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Horatio Nelson


Disciplines > Warfare > Military commanders > Horatio Nelson

Early years | In battle | With sailors |


Horatio Nelson (1758 - 1804) was one of 11 children of Norfolk cleric, but received the best education his father could afford.

Early years

He was inspired early on by uncle who was a naval captain and went to sea in 1771 at the age of 13 with his uncle to defend the Falkland Islands against the Spanish. After this early adventure, he learned seaman ship from the ground up on merchant vessels, including trips to Caribbean and the Arctic.

He joined Royal Navy in 1776 and showed early courage in capturing a US ship in a gale. He was promoted to captain and then post-captain at the age of 20.

After the war, he got post escorting Prince William (later King William IV). William said of him: 'Captain Nelson ... appeared to be the merest boy of a Captain I
ever beheld. ... There was something irresistibly pleasing in his address and conversations; and an enthusiasm, when speaking on professional subjects, that showed he was no common being.'

In battle

He was courageous in battle and would even ignore orders if he believed they were too timid. He distinguished himself in the Mediterranean in 1797, taking Corsica and ramming/boarding a Spaniard ship during a skirmish. A fellow officer described his leaving the line to attack the
Spaniard as 'a piece of individual initiative...unsurpassed in
Naval history.'

He was injured more than once. Leading a landing at Tenerife, his right arm was hit and had to be amputated at the shoulder. In another battle, his eye was damaged by sand from sandbag nearby that was hit by a cannonball.

As a result, he was knighted and made rear-admiral. In 1801 he took Copenhagen after ignoring orders to leave off action, where he famously put his telescope to his blind eye and declared 'I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal.'

He was endlessly tenacious and blockaded Toulon for 18 months, sailing up and down outside. When Villeneuve escaped, he followed him all the way to the Caribbean.

In the Battle of the Nile, bold action caught the French by surprise. He was grazed on the forehead and exclaimed 'I am killed, remember me to my wife.' (He understood drama and this normal melodramatic approach).

At Trafalgar, where his bold strategy led to the British overcoming a far superior force, he stayed on deck in full uniform in order to motivate his sailors, and was picked off by a sniper.

With sailors

Having worked his way through the ranks, he respected the ordinary ratings, This time below decks also gave him credibility and ability to talk detail.

He looked after his crews and was well liked for this as he ensured troops were well-fed and watered. He also fought for prompt payment of wages, improved hospital treatment and better pensions.

He trusted his captains, after thoroughly briefing them in the overall strategy, he let them have their heads.

He was not soft, though. For example, on the way to Trafalgar, he had five men flogged.

At home

In between wars he was mostly pensioned off on 1/2 pay and absolutely hated it. In 1793 France declared war and in 1796 Spain joined in. In 1801 Scandinavia and Russia threatened to join in too, making his rest periods thankfully short.

With his exploits, he became a national hero. Easily recognized, he was feted wherever he went. He spent much time with his mistress, Lady Hamilton, whose ever-suffering husband accepted the relationship.

On his death there was national mourning. And a huge procession to his burial in St. Paul's. Today he stands atop the huge column in Trafalgar Square, London.

Critical factors

  • He was very courageous and would break rules and ignore orders in order to attack.
  • He was tenacious and disciplined and expected others to be the same.
  • He was driven by duty and honor and said: 'Life with disgrace is dreadful. A glorious death is to be envied.'
  • He cared about his crews, looking after them and fighting for their rights.
  • He trained his men hard and punished slackers severely.
  • He had the common touch and was good oratory.

See also


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