Nelson and the Essence of War

May 20, 2019

British Admiral Jackie Fisher, the great Edwardian naval reformer who was behind the introduction of dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers, once said that “the essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility.” He was not a personally aggressive man, nor was he a warmonger. What he believed was that once war happened, it was the duty of those in uniform to fight to the utmost, until victory was achieved. No one would have agreed more with his sentiments than Fisher’s hero, Horatio Nelson.

 

For much of the 18th century, warfare between Europeans was defined by notions of chivalry from an earlier age. The admirals and generals on both sides were mostly aristocratic. In 1745, at the Battle of Fontenoy, Lord Charles Hay is said to have invited "the gentlemen of France" to fire first. By the end of the century such notions were becoming increasingly archaic. The French revolution swept aside the old order, allowing much more decisive generals like Napoleon to emerge. In the Royal Navy change had started much earlier, with successive leaders building on the tactics of their predecessors. During the wars that followed the French revolution, admirals like Duncan and Jervis showed aggressive determination in the face of the enemy, but the true maritime equivalent of Napoleon was undoubtedly Horatio Nelson.

 

The son of a rural clergyman in unfashionable Norfolk, he believed in winning, whatever the cost. Throughout his career he always displayed the maximum aggression in the face of the enemy. At the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, it was Nelson, in his ship the 74 Captain who broke from the safety of the British line to head off the Spanish fleet. As a result he found himself heavily out-gunned by the enemy with only one other Royal Navy ship in support of him. Undismayed, he personally led the party who boarded and captured first the 80 gun San Nicolas and then the 112 gun San Josef. His cry when doing so is said to have been "Westminster Abbey (i.e. a state funeral) or glorious victory!"

 

This personal approach to leadership was fraught with danger for him. His first significant victory, the capture of a fortress from the Spanish deep in the disease-ridden jungles of Nicaragua, came at the cost of bouts of sickness that would affect him for the rest of his life. During a siege in Corsica in 1793, he lost the sight in one eye. Four years later he lost his right arm to a musket ball while leading an attack on Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands. After the Battle of the Nile he was to suffer from persistent headaches for the rest of his life, the result of being struck on the head by a piece of shrapnel.

 

Nelson’s aggressive tactics could prove devastating, winning overwhelming victories at battles such as the Nile, Copenhagen and of course Trafalgar. But they also came with an appreciable risk of failure. The attack on Santa Cruz in 1797, that cost him his arm, was made in the dark, in a storm and without the benefit of surprise. No amount of aggression could produce a victory from such unfavourable circumstances, and the attack was rebuffed, with 250 killed and 128 wounded. A similar night attack on Boulogne in 1801 was also unsuccessful.

 

Nelson’s legacy will always be associated with his final victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. It is also one of the best examples of his high-risk, aggressive approach to naval conflict. The British fleet of 27 ships of the line was smaller than the Franco-Spanish fleet of 33, but Nelson showed none of the caution that might be expected from an outnumbered opponent. He ordered his ships to attack in two lines that would approach the enemy at right angles. This tactic had all the hallmarks of the man behind it. Aggressive, in that it meant the British would close the range as quickly as possible, but also full of risk. The warships of the time could only fire effectively sideways, so Nelson’s line of attack meant that all the enemy’s ships, and none of his, would be able to fire during this initial phase. But he was confident that once the Royal Navy ships could get amongst the enemy’s fleet, victory would follow.

 

It was characteristic of the man that both he and his deputy, Vice Admiral Collingwood, placed their own flagships at the head of the two British columns, where they took the brunt of the enemy’s shot. Collingwood on the Royal Sovereign would be badly wounded in the battle, and Nelson on the Victory would be killed. Their ships were both very badly damaged, but those that followed arrived at the Franco-Spanish line largely unscathed. The result of these aggressive tactics was arguably one of the most complete victories between prepared opponents in naval warfare, even if it was to earn Nelson the state funeral he had predicted eight years earlier.

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