Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was the pride of the fleet, the pride of his captains and his men, and of the public at home. The third surviving son of a middle-class family, he had risen to almost the highest rank in the navy. His naval career was admirable, his rise through the ranks was steady, like his character. He cared deeply about the men and vessels under his command. His country, his duty, his monarch and his religion were the pillars of his existence.
On the 21st of October, 1805, he stood on the quarterdeck of his great flagship HMS Victory. His staff attended him, the chief among these being the Victory‘s Captain, Thomas Hardy. To Nelson’s left stood his Purser and prize agent, John Scott, a tall Irishman with thinning brown hair and a sad face.
It was his job to record the progress of the battle as it went on, and to this end, he had set up on deck a little chair and table, complete with ink pots, paper and pens – a most incongruous sight in the midst of the preparations for battle. Here also were the ship’s surgeon, William Beatty, another Irishman, and John Pasco, the young and enthusiastic Signals Officer. These officers were attended by clerks and servants, and all around them the gunners and soldiers were poised at their posts, ready for the coming battle.
This was the moment when the battle was at last about to be joined. South of Cadiz, West of Gibraltar, in a long, heavy swell the great fleet was assembled to face the combined might of the allied French and Spanish navies. The sun was high, the wind light and breezy. Nelson’s fleet was outnumbered and outgunned, and the importance of the battle could not be overstated. If he was victorious, the Franco-Spanish navies would never again challenge the might of England at sea. If he were defeated, Britain would be left open to invasion by the forces of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Nelson’s fleet was arrayed in two lines, laid at right angles to the line of the enemy. These two lines were on course to punch into the enemy line at two points, breaking up the enemy fleet’s cohesion and ability to signal, and forcing them into a ship-by-ship engagement. The Victory was at the front of the forward line, and was driving straight toward the French flagship, the Bucentuare.
On the quarterdeck, Nelson stood arrayed in his admiral’s uniform, dark blue with four large silver stars on the left breast. This had concerned Captain Hardy, and the ship’s surgeon William Beatty, both of whom cared deeply about the safety of their Admiral. They were afraid that his presence on the quarterdeck of the flagship, openly displaying his rank, would mark him out to the enemy. Beatty was inclined to plead with the Admiral to at least cover the silver stars on his breast with a cloth or a handkerchief, but the Purser, John Scott, warned him off.
“Take care, doctor,” said Scott to Beatty, “I would not be the man to mention such a matter to him!” The admiral’s distaste in the matter of hiding himself from danger was well known. Captain Hardy had tried to convince Nelson to decamp to another ship before the melee began, but was met with exasperated refusal.
It was fifteen minutes before noon when the Admiral gave the order to Signals Officer Pasco to run up the famous signal which still resonates down the ages to this day – ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ Just after noon the opening shots were fired as the British ship HMS Royal Sovereign came under fire. The Royal Sovereign was in the charge of Nelson’s partner in command, Vice-Admiral Collingwood, and it was the lead ship of the second line which now bore down upon the enemy.
Shortly after this, Victory herself came under fire. Placed as she was with her bows toward the enemy’s sides, four of the French ships were able to bring their guns to bear on her, but she could not yet return fire. At first the barrage was ineffective, the shot splashing into the water or skimming off the Victory’s great curved bow, but as Nelson’s line sped on Victory began to take damage. Wood splintered, shot punched through sailcloth and smashed onto the decks and into the ranks of men waiting at their guns. Shrapnel flew, men cried out and fell. To Nelson’s left, the Purser, John Scott, was hit in the belly by a cannonball. He collapsed to the deck, dead and broken, and his blood pooled on the boards. As was customary in warfare at sea, his corpse was quickly lifted up and heaved overboard, with non ceremony.
The thunder of the guns grew louder and louder as Victory approached the enemy, but still she could not return fire. Through his spy glass Nelson could observe Collingwood’s line, the first three ships of which now were fiercely engaged. He could see the flashes of the cannon and, a few seconds later, the muffled boom of them reached his ears. White smoke was beginning to surround the battle, obscuring his view, and he returned his attention to his own quarterdeck.
Captain Hardy’s clerk had taken over from Scott, and moved to the little table where he began to try to write what he was observing, as soon as he had picked up his pen another volley of shot pounded the Victory, and one cannonball took the clerk’s life and smashed the little table to pieces.
Nelson remained absolutely calm. He stood straight and tall, observing as well as he could all that went on. The roar of the enemy cannon was deafening now, and the air was filled with smoke, shrapnel and flying debris.
Nelson turned to Captain Hardy who stood tense and ready at his side. “This is too hot work, Hardy, to go on for long,” he said. Hardy nodded grimly.
HMS Victory took heavy fire for a full forty-five minutes before she was able to bring her great 100 gun arsenal to bear. When at last she did, the results were devastating. On one side was the French flagship Bucentuare, on the other a great 74-gunner, Redoutable. Bucentuare took the full brunt of a broadside at close quarters. The great ship rocked, and her guns were silenced.
Then Victory focussed her fire on Redoutable, keeping up a continuous fire as the two great ships drew alongside one another. As they rocked back and forth with the impact and retort of the cannon, the masts became entangled. On the deck of the Redoutable infantry prepared for a boarding action. Victory’s guns ceased firing as the gun crews were ordered up to fight the boarders. As the ships grew closer, the French infantry threw grenades on board the deck of Victory, driving the crews back below decks.
It was in the midst of this chaos that a man in the rigging of Redoutable spied the four silver stars on the small figure on the quarterdeck far below him. He was a crack shot, placed to best advantage high above the action, and armed with a long smooth bore rifle. He did not waste any time in taking his shot. Below him, the blue coated figure dropped to its knees.
It took a moment for Captain Hardy to realise what had happened. When he looked and saw the Admiral on one knee on the deck he rushed to his side. Nelson looked up at him, and his mouth twisted into a wry smile.
“They have finally succeeded,” he gasped. “I am dead.”
They carried him below and made them as comfortable as they could. His breathing came in short gasps, his face was deathly pale, and a clammy sweat clung to his brow. Hardy returned to the quarterdeck to continue command, only to find that the French boarding action had been curtailed by a brutal cannonade fire from the next British ship in line. Shortly afterwards, Redoutable surrendered, having lost most of her crew and taken heavy damage. Captain Hardy hurried between the quarterdeck and the surgeon’s station below, delivering updates to Nelson about the progress of the battle.
Nelson’s strategy was incredibly effective. Robbed of their ability to communicate or manoeuvre effectively, the ships of the French and Spanish fleet surrendered one by one to the British. It took another five hours to complete, but by the time all noise of cannon had been stilled and the remainder of the French fleet had fled, the Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was dead. He had held on long enough to be sure of the victory, but when this was reported to him by Hardy, he smiled, sighed, and closed his eyes.
“Thank God,” he whispered, “Thank God, I have done my duty.”
Horatio Nelson has gone down in history as on one of the greatest naval commanders in British history. After the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon abandoned plans for a land invasion across the English Channel to Britain, and never again challenged the British at sea.
The HMS Victory is one of very few ships from that era still in existence. It was restored in the early 20th century, and is docked at Portsmouth in England, home of the British Royal Navy, where it is a popular visitor attraction and a reminder of Nelson, the greatest naval commander of all time.