled because the leading British ships went ashore. Nelson's strategy at Trafalgar, again was, in principle, that of the Nile, only adjusted to the fact that both fleets were in motion. The usual descriptions of Trafalgar are made obscure to the general reader by the use of technical terms, but it was really as simple as it was audacious.
Collingwood , at the head of one column, pierced the enemy's line about the twelfth ship from the rear; Nelson, leading the other column, pierced it about the tenth ship from the van. Thus the centre of Villeneuve's line was crushed betwixt the two British columns, while its van and centre were left dismembered, and for the most part out of the fight.
Nelson thus revolutionised naval warfare, yet it cannot be claimed that he created new tactics, or added any startling discovery to the grammar of battle. But for generations the British navy had been afflicted with a mistaken tactical system, crystallised into law, and made mandatory. It was the system of weak men, and it suited weak men; but it was hedged round with terrible penalties. Disobedience to it in 1744 cost Matthews his flag, and twelve years later cost Byng his life. The official Fighting Instructions of the Admiralty directed an admiral, when engaging an enemy's fleet, to arrange his line exactly parallel with the enemy's line, and to pit ship against ship, so that a sea battle resolved itself into so many duels. The essential idea was to distribute the attacking force along the whole of the enemy's line, not to combine it in overwhelming preponderance against a portion of that line. Nelson inverted that process. The essential principle of all his battles was to double on part of his enemy's line and crush it, leaving the surviving fragment to be destroyed in detail. All the traditions of the navy were against these tactics, and, it may be added, the natural pride of the British seaman was against them. One Englishman was equal to two Frenchmen; why invert these odds, and expend two Englishmen on one Frenchman? This was, in substance, the criticism of Saumarez on Nelson's tactics at the Nile. "It never required," he argued, "two English ships to capture one French." Why should not every captain have his own antagonist, and fight him on equal terms?
But Nelson fought with brains as well as with cannon shot and cutlass. He knew that in advance, and before a shot was fired, a battle was lost or won in the cells of a general's brain. And the terrible quality of his fighting was found in the deadly skill with which he threw his whole force on part only of his enemy's force, and thus satisfied the first condition of victory, that of being overwhelmingly superior in strength at the point of attack.
All this, it may be said again, was but common sense applied to the tremendous issues of a sea-battle; but it was decisive, and it ensured decisive results. Nelson did not invent this principle; it belongs, in a sense, to the alphabet of tactics. But it had not only been forgotten in the British navy - it had been officially forbidden by the Fighting Instructions of the Admiralty. It is true that Hawke and Rodney, and Hood, and even Howe, had broken loose more or less from these absurd instructions, and were, in a sense, the forerunners of Nelson; but Nelson applied the new principle to naval warfare on a scale, and with a certainty and swiftness, that made his battles like thunder and as destructive as thunderbolts.
it was the constant aim of Nelson's strategy to throw at least two of
his own ships on every ship of the enemy, yet, when the need arose, he
could see those odds inverted against himself with serenest courage.
What can be finer, and what more daring, than his own action at Cape
St. Vincent, when, without orders, he suddenly swung out of line, swept
in a curve round the British ship in the rear and met, single-handed,
the great flock of Spanish
three-deckers - the vast Santissima Trinidada, looming like a
giant amongst them -coming down before the wind, with bellying sails
and foam rising under their bluff bows! Nelson, in the
Captain, endured for a time the fire of the five Spanish
first-rates, and when his ship lay, with splintered mast, torn rigging,
and decks covered with the wounded and the dead, unable to tack
or steer, Nelson, with matchless audacity, proceeded to board and carry two hostile three-deckers in succession! It was a flash of warlike genius that made him suddenly break loose from the British line and throw himself in the path of the Spaniards. It illustrated his unquenchable fighting ardour that, when he had gained his tactical end, and his own ship was little better than a wreck, he could yet clamber up the sides of the Spanish first-rates in turn, and carry them with the cutlass.
Nelson's fighting plans, it may be added, always had about them a singular and terrible thoroughness. The battle, so far as he can control it, never ends while one hostile flag still flutters aloft. Hotham fought his battle on March 12, in a sufficiently gallant manner. His force was inferior, but two of the enemy's ships struck. The French were in retreat, and Nelson was on fire to pursue. "We must be content," said Hotham; "we have done very well." "Now," said Nelson, "had we taken ten sail, and had allowed the eleventh to escape when it had been possible to get at her, I could never have called it 'well done."' The Nile illustrates the terrible completeness of Nelson's stroke. Eleven French ships of the line out of thirteen were captured or destroyed, and two frigates out of four; two ships of the line, with two frigates, escaped, but only for a short time. "Had I not been wounded," wrote Nelson, "not a boat would have escaped to tell the tale!" The Nile was not so much a victory as a conquest.
Nelson, as a matter of fact, revolutionised the methods of sea-battle. Before his time the traditional and orthodox method of a fleet action was to engage in line, ship to ship; after a certain amount of damage had been inflicted and endured, and one or two ships had been captured, the fleets separated, and the fight was over. Howe, on the famous first of June, captured only six ships thus, after sea evolutions stretching through whole days, and when he might, with ease, have captured a dozen. Jervis, at St. Vincent, captured only four ships. At Camperdown, eight ships out of nineteen escaped. But Nelson knew not only how to win battles, but how to reap the uttermost grain of the harvest of victory .
Trafalgar was a victory equally overwhelming. Of the thirty-three great ships that Villeneuve led out of Cadiz, eighteen were captured or destroyed in the fight; four escaped to sea, where they were taken a few days later by Sir Richard Strachan; eleven, of which only five were French, took refuge in Cadiz, and those became prizes when Spain broke loose from the French alliance. Trafalgar, in this sense, was the most decisive and complete victory won on land or sea throughout the long Napoleonic wars. None of Napoleon's victories -not Marengo, nor Austerlitz, nor Jena - can rival, in completeness of results, Trafalgar.
But if Nelson was the heir of Hawke, and Hood, and Rodney in tactics, he was the heir of Jervis as far as discipline was concerned. Jervis' title to fame does not lie in his tactics. His attack on the Spanish fleet at St. Vincent has been challenged, and is challengeable. To realise this we have only to imagine the battle of St. Vincent, with Nelson's part omitted. The stroke that won the battle was given without any instructions from Jervis. But in the great war Jervis made two magnificent contributions to the sea strength of England. He created a new discipline for it's fleets; he shaped the policy of the great blockades. Nothing could well be more fibreless and lax than the discipline of the British navy in the period before the Napoleonic wars. Nothing could well be sterner or wiser than the methods by which Jervis restored that discipline, and made a British fleet the most terrible instrument of sea-battle the world up to that period had known. Jervis, too, revolutionised naval war by his system of long-sustained and iron blockades. He sealed up the fleets of France and Spain in their own ports, and kept watch over them with an ordered and tireless vigilance hitherto unknown in naval war. As an incidental result of this system, the temper and seamanship of the imprisoned fleets decayed, while the skill, audacity, and hardihood of the fleets blockading them rose to a level never before known, and that made them irresistible.
Nelson maintained St. Vincent's discipline without his severity; and he rivalled St. Vincent himself in his wise and sleepless care for his men's health. "Of all the services I lay claim to," Jervis wrote, looking back on his whole career, he preservation of the health of our fleets is my proudest boast." And this was written by the man who won the battle off Cape St. Vincent. "All we get here," wrote Nelson, while cruising off Toulon, "is honour and salt beef." "My poor fellows have not had a morsel of fresh meat or vegetables for near nineteen weeks. "But that state of things, under the command of either Jervis or Nelson, was quite exceptional. Every detail that touched the health or comfort of their crews was studied with a vigilance that never relaxed. As much care was bestowed upon the business of securing vegetables for the ship's coppers, and warm blankets for the men's hammocks, as in planning the strategy of a campaign. Upon the task of keeping the minds of his men occupied, their bodies well clad, and their stomachs well filled, Nelson bestowed as much energy as he expended in the pursuit of Brueys or Villeneuve .He invented amusements for his men; he protected them from useless and vexatious tasks. In an age when the articles of war were written, so to speak, in blood, he humanised the service. Nelson, somehow, could make gentleness a tonic to discipline, where other men used only severity. He used a penknife where St. Vincent took a hatchet, to employ his own figure. And yet through the web of his humane policy ran the iron threads of an unsurpassed discipline.
It was the generation which witnessed the Walcheren expedition, where whole regiments were allowed to perish amid Dutch swamps from sheer lack of common sense in their generals, and out of an entire expedition of 40,000 men 7,000 died of sickness, 14,000 were ruined in health for life, and no less than 35,000 passed through the hospitals! But, while the generals allowed an army to perish from preventable sickness, the admirals kept their fleets in perfect health through the longest and most wearisome blockades known to history. "No-one dies here," wrote Nelson, while his ships were tossing in the fierce south- easters off Toulon; "we are the healthiest squadron I ever served in, and all are in good humour ," After the Victory had been twenty months at sea off Toulon, it had only one man sick out of 840! And practically the same standard of health prevailed through the whole fleet, Nelson, as we have said, could take care of everybody's health except his own,
Nelson, as a battle leader, had many memorable qualities. He himself was trained in a hard and practical school. He spent two years in a merchant ship, and brought from it a wealth of practical seamanship only to be learned in the forecastle. He mastered the tangled pilotage of the Thames mouth by having charge of a decked longboat traversing the Thames and Medway as a tender to the guard-ship; and not Marryat's Poor Jack knew those shallows better than did Nelson. He was educated in the school of the sea itself. Sky and sea were his blackboard; tempests and shoals and swaying sea-tides were his teachers. Groping with sounding-Iead along the sand-banks and shoals of the Thames, or under scorching suns, amid the quays and mud-banks of the West Indies, constituted an excellent training for the great sailor who was to send his fleet across the head of Brueys' line at the Nile, and feel his way along the winding course of the King's Channel to attack the Danish ships at Copenhagen.
Nelson's experiences in actual fighting were almost unrivalled, even in that hard-fighting age. His record of his services, when applying for a pension in 1797 is almost laughable in its scale and details. "Your memorialist I" he wrote, "has been in four actions with the fleets of the enemy, in three actions with frigates, in six engagements against batteries, in ten cutting-out engagements, and in the taking of three towns. ..he has assisted in the capture of seven sail of the line, six frigates, four corvettes, eleven privateers, and fifty sail of merchantmen. He has been actually engaged with the enemy upwards of one hundred and twenty times, has lost his right eye and arm, and been severely wounded and bruised in his body." When he drew up this iron catalogue, Nelson was not yet forty. The Nile and Trafalgar were still unfought. But the record makes it clear how thoroughly by this time the steel of his fiery spirit had been fused in the red flame of battle, and tempered in the hardships of long blockades.
Mahan says that Nelson "concentrates in himself the sea glory of that period;" and, as far as the fleet actions are concerned, this is literally true. If Nelson's victories are blotted out, what record of the seafighting of that time remains? Jervis, it is true, commanded at Cape St. Vincent; but it was Nelson who won the battle. The only great sea victory of that period in which Nelson had no share was Camperdown ; and Camperdown itself is a victory of only the third class.
One noble feature in Nelson's leadership was the place assigned in it to duty. He had as keen and passionate a craving for glory - for the achievement of great deeds - as Napoleon himself. But the "glory" he coveted was the child of duty, and was to be won only in its service. When, as Trafalgar began, Nelson's last immortal message was spelt out by the flags of the Victory to the British fleet, it may, perhaps seem that the word "Duty" found a place in it almost by accident. But this was certainly not the case. In that message Nelson was unconsciously writing, and writing in imperishable characters, and for unborn generations, the supreme law of his own professional life. Duty for him was absolute and imperative; the word that ended all debate, that over-mastered every other motive, and that constituted an instant and supreme call to action. And, weighed in the scales against "duty," all other things that men are most apt to value - ease, vanity, health, money, life itself - were for him, but as sand-grains.
It is true that Nelson's conception of duty was sometimes narrow and even half-heathenish. The whole code of sea ethics for a naval officer, as he once expounded it, consisted of three articles:-
1. To obey orders.
2. To honour the king.
3. To hate all Frenchmen!
That it was the duty of an honest British salt to "hate a Frenchman" was a doctrine which Nelson preached, in season and out, and with a diligence worthy of a better theme. "I trust Almighty God," he wrote, "will, in Egypt, overthrow these pests of the human race." Nelson's gifts as "a good hater" would have delighted Dr. Johnson.
There is, of course, a touch of humorous - or of feminine - exaggeration in all this, and Nelson, as a matter of fact, treated his beaten foes - French or Spanish - with an exquisite courtesy and generosity. The first article of his own creed - to obey orders - Nelson observed with a judicious reserve. He had the courage which could obey orders at all risks; but he had also that rarer and nobler courage, when his orders were in conflict with reason or with national honour, to disobey them. Duty, as Nelson conceived it, consisted in an intense and passionate form of patriotism; a loyalty to king and country which had a right to demand any form of sacrifice; a spirit which counted the honour of the flag more than life, and the doing of the assigned task more than ease or health.
like all the great captains of war, whether by sea or land, had, in a
degree, the art of winning the confidence and kindling the enthusiasm of his men. There was a magic in his look and voice, a swift contagion in his own ever-burning enthusiasm, an all-conquering spell in his generosity of temper and quickness of sympathy which enabled him to hold the very hearts of his crews in the hollow of his hand. Never before, or since, was there a leader so loyal to his own followers, so generous to praise, so quick to reward, so fierce to defend. "By God, I will not lose Hardy," said Nelson, when, close pursued by an overpowering force of the enemy, his officer - who had leaped into a boat to save a drowning man - was dropping fast astern. And Nelson backed his sails, risking the loss of his ship - and perhaps his career - rather than abandon a comrade.
In any failure he blamed himself, never his men or his officers. He grieved for a fallen comrade - as in the case of Parker, mortally wounded in the attack on the Boulogne flotilla - as an elder brother might mourn for a younger brother slain in fight. "He is my child," said Nelson of Parker, and he took a lock of his dead officer's hair and vowed it should be buried with him. Out of his own not too amply filled pocket he paid Parker's debts, and provided for his father.
An odd proof of the influence which Nelson unconsciously exercised over the imagination and feelings of his captains is supplied by a letter from Troubridge, written in 1800. Troubridge, it must be remembered, was by temperament a man of steel. He was of the same age as Nelson; they had been middies together; in reputation he was not so far behind his great admiral. Nelson had shown signs of resenting a real or imaginary neglect of some sort on the part of Troubridge, and that brave man writes in agitation: "Your letter really so unhinged me that I am quite unmanned and crying. I would sooner forfeit my life - my everything - than be deemed ungrateful to an officer and friend I feel l owe so much to. Pray, pray acquit me. There is not a man on earth I love, honour, and esteem more than your lordship. . .I pray your lordship not to harbour the smallest idea that I am not the same Troubridge you have known me." Now, when Nelson's frown could bring tears from even Troubridge's eyes, how great must have been his influence on his officers!
Nelson's delight in his own crews and ships was of a vehement, not to say unreasoning and half-laughable sort. He always believed the particular ship he commanded to be the finest afloat, and its crew the best disciplined under the flag. Jervis usually regarded the crews under him as so many sets of scoundrels, and was prepared for any form of villainy from them. Nelson inverted Jervis' method, and did so by the compulsion of his own generous nature. In the seven volumes of his letters there is hardly a word of complaint against his ships or his men; though once, indeed, he confides to Lady Hamilton that he had shed tears on the prospect of getting a particularly slow and clumsy ship. Of the Agamemnon he writes that "she is without exception the finest sixty-four in the service." But every ship in turn on which Nelson flew his flag he discovered to be the finest the sea carried. Of the Albemarle, he wrote, "not a man or officer in her I would change." Of the Agamemnon, "nobody can be ill in my ship's company, they are so fine a set." Of his ships in the Mediterranean in 1803, he wrote that they were "the best commanded and very best manned afloat." Of his captains at the Nile he proclaimed they were "a band of brothers."
Nelson could make his superior officers very uncomfortable; but for all under his own command he had a generous, if somewhat uncritical, admiration and affection quite without parallel in the history of war. And the noble law that trust creates loyalty, and love kindles love, fulfilled itself in Nelson's career.
An amusing illustration of the affection Nelson inspired in his captains, and of the half maternal care they exercised over the fragile and stunted body of their famous leader, is supplied by a letter from Nelson himself to Ball, written from Kioge Bay in 1801. He was racked with the Baltic cold, and wroth, as was common with him, with the still chillier winds which blew from the Admiralty Board. "But," he says, "all in the fleet are so truly kind to me that I should be a wretch not to cheer up. Foley has put me under a regimen of milk at four in the morning; Murray has given me lozenges; Hardy is as good as ever, and all have proved their desire to keep my mind easy." That picture of one sea veteran administering warm milk to his admiral at four o'clock in the morning, and of another feeding him tenderly with lozenges, is amusing enough; but it shows more effectively than graver things could do the feeling Nelson inspired in his captains.
It has a curious effect to put side by side the mental impressions produced by a study of the lives of Nelson and Wellington. The agreements and the differences of the two men are alike remarkable. Nelson was all emotion; Wellington had no more emotion than as icicle. His spirit had in it the hardness of tempered steel. He had neither the ardent loves nor the vehement hatreds which in turn swept through Nelson's nature. Can anyone imagine such a phrase as "Kiss me, Hardy," on Wellington's iron lips! Cool, blunt, hard, self-contained, self-sufficient - not to say selfish - Wellington, in many features of his character, is the exact opposite of Nelson. Wellington, had he commanded a ship, would never have backed his fore topsail to pick up Hardy at the risk of losing his vessel. He had no more feeling towards his old comrades of the battlefield than an oak has to the leaves it shed last autumn. He cared for his men wisely and vigilantly when the battle was over; for he needed them for the next battle. But when the campaign was ended, that was quite another business.
It is certain Wellington never knew that half-boyish delight in combat which effervesced in Nelson's blood. He was too cold alike in intellect and in temper for this. The red wine of battle never intoxicated him. But his courage, though of a different type, was as flawless as that of Nelson, and both men, though in unlike fashions, were terrible fighters. It may well be doubted whether Nelson would have planned, so long in advance, the great lines of Torres Vedras, or could have conducted the slow and bear-Iike retreat to that stronghold. But the fight on the blood-stained hill of Busaco, which broke like a splash of splendour on the darkness of that retreat, was exactly in Nelson's style. Nelson, perhaps, could not have maintained with Wellington's iron patience the long-enduring, defensive fight at Waterloo. To have been pounded so hard, and so long, without hitting furiously back, and merely waiting for "night or Blücher" to arrive, would not have suited Nelson's temper. Wellington, on the other hand, would never have made that sudden, desperate, and unbidden dash with his single ship on the whole front of the Spanish fleet which Nelson dared at St. Vincent; nor would he have made his onfall on Brueys , line at the Nile with the same unfaltering and dreadful suddenness which marked Nelson's attack.
Nelson, in a word, shone most in attack. His qualities were swiftness and audacity; though behind those qualities, no doubt, there was a strategy as cool, and almost as forecasting, and as minute as that of Wellington himself. Wellington excelled in defence. He had a long-enduring and iron resolution, which not all the shocks of adverse fortune could move, in a higher degree than Nelson. Wellington, again, failed sometimes as a leader in pushing to the uttermost a beaten foe; while Nelson, who aimed to make each separate battle a conquest, pushed his success in the fight with a fiery energy and thoroughness which recall Napoleon's earlier successes.
The genius in leadership shown by both men, it may be added, had, when applied to practical affairs, points of closest resemblance. In method, industry, and vigilance as to details, Wellington and Nelson vie with each other. The figure of Wellington, a subaltern who had just put on his red coat, solemnly weighing a private soldier, first in undress, and then in full marching equipment, in order to know exactly how much the man in the ranks carried, may be put beside the figure of Nelson learning seamanship in the forecastle of a merchantmen, or as a midshipman mastering the soundings of the open Thames in an open boat. Both of these great leaders, that is, understood the practical side of the business of war, and learned every letter in its iron alphabet. Both men, it may be added, had a fine loyalty of character. "Truth-teller was our English Duke" is Tennyson's summary of one side of Wellington's character; and the great sailor had a habit of speech as direct and simple as the great soldier. For each of them, too, duty was a word of magic sound. It was peremptory, final, absolute. Duty was for Wellington "the King's salt." "I have eaten the King's salt," he said, "and must serve him anywhere." For Nelson it was the one consideration about which debate was impossible, delay a dishonour, and denial the last and worst of treacheries. And the race which, in the same struggle, produced Nelson to lead its fleets, and Wellington to command its armies, may well think of both its great sons with pride.
Intellectually, Nelson resembled Napoleon rather than Wellington. Morally, of course, the two men were parted by a measureless gulf. Napoleon was the incarnation of selfishness. Duty was for him an irrelevant, or even an unintelligible word. The very sense of truth was non-existent. Tried by nearly all moral tests, Nelson and Napoleon were almost exact opposites of each other. But as a battle leader, Nelson was on the sea what Napoleon was on land. He might almost be described as Napoleon translated into sea terms; but it is a Napoleon plus a conscience, and minus the reckless ambition which explains "the Spanish ulcer" and the retreat from Moscow.
Nelson certainly showed on the sea many of the great qualities of leadership Napoleon showed on land. He had the same complete and instant vision of the whole landscape the same faculty for swift resolve and for lightning-Iike strokes; the same power to impress the imagination, not only of his own men, but of his foes. He possessed, too, in an equal measure with Napoleon, the ruthless energy in pushing a victory to the uttermost, which is the mark of a great captain.
the difference in the two men as leaders are remarkable. Nelson at
would have led the Old Guard in person, and have died on the British ridge. He would have done in the retreat from Moscow what Ney did - and what Napoleon did not do, he would have fought in the rear-guard, have fired the last shot, and been the last man across the Dnieper. He might have fought the battle of the Pyramids, but he would certainly not have invited forty centuries to witness the performance!
Nelson had. too, the prescient imagination of a statesman, as well as the keen, sure glance of the fighter. He saw not the battle merely, but the campaign; not the campaign only, but the war. He saw the conflict with revolutionary and Napoleonic France, that is, as we see it now, in the perspective of a century. He saw its inevitable character, its tremendous issues.