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 Horatio Nelson 
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Post Vox populi
Nelson too, despite being the hero of the nation after the Nile, suffered public obloquy for the failure of his attack on Boulogne.

First, he was wounded by hostile comment in the press which St Vincent sought to assuage: 'Sarcasm in newspapers are [sic] a tribute every man who is placed in a high situation must submit to'. There was worse to follow; he was crudely blackmailed by a man called Hill who had sent him a paper 'Remarks by a seaman on the attack on Boulogne' which was critical of his official dispatch and asked for £100 to avoid publication in the newspapers. Nelson's response was scathing:

Very likely I am unfit for my present command, and whenever Government change me I hope they will find no difficulty in selecting an officer of greater abilities; but you will, I trust, be punished for threatening my character. But I have not been brought up in the school of fear, and therefore I care not what you do. I defy you and your malice'.

Even more worrying than press comment and threatened blackmail was the growing animosity of the public. To St Vincent he noted that 'the people in watering places have been very free in their conversations....' and to Nepean, 'A diabolical spirit is still at work. Every means, even to posting up papers in the streets of Deal, has been used to sett seamen against being sent by Lord Nelson to be butchered, and that at Margate it was the same thing; whenever any boats went on shore: 'What, are you going to be slaughtered again?' Even this might be got over, but the subject has been fully discussed in the wardrooms, midshipmen's berths etc. etc.......'


Mon Oct 08, 2007 4:05 pm
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Polly's post (above) was originally posted in response to the bit I posted about public reaction to Lord Howe in this thread. I intended it to be a thread about Howe, so I have created a new topic for posts about Nelson in general.

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Mon Oct 08, 2007 4:44 pm
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Polly, your post is most interesting in that it presents a very different picture to the conventional image of Nelson inspiring absolute loyalty in his seamen, and adoration by the public. It is quite surprising that his popularity was so fragile just a few months after Copenhagen.

According to Roger Knight, Troubridge blamed talk amongst officers, saying "I rather think the improper growling conversations held in the Ward Rooms, has caused the seamen to murmur...".

What was also worrying was Nelson's attitude to the criticism: "The people at the watering-places have been very free in their conversations, and I believe the Mayor of Deal either put a vagabond in prison, or sent him out of town, for arraigning my conduct in being careless of poor Seamen's lives; but I trouble not my head on these matters; my conscience tells me that I do my best." It is strange that he did not trouble his head about being careless with seamen's lives, because there was certainly unnecessary loss of life in a poorly planned attack in which he repeated previous mistakes, and all for a goal that was no more than psychological. It seems there was a very sorry state of affairs with a reciprocal loss of confidence between Nelson and his men. It was necessary to resort to harsh discipline, with two men on the Amazon given 36 lashes for drunkenness.

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Thu Oct 11, 2007 1:49 pm
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Tony wrote:
... "... I believe the Mayor of Deal either put a vagabond in prison, or sent him out of town, for arraigning my conduct in being careless of poor Seamen's lives; but I trouble not my head on these matters; my conscience tells me that I do my best." It is strange that he did not trouble his head about being careless with seamen's lives...

The way I read Nelson's comment is that he is not troubled by the actions of the Mayor of Deal rather than the comments by the vagabond. Could that be an interpretation? It would certainly make Nelson's comment a little less "strange."

And you are correct, while there are many books, etc. that concentrate on the heroic attributes of Nelson (which he certainly had), some of his papers reveal that he was normal in many ways. In other threads, we have discussed his concentration on prize money, his jealousy of other officers, his focus on getting recognition, his self-doubts, etc. The right man for his era but a man nonetheless.

Don


Thu Oct 11, 2007 2:45 pm
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Roger Knight does indeed point out that Nelson's decision was unquestionably rash, but he also makes it clear a) that he was far from well at the time. St Vincent was concerned at his fatigue, always an enemy of good judgement; and b) that he was under tremendous pressure from politicians 'to make a showing, for they were concerned that Napoleon's activities in the Channel ports might be a diversion for an invasion of Ireland'. Such pressure/interference for political considerations is a perennial problem for commanders in the field.

Not all politicians regarded the attack as a failure; they felt that a demonstration that the navy was capable of mounting an attack on the French coast, however costly in lives, was not necessarily a failure' and Addington wrote fulsomely to Nelson in praise of his 'spirit and determination ...which are perpetually confirming our naval superiority and perpetually disinclining the enemy to contest it.'

It is interesting to note the murmurings of discontent in the navy - but Nelson had his detractors, even then; (18 admirals, including St Vincent, declined to attend his funeral.) That public opinion was more sceptical, even hostile, seems surprising, as you say, so soon after Copenhagen. But when was public opinion ever anything but fickle? Nelson himself made this point - about how the public regarded him as a magician, and that they might not be so admiring if he were ever unable to perform tricks to their satisfaction - but I can't lay my hand on the direct quotation. Can anyone help?


Thu Oct 11, 2007 2:47 pm
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timoneer wrote:
The way I read Nelson's comment is that he is not troubled by the actions of the Mayor of Deal rather than the comments by the vagabond. Could that be an interpretation? It would certainly make Nelson's comment a little less "strange."
I think from the context in the letter that it is definitely his own conduct that does not trouble him. Of course, this is a letter justifying himself to his superior - his true private feelings may have been different.

polly wrote:
Not all politicians regarded the attack as a failure...
I agree that although the attack wasn't very effective, it wasn't a failure. The issues were whether the objective justified the loss of life or whether the attack could have been better planned and executed.

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Thu Oct 11, 2007 4:40 pm
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Nelson's attitude to death in general and to death in battle in particular, is often contradictory. His letters of condolence are usually sympathetic but brisk - the death of a loved one is painful - but death comes to us all - submit to God's will etc. etc. Some, however, are infinitely more hearfelt, such as the one to the son of his old mentor, Locker.

Similarly, he was totally unflinching about the horrors of battle, regarding death in conflict as an occupational hazard, which he was fully prepared for himself and expected others to accept too (even the poor, pressed seamen). Nevertheless, there is evidence that, privately, the responsibilites of command weighed heavily on him as this letter to Emma Hamilton after the battle of Copenhagen reveals:

'Today I have been obliged to write a letter to Lord St Vincent which I hope will touch his heart. God knows it has mine; it was recommending to his protecting hand the widows and orphans of those brave men who lost their lives for king and country under my orders. It positively made my heart run out of my eyes - it brought fresh to my recollection, that only when I spoke to them all, and shook hands with every captain, wishing them all with laurels crowned, alas! too many are covered with cypress'.

Certainly, Nelson carried to the extreme the motto of 'Death before dishonour'. After the original plan to attack Tenerife had proved a fiasco, he pressed on, nonetheless, largely through personal pride, determined to show that he could rescue the situation: 'Thus foiled in my original plan, I considered it for the honour of our king and country not to give over the attempt to possess ourselves of the town, that our enemies might be convinced that there is nothing which Englishmen are not equal to'.

A hero, certainly, but not a saint. He could be reckless, vain, self-justifying, stubborn, irritable..... the interesting thing, though, is that, with few exceptions, those closest to him, the ones who felt the heat, were the ones who also saw his greatness close, and who loved him most.


Thu Oct 11, 2007 5:12 pm
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Tony wrote:
I think from the context in the letter that it is definitely his own conduct that does not trouble him.

You make an excellent point: it is "his actions" that does not concern him. Not necessarily the death of his sailors.

I think it is more difficult to send others into dangerous situations than go yourself – for a civilian, assuming you have time to think it through first. The only way it is possible to do this would be to be conditioned to it over a period of time and in increasing amounts. You leap from one ship to another with control of only yourself, then you leap into battle with only a small group looking to you, later you leap with a larger group under your command, then you send men across, and so forth. The officers not successful in this method are weeded out. The ones who fail physically are killed. The ones who fail mentally, with later self-blame for example, leave the service.

By the time that one would reach the lofty levels of Nelson, he would be not only be experienced but he would be conditioned (not truly unconcerned, nor callous) to the death and destruction of men on both sides. A certain amount of "unconcern" might be the only mentally healthy attitude of any successful battle leader. Certainly the opinion of a "vagabond" or even of the general public in this would not be of concern of Nelson.

There are certainly incidents of Nelson weeping at the death of someone killed in battle, those he knew well, admired, and respected. You would not expect anyone in his position to weep for every single person killed in a battle. Thus effected, he might never be able to lead the next battle, not and remain sane.

Every military commander who sends men into battle knows that some of his men will die. That is not a happy thought for anyone, I am certain. His superiors, usually politicians, have serious goals. Sometimes the goal, like here, was the survival of the nation and its culture. They asked military leaders to accept a near impossible task – to lead men into battle where some of those he leads will die. Politicians do not ask those who cannot handle this responsibility and the results.

So I would prefer to think that Nelson was not unconcerned or callous about the loss of lives but had grown accepting of this over time from necessity and training. Unless one has been in that situation himself, it might be difficult to criticize Nelson, whether one is a "vagabond" or a regular civilian.

Criticism by officers who faced similar tasks would be more valid, assuming that there were no other reasons clouding the issues – jealousy, self-promotion, politics, etc. And even among those, you would have to be cautious, because every battle changes after the onset. You have to be there and be in command to know what needs to be done. It would be like second-guessing a sports play after the game is over. For one who does this has seen the result of the original game, of course he can claim to have a better idea. But he wasn’t there when it happened. The on-site commander does not have the luxury of time to consider and reconsider his actions.

I would prefer to think of Nelson as a man given near impossible tasks whom History has decided was successful, not perfect, but who did the job. As Nelson said in your post "my conscience tells me that I do my best." Could his nation have asked for more?

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Fri Oct 12, 2007 10:42 am
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timoneer wrote:
As Nelson said in your post "my conscience tells me that I do my best."
This is the nub of it, I think.

Don, I agree with you that Nelson was not unconcerned or callous about the loss of lives, and I agree that any commander has to be capable of accepting this with a clear conscience - providing he himself has done his best to avoid unnecessary risk. But in this instance, I find it hard to accept that Nelson would have truly believed he had done his best. His plan of attack required 4 divisions of boats to row a long distance through strong side currents in darkness and make a coordinated attack. This plan had the same flaw as his second attack at Tenerife, and it was predictable that the boats would lose contact in the darkness and that the attack was unlikely to be coordinated successfully. He also underestimated the defences despite the fact that he knew that the French had intelligence of his plans. The result was that the currents defeated one division of the attack and the boarding netting and anchor chains on the French ships defeated the other divisions. One lugger was taken at a cost of 34 killed and 126 wounded. I know it is easy to be wise after the event, but surely Nelson himself would afterwards have recognised the flaws in his plan (at least privately), and believed he could have done better. In military terms, the attack was defeated, with negligible loss to the defenders, and no significant gain but very significant losses to the attackers. As Polly points out, in political and PR terms, the attack could be, and was by some, considered a success in that it demonstrated a capability and determination of taking the attack to the enemy, and sent a clear message to Napoleon that an invasion launched from Boulogne would be fraught with difficulty.

Did Nelson recognise the attack as a mistake, but truly believe it was a mistake that he could not have avoided, or was he privately suffering with his conscience? We know that he was greatly affected by Captain Parker's decline and death from his wounds at Boulogne. He was under great pressure to mount an attack, but why did he choose to press ahead with such a risky boat attack? Did he believe that his plan of attack was the best or only option available to him and therefore that he had done his best?

My own perception of Nelson is of someone on whom the responsibilities of command did indeed weigh heavily, and I do find disturbing this blasé assertion of a clear conscience.

Of course, I am writing as a descendant of someone reported to have said he was "no friend of boating - it very seldom turned out successful, and it only answered, if it did at all, when courage was doubtful." Perhaps this was one occasion when a display of courage was demanded.

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Sat Oct 13, 2007 12:01 pm
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Tony wrote:
He was under great pressure to mount an attack, but why did he choose to press ahead with such a risky boat attack? Did he believe that his plan of attack was the best or only option available to him and therefore that he had done his best?...

... Of course, I am writing as a descendant of someone reported to have said he was "no friend of boating - it very seldom turned out successful, and it only answered, if it did at all, when courage was doubtful." Perhaps this was one occasion when a display of courage was demanded.

Tony, you make some telling points that are very logical and I certainly don't disagree with your opinions. Since you probably have access to materials that I do not, and obviously have been researching this subject longer, what other options did he have? What other plans did he consider? Did other officers or politicians suggest alternatives that he rejected? Since you pointed out above that he was under "great pressure" to make some sort of attempt, doing nothing was probably not possible, or did he have that particular option?

As far as I know, the only major seaport that the British ever occupied was Toulon, which was surrendered voluntarily. It seems like any and all attempts to attack the heart of the French fleets at home were never completely successful. In other actions by other RN commanders, some French ships were burned, a few got driven ashore, but the French never lost a significant force when attacked in their own ports.

As an American, I have no particular bias for or against Nelson (just general ignorance, which I have tried to lessen), but it would seem from these actions that any such attack was doomed, by "any" British commander. I assume that is why the British government authorized several attempts using "infernal" weapons -- which turned out to be no more effective than normal methods of attacking by sea. I seem to remember someone writing that certain (all?) French ports could only have been captured by being attacked by land. Landing a large army in France must have been impossible at the time so the alternative might only have been risky ventures from the sea.

Maybe this is what Nelson meant when he said he had done his best -- being forced to do something that he knew had only a slight chance to be successful. Maybe his superior and he had already agreed on the high risk when Nelson was given the assignment.

I find it fascinating to try to peel back 200 years and get into the mind of someone so pivotal to history. I'm sure that he would not be the first person to write one thing to his superiors and another to an intimate, so maybe a comment or two exists somewhere that would shine more light on his inner feelings. Or maybe we will never know for sure.

One thing that I find difficult is to wade through is the total number of books written about Nelson -- just confusing. Some were biased I am certain and others were written well before discovery of documents over the years. If you, or anyone reading this thread, had to pick only a few books that presented honest, balanced viewpoints on Nelson, what would you recommend?

Don


Sat Oct 13, 2007 1:22 pm
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timoneer wrote:
Since you probably have access to materials that I do not, and obviously have been researching this subject longer

Almost certainly not true, Don - I see you joined this forum before I even began researching naval history in any meaningful way. I do now have lots of books, but many as yet unread. I just shoot my mouth off with opinions based on very little information and hope that someone will put me right when I get it wrong! My reading on Nelson is distinctly patchy. On the Boulogne affair, my opinions are based on Roger Knight's "the Pursuit of Victory", David Lyon's "Sea Battles in Close Up: The Age of Nelson", and Nicolas's "Dispatches & Letters". I learn a great deal from discussions like this that prompt me to go away and read up in detail on a particular topic.

timoneer wrote:
what other options did he have? What other plans did he consider? Did other officers or politicians suggest alternatives that he rejected? Since you pointed out above that he was under "great pressure" to make some sort of attempt, doing nothing was probably not possible, or did he have that particular option?

As I made my last post, I asked myself some of these questions, and realised I couldn't answer them - hence the questions in my post. Since then I have been reading more of Nelson's letters following the attack (I am making the most of some enforced reading time so please excuse a mammoth post!), and have now reversed my opinions about this topic for about the third time!

I don't think he got much in the way of suggestions from others, it was his job to come up with the ideas and make the decisions, although he was careful to seek approval if he thought there was much risk of failure. I think the options open to him at Boulogne were another bombardment (which had already proved ineffectual), do nothing (or rather continue the blockade), a boat attack, a fire ship attack, or the use of "infernal" weapons (but this was early days for that and not much had yet been tried).

Nelson was certain that the French would not mount an invasion attack from Boulogne, and believed that if an invasion came, it would be from Flanders and Flushing: "I pronounce that no embarkation can take place at Boulogne; whenever it comes forth, it will be from Flanders, and what a forlorn undertaking! consider cross tides, &c. &c. As for rowing, that is impossible. It is perfectly right to be prepared against a mad Government; but with the active force your Lordship has given me, I may pronounce it almost impracticable.." His real wish was to attack Flushing, and Boulogne was very much a secondary target. The French had 24 gun vessels anchored outside Boulogne, and it was Nelson's own idea that he should capture those vessels: "I purpose, if to be done, to take all the Gun-vessels outside the Pier of Boulogne—I should like your approbation. I own, my dear Lord, that this Boat warfare is not exactly congenial to my feelings, and I find I get laughed at for my puny mode of attack." He certainly had no idea of capturing the port itself, or even entering the port. He proceeded with the attack without waiting for St Vincent's approval, although it did arrive half an hour before the attack. Although he was under pressure to do something, the decisions were Nelson's. His orders were for each of the enemy's ships to be brought off in turn, with cutters close inshore to take them in tow, and only if it was impracticable to bring them off the enemy vessels should be set on fire. A simultaneous attack was essential, with one division centering on the pier head and attacking the batteries and the camp with the howitzers. His first reaction to the defeat was that he had known the difficulties, but it was the enemy's precautions in using mooring chains that prevented success. He makes a passing reference to the fact that his people had been unable to set any ships on fire. In his next letter, however, he attributes the failure to the divisions being unable to attack at the same time, and says that the loss of men was less than he had expected: "But although, in value, the loss of such gallant and good men is incalculable, yet in point of numbers it has fallen short of my expectations." St Vincent wrote to Nelson reassuring him that: "The manner in which the Enemy's flotilla was made fast to the ground, and to each other, could not have been foreseen." This was despite the fact they knew the French had prior intelligence of an impending attack! Nelson's final conclusion seems to have been that if only the attack had been simultaneous, they would have brought away enemy ships regardless of the mooring chains, and his only regret seemed to be that he had not personally led the attack.

The losses were actually 44 killed and 126 wounded, not the 34 killed I put in my previous post.

A few weeks later, after the attack on Flushing was decided impractical, he planned to attack Boulogne with a fire ship. For this, they would have to wait for a fresh WNW wind which would force the French ships into harbour, and the fire ship would be sailed right into the harbour. If that failed, then his next plan was: "to make an Infernal of one of the Bombs, and to have Fire-Boats, &c. &c., to keep them for ever in hot water...". In the event, the peace preliminaries prevailed, and the use of "infernal" weapons only came later.

I now think that Polly is right - his "Do or die" attitude meant that his conscience was clear. He felt his duty was to attack, and if the enemy's defences were stronger than expected and losses were heavy, then so be it. He wrote to Emma: "You ask me, my dear Friend, if I am going on more Expeditions? And, even if I was to forfeit your friendship, which is dearer to me than all the world, I can tell you nothing. For, I go out; [if] I see the Enemy, and can get at them, it is my duty: and you would naturally hate me, if I kept back one moment." I think he truly believed the attack had a good chance of success - his plans were very detailed, and although I personally think he underestimated the risks and the difficulties, I believe he thought his plan was the best available. Nelson's tactics were not particularly innovative, and he probably regarded the difficulties of a boat attack as unavoidable.

I must admit that I am shocked at my own conclusion that he was happy to accept these losses, or even greater losses, for the sake of cutting out a few gun vessels from a flotilla that he regarded as no threat to Britain. I can understand the acceptance of losses in any action that would significantly damage the enemy fleet, but the flotilla would have been easily annihilated had it left Boulogne, and all that was required was a close blockade. This is not supposition, the French flotilla's vulnerability had been demonstrated when they used a flotilla of invasion boats from Le Havre and Cherbourg in 1797 in a practice run against the Island of St Marcou held by Sir Sidney Smith. The invasion boats had to retreat and take cover inshore from British frigates, and only got close to St Marcou when the British ships were becalmed. When they did get close, the 17 available guns in the British defences sank 6 ot 7 out of the 52 invasion boats. The French casualties were around 1,200 out of a force of 5,000 - 6,000 and the remaining boats retreated. If the Boulogne flotilla had ventured into the Channel and the British had intercepted, the French losses would have been catastrophic.

My own opinion (which is worth little, and I hope will be challenged) is that Nelson should have first attempted a fire ship attack, but he probably did not have the patience to wait for the right conditions. If a boat attack was to be attempted, then given the preparedness of the French (which he could and should have anticipated), the emphasis should have been on destroying enemy vessels (by fire) rather than on capturing them. However, in my view, no boat attack should have been attempted - the likely losses outweighed the gains to be made, and Nelson should have resisted the pressure on him to attack in favour of continuing to maintain the blockade. I think doing nothing was certainly an option that was open to him, and was the one he should have taken, but it went against his own inclination, and wasn't what the Government wanted of him.

We should of course remember that in subsequent years, attacks by fire ships and by explosive cataramans all failed, and nobody came up with a plan of attack that succeeded.

Of course, Nelson was reckless with mens lives (and his own) to the last. Even at Trafalgar, the race for the line between Nelson and Collingwood was reckless, resulting in the columns becoming strung out and leaving the leading ships short of support in the early stages of the battle. It went agianst his own plan of concentrating force against the enemy, and undoubtably resulting in heavier losses than necessary. He should have reduced sail on the Victory, ordered Collingwood to do the same, and have kept the ships together to concentrate even more force on the enemy. Nelson was reckless with his men's lives as well as with his own. On the approach, while under fire, Collingwood ordered his men to lie down between the guns so as not to take unnecessary casualties. Nelson did not. On the Victory, a party of Marines was even standing on the poop deck. It was only after eight had been killed by one double headed shot that Nelson even ordered them dispersed. While leading from the front, his recklessness was bound up with his own personal bravery and became an aspect of his heroism. At Boulogne, of course, he did not lead the attack, and recklessness becomes less easy to excuse.

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Tony wrote:
timoneer wrote:
Since you probably have access to materials that I do not, and obviously have been researching this subject longer
Almost certainly not true, Don - I see you joined this forum before I even began researching naval history in any meaningful way.
While I may have been here a little longer, my initial interest in AoS was in its fiction, being lead here through my initial exposure to O'Brian and then Kent/Reeman. My background in engineering makes me more interested in viewing the ships as the biggest machines of that era. I really haven't studied Nelson at all except in a very tangential way. Since so much has been written about Nelson, it can be overwhelming to consider delving deeply into him. Since so many people have done so already, I ask more questions than give opinions.

Tony wrote:
On the Boulogne affair, my opinions are based on Roger Knight's "the Pursuit of Victory", David Lyon's "Sea Battles in Close Up: The Age of Nelson", and Nicolas's "Dispatches & Letters". I learn a great deal from discussions like this that prompt me to go away and read up in detail on a particular topic.
Thanks for the titles. I have read none of these but will add them to my wish-list.

Tony wrote:
The French had 24 gun vessels anchored outside Boulogne, and it was Nelson's own idea that he should capture those vessels: "I purpose, if to be done, to take all the Gun-vessels outside the Pier of Boulogne—I should like your approbation. I own, my dear Lord, that this Boat warfare is not exactly congenial to my feelings, and I find I get laughed at for my puny mode of attack." He certainly had no idea of capturing the port itself, or even entering the port.
That certainly helps to explain the reason for the type of attack.

Tony wrote:

I now think that Polly is right - his "Do or die" attitude meant that his conscience was clear. He felt his duty was to attack, and if the enemy's defenses were stronger than expected and losses were heavy, then so be it....

... I think he truly believed the attack had a good chance of success - his plans were very detailed, and although I personally think he underestimated the risks and the difficulties, I believe he thought his plan was the best available. Nelson's tactics were not particularly innovative, and he probably regarded the difficulties of a boat attack as unavoidable.... I think doing nothing was certainly an option that was open to him, and was the one he should have taken, but it went against his own inclination, and wasn't what the Government wanted of him.
I guess deciding exactly where Nelson was positioned between "reckless" and "aggressive" is the deciding factor. Certainly, Nelson's position about going directly at the enemy is well known.

Tony wrote:
... the French flotilla's vulnerability had been demonstrated when they used a flotilla of invasion boats from Le Havre and Cherbourg in 1797 in a practice run against the Island of St Marcou held by Sir Sidney Smith. The invasion boats had to retreat and take cover inshore from British frigates, and only got close to St Marcou when the British ships were becalmed. When they did get close, the 17 available guns in the British defences sank 6 ot 7 out of the 52 invasion boats. The French casualties were around 1,200 out of a force of 5,000 - 6,000 and the remaining boats retreated. If the Boulogne flotilla had ventured into the Channel and the British had intercepted, the French losses would have been catastrophic.
I plan on reading more about this event, which was unknown to me before your post.

Tony wrote:
Nelson was reckless with his men's lives as well as with his own. On the approach [at Trafalgar], while under fire, Collingwood ordered his men to lie down between the guns so as not to take unnecessary casualties. Nelson did not.
Wouldn't a telling point be the opinion of Nelson's men about him? They must not have thought him rash or reckless with their own lives if they loved him as reported. I cannot imagine sailors weeping after his death if they resented his disregard of their lives. On the other hand, I realize that this may be explained by the culture of naval warfare of that era. A sailor expected his leaders to be aggressive and a sailor knew that he and his fellow crewmen had a great chance to die. I found it shocking to read studies that pointed out that of every 14 RN deaths during this period, only one was due to battle. The rest were mainly disease and accidents. Such a culture had to condition the British sailor to the "bizarro world" of war.

Tony, thanks for all the great information in your posts. I've actually gotten interested in Nelson because of it. One of the (many) reasons I like Susan's Forum is the wonderful exchange of ideas and information.

Don


Sun Oct 14, 2007 6:36 pm
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Post Nelson and Slavery
I have a question for those here with more knowledge of Horatio Nelson than myself. What was Nelson's position on slavery? Specifically, did he feel that it was a necessary evil?

I'm reading a fictional book and want to find out if the author has done research on this point or just created this position for dramatic purposes.

Don


Sat Oct 20, 2007 12:36 am
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In a letter to William Locker, dated, 4 March 1796, Nelson comments on the misfortune of Admiral Christian who had been sent 'to act against the French and Dutch settlements in the West Indies' but whose squadron suffered in heavy weather:

'How unfortunate Admiral Christian has been! I hope our West Indian Islands will not suffer more than they have done; but I see Wilberforce is meddling with the slave trade again'.

A little later, on April 16th, he notes, without comment, in a letter to Collingwood, 'the Abolition of the Slave Trade lost by four', though we can infer from his foregoing remark that he is glad the bill failed.

It appears that Nelson did not oppose the slave trade, presumably seeing it as integral to the prosperity of British possessions in the West Indies. In this he was not alone. Wilberforce's battle to abolish the transatlantic slave trade was hard fought. There were many prosperous families in Britain whose wealth depended on it, and who were generously compensated for their losses after abolition.

Once cannot defend Nelson's attitude, but we should view it in the context of the time. Slavery was a foul trade but it was not one way. Giles Milton's book 'White Gold' is a fascinating history of the thousands of Europeans who were captured and sold into slavery in the markets of Morocco.

Evelyn Berckman's book, 'The Hidden Navy' also narrates the hardships suffered by the wives and families of English seamen who had been captured and sold as slaves.

Despite his criticism of Wilberforce's campaign, it is worth noting that there are numerous examples of Nelson's personal sympathy to black individuals. He took into his own home the old, black servant of his deceased uncle, calling him, 'as good a man as ever stood, and while I have a house, he shall not want a corner of it.'

His friend Colonel Despard, whom he defended, though convicted of treason, had a black common law wife who was left abandoned after his execution. Nelson and Lady Hamilton visited her and gave her money.

There was another incident, the details of which I do not have to hand, in which Nelson equipped a black acquaintance, who was passing through London, with letters of introduction to ease his way, which he thought might be difficult owing to his colour.


Sat Oct 20, 2007 8:16 pm
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polly wrote:
It appears that Nelson did not oppose the slave trade, presumably seeing it as integral to the prosperity of British possessions in the West Indies.
Thanks, Polly. I did not remember any abolitionist comments by Nelson and your detailed post seems to confirm that Nelson had a very common view of the time.

Don


Sat Oct 20, 2007 10:48 pm
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