Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood


Where England Won a Battle, but Lost her Idol—Nelson

Napoleon the Ambitious decided to invade England. But Nelson kept guard. After some trouble in chasing the French fleet across the Atlantic and back, he met the allied French and Spanish squadrons off Trafalgar, and smashed them—at the cost of his own life. As long as red blood runs in the veins of men the story of Nelson and Trafalgar will live; it is printed in the imperishable book of the world's history, and age will not dim the glory of the hero who, leading his men to victory, was met and conquered by the last great enemy—Death.

Nelson left Portsmouth on September 14th, followed by the blessings of the populace, whose idol he was. A fortnight later he was off Cadiz, where he kept watch for the French fleet. Admiral Villeneuve was in ignorance of his proximity; in fact, it was not known where he was, though it was reported that he was in London. It was Nelson's desire that his whereabouts should be kept secret, and this was admirably done.

Villeneuve, however, was rather nervous, and when he received orders to sail for Gibraltar, and sweep the English from the Mediterranean, he hesitated. But at last he had to sail, and on October 19th his fleet of thirty-three ships left Cadiz, and Nelson's scouting frigates signalled through the Mars  to that effect. All that day the scouts kept up their signalling, and Villeneuve, realising what they were, though little dreaming that they were informing the man he dreaded of his movements occasionally sent a shot across their bows, for which the frigates didn't care a scrap, but dogged their foe relentlessly. And all the time Nelson was following too, sailing south-east, hoping to cut off Villeneuve before he could reach the Straight of Gibraltar, yet keeping out of sight, and it was not until the 21st that the fleets came together.

The English fleet was in order of battle, two lines with an advanced squadron of eight fast-sailing two-deckers; Nelson, in the Victory led one column, Collingwood, in the Royal Sovereign, lead the other.

The one-armed, one-eyed hero and darling of his men paced to and fro on the deck of the Victory, giving an order here, an order there, and enthusing his men as only he could do.

About half-past eight Villeneuve ordered his fleet to draw up in such array and position that, if necessary, they could make for Cadiz, but the manúuvre was bad executed, and the fleet assumed a crescent-shaped formation right into which the English ship columns were sailing as fast as the choppy seas would allow them.

Nelson was eager for the fight; so were his men. So much depended on the striking of a crushing blow, and Nelson determined that it should be struck that day. But while Nelson was anxious to begin the battle himself, the officers on board the Victory, realising that an English victory probably depended upon the safety of the Admiral, would have been content to forgo the honour of opening the fight in favour of some other ship. The question was tactfully put to Nelson. Might not the Temeraire  be allowed to take the foremost place the column?

Divining their intention, Nelson replied:

"Oh, yes, let her go—if she can!"

Captain Hardy immediately hailed the Temeraire  to give her instructions, but meanwhile Nelson was dodging about the decks giving orders that caused the Victory  to leap forward and retain her place in the vanguard.

"There," he said quietly to Hardy as he came back laughing like a big schoolboy, "let the Temeraires open the ball if they can—which they most assuredly can't! I think there's nothing more to be done now, is there, till we open fire? Oh, yes; stay a minute, though. I suppose I must give the fleet something as a final fillip. Let me see. How would this do: 'Nelson expects that every man will do his duty?'"

Hardy, entering into the spirit of the thing, suggested that "England expects" would be an improvement: Nelson, realising that loyalty to the nation was to be preferred to loyalty to the man, agreed. The order was given; and the soul-stirring, ever-to-be-remembered message was sent to the mizen top-gallant mast-head.

No man ever before heard such shouts of enthusiasm as those that greeted the signal in Trafalgar's Bay; not a man in the fleet but vowed to do what England expected of him; not a man that did not wait with itching hands for the battle to begin.


"The soul-stirring, ever-to-be-remembered message was sent to the mizen top-gallant masthead."

"Now," said Nelson, "I can do no more. We must trust to the great Disposer of events and the justice of our cause. I thank God for this great opportunity of doing my duty!"

For all his apparent buoyancy of heart, Nelson had a foreboding of coming ill, and when Captain Blackwood left him to take up his place on the Euryalus, the Admiral gave him a hand-grip that was never forgotten, and said:

"God bless you, Blackwood! I shall never see you again."

Shortly afterwards the battle began.

It opened by the French ship Fougueux  firing upon the Royal Sovereign, which was sailing straight for the allied column.

"Engage the enemy more closely," went up Nelson's last signal, and the fleet closed in upon the foe. Collingwood broke through their line astern the Santa Anna, reserving his fire until he was almost at the muzzles of the enemy's guns. Then, with a roar; the port broadside was let fly into the Santa Anna. Double-shotted, well-aimed and well-timed, the guns sent their messages of destruction and death; four hundred men fell killed or wounded, and fourteen of the Spanish guns were put out of action.

Simultaneously, the starboard guns spoke to the Fougueux. This time, however, owing to the smoke and the greater distance, the damage was not great. Still, it was a good opening to a glorious battle, and Collingwood, standing on his quarter-deck, cried to his flag-captain:

"By Jove, Rotherham! what would Nelson give to be here?

"And," says James in his Naval History, "by a singular coincidence Lord Nelson, the moment he saw his friend in his enviable position, exclaimed: 'See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action.'"

Leaving the Fougueux  alone for a while, Collingwood pressed still closer on the Santa Anna, and a battle royal began between the two great ships. Raking broadsides were poured in, rifles spat their sharp messages, men fell, and guns were disabled. But still the fight went on. Four other ships soon bore down upon the Royal Sovereign, so that she was very soon the centre of a ring of fire. The roar of cannon, the crash of shot, the splintering of decks and sides, were as so much music in the ears of the bulldogs of Britain, who fought on with dauntless courage.

So close were the ships to each other, and so incessant was the fire, that often cannon-balls met in midair, though oftener they fell aboard and did great damage. In one respect the Royal Sovereign  was better off than her foes, for badly aimed shots passed over the gallant Britisher and found their mark on the decks of French or Spanish vessels, and presently the four newcomers veered off, especially as they noticed that other British ships were bearing down upon them.

With a crash the British Belleisle  let fly a broadside at the Santa Anna  as she passed; and then Collingwood found himself left alone with his foe. For over an hour the duel raged, and the Royal Sovereign, although she carried a dozen guns less than the Santa Anna, got the best of it; battered about, mastless, with hundreds of her men lying in pools of blood, the Santa Anna  fought on, her officers refusing for a long time to strike their colours. At last, however, there was nothing for it but to give in, and the Spanish flag fluttered down the mast. The ship was won.

As soon as the battle began the enemy started to fire at the Victory, which it was evident was Nelson's flagship. The English Admiral had made certain that he should not be lost sight of, either by friend or foe, for he had hoisted several flags in case one should be carried away. A shot passed through the Victory's maintop-gallant sail; then broadsides were hurled at her, but still she kept on.

Nelson was looking out for Villeneuve's ship, but for some time, it seems, he failed to find her. Southey says "the enemy showed no colours till late in the action, when they began to feel the necessity of having them to strike."

Nelson dearly wished to encounter the French Admiral, and so, despite a raking fire poured in upon him by the Santissima Trinidad—a Spanish two-decker which he had fought and beaten on another occasion he kept on his way, taking the Victory  into the thick of the fight—always with his one eye on the lookout for Villeneuve, refusing even to have the hammocks slung higher lest they should interrupt his view, although they would have afforded some shelter from the enemy's fire. Men dropped here, there, and everywhere, shots bowled along the deck or bored their way through the sides, yet still the gallant Victory  held on her way for the Bucentaure, which Nelson now knew carried Admiral Villeneuve.

Eight ships, however, surrounded the Bucentaure, and made it impossible for the Victory  to be brought alongside, and these belched forth their heavy fire at her, smashing her wheel, hurling her mizen-mast overboard; her sails were shattered and torn into shreds. The wind had dropped, too; the Victory  was almost brought to a standstill, and it was impossible to bring a single gun into action.

Pacing his quarter-deck Nelson waited for his time to come. A double-headed shot laid low eight marines on the poop; another, crashing though the launch, passed between Nelson and Hardy, bruising the latter's foot, and tearing the buckle from his shoe. Both stopped in their promenade, looked anxiously at each other.

"This is too warm work to last long, Hardy," and then he praised the courage of the men who so calmly stuck to their posts under such a galling fire.

"The enemy are closing up their line, sir," said Hardy presently. "See! we can't get through without running one of them aboard!"

"I can't help that," said Nelson, "and I don't see that it matters much which we tackle first. Take your choice. Go on board which you please."

First, Villeneuve on the Bucentaure  was made a present of a treble-shotted, close-range broadside, which disabled four hundred men and put twenty guns out of action, and so left the ship almost defenceless.

Then, porting his helm, Nelson bore down on the Redoubtable  and the Neptune. The latter veered off, but the former could not get away in time to escape the Victory, which she therefore received with a broadside. Then, fearful that a boarding party would enter her here, the lower deck ports were shut, and never opened again during the battle. Meanwhile the Temeraire  had fastened on to the Redoubtable on the other side, and the most momentous episode in that day's work began.

Depressing the guns so that they should not do damage to the Temeraire, the Victory's gunners worked like very demons, and broadside after broadside was poured into the plucky Redoubtable, which made a brave show. The two ships were almost rubbing sides, and men stood by the British guns with buckets of water in their hands which, immediately the guns were fired, they threw upon the hole made in the Redoubtable's side lest she should catch fire and so the prize be lost.

Up in the Frenchman's top riflemen were posted, and throughout that dreadful fight picked off man after man—a practice which Nelson abhorred. It was from one of these high-placed riflemen that the English Admiral received his death-wound.

Suddenly, while pacing the poop deck, Nelson swung round as on a pivot and pitched forward on his face. A ball had entered in at the left shoulder and passed through his backbone.

Hardy, turning round, saw three men raising him up. "They have done for me at last, Hardy!" said Nelson feebly.

"Oh! I hope not!" cried Hardy.

"Yes," he replied, "my backbone is shot through!"

Quickly, but gently, his bearers carried him down the ladders to the lower deck. On the way, notwithstanding the fact that he must have been enduring awful agony, he had thoughts for nothing but the battle; seeing the tiller ropes, which had been shot away at the moment the Victory  had crashed into the Redoubtable had not been replaced, he ordered new ones to be rigged up at once.

"Then, that he might not be seen by the crew, he took out his handkerchief, and covered his face and stars. Had he but concealed these badges of honour from the enemy England perhaps would not have had cause to receive with sorrow the news of the battle of Trafalgar."

Down into the cockpit they carried him, a wounded, dying idol of England, and there in surroundings resembling a shambles with its groups of surgeons and wounded, the former using the amputating knife and saw unmercifully upon the latter—there must we leave him for a while and return to the conflict overhead and around.

The men in the Redoubtable's top still kept up their galling fire, as also did the guns of the second-deck, and within a quarter of an hour after Nelson had received his wound, fifty of the Victory's officers and men on the upper deck fell killed or wounded.

Taking advantage of this, the French decided to board. It was impossible to do this by the bulwarks, so they lowered their mainyard and turned it into a bridge over which they scrambled on to the deck of the Victory.

To be boarded by Frenchmen was more than English flesh and blood could stand!

"Repel boarders!"

It was a cry like that of a wild beast, and it brought up untamed denizens from the lower decks. Half-naked, utterly unrecognisable owing to the blood and gunpowder with which they were besmirched, the Englishmen hurled themselves at the audacious Frenchmen. Pistol and pike, cutlass and axe in hand, the Britons fought with the ferocity that had made them dreaded so often in the past; fought, too, with hands, when other weapons failed; hurled the trespassers overboard; cut them down where they stood, in fact had their will on them—and that will was to see that no Frenchman stayed aboard the Victory  any longer than it took an Englishman to give him a cutlass thrust or a good old English punch.

It cost the Victory  thirty men, but it cost the Redoubtable  more; and at last not a Frenchman was left alive on the decks of Nelson's flagship.

As we have said, while the Victory  had been engaging the Redoubtable  on one side the Temeraire  had tackled her on the other, and the three ships hugged each other so that muzzles touched muzzles. Soon after the attempt to board the Victory  the Temeraire  lashed her bowsprit to the gangway of the Redoubtable, and poured in a raking fire until she was compelled to surrender, though not before she had twice been on fire and over five hundred of her crew had been killed or wounded.

The Temeraire  next turned her attention to the Fougueux—or rather it was the Fougueux  that turned her attention to the Temeraire, for during the fight with the Redoubtable  the English ship's gaff had been shot away, and her ensign hurled on to the deck. The Fougueux, looking around for a foe to tackle or a prize to take, thought that the Temeraire  would easily come into the latter category, and so bore down upon her.

Captain Harvey was busy with the Redoubtable, but Lieutenant Kennedy was far from being in the mood to surrender, and quickly got together a band of men to man the starboard batteries. With these they opened fire at about one hundred yards—and the Fougueux  knew it! Crash! Masts fell, the wheel was smashed, rigging shattered, and the Frenchman, which had not been expecting so vigorous an onslaught from a ship whose flag lay on the deck, was simply crippled, and so ran foul of the Temeraire. The starboard crew of the latter quickly lashed their foe, and Kennedy, a couple of middies, and less than thirty seamen and marines rushed aboard her.

It says much for the valour of the men of those days that such a handful should dare to attempt what Kennedy and his few followers attempted—and successfully too. Five hundred Frenchmen remained fresh for battle on the Fougueux, yet the Britishers did not hesitate a single moment. With a bound they were on the enemy's deck, and a second later were slashing and hacking at the crowd that came up against them. Back, back, and still back, that ridiculously small boarding party forced the Frenchmen, killing and wounding many, and compelling others to leap overboard to escape their fury. The remainder, scared at the ferocity of the dare-devils, scuttled away below, and the English clapped hatches on them; and the ship was won.

While engaging the Redoubtable  on one side the Victory  had been pouring a deadly fire into the Santissima Trinidad  on the other. Through and through the Spaniard was raked; shot burnt a way through her sides, and swept her deck clear of men, until at last the Spaniards knew not how to escape them, and dived overboard, and swam off to the Victory, whose crew helped them aboard.

The Belleisle, as we have seen, had hurled her broadside into the Santa Anna  at the beginning of the conflict, and was immediately after pounced upon by about half a dozen ships of the enemy.

From every side they poured in their fire, battering her sides, tearing her rigging to pieces, and sending her mizen-mast with a crash over the aft guns, effectually putting them out of action. Sixty men also had been sent to their account, but the rest fought on with dauntless courage, returning the enemy's fire as quickly as they could load the guns that remained in action.

The Achille  bore down upon her and attacked her at her point of disadvantage, the Aigle  tackled her on the starboard, assisted by the French Neptune, which aimed at her remaining masts and brought them to the deck.

Crippled but unconquered, mastless, almost gunless, wellnigh manless, and with nearly everything reduced to splinters, the Belleisle's few remaining men stood to their three or four guns, hurling defiance at the foe and pounding away for all they were worth. Not a man flinched; one thing only worried them—the flag had been shot away. That they quickly remedied; fastening a Union Jack to a pike head, they waved it over their heads, yelled out a cheer of defiant determination—and fought on and on. Helpless hulk though she was, the ship kept in action throughout the battle, refusing to strike her pikehead flag.

What the French Neptune  had done for the Belleisle, the English ship of the same name did for the Bucentaure. It will be remembered that Nelson had led the Victory  against this vessel at first, half-suspecting—then wholly convinced—that Villeneuve was aboard her, but after having given her a taste of what was coming had tackled the French Neptune  and the Redoubtable. The English Neptune next assailed the Bucentaure, and sent her main and mizen-masts by the board; then the Leviathan came up, and, at a range of about thirty yards, gave the Frenchman a full broadside which smashed the stern into splinters. A similar sally from the Conqueror  completed the work of demolition and brought down the flag.

A boat containing a marine officer and five men put off from the Conqueror  to take possession. Villeneuve and two chief officers at once tendered the marine officer their swords, but he, thinking that the honour of accepting them belonged to his own captain, refused the weapons, put the Frenchmen in his boat, pocketed the key of the magazine, left a couple of sentries to guard the cabin doors, and then pulled away to rejoin his ship, elated at the good fortune which had given him the French Admiral as a prize. For some time the little boat was pulled hither and thither in search of the Conqueror, which had meanwhile gone in quest of other prey. At last, however, the boat was picked up by the Mars, whose acting commander, Lieutenant Hennah, immediately accepted the surrendered swords, and ordered Villeneuve and his two captains below.

When the Leviathan  had seen that the Bucentaure  was crippled, she had hastened off to match herself with another foe. She quickly found one. It was the seventy- four gun Spanish San Augustino, which immediately opened fire at a hundred yards. The Leviathan replied with twofold interest, brought the Spaniard's mizen-mast and flag down to the deck with a crash, and then lashed herself to her foe. Clearing the way for boarders by a galling fire, the English captain sent off his boarding party. A hand-to-hand fight took place, but, fight though they did with great courage, the Spaniards were steadily but surely forced over the side or below, and at last the ship was won. Another prize to England!

The Leviathan, however, got more than she bargained for, for the French Intrepide  saw the plight of her ally and bore down on the English vessel, sending in a raking fire as she came, and getting her boarders ready for attack. They had no chance to board; another of Nelson's ships, the Africa, pitted herself against the Intrepide, giving and receiving a tremendous fire which battered both combatants about pretty much. The former, smaller though she was, got the best of it, and despite the fact that she herself was in dire straits banged away at the Intrepide  until the Frenchmen were compelled to strike their flag.

Meanwhile the Prince  and the Swiftsure  were enjoying themselves with the Achille, which, having found the Belleisle  too much for her, had veered off to tackle a less dauntless foe. Unfortunately, she jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire, for as she passed through the fighting line every English ship that could spare her a shot let her have it, so that at last her masts cumbered the deck, and the ship was a blazing mass. Unable to quench the flames because the fire-engine had been smashed, the crew set about cutting the masts, intending to heave them overboard.

Before they could effect this, however, the Prince  gave her a broadside which did the cutting for them, and sent the wreckage down into the waists. Instantly the whole ship took fire, and the Prince  ceased firing, and sent her boats to save the Frenchmen, the Swiftsure  doing the same. It was a gallant but a dangerous act, for the heat caused the Achille's  guns, whose men had left them to endeavour to conquer the flames, to discharge of their own accord, and several of the would-be rescuers perished as a result. Helpless blazing hulk though she was, the Achille  still kept her colours flying bravely, her sole surviving senior officer, a middy, refusing to strike. Before the English beats could come up with their opponent the flames had reached her magazine, and with colours flying, she blew up, carrying her middy and two hundred men heavenwards.

It is time to hark back to the cockpit of the Victory, where Nelson, the greatest naval captain of his age, the greatest, too, England had ever known, lay dying, in agony, yet rejoicing that even in death he was victorious. The rank and file were kept in ignorance of his condition, though Nelson himself knew that the end was near, and urged the surgeons to give their attention to others. "He was in great pain, and expressed much anxiety for the event of the action, which now began to declare itself. As often as a ship struck the crew of the Victory  hurrahed, and at every hurrah a visible expression of joy gleamed in the eyes and marked the countenance of the dying hero."

Every now and then he would ask for Hardy. "Will no one bring Hardy to me?" he cried. At last Hardy came. The two friends shook hands in silence. Then Nelson spoke: "Well, Hardy, how goes the day with us?"

"Very well, my lord. We have got twelve or fourteen of the enemies' ships, but five of their van have tacked, and show an intention of bearing down on the Victory. I have therefore called two or three of our fresh ships round us, and have no doubt of giving them a drubbing."

"I hope none of our  ships have struck, Hardy?"

"No, my lord; there is no fear of that."

"Well, I am a dead man, Hardy, but I am glad of what you say. Oh, whip them now you've got 'em; whip, them as they've never been whipped before!"

Hardy then left him for a while, and returning somewhat later reported that some fourteen ships had been taken.

"That's well," cried Nelson, "though I bargained for twenty. Anchor, Hardy, anchor."

Hardy suggested that Admiral Collingwood would now take upon himself the direction of affairs.

"Not while I live, Hardy!" said Nelson, raising himself with a mighty effort which left him prostrate. "Do you anchor."

"Shall we make the signal, sir?"

"Yes," answered Nelson, "for if I live I'll anchor."

For a minute or so Hardy stood and looked down at his Admiral in silence, then stooped and kissed him as requested.

"Don't have my poor carcase hove overboard," whispered Nelson as Hardy leant over him. "Get what's left of me sent to England, if you can manage it. Kiss me, Hardy."

Hardy kissed him again.

"Who is that?" asked the hero.

"It is I, Hardy."

"Good-bye. God bless you, Hardy. Thank God, I've done my duty."

Then Hardy left him—for ever.

Nelson was turned on to his right side, whispered that he wished he had not left the deck, and said that he knew he should soon be gone. Then, after a little silence sighed, struggled to speak and was heard to say:

"Thank God, I have done my duty!"

And then died. England's hero, her idol, her greatest sea-captain, had fought his last fight.

Hardy at once took the news to Collingwood, who assumed command. The new commander refused to carry out Nelson's instruction to anchor, because in view of the fact that a gale was blowing up, it would be quite unsafe to do so. The battle was over, the allied fleets had been defeated, eighteen of their ships were captured, and with these Collingwood stood out to sea. The enemy, however, recaptured four of the prizes, one escaped to Cadiz, some went down with all hands, others were stranded, and one was so unseaworthy that it was scuttled; and out of all those that were taken during the battle, only four were saved and taken into Gibraltar.

Besides Nelson England lost over fifteen hundred men, while the allies' loss has been stated at something like sixteen thousand.

And England rejoiced and mourned at the same time; rejoiced that Napoleon had received so crushing a blow, and mourned that the heroic victor of so many battles had fallen a victim to a French ball.

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