Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Death of a Hero part 1/2

On the morning of the 21st of October 1805, the English fleet were in sight of the Combined Fleet of France and Spain.  Following Nelson's tactics, which he had planned long ago and told all his Captains, calling it the 'Nelson Touch', his fleet of 27 ships approached the enemy fleet of 33 in two lines, perpendicular to the enemy's single line.  Nelson insisted on staying at the head of his line, in the Victory - when the captain of another ship tried to pass, thinking to protect his Commander-in-Chief - Nelson hailed him and sent him back.  As always, Nelson was not afraid to lead his fleet from the forefront.

The other line, led by Admiral Collingwood in his ship the Royal Sovereign, met the enemy first.  Half an hour later, the Victory crashed through the enemy line.  The British ships had been instructed not to fire a shot until they had broken the line, to save their energy at a time when most of the shots would not have been effective, so it was a tense approach, particularly with the lack of wind making it painfully slow progress.  Victory was shot at by four enemy ships without being able to reply.  

During this time, Nelson stood on the quarterdeck with Captain Hardy, and his secretary John Scott.  Within minutes, Scott was split in half by a cannon ball, and his body was thrown overboard (his blood stained Nelson's socks - see the picture below in my previous entry about visiting the National Maritime Museum).  Eight marines were killed by a single shot, so Nelson ordered their captain to spread them out more.  Another shot hit the deck between Nelson and Hardy, sending a splinter flying up to hit Hardy's shoe.  After looking at each other to make sure the other wasn't hurt, Nelson commented that he had never seen such courage as in the Victory's crew that day.
Victory about to break the enemy line, by Bill Bishop

As the Victory approached the flagship of the French Admiral, the Bucentaure, it became clear that there was not enough space between it and either the French Redoutable, or the giant four-decked Spanish ship Santisima Trinidad, so one of them would have to be rammed out of the way to allow Victory to pass.  Hardy asked which one, to which Nelson replied that it didn't make any difference, so he should just pick one.  

So Victory collided with the Redoutable, and the momentum carried them both out of the line, locked together.  Victory had taken a lot of damage to her rigging and her wheel was broken, so she was virtually unmanageable.  But now she could get a broadside alongside the Bucentaure, and so the British gunners got to work, their skills, training and discipline far superior to the French.  
Captain Jean-Jacques-Etienne Lucas of the Redoutable

However, knowing that he could never train his crew to a standard of gunnery to match the British, the Captain of the Redoutable, Jean-Jacques-Etienne Lucas, had trained them in musketry and in boarding, aiming to overwhelm the crews of the ships he could get close to that way and take possession of them.  He had some of the finest musketeers in the French navy, and he placed them in the rigging of the Redoutable so they could clear the decks of the Victory from there. 
'The Hero of Trafalgar' by William Hersman Overend

Meanwhile, Nelson continued to pace the Victory's quarterdeck with Hardy by his side, with bullets and splinters flying around them, gun smoke smothering them, amidst the din of gunfire and the screams of the wounded and dying and the smell of gunpowder and blood.  As always, he wore his four orders, like four big glistening stars, on his uniform.  Earlier, an attempt had been made to persuade him not to wear them, for fear that they would stand out like a beacon, attracting the attention of the enemy.  But Nelson would hear nothing of it.  He wanted to be on display, he wanted his resolve to be seen - by the men who served him.  They adored him, and seeing his small, frail, half-mutilated but fully-uniformed frame up on the most exposed part of the ship, calmly and resolutely putting himself in danger, helped to raise their morale and courage so they would fight their hardest for him.  And if that meant putting himself at greater risk, then he did so unflinchingly.

But at 1.15pm, while the crews of the battered ships fought to board each other, Captain Hardy turned to pace back across the quarterdeck, and suddenly realised that his friend was no longer beside him.  He turned, and saw Nelson collapsed, holding himself up with his arm before that crumpled, and then supported by three seamen.  Running to him, Hardy said that he hoped he hadn't been too badly hurt.  Nelson replied,

"They have done for me at last... my backbone has been shot through."

To be continued...

The Fall of Nelson, by Denis Dighton

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