Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Worthy Salute to an Inspirational Admiral

LORD NELSON: THE IMMORTAL MEMORY By David Howarth and Stephen Howarth New York: Viking Press 390 pp. $24.95

GADZOOKS! Another biography of Nelson! There have been scores of good books written about Vice Admiral Horatio Viscount Nelson (and a good number of bad ones). Just last year, Tom Pocock added a superb one. Why is Nelson so endlessly fascinating? And does all this historiography really provide useful wisdom for today? Ah yes, there is much to learn from Nelson. He was an audacious tactician and an excellent strategist, but above all he was a truly great and inspirational leader.

About these ads

As a personality he is captivating; vain and humble, fearless and vulnerable, pompous and lovable. We know all this because he was a great letter writer. Indeed one reason the books keep coming is that new troves of letters keep emerging from estates and attics. From the day he went on board H.M.S. Raisonnable at age 12 in 1771, until the day he died on board H.M.S. Victory on Oct. 21, 1805, Nelson wrote letters daily to family and friends. By the time he made Rear Admiral, he was writing as many as 100 a day.

Of the chroniclers of Nelson, none are more able than the Howarths, father and son. David Howarth, like the late Barbara Tuchman, writes history as captivating as the best of fiction, and always with a new perspective and some new raw material. His books on the Armada, Waterloo, and Trafalgar are spellbinding classics. ``Lord Nelson,'' the second done with his son Stephen, is just as good. Their book is full of interesting historical anecdote and detail about Napoleon's utter landsman's ignorance of the uses of naval power, Nelson's activities in the American War of Independence, and his later harassment by civil suits from Yankee traders.

Let us hope that coming so close upon Pocock's excellent ``Horatio Nelson'' that these books will reinforce each other and accelerate the new interest in naval history evidenced by Tuchman's ``The First Salute'' and John Kegan's ``The Price of Admiralty.''

Nelson's letters, which are so central to such works, are elegantly written and full of chatty information; they are still a pleasure to read. In a sense, they form an exhaustive autobiography.

Indeed many were written by him specifically for the historical record. To ensure the survival, for instance, of his last diary and his famous prayer before Trafalgar, he hand wrote two separate copies of each. The prayer illustrates the style ``...May the Great God I worship, grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself individually, I commit my life to him who made me, and may His blessing light on my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.''

One of Nelson's most striking virtues was his pure bravery - not the courage of Hollywood movies, but the much more admirable intellectual and emotional acceptance of horrifying dangers as a necessary part of his duty. He was not reckless or foolhardy, but from his earliest days he wanted to lead and win. ``I wish to be an admiral in command of the English fleet. I should very soon either do much or be ruined.''

As ``the merest boy of a captain,'' he led in the jungles of Nicaragua and ruined his health for two years. He led at Calvi and lost an eye. He led at Tenerife and lost an arm. At Cape St. Vincent he rammed a Spanish ship and led a boarding party out the bowsprit. He led at Aboukir Bay and suffered a concussion from shrapnel that supposedly affected his behavior, leading him into the scandalous affair with Lady Emma Hamilton. He led at Copenhagen, and when signaled to withdraw by his faint-hearted commander-in-chief, put his spyglass to his blind eye and said, ``I really do not see the signal,'' and went on to a smashing victory. During that battle, with cannon balls ``howling and snapping'' over his head, he turned to his aide with a smile and said, ``It is warm work, and this day may be the last to us at any moment, but mark you, I would not be anywhere else for thousands.''

About these ads

But what made his ``memory immortal'' was his brave and brilliant leadership at Trafalgar. Knowing his presence inspired the fleet, he remained on the quarterdeck, in full dress, highly visible and vulnerable. As men dropped around him, he remained pacing unperturbed. A French cannonball hit the deck and bounced whirring between him and his Flag Capt. Thomas Hardy. He again smiled and said ``This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long.'' He was mortally wounded soon after by a sharpshooter. He died hours later in the knowledge that he had won a total victory.

The ``Nelson Touch'' (his own term) was made of several elements: a genius for bold strategy based on giving his trusted subordinates both a simple plan, and great autonomy to carry it out; an inspiring and calculated bravery; and a charming capacity for kindness, concern, and affection that inspired genuine love throughout the fleet. In an age of draconian discipline, he rarely allowed flogging and saved several condemned sailors from hanging. Once while pursued by a superior Spanish force, he risked capture to search for a sailor who fell overboard. As the Trafalgar battle was about to begin, he saw a downcast sailor whose letter home just missed the mail packet. ``Hoist a signal and bring her back,'' said Lord Nelson, ``who knows that he may not fall in action tomorrow.'' AT the end of the epic battle next day, when word of his death was passed through the fleet, the expression of grief from sailors and admirals alike remains unmatched to this day.

A young sailor named Sam wrote to his dad ``our dear Admiral Nelson is killed! so we have paid pretty sharp for licking 'em. I never set eyes on him, for which I am both sorry and glad; for to be sure, I should like to have seen him - but then, all the men in our ship are such soft toads, they have done nothing but blast their eyes, and cry ever since he was killed. God bless you! chaps that fought like the devil sit down and cry like a wench.''

On reflecting upon ``the immortal memory'' it is natural to ask where are the Nelsons today? The answer is that, for the most part, they are just where Nelson was during peaceful periods - out of favor, without command, and ridiculed as vain, disruptive, and faintly ridiculous. Then as now (with a few notable exceptions) war fighters did not prosper in the peacetime military. Nelson never spent a day on a bureaucratic staff and would not have even been eligible for promotion to flag rank in today's Navy.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.