The Fleet Street journalist Tom Pocock was among the best recorders of Lord Nelson’s heroic status.
Valiant yet vulnerable, Nelson has fascinated for two centuries. He continues to be the subject of books, paintings, plays. . . . He can seem a contemporary and it requires no great leap of the imagination to think of him being interviewed on television.
The part of Pocock’s characterization about seeing Nelson as a contemporary gives us pause, because Nelson is generally frozen in his own time by those who write or talk about him. Too often the drive is for additional minutiae, rather than an analysis that lifts him out of his own era.
Arguably the most significant long-term result of Nelson’s decisive victory at Trafalgar (October 21, 1805) was the establishment of Great Britain’s dominance at sea. That global dominance was a key factor in a tumultuous era that included the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the beginning of the industrialization of war, and the expansion of the concept of representative government. And it lasted for a hundred years. The agent for the century-long British supremacy at sea was the Royal Navy, and although Admiral Nelson was the inspiration, it was those around him and those who followed immediately who were the human capital of British sea power after Trafalgar.
Enter author and retired Royal Navy captain Peter Hore, who has created an unconventional book that gets beyond the overly familiar chronology of Nelson’s life and leads us to expand our thinking about the naval officers who drove Britain’s maritime ascendancy, and the institution that cultivated them. In his foreword, the former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band describes the scope of the project: “This new volume comprehensively covers all those officers who commanded ships or squadrons of the fleets which fought under Nelson’s tactical control at his three great sea battles.” Then in the first chapter, Peter Hore adds a particularly thought-provoking point, an idea that quickly extends our perspective on Nelson:
While hundreds of books have been written about him, there is comparatively little about most of his contemporaries, and yet it would be a mistake to isolate him from the system, which was the Royal Navy, the most sophisticated administrative enterprise and largest industrial complex in the world.
Hore’s merging of Nelson’s greatest achievements at sea with the backgrounds of the officers he led in his three most important actions challenges us to see Nelson in a broad context. This blends concise and well-crafted descriptions of Nelson’s victories at the battles of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar with 80 mini-biographies of the naval officers Nelson commanded in those engagements. Hore handles the writing of the battle descriptions adroitly; a variety of authors (including descendants of Nelson’s band of brothers) provide the mini-bios. What emerges is an extensive series of portrayals that provoke thoughts, not only of Nelson, but of the assemblage of naval leaders that was an engine of global change.
Captain Thomas Foley is one of the standouts among those featured here. His performance at the Battle of the Nile is a particularly interesting example of how Nelson’s relationships with those he led not only had an immediate effect in combat but also a significant ripple effect as well. Foley entered the Navy at age 13. As he advanced, he served in numerous global theaters and fought in limited engagements and large-scale battles. He reached the rank of post-captain in 1790, and he and his ship HMS Goliath joined Nelson in the Mediterranean in 1798. In August of that year, after a frantic search for the French fleet bearing Napoleon, Nelson came upon the major French warships in Aboukir Bay, just northeast of Alexandria, where Napoleon and his army had just disembarked.
It was somewhat unusual to initiate an attack in late afternoon, but Nelson immediately entered the bay in a single line-ahead formation. Foley, in Goliath, led the formation of 13 ships-of-the-line that Nelson commanded as it drove towards the French ships anchored along the shore. Nelson, as was usual at that time for the senior officer in such an action, was in the middle of the British line as it approached the French ships. Records suggest that neither Nelson nor Foley was very familiar with the anchorage.