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The Other Admiral - Lord Cuthbert Collingwood

There were two British Vice-Admirals at the Battle of Trafalgar. One was first to reach the Franco-Spanish line; commanding the division of ships that had the hardest fight, and who go on to lead the British fleet to safety through the appalling storm that followed the battle. The other was Lord Horatio Nelson. Like the second man to walk on the moon, Lord Cuthbert Collingwood’s fate was to be forever in Nelson’s shadow.

Collingwood was born in 1748 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the oldest of three sons of a once prosperous trader who had fallen on hard times. Unable to support his sons, his father approached his brother-in-law, a Royal Navy Captain, to take Collingwood to sea as soon as he reached the minimum age of thirteen, and his naval career began.  


He served as a midshipman on various ships in the Mediterranean and North America until well into his twenties, when he eventually earned his promotion to lieutenant in an unconventional way. In 1775 he was serving with the naval brigade at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American War of Independence and received his commission as a reward for conspicuous gallantry. After this he returned to sea, serving during the later part of the war in the West Indies Here he met with and became a close friend of the young Lieutenant Horatio Nelson.


Their friendship probably began because of similarities in their backgrounds. Both came from non-naval families (in Nelson’s case his father was a clergyman); had grown up in an unfashionable region of the country (the North East and rural Norfolk), and both had used the influence of a maternal uncle to begin their careers. Their ideas on naval warfare were also in tune. Collingwood would later become a noted gunnery expert, whose ships had a reputation for excellent performance in battle, and this chimed well with the aggressive naval tactics Nelson was developing. But their friendship also seems to be a case of opposites attracting. Nelson was famously gregarious, charming and charismatic, while Collingwood was much more stern, pedantic and dour. In his later career Nelson had a reputation for entertaining his officers lavishly. Collingwood, by contrast, earned the nickname of “Salt Junk and Sixpenny”, because of his predilection for offering old meat and cheap wine to his guests. He sometimes treated his officers harshly, showing more affection for his terrier Bounce who slept beside his cot throughout most of his later career. On land, Nelson craved constant company but Collingwood preferred quieter pursuits. He was a keen gardener, and enjoyed country walks, during which he would carry pockets full of acorns to scatter in promising spots, so that there would always be oak trees for the navy.     


However their friendship came about, it proved to be very fortunate for Collingwood. Nelson was an officer on the up, who enjoyed the patronage of Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker, the commander in chief in the West Indies. As Nelson was promoted, he was able to use his influence to pull his friend up with him. In July 1778 Collingwood transferred to the frigate Lowestoft commanded by Captain William Locker, taking the place of the newly promoted Nelson. A year later, he was given his first command, the brig Badger, again in succession to Nelson. Then, in 1780, he was posted captain of the frigate Hinchingbrooke, once more following in his friend’s footsteps.  


Collingwood learnt a huge amount during his time in the Caribbean. He gained a reputation as a good fighting captain during several sea fights, but he also had his share of ill fortune. Within a month of being made a post captain, he assisted Nelson on his ill-fated expedition to attack the Spanish stronghold of San Juan, deep in the fever-riven jungles of Central America. Almost all of those involved died of disease, and Collingwood had to take command of the survivors when Nelson himself fell ill. Collingwood came close to death the following year, when his ship foundered in a hurricane, leaving him and his surviving crew marooned on the uninhabited Morant Keys for almost two weeks before being rescued. When peace came, Collingwood continued serving in the Caribbean with Nelson for a few years, before they both returned home to enjoy the peace. Back in Newcastle, Collingwood met and married Sarah Blackett, with whom he would have two daughters, Sarah and Mary Patience.


When war with Revolutionary France broke out, Collingwood was appointed to the Channel Fleet, commanding Rear-Admiral Sir George Bowyer’s flagship. In 1794, he took part in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, where his ship was heavily engaged and his admiral badly wounded. Collingwood caught Bowyer in his arms when his leg was shot away. Bowyer subsequently retired and Collingwood was transferred to command the Excellent 74 and was sent to join the Mediterranean Fleet. At the time it was commanded by Admiral Sir John Jervis, a notoriously hard man to please. Here he was reunited with Nelson, who had command of the Captain, another 74. Collingwood worked up his ship to be a model of efficient gunnery, and Collingwood and Nelson would both go on to take the leading roles in Jervis’s victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797. Nelson famously left the British line to block the Spanish van from escaping, but what is less well known is that Collingwood followed him, capturing the 112 gun Salvador Del Mundo and the San Isidro 74.


Collingwood didn’t take part in Nelson’s victory at the Nile the following year, to his considerable annoyance, and the friends’ careers diverged for a while. The Excellent was sent home to be paid off at the end of 1798, and Collingwood declined a new ship so that he could spend some time at home with his wife after six years almost constantly at sea. In February 1799 he was promoted to rear-admiral, and joined the Channel Fleet. From then through to the Peace of Amiens in 1802 he was engaged in blockading the Brest fleet and coming to grips with all the paperwork that went with commanding other warships. With the arrival of peace, he went home to his family in a country house in Morpeth that he had purchased the year before.


When the war resumed in May 1803 Collingwood was quickly back at sea, first in command of the inshore squadron of the Channel Fleet, and later in charge of a separate squadron stationed off the smaller French naval base at Rochefort. While he was there his promotion to Vice-Admiral came through, and when Spain entered the war at the end of 1804, he was moved again, this time to take charge of first the blockade of Ferrol, and later Cadiz.


1805 was a momentous year in the war at sea. In the spring, Napoleon launched an audacious plan for several allied fleets to break out from their various ports and rendezvous in Martinique in the Caribbean. The resulting huge armada would sail back to Europe, overwhelm the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet through sheer weight of numbers; clearing the Straits of Dover of enemy warships for the vital few days that would permit the French army to cross. The plan had numerous practical problems, as befits a naval plan devised by a general, but these were stoutly ignored by the newly crowned Emperor of the French. In April, the French Mediterranean Fleet, under Vice-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, broke out from Toulon, sailed past Gibraltar, and reinforced by a number of Spanish warships from Cadiz, headed across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, after this initial success, things began to fall apart. The largest part of the proposed force, the French Atlantic Fleet, were never able to leave Brest, in spite of several attempts. Meanwhile, Nelson in command of the British Mediterranean Fleet was crossing the Atlantic hot on Villeneuve’s tail, forcing him to flee back to Europe before he could be reinforced.


While this was happening, Collingwood, with a tiny squadron of four warships, was keeping an eye on Cadiz. Suddenly Villeneuve arrived back from Martinique, with a combined fleet of almost thirty ships. These were odds too rich even for Collingwood to challenge battle, but he refused to leave, despite repeated attempts to drive him away, on one occasion by sixteen sail of the line. He remained on station, gradually being reinforced until the fleet was big enough to match that of the enemy, at which point his friend Nelson arrived. A few weeks later, Villeneuve came out.


The fleets met off Cape Trafalgar on the 21st of October 1805. Collingwood was second in command to Nelson, leading the lee line of the fleet in the Royal Sovereign 100. His was the first ship to reach the enemy line, and in consequence had the hardest fight, but that was just as Collingwood would have wanted it. He survived the battle unhurt and took command when he learnt of Nelson’s death. He shifted his flag into the frigate Euryalus, because the Royal Sovereign was in a dreadful state with only one mast standing. It was from here that he led the fleet to safety during the storm that followed victory, writing that he “would rather fight another battle than pass through such a week as followed it.”


Collingwood was well rewarded for Trafalgar. He was made Baron Collingwood, receiving a pension of 2,000 guineas a year for life and the thanks of parliament. He also took Nelson’s place as commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, a position he would hold for the next four and a half years. But if he had found the administration required of a squadron commander irksome, those of his next posting were at a different level entirely. Collingwood was required to be a diplomat, keeping the Turks from joining with Napoleon; the Barbary States from attacking British shipping and ensuring Britain’s various allies in the region from Sardinia to Scilly stayed on side. He was also required to be a master of intelligence gathering, staying on top of all the various simmering tensions in the Balkans and the Levant between the different ethnic and religious groups that lived there. On top of all this, there was still French warships from Toulon to Venice to be blockaded, and all the admin produced by a fleet of dozens of warships crewed by thousands of men. Then, in 1808, France invaded Spain, triggering the Peninsular War, and giving Collingwood a fresh set of problems as he provided support to the Spanish insurgents from Catalonia to Gibraltar.


All of these burdens Collingwood took on for longer than any previous admiral. His flagships changed beneath him as he wore them out and they were sent home for refits, but he remained at his desk, working long hours as he wrestled with the endless problems of his role. Year after year he almost never stepped ashore, and got so little exercise that he steadily worked himself to death. Eventually he was ordered home on medical advice, and he finally resigned the station to Vice-Admiral Purvis. Hardly able to stand unaided, he set sail with his flag in the Ville de Paris from Port Mahon at 2 pm on 7 March 1810, but within four hours he died. His body was returned to England where he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral alongside Nelson.

New Releases

Just Published Worldwide - Book XI of the Alexander Clay series

In the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy are taking the war to the enemy. Captain Alexander Clay and the crew of the Griffin are chosen as part of a major expedition to the South Atlantic. They are tasked with taking back control of the Cape, but find that they are drawn into a stranger conflict. Across the ocean, South America is on the brink of revolution. Clay must not only fight the French, but also navigate his way through the murky waters of the Rio de la Plata. Here Freedom Fighters hungry for power, American gunrunners, and the ambitions of his own commander make for an explosive mixture. And running through it all is the River of Silver.

2 commenti

Margaret Hill
Margaret Hill
26 giu

Philip. You always up tops with everything you pen. Well done. Keep going. Maggie

Mi piace

14 giu

Thanks Philip - fascinating. Really looking forward to reading the new book.

Mi piace
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