- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By "Tyrtaios" and "Jpwrel"
Best Defense royal office of Royal Navy affairs
Both of us are interested in naval history and have visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, albeit in different ways. As a young Marine officer aboard the USS Trenton, one of us has lunched and drank toasts to Admiral Lord Nelson at CINC NAV Home, Nelson’s old headquarters in Portsmouth, England. At this Navy function where a leathery captain of Royal Marines recognized the young Marine as surely as a mustang and made sure he was adequately supplied with jiggers of British Navy rum.
The other one of us culminated a long interest in the Royal Navy’s history and its naval architecture by also visiting and intimately inspecting HMS Victory, but in much less rousing form. From the depths of its rarely seen original keelson to its quarterdeck and Nelson’s private quarters, he has studied this ship in detail accompanied by the assistant curator of the National Maritime Museum.
The question we want to pose is this: Do we still have commanders that embrace the spirit of "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy," or have we become so reliant on technology and information flow that we allow opportunity to slip away?
"No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." And so it was on October 21, 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, near Cadiz, Spain, two fleets engaged each other to decide who would be master of the seas, the British or Bonaparte and his Spanish allies.
Shortly before engaging the enemy, as the British fleet slowly approached the combined French and Spanish line, Admiral Nelson hoisted a flag signal to his fleet that said: "ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY." From the quarterdeck on his flagship HMS Victory, the Royal Navy’s most gifted admiral commanded a fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line.
Although outnumbered, by executing some unorthodox tactics that would divide his enemy into three segments, Nelson smashed through the line of battle of the thirty-three French and Spanish vessels. A French officer remarked later, "This manner of engaging was contrary to the most simple prudence . . ." And as John Terraine wrote, "That it did not produce a disaster was due entirely to the immense superiority in seamanship, gunnery and morale of the British fleet . . . All factors Nelson was of course fully aware of."
The three-decker Victory that Nelson commanded from, alongside his friend and Flag Captain Thomas Hardy, displayed more than 100 guns, a few of them the new and devastating 68-pound cannons mounted on the forecastle. With its crew of eight hundred, Victory bore down on the French in light air at 3 knots. Engaging first the French flagship Bucentar to port with a raking broadside through her stern galleries and then the French Redoubtable to starboard, Nelson ordered another signal to his fleet, "ENGAGE THE ENEMY MORE CLOSELY."
Cannon fire, grapeshot, musket balls, and deadly splinters of ship’s wood destroyed and maimed all in their path. Victory‘s steering wheel was smashed to bits. All the while, and against the wishes of Hardy, and wearing his finest uniform making himself a more conspicuous target, Nelson calmly paced up and down in clear view of the enemy.
Shortly into the battle, Nelson’s personal secretary John Scott was sliced in two by a cannon ball that blew his body parts over the side leaving just scraps of him on deck. Nelson observed one scrap included a silver buckle torn from Scott’s shoe, and the Admiral was heard to exclaim, "This is too warm work Hardy to last long!"
The British pressed further to breach their enemies line of battle engaging them with both port and starboard batteries. Both sides were raked with gunfire at close quarters. Masts and rigging fell. Victory and Redoubtable were so close that their rigging entangled side by side as they exchanged point-blank gunfire.
It would be Nelson’s friend Hardy that would turn to see Nelson fall to the deck on the exact spot where Scott was killed earlier. The gold braiding was torn from Nelson’s epaulet the Admiral having been shot through his left shoulder. The Admiral’s spine was also broken and surely he must have known he would not survive the fight.
During a hot sea battle in those days, it was customary to throw the mortally wounded and the dead over the side. However, Captain Hardy ordered that Nelson be carried below. There he died three hours later, perhaps knowing, but not seeing, he had won a great victory at Trafalgar. Nineteen enemy ships had been sunk or captured versus not a single British ship lost and four more of the escaping French ships would be captured two weeks later by Adm. Collingwood, Nelson’s able successor.
After the battle, HMS Victory put into Gibraltar for repairs where legend has it that Nelson’s body was placed in a large cask of brandy, although some say rum, to preserve it for the long voyage back to England, whereupon arrival back in England, the cask was opened and Nelson’s preserved body removed. And it is here that the legend is further embellished in that the brandy was seen to be almost gone. Had the jack tar sailors, probably under the winking watchful eyes of enlisted Royal Marines drilled a small hole at the base of the cask through which they drained the brandy, and with that drank the blood of their Admiral?