The Death of Admiral Lord Nelson
- 21stOctober 1805 -
After the French Revolution (1789) there was a power vacuum in France that a certain man was to fill. His name was Napoleon. Initially Britain, with William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister, was ambivalent to events in France with financial reform higher on its list of priorities. However when France declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792, the French Republic’s encouragement of revolutions in neighbouring countries and its invasion of Belgium war broke out in February 1793.
An unstable coalition was formed with Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Spain and Holland and Britain also pursued a policy of blockading France and seizing French colonies. However French land victories had forced Prussia, Spain and Holland into peace and the latter two of these then turned against Britain joining the French. Napoleon’s victories in Italy left Britain alone in Europe to oppose growing French might. Napoleon then undertook an expedition to Egypt threatening Britain’s land route to India. A British naval victory led by Nelson at Aboukir Bay in August 1798 compelled the French leader to return to France. With various alliances falling apart peace was made at Amiens in March 1802. This was not to last for long.
By May 1803 war had broken out again as Britain could not accept French hegemony in Europe. Pitt formed a third alliance with Austria and Russia and fighting broke out again. This alliance forced Napoleon to call off temporarily any idea of an invasion of Britain.
However in 1805 Nelson went to meet the French/Spanish fleet to destroy them and their naval capabilities near Cape Trafalgar in South West Spain, south of Cadiz. Napoleon had left Milan and had arrived in Boulogne and waited for the French and Spanish fleets to join him in the Channel from Spain to try and invade Britain. By October the Spanish and French fleets were still in port and received a stern telling off from Napoleon. They left thinking there was no British fleet nearby. They were wrong. On 19thOctober HMS Mars signalled back to Nelson that the Spanish fleet had left port and 2 days later Nelson signalled for his fleet to attack.
The leaders on the British side were Admiral Nelson and Vice Admiral Collingwood and they were pitted against Admiral Villeneuve of France and Admirals d’Aliva and Cisternas of Spain. The British fleet combined of 32 ships, of which 25 were in the line, against 23 French vessels and 15 Spanish. Nelson was in the British flagship, HMS Victory.
Warships in the nineteenth century carried their main armaments, cannons, in broadside batteries along the decks. Nelson’s force had eight three-decker battleships, which carried more than 90 guns each. Some of the Spanish ships were larger with the Santissima Trinidad carrying 120. The 24-pounder guns fired heavy iron balls or chain and link shot to damage the rigging in the ships. Ships would draw alongside the enemy and fire their broadsides from a range of a few yards before pulling away. The British guns were double loaded with grape shot alongside the heavy iron ball. Many of the French could not take this and closed the hatches on the gun ports and attempt to escape the fire.
Wounds were often dreadful with cannon balls ripping off limbs or driving wooden splinters deep into flesh. Ships also attempted to lock together to allow for hand-to-hand fighting. There was much of this at Trafalgar, which included soldiers from the French battleship ‘Redoubtable’ boarding the Victory. However they were eventually wiped out on the top deck.
Nelson had put his ships into two lines and they managed to cause massive damage to the French and Spanish lines and then he attacked the centre of the line causing massive damage. There was chaos all round but the British were well on top. In the midst of the battle however a French sailor spotted Nelson standing proudly on the deck of his ship and fired a musket ball directly at him. The shot hit Nelson in the shoulder and chest. He was carried below deck. Dr. William Beatty, a physician aboard the Victory, now takes up the story. He wrote down his history of the battle soon afterwards and this extract is taken from the point when Nelson is observing the battle from the quarter deck.
"Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy walked the quarter-deck in conversation for some time after this, while the enemy kept up an incessant raking fire. A double-headed shot struck one of the parties of Marines drawn up on the poop, and killed eight of them; when his lordship, perceiving this, ordered Captain Adair, to disperse his men round the ship, that they might not suffer so much from being together. In a few minutes afterwards a shot struck the fore-brace-bits on the quarter-deck, and passed between Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy; a splinter from the bits bruising Captain Hardy's foot, and tearing the buckle from his shoe. They both instantly stopped; and were observed by the Officers on deck to survey each other with inquiring looks, each supposing the other to be wounded. His lordship then smiled, and said: 'This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long;' and declared that 'through all the battles he had been in, he had never witnessed more cool courage than was displayed by the Victory's crew on this occasion.'
. . . About fifteen minutes past one o'clock, which was in the heat of the engagement, he was walking the middle of the quarter-deck with Captain Hardy, and in the act of turning near the hatchway with his face towards the stern of the Victory, when the fatal ball was fired from the enemy's mizzen-top. . .
The ball struck the epaulette on his left shoulder, and penetrated his chest. He fell with his face on the deck. Captain Hardy, who was on his right (the side furthest from the enemy) and advanced some steps before his lordship, on turning round, saw the Sergeant Major of Marines with two seamen raising him from the deck; where he had fallen on the same spot on which, a little before, his secretary had breathed his last, with whose blood his lordship's clothes were much soiled. Captain Hardy expressed a hope that he was not severely wounded; to which the gallant Chief replied: 'They have done for me at last, Hardy.' - 'I hope not,' answered Captain Hardy. 'Yes,' replied his lordship; 'my backbone is shot through.'
Captain Hardy ordered the seamen to carry the Admiral to the cockpit. . .
His lordship was laid upon a bed, stripped of his clothes, and covered with a sheet. While this was effecting, he said to Doctor Scott, "Doctor, I told you so. Doctor, I am gone;" and after a short pause he added in a low voice, "I have to leave Lady Hamilton, and my adopted daughter Horatia, as a legacy to my country." The surgeon then examined the wound, assuring his lordship that he would not put him to much pain in endeavoring to discover the course of the ball; which he soon found had penetrated deep into the chest, and had probably lodged in the spine. This being explained to his lordship, he replied, "he was confident his back was shot through."
The back was then examined externally, but without any injury being perceived; on which his lordship was requested by the surgeon to make him acquainted with all his sensations. He replied, that "he felt a gush of blood every minute within his breast: that he had no feeling in the lower part of his body: and that his breathing was difficult, and attended with very severe pain about that part of the spine where he was confident that the ball had struck; for," said he, "I felt it break my back." These symptoms, but more particularly the gush of blood which his lordship complained of, together with the state of his pulse, indicated to the surgeon the hopeless situation of the case; but till after the victory was ascertained and announced to his lordship, the true nature of his wound was concealed by the surgeon from all on board except only Captain Hardy, Doctor Scott, Mr. Burke, and Messrs. Smith and Westemburg the assistant surgeons.
The Victory's crew cheered whenever they observed an enemy's ship surrender. On one of these occasions, Lord Nelson anxiously inquired what was the cause of it; when Lieutenant Pasco, who lay wounded at some distance from his lordship, raised himself up, and told him that another ship had struck, which appeared to give him much satisfaction. He now felt an ardent thirst; and frequently called for drink, and to be fanned with paper, making use of these words: 'Fan, fan,' and 'Drink, drink.'
He evinced great solicitude for the event of the battle, and fears for the safety of his friend Captain Hardy. Doctor Scott and Mr. Burke used every argument they could suggest, to relieve his anxiety. Mr. Burke told him 'the enemy were decisively defeated, and that he hoped His lordship would still live to be himself the bearer of the joyful tidings to his country.' He replied, 'It is nonsense, Mr. Burke, to suppose I can live: my sufferings are great, but they will all be soon over.' Doctor Scott entreated his lordship 'not to despair of living,' and said 'he trusted that Divine Providence would restore him once more to his dear country and friends.' — 'Ah, Doctor!' replied lordship, 'it is all over; it is all over.'
An hour and ten minutes however elapsed, from the time of his lordship's being wounded, before Captain Hardy's first subsequent interview with him. . . They shook hands affectionately, and Lord Nelson said: 'Well, Hardy, how goes the battle? How goes the day with us?'- 'Very well, my Lord,' replied Captain Hardy. . . 'I am a dead man, Hardy. I am going fast: it will be all over with me soon. Come nearer to me. Pray let my dear Lady Hamilton [Lord Nelson's mistress] have my hair, and all other things belonging to me.' . . .Captain Hardy observed, that 'he hoped Mr. Beatty could yet hold out some prospect of life.' – 'Oh! no,' answered his lordship; 'it is impossible. My back is shot through. Beatty will tell you so.' Captain Hardy then returned on deck, and at parting shook hands again with his revered friend and commander.
His Lordship became speechless in about fifteen minutes after Captain Hardy left him. . . and when he had remained speechless about five minutes, his Lordship's steward went to the surgeon, who had been a short time occupied with the wounded in another part of the cockpit, and stated his apprehensions that his Lordship was dying. The surgeon immediately repaired to him, and found him on the verge of dissolution. He knelt down by his side, and took up his hand; which was cold, and the pulse gone from the wrist. On the surgeon's feeling his forehead, which was likewise cold, his Lordship opened his eyes, looked up, and shut them again. The surgeon again left him, and returned to the wounded who required his assistance; but was not absent five minutes before the Steward announced to him that 'he believed his Lordship had expired.' The surgeon returned, and found that the report was but too well founded: his Lordship had breathed his last, at thirty minutes past four o'clock; at which period Doctor Scott was in the act of rubbing his Lordship's breast, and Mr. Burke supporting the bed under his shoulders.”
By late afternoon the battle was over. Villeneuve had been captured having lost 19 ships. 14,000 of his men had been killed or wounded. The British lost not one ship but did lose 1500 men. This victory over the French and Spanish fleets set up Britain’s dominance on the seas for the next 100 years.
After the battle Nelson’s body was encased in a casket, called a leaguer, which was filled with brandy to preserve it. At Gibraltar the brandy that had not been absorbed into the body was replaced with spirits of wine for the journey back to Britain, which took four and a half weeks due to bad weather. Nelson’s body was laid in state at the Painted Hall in Greenwich Hospital and on 8thJanuary the coffin was taken up the river on Charles II’s state barge to Whitehall. The following day he was given a state funeral with the body being carried through the streets of London to St Paul’s Cathedral by six horses. At 5.30pm the coffin was lowered into the crypt. Admiral Villeneuve was allowed to attend along with Nelson’s estranged wife, Fanny. Nelson’s Column, 52 metres tall, in Trafalgar Square, built in 1840, commemorates this victory. The bronze panels around the base are from captured French guns and depict Nelson’s most famous battles.