Monday, 26 September 2016

Trafalgar Heroes: Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood

Second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar, Collingwood led from the fore and fired the first shots of the battle, placed his flagship into a long and gruelling fight, and then took command in the aftermath of Nelson's death.  History may have unfortunately placed him in Nelson's shadow, but he was certainly one of the great admirals of his time.

Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood

Collingwood was a close friend of Nelson’s for many years, and their careers were intertwined. In his letters, Nelson affectionately addressed him as “My dear Coll.”   They met in 1773 and served together in the West Indies.  Collingwood succeeded Nelson to positions in the Lowestoffe and Badger.  When Nelson had to return home to recover his health after the disastrous expedition at San Juan, Nicaragua, in 1780, Collingwood succeeded him to the command of the Hinchinbrook.  180 of 200 crew died of the same fever that Nelson had succumbed to, but Collingwood himself did not fall ill.  Nelson returned to Antigua in 1784 in command of the Boreas, and he, Collingwood, and his brother Wilfred, strictly enforced the new navigation acts against American shipping, but their views were opposed by the commanding officer, Sir Richard Hughes.  Nelson wrote to Captain Locker in March 1786, saying, “This station has not been over pleasant.  Had it not been for Collingwood, it would have been the most disagreeable I ever saw.”  However, Collingwood and Nelson were both enamoured with Mary Moutray, wife of Commissioner Moutray.  Upon returning to England in 1786, Nelson and Collingwood both found themselves unemployed for several years.  Cuthbert’s brother Wilfred, however, died in 1787.

In 1791, Collingwood married Sarah Blackett in his home town of Newcastle, and they moved to Morpeth.  They had two daughters together, Sarah and Mary.  He returned to sea in 1793.

As Captain of the 90-gun Prince, flagship of Rear-Admiral George Bowyer, he fought at the Glorious First of June in 1794.  When Bowyer lost his leg, Collingwood took command of the entire sub-division.  He was deeply hurt when Admiral Howe didn’t specifically mention him in his dispatches after the battle and he did not receive a medal for it.  

As captain of the Excellent, Collingwood fought alongside Commodore Nelson at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.  When Nelson wore out of the line, Collingwood followed him and engaged the Salvador del Mundo until she appeared to have surrendered, although her colours were re-hoisted as soon as he moved on to fire upon the San Ysidro until she, too, struck.  Seeing that Nelson in the Captain was isolated and taking fire from the Spanish San Nicolas, Collingwood moved the Excellent between the two ships, giving Nelson some breathing room and causing the San Nicolas to collide with the San Josef, consequently allowing Nelson and his boarding party to take both ships in succession.  Nelson later wrote to him, “A friend in need is a friend indeed, was never more truly verified than by your most noble and gallant conduct yesterday in sparing the Captain from further loss.”  Collingwood refused to accept a medal for the battle unless he also received one for the Glorious First of June, and this was granted.

He was promoted to rear-admiral in 1799 and spent time serving in the Mediterranean before returning home during the Peace of Amiens.  He was a great family man and devoted to his wife and daughters, but he had just a year with them before returning to sea in 1803, after which he never saw them again.

Back at sea, Collingwood blockaded the French fleet at Brest for nearly two years, and was promoted to Vice-Admiral in April 1804.  With a small squadron of three ships he was ordered to go after the French fleet after they left Toulon, but he ran into them returning from the West Indies and escaped after being chased by 16 enemy ships.  He blockaded them at Cadiz, using false signals to make his squadron appear larger than it was, until Nelson joined him from the Atlantic chase in July 1805.  He continued to command the blockade after Nelson returned to England, until Nelson joined him once more in September and resumed command.  Nelson then directed him to shift his flag from the heavy-sailing Dreadnought to the Royal Sovereign, which was a far superior ship.

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Collingwood led the second column, and the Royal Sovereign was the first ship to enter battle.  Watching from the Victory, Nelson reportedly pointed to the Royal Sovereign and said, “See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action!”  Collingwood’s ship devastated the Spanish Santa Ana, but was soon surrounded by four or five other ships and was so battered that she was left unmanageable.  Nonetheless, she dealt severe punishment to every ship that crossed her.  Upon Nelson’s death, Collingwood took command of the fleet and shifted his flag to the frigate Euryalus.  

Collingwood has been criticised for not following Nelson's last instruction, which was to anchor the fleet.  It is thought that had he done so, the effects of the week-long storm that followed, which destroyed more ships and lives than the battle had done, would not have been so devastating.

After the battle he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, taking the Queen as his flagship.  He was one of only three officers to ever receive three gold medals, the other two being Nelson and Sir Edward Berry.  He requested leave to return home but was denied, and he remained at sea until his death from ill health in March 1810. He had hoped that his title would pass to his daughters, but as this was denied his barony became extinct.  

Collingwood was laid to rest close to Nelson in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, his tomb marked by a plain engraved slab of stone next to Nelson's ostentatious sarcophagus.  Understated in death, as in life.  

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