Horatio Nelson was born in a country parsonage, on the 29th of September, 1758. He and his brother William, who was a year and a half older than Horace, as he was called at home, were always together. As small boys they went to the same school—first at Norwich, and afterwards at North Walsham. There is a story told about them when they were at the first school. The Christmas holidays were over, and the two boys started to ride back to the school, which was not very far from their home. William especially did not like the idea of going back, and when they had gone some way he suggested that they should go home, and say that the snow, which was lying on the ground, was too deep for them to get through. Horace willingly agreed, and they were soon once again at the parsonage. Of course they were asked why they had come back, and both boys told their little story. "Very well," said their father, who happened to be at home; "if that is the case, I shall not insist on your going. But make another trial, and I will leave it to your honour. If the road is dangerous, come back; but remember I leave it to your honour." So once again they set out, and after going some way further than they had done the first time, they came to a place where the snow was really rather deep. William now thought that there was a very good excuse to go back, but nothing would persuade Horace to do it this time. "We must go on," he kept saying; "remember he left it to our honour." And go on they did, and arrived quite safely at school.
When Horace was twelve, he begged to be allowed to go to sea with his uncle, who was a sailor. As his father was very poor, Horace thought he would in this way begin to earn money sooner than he could in any other.
When his uncle had the letter, he was surprised to find which of the boys it was who wished to come to him. "What has poor Horace done," he wrote back, "who is so weak, that he above all the rest should be sent to sea? But let him come, and the first time we go into action a cannon-ball may knock off his head and provide for him at once." For these were the days when England and France were often at war, and all soldiers and sailors looked forward to plenty of fighting.
Soon came orders for Horace to join his ship. His father took him to London, and from there he went on alone by coach to Chatham. There was no one to meet him at the end of his journey, and he wandered about in the cold streets, for it was winter-time, trying in vain to find his way to the ship. At last an officer who saw him spoke to him, and after giving him something to eat, helped him to find the Raisonnable. But here was another disappointment; his uncle was not there, and no one knew he was coming. So all the rest of that day he walked up and down the deck of the ship, no one taking any notice of him, and it was not "till the second day," so he said long afterwards, "that somebody kindly took compassion on me." No wonder he was unhappy and homesick at first, but he determined to make the best of things, and so he did; and by the time he was fifteen, the little delicate Horace, instead of having had his head knocked off, was "a brown and tarry lad," and fast becoming a good sailor.
For the next few years he had all sorts of adventures. He was in the West Indies, where we were fighting the Spaniards, and was twice nearly killed—once by being bitten by a snake, and once by drinking some water from a well which the enemy had poisoned. During part of this time, too, he and the men who were with him had nothing to eat but a sort of soup made of boiled monkeys, which were the only animals they could catch and kill, and which was so uninviting that Nelson said he could hardly touch it.
At last he became very ill, and had to be sent to England to recover.
It would take too long to tell you even a small part of all there is to know about Horatio Nelson, who, after winning a great battle over the French, was made Lord Nelson, by which name he is always known. But the story of this battle—the battle of the Nile—I must tell you, because it is one of the three greatest in which Nelson ever fought, and the first in which he was Commander-in-Chief. The other two are "Copenhagen" and "Trafalgar"; and the names of these three battles you will see written on his monument in St. Paul's.
In the many fights in which Nelson had fought before the battle of the Nile, he had been several times wounded, and twice very badly—he had lost the sight of one eye, and his right arm had been so much injured that it had had to be cut off. But in spite of these terrible misfortunes he remained a sailor, and was now becoming known to Europe as one of the bravest and greatest England had ever had.
And very fortunate it was that we had such men as Nelson to fight for us, for in those days Napoleon Buonaparte (the greatest soldier France ever had, who, as you already know, during his lifetime conquered nearly all Europe, and made himself Napoleon I., Emperor of the French) was bent upon conquering England. And so it came about that for many years England and France were always at war. At this time the English ships, under Nelson, had been chasing the French ships for weeks, in the hope of catching them, fighting them, and beating them; and at last, on the 1st of August, 1798, we came up with them in Aboukir Bay, which you can see on the map of Africa, close to Alexandria. Nelson was so much excited at the thought of the battle, that he could hardly eat or sleep, and the soldiers and sailors were delighted to have a chance of beating the Frenchmen at last. About half-past six o'clock in the evening the battle began; and the sound of the great guns fired from every ship, both French and English, boomed and roared through the still summer evening, and the air was dark with smoke, through which the masts of the ships could just be seen, as if through a thick fog. The sun set, and it gradually became quite dark, except for the flashes of fire from the guns and the lights at the top of the masts, and still the battle went on. But the English were full of hope, for they were getting the best of the enemy, and had captured several of their ships. Suddenly, about nine o'clock, L'Orient, one of the chief of the French ships (the flag-ship), caught fire. All at once it seemed that there was a change from dark night to bright daylight. The flames shot high up into the air, and an officer who was there said that the whole sea was illuminated; every ship could be seen, and even the colours of the flags on the masts could be quite easily made out.
One very fine thing there was to see, and this was the wonderful bravery shown by the French soldiers and sailors who were on the burning ship. While the whole of the lower decks were in flames, the men on the upper decks still went on firing the guns until the fire reached them, and such of them as were not burned to death jumped into the sea to save themselves. Many of them were picked up and taken on board our ships. Soon after this, the flames reached the gunpowder stored on the ship, and a few minutes after ten o'clock it blew up "with an explosion like that of an earthquake," shaking all the other ships as if by the waves of a great storm. The air was filled with burning masts and bits of wood, which were shot to an immense height, and then fell hissing into the sea like great and terrible rockets. And then, after this sudden flare of light, it was again quite dark, and for a quarter of an hour, so it is said, no gun was fired, and all was silent except for the shouts of the men in the water to be saved. Not until three o'clock in the morning was the battle over. Nelson, though he had been wounded in the head early in the evening, forgot his pain, for he knew that he had won one of the greatest sea battles which England had ever fought.
Soon after the battle Nelson had a very curious present sent to him by the captain of one of his ships. This was a coffin made out of a piece of the mainmast of L'Orient. It came to him with this letter: "My Lord, Herewith I send you a coffin made of part of L'Orient's mainmast, that when you are tired of this life you may be buried in one of your own trophies; but may that period be far distant, is the sincere wish of your obedient and much-obliged servant, Ben Hallowell." It is said that Nelson was delighted with this present, which he ordered to be put in his cabin. There it stood, leaning up against the wall just behind the chair in which he sat at dinner, until his servant, thinking it was not an ornament to his master's cabin, carried it away and stored it in a place of safety.
Among the officers killed in the battle of the Nile was a Captain Westcott. This Captain Westcott was the son of a baker in a little Devonshire village, and was often, when he was quite a small boy, sent by his father to the mill near by to fetch the flour for the bread and cakes. One day when he got there, he found that the mill had stopped working because something had gone wrong with one of the ropes, and neither the miller nor his men knew how it was to be mended. George—for this was Westcott's name—said he could do it, as he had learned how to splice (or join) ropes. When it was finished, and the mill was again working, the miller said that a boy who knew so much about ropes ought to be a sailor, and that if George ever wanted to go to sea, he would do all he could to help him. The idea was new to George, but after thinking it over he came to the miller and said he had made up his mind to be a sailor, and reminded him of his promise. So the miller got him on to a ship where he was made a cabin-boy, and very hard and very rough work he had to do. But he got on steadily, bit by bit, and rose to be an officer. After being in many battles and fighting hard for his country, he was killed at last in the battle of the Nile, and this monument was put up in his memory in St. Paul's Cathedral.
So many brave soldiers and sailors are remembered in this cathedral, that it would make my book far too long if I were to tell you the story of each one; so I am obliged to choose out of many interesting things those which I think you will like most, and just now I must not do more than tell you the end of the story of Nelson. The second of the three great battles, by which his name is always remembered, was the battle of Copenhagen, which was fought against the Danes, nearly three years after the battle of the Nile, on the 2nd of April, 1801. There is a story told that during this battle there came a time when Admiral Parker, who was commander-in-chief, feared that the English could not hold their own against the Danes, and that Nelson's ship, and some others which were in the thick of the fight, must retreat (or draw back) to escape being captured or sunk by the enemy. Nelson, in a cocked hat and blue great-coat, on which his orders were fastened, was walking up and down the deck of his ship,—the Elephant. A Colonel Stewart, who was with him, afterwards told how, when a shot struck the mast by which they were standing, Nelson turned to him with a smile and said, "It is warm work, and this day may be the last to any of us at a moment. But, mark you, I would not be anywhere else for thousands." Just then an officer came up and told him that Admiral Parker had signalled to say, "Cease fire." Nelson was very angry, for he felt sure that the danger was not so great as the admiral thought, and that if the men kept on firing, the Danes, and not the English, would soon get the worst of it. But still the admiral who was in command had given the order. "Where is the signal?" asked Nelson. The answer was, "On the mast of the London, the admiral's ship." Nelson, putting his telescope up to his blind eye, pretended to look through it. After a minute he turned to the two officers, saying, "I really do not see the signal," and added, "keep mine for closer battle flying." The other ships, seeing this signal to go on, obeyed, and went on firing until gradually, one by one, the Danish ships ceased, and the battle of Copenhagen was won by the English. "Well," said Nelson when it was over, "I have fought contrary to orders, and I shall perhaps be hanged. Never mind; let them."
But instead of being hanged, the king made him Viscount Nelson, for having gained this great battle, which might have been lost had not Nelson known that it would be best to disobey the signal.
When the news that he was Viscount Nelson came to him, he was staying with his father, now an old man. Nelson wrote afterwards that, on hearing it, his father said that he "liked me as well plain Horace as with all these high-sounding titles."
In memory of two other captains who were also killed in this battle — Captain Mosse and Captain Riou — a large monument was subscribed for by the people of England, and put up in the north transept.
And now came at last a little time when England was at peace, but it was not for long. Two years later we were once again at war with France; for Napoleon Buonaparte, who had now made himself First Consul, was more than ever determined to conquer England, and had during these quiet years been making great preparations to do so. And once again, as before the battle of the Nile, Nelson was sent to find and fight the French fleet. For some weeks he followed them about near home, and then hearing that they had sailed to the West Indies, he decided to follow them. "If I fail," he said—"if they are not gone to the West Indies—I shall be blamed; to be burnt in effigy or Westminster Abbey is my alternative."
After many weeks the English reached Tobago in the West Indies, only to find that the French, hearing that Nelson was on his way out, had again set sail, this time for Europe; and all the journey had been in vain. But Nelson never gave up hope; he was off again at once to follow them up. But they had had too good a start; and on the 20th of July, 1805, Nelson reached Gibraltar, which he had left two years before, and "went on shore," so he wrote, "for the first time since the 16th of June, 1803," without having once seen the French fleet. No wonder that, after this long time of watching and waiting and wandering, he came back to England tired and disappointed.
He was only at home for a few weeks, and on the 13th of September he went to sea again to command the fleet, which was still on the look-out for the French. When Nelson arrived, there was such rejoicing on all the ships as had never been known before. The officers crowded round him to welcome him, while the sailors did not know how to show their delight.
On the 19th of October the French were seen coming out of the harbour of Cadiz, and at once the signal to chase them was made.
All that day and the next, which was Sunday, the English were getting closer and closer to the French; and on Monday morning, soon after daybreak, Nelson was on deck. The 21st of October, he said to his great friend, Captain Hardy, was the happiest day of the year amongst his family, for it was on that day that the uncle with whom he first went to sea had fought and conquered the French; and he added, "The 21st of October will be our day."
About eleven o'clock the two fleets were close together, and then it was, just before the battle was going to begin, that Nelson came up to the officer who had charge of the signals and said, "Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, England confides that every man will do his Duty, and you must be quick." Mr. Pasco answered that there was no signal for the word confides, but that if he might say expects it could be done at once. "That will do, Pasco; make it directly." And a minute later the signal, "England expects that every man will do his Duty," was seen on the masthead of the Victory; and now from every English ship sounded cheer after cheer, for the soldiers and sailors knew it was Nelson's message to them, and welcomed it with loud hurrahs. Nelson listened; then, as the sounds died away, "Now," he said, "I can do no more. . . I thank God for this great opportunity of doing my duty." After going round the ship to speak to and encourage his own men, he turned to his officers: "Now, gentlemen, let us do something to-day which the world may talk of hereafter." And almost immediately the battle of Trafalgar began. So close together were the ships that the roar of the guns was deafening, and the men were nearly suffocated by the smoke. The Victory was in the midst of the battle, and soon the sails were torn and tattered with shot, and many men were killed and wounded.
Nelson, with Captain Hardy, was on deck all the morning, walking up and down. Suddenly, about one o'clock, just as they were turning, Captain Hardy saw Nelson fall. He stooped down to ask if he were hurt. "They have done for me at last, Hardy," Nelson said. "My backbone is shot through." He was carried down to the cockpit (or hospital of the ship); and though he was so terribly hurt, he did not forget to put his handkerchief over his face and the stars which he wore on his coat, for fear that the sailors should see who it was, and lose heart if they knew that their admiral was wounded. The doctor, who came to him at once, found it was only too true that they had "done for him." He was so much injured that it was quite impossible that he could live long. Nelson knew this, and would not let the doctor stay by him, telling him to go and look after those to whom he might be of some good.
Meanwhile the battle went on, and from time to time Nelson, lying there in the cockpit, surrounded by other wounded and dying men, heard the sound of cheering on the decks above. He asked the reason, and Lieutenant Pasco (who had made the famous signal, and who had just been carried down wounded, and was lying by his side) said that every time a French ship was taken prisoner the men hurrahed.
Presently Captain Hardy came down. "Well, Hardy, how goes the battle?" asked Nelson. The captain said they had already taken twelve or fourteen of the enemy's ships. The next question was—Had any of our ships been taken? "No, my lord," replied Hardy; "there is no fear of that." About four o'clock in the afternoon Nelson died, and almost at the same moment the guns ceased firing and the battle of Trafalgar was won. "Thank God I have done my duty," were Nelson's last words; and he lived to know that he had beaten the French, and won for England the greatest sea-battle ever fought.
It was just at the end of the battle, when the smoke of the guns was drifting away, that Cape Trafalgar (which you will see on the map of Spain, midway between Cadiz and Gibraltar) was seen to be quite close and distinct. And so it came about that this great battle was called the Battle of Trafalgar. "Let us do something to-day which the world may talk of hereafter," Nelson had said; and, indeed, as long as there are Englishmen left in the world, the 21st of October, 1805, and the names of Nelson and Trafalgar, will never be forgotten. And now, though the 21st of October could be looked upon as one of the greatest and proudest days in the history of England, it could no longer be called, as Lord Nelson had called it that morning, "the happiest day of the year" in the Nelson family; and when the news of the victory came home, England almost forgot to rejoice, for the whole country was filled with sorrow for the loss of the great and brave sailor who had saved us once again from France and Napoleon Buonaparte.
The Victory brought back the body of Lord Nelson, and lying in the coffin which had been sent him years before by Captain Hallowell, he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, in the great marble tomb which you will see in the middle of the crypt, and which had been made more than two hundred years before for Cardinal Wolsey, but never used. It had lain almost forgotten in Wolsey's Chapel at Windsor, and it was now suggested that it should be the tomb of Nelson. On the day of the funeral it seemed, so Dean Milman says in his book about St. Paul's (which you will like to read some day, for it tells you much more than I can do now), that "the whole nation" was there "as mourners."
The Prince of Wales (afterwards George IV.), Admiral Parker, whose signal at Copenhagen Nelson had disobeyed, and all the greatest men in England, were in the procession. Among the soldiers and sailors came the men from the Victory, carrying the tattered flag, which, it is said, was "sieve-like from the balls which had passed through it." Dean Milman, who was then a small boy, and who had been brought to see this great sight, said that as the coffin was lowered into the crypt, "I heard, or fancied I heard, the low wail of the sailors who bore . . the remains of their admiral."
Close to him are buried others of his family: his brother William, who was made Earl Nelson by the king to show his gratitude for all that "Horatio" had done for his country; his wife, and their son Horatio, so named after his famous uncle, and known as Viscount Trafalgar.