The Magazine

England's Admiral

Lord Nelson was a swashbuckler, strategist, and charismatic leader.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By HENRIK BERING
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A Dream of Glory

by John Sugden

Henry Holt and Co., 960 pp., $35

The Pursuit of Victory

The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson

by Roger Knight

Basic Books, 600 pp., $35

THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR WAS a great British triumph of arms, but among the casualties was Admiral Nelson himself. The news of the battle took more than two weeks to reach England, whose citizens reacted with shock and disbelief at the loss of the man they saw as their guarantee against French invasion. In a macabre touch, when Nelson's body, which had been preserved in a casket of brandy, arrived home, it was laid in a coffin made seven years earlier out of the mast of an exploded enemy flagship. The coffin had been presented to Nelson as a joke by one of his captains after the Battle of the Nile, and he had kept it as a memento in his cabin.

After his coffin had lain in state at Greenwich Hospital for three days, a barge procession draped in black took it up the Thames to the Whitehall steps. The following day, the admiral's hearse was pulled through the streets to St. Paul's Cathedral, where 7,000 people attended the service. Just before the coffin went into the cathedral crypt, rather than folding up his battle ensign, his sailors tore it up and distributed the pieces among themselves. Nobody interfered.

Though the Napoleonic wars rumbled on for another decade, Nelson's victory gave the British total superiority at sea. From then on, Napoleon's navy was kept bottled up in port, and Britain was free to support its allies on the continent until Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. In this bicentennial year of Trafalgar, a spate of books has appeared on the battle and its victorious admiral, Horatio Nelson. These two works by eminent British historians tower above the rest. John Sugden's Nelson: A Dream of Glory is the first of a massive three-volume life of Nelson, which is set to become the standard work on the subject, while Roger Knight's Pursuit of Victory is contained in a single volume. Judging from a recent British opinion poll, this attention is urgently needed: A large number of schoolchildren think that the tiny Nelson statue on top of the column in Trafalgar Square is Nelson Mandela.

In an age of hunter-killer submarines and stealth destroyers, what has been called the slow aquatic ballet of the great sailing ships may seem somewhat irrelevant, so why care about Nelson? Since Plutarch, one of the purposes of biography has been to serve as an inspiration to posterity, and few lives afford such lessons of inspirational leadership as Nelson's.

The cult of Nelson, Knight notes, has ebbed and flowed according to circumstances. It was established by Clarke and Macarthur's Life of Admiral Nelson (1809) and confirmed by Southey's Life of Nelson (1813), written as a "patriotic manual" for the young. Nelson's reputation suffered under the Victorians, who had certain problems with his connection to the married Lady Hamilton; but in the late 19th century, when the British again started to feel some competition from other European powers, Nelson's stock rose. In World War II, Laurence Olivier played Nelson in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman, a film which Winston Churchill once said was worth two divisions.

The difficulty facing the biographer in a case like this is finding the real man, encrusted as he is in myth and adulation. Coming from a modest Norfolk background, Nelson was characterized by his physical and intellectual daring, both as a captain of a single ship and as commander of a fleet. In the battle of Cape St. Vincent, his first major action, he disobeyed an order to disengage and headed straight for the enemy Spanish flagship, the Santissima Trinidad, a monster three-decker of 130 guns, which received a massive pounding. He went on to board two enemy ships in this action, and had "a great part of his hat shot away" in the process. When an envious flag captain complained to his admiral that Nelson had disobeyed orders, the admiral is supposed to have responded, "It certainly was so, and if ever you commit such a breach of orders, I will forgive you also."

As a fleet commander, Nelson showed his mettle in the Battle of the Nile when, without precise knowledge of the local shoals, he ordered his ships to enter Aboukir Bay, outside Alexandria, where the French fleet was moored closely along the coast. One line of Nelson's ships slipped between the coast and the French ships, with the result that the French were hammered from both sides. The outcome left Napoleon's army stranded in Egypt and "carried the germ" of Trafalgar, leaving the French navy with an abiding inferiority complex.