Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser

Lord Horatio Nelson


His few surviving comrades saw

His smile, when rang their proud hurrah,

And the red field was won;

They saw in death his eyelids close,

Calmly, as to a night's repose,

Like flowers at set of sun.


A Great Sea King

The deeds of Lord Nelson, Britain's greatest sea hero, form a dramatic chapter of life which should be a torch to fire the admiration of every boy in the land no matter from what country he hails. Especially should Nelson's exploits prove stimulating reading to the lad who is physically frail and has the erroneous idea that the only robust boys and men ever excel in feats of red blooded daring.

To have looked at Horatio Nelson's thin, pale face and slender body—particularly to have known of his frequent illnesses—you would never have connected him with great accomplishments requiring the snappy action of a healthy, vigorous mind, and the equally snappy action of a fearless, obstinate fighter. The development of this boy into England's foremost sea-fighter astonished his youthful playmates and acquaintances quite as much as you, or one of your young friends of a "weak constitution" may sometime surprise your boyhood comrades.

Nelson's life was a perfect drama in its happy rise, its glorious course, its heart-stirring ending. The spot-light struck his figure when he was thirty-nine; at forty-seven his stage was steeped in darkness. But in those eventful eight years he had won his trio of marvelous triumphs,—Aboukir, Copenhagen, Trafalgar,—made Great Britain "mistress of the seas," and left a memory of such splendor behind him that his name will ever be dear to his countrymen and known to all future generations of reading peoples.

This great man was born on the 29th of September, 1758, at Norfolk, on the eastern coast of England. His schooling was scant. Although of a weak and sickly constitution his ambition from boyhood was to be a seaman, and when in 1770 he heard that his uncle, Maurice Suckling, had been appointed to the command of the Raisonable, he begged to join him. On this ship he sailed to the Falkland Islands, being then just twelve years old. A little later he made a year's voyage on a West Indian merchantman, on which he learned the essentials of his profession.

In 1773 an expedition was fitted out by the Royal Geographical Society to sail to the North Pole. Young Nelson, then only fourteen, was wild to go. As no boys were allowed by the Admiralty he almost failed in this endeavor, but finally prevailed upon Captain Lutwidge, of the Carcas, to let him be a member as coxswain. When he returned from the ice bound seas the year following he was a full-fledged able seaman.

Then came a three-years' voyage to the East Indies under Admiral Hughes. This cruise, along fever-stricken, marshy shores, undermined his none-too-rugged health. A long sickness ensued which came very near resulting in his end. For at least one moment in his life he felt an over powering despondency. He saw before him the towering obstacles he must meet with in his chosen profession, and the tiny, puny, physical strength he had with which to meet them. His ambition consumed him, but his mind could see no way to satisfy it. This is how he afterward refers to it: "After a long and gloomy revery, in which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden flow of patriotism was kindled within me, and I saw my King and countrymen very much smaller and weaker than I, needing my aid. My mind exulted in the idea. 'Well, then,' I exclaimed, 'I will be a hero, and, confiding in Providence, I will brave. every danger!'"

In those early years, and throughout his entire lifetime, duty and fame, in the order given, were the two thoughts that appealed to him most strongly, the two thoughts that constantly spurred on his endeavors. Duty kindled in him the most fearless and unswerving devotion to his fellowmen; renown lured him ever onward with its radiant, glittering honors.

Nelson's promotion was swift. In July, 1778, he had won a first-lieutenancy on the Bristol, the flagship of Sir Peter Parker. Six months later he was appointed commander of the Badger, a brig. Then came a change to post captain of the frigate Hinchingbrook, with which he proceeded against American privateers among the West Indies.

Finally, on February 1st, 1793, France declared war against Great Britain and Holland. Anticipating trouble, two days before his government had appointed Nelson to the Agamemnon, a sixty-four gun ship.

During the ensuing four years, Nelson took part in many minor engagements, all helpful to his cause. Among these were the investments of Marseilles and Toulon, and the blockading of Bastia. In the latter action, while serving the battery, a shot of the enemy drove a quantity of sand in his right eye which eventually destroyed its sight.

The chief event marking the opening of 1797 was the first important naval operation connected with his name. This was the battle of Cape St. Vincent, fought against the Spaniards, the allies of France.

At dawn, on the 4th of February, the British fleet of fifteen ships, under Sir John Jarvis, lay twenty-five miles west of Cape St. Vincent on the southern coast of Portugal. A heavy fog darkened the morning. Soon after eight o'clock this lifted, and there, coming toward them, the lookouts on the British vessels saw the grand fleet of Spain. The sight was enough to awaken apprehensions, for there were twenty-seven huge ships. Among these were the great Santissima Trinidad, carrying one hundred and twenty-six guns, and the San Josef  of one hundred and twelve guns. One was a four decker—the largest type of ship afloat,—and seven were three deckers. The Spanish ships were in two sections, arranged in a most awkward line of battle, seemingly unable to unite.

Meanwhile the British admiral made the signal to prepare. At eleven o'clock the line was formed, and at eleven thirty action began. Nelson's ship was thirteenth in line. The plan of Sir John was to run between the two divisions of the enemy's fleet, thus preventing their junction, and then assail them separately.

When he had succeeded in dividing them in this manner, he made the signal to "tack in succession." At this moment Nelson's chance came in. Seeing that it was the intention of the Spanish admiral to run behind the British column and unite his lines, Nelson, without orders, passed from the rear, between the Diadem  and Excellent. Reaching the Spanish column ahead of his compatriots, he engaged single-handed the huge and formidable Santissima Trinidad.

Shortly the Culloden, leader of the British van, came to his support, and for an hour the two plucky British ships had their hands full; for by this time nine other Spanish vessels had come to the aid of their great consort. Then the pair of British boats were joined by the Blenheim  and the Excellent, and the enemy craft San Ysidro  and Salvador del Mundo  were compelled to strike their colors.

Nelson's own ship, the Captain, had suffered considerable damage. There was not a sail, shroud, or halliard, left intact; her wheel had been shot away. She was quite incapable of making chase, or fleeing under chase. Happily she had neither to do just now. She had been worked up alongside the San Nicolas, and the next instant Nelson ordered a party to board her. Captain Berry was the first to leap to the Spaniard's deck. He was quickly followed by Nelson himself. A few volleys of musket and pistol shot were exchanged, then the enemy backed away. Berry gained possession of the poop and hauled down the Spanish colors. At the same time Nelson, on the forecastle, received the swords of the Spanish officers.

Just at this time the San Josef  came to the aid of her distressed sister ship, firing on the British abroad the San Nicolas. At this Nelson promptly called for reënforcements from the Captain. Without waiting for these, the intrepid Englishman then ran across to the farther side of the enemy's deck and sprang to the rail of a large three deck Spanish ship which lay close on that quarter.

As he gained the deck of the second enemy craft, he met a Spanish officer. Apparently believing that the British had boarded him also, and that resistance was hopeless, this officer at once gave his sword to the dauntless Nelson, who, quite dumfounded, received it, and listened to the Spaniard's words, "We surrender."

A little later the Victory, Admiral Jervis's flagship, passed the disabled Captain  and its two magnificent prizes, and saluted with three cheers, as did every ship in the fleet.

On the 14th of July, 1797, Nelson, now a rear-admiral, received orders to sail for Santa Cruz. Information had come that a Spanish ship, the El Principle d'Asturias, was in this harbor, and would sail shortly to Cadiz with a rich treasure belonging to the crown of Spain which she had brought on from Manila.

Four warships and three frigates, carrying a landing party of a thousand men under Captain Troubridge, and one cutter, made up Nelson's squadron. He had planned a sudden and vigorous attack. Upon arrival, the boats, with troops and scaling-ladders, were ordered to land in the night, but a heavy gale of wind and a strong current prevented. The next day it was hoped to storm the heights behind the forts, while the ships discharged their batteries from in front. But when morning came calms and contrary currents kept the large ships out of range, this condition prevailing for several days.

By the 24th of July the Spaniards, who could readily see the British ships, had had four days in which to strengthen their works and increase the number of their troops. Nelson straightway made up his mind to do something at once. That day he wrote to Jervis: "To-morrow my head will probably be crowned with either laurel or cypress." There was, indeed, small hope for success.

That night about eleven o'clock the boats advanced quietly toward the town with seven hundred and fifty men. Nelson's barge led the way. Hardly had they proceeded to within half-gunshot of the mole than they were discovered, and a sharp fire of cannon and musketry opened upon them from one end of the town to the other.

The sky was dark, and the surf high. A number of the boats missed the landing; they were full of water in a minute, and stove in on the rocks. The ladders were all lost in the surf; the ammunition was wet and useless. But the other barges reached the mole successfully. Led by Nelson, the British stormed it, drove back the five hundred Spaniards defending it, and prepared for further advance. However, such a heavy fire came from the citadel and town that the British began to fall on all sides, and they were forced to retreat in the face of the terrible shower of bullets.

Already a grapeshot had struck Nelson in the right elbow. His stepson, Josiah Nisbet, had placed him in the bottom of his boat, bandaged the wound tightly, and rowed back to the ships. As they neared them, a ball struck the cutter Fox  beneath her waterline, and she went down. Although suffering intense pain from his wound, Nelson insisted on stopping to save the men struggling in the water.

When they finally reached the Theseus, a rope was thrown over. With a rare display of fortitude, Nelson climbed this to the ship's deck, and immediately called the surgeon to bring his instruments, for he knew his arm must be amputated.

His feelings when he returned to his home shores after this mishap, with the defeat at Santa Cruz also on his mind, must have been bitter. To add to his troubles, the amputation had been crudely done, and for long weeks he suffered tortures from the imperfect surgery.

Yet it was after this, when he went forth again—a one eyed and one armed fighter—that the glorious luster of his renown attained the pinnacle of its height, to burn undimmed to the end.

The Fight of the Nile

France had made peace with most of the continental powers and had extended her influence over all adjoining countries. In the spring of 1798 she was concentrating her forces against Great Britain with the avowed purpose of destroying the British monarchy. Active preparations were being urged forward in the seaport towns of the Mediterranean, both at the southern ports of France and at the friendly ports of Italy. Ship-of-the-line, transports and troops were assembling in large numbers. An extensive naval expedition was evidently being planned.

This operation, which afterward proved to be the famous expedition of General Bonaparte to Egypt, was kept such a profound secret that its destination was not even surmised by the British. But the British government was sufficiently alarmed to cause it to decide to abandon its purely defensive tactics and to assume an offensive attitude.

At this stage Nelson, in command of the Vanguard, a seventy-four gun ship, was off Cadiz with Lord St. Vincent. The latter now gave him two ships of the line, the Orion  and the Alexander, and four frigates, and sent him to watch Toulon and follow the movements of the French fleet.

From off Cape Sicie, Nelson soon after reported that nineteen sail lay in the harbor of Toulon; that transports with troops frequently arrived from Marseilles; that twelve thousand men were already aboard the warships, and that hearsay had it the fleet would sail for an unknown port in a few days.

Unhappily, the French fleet succeeded in slipping out of the harbor without Nelson detecting the fact until too late. This was owing to a strong gale dismantling the Vanguard and rendering it necessary to tow her to a port on the coast of Sardinia for repairs. The same storm drove the other vessels far apart, and precious days were lost in reassembling them.

Thus it was not until the 7th of June that Nelson, bolstered by the addition of ten other ships from St. Vincent, took up his famous pursuit of Bonaparte. He had been ordered to attack him wherever found. The French had a long start, and all that Nelson knew of them was that they had sailed southward between Italy and Corsica, and had been seen by a passing vessel off the north end of Sicily, steering to the east ward.

With this clew, the British squadron made off under full spread of canvas. As they went along, from time to time they picked up additional fragments of news regarding the chased which helped them materially to shape their course.

It was a long and tedious search. There were times when they expected to come within sight of the enemy at any moment; other times when they almost despaired of ever seeing him. The want of fast frigates hampered Nelson a good deal, his heavy warships not having the requisite speed for a stern chase of this character.

On the 15th of June he learned from a Tunisian cruiser that the French had been seen off Trapani in Sicily; on the 26th news came off Cape Passaro that the enemy had arrived and possessed themselves of Malta, and then gone eastward. From this Nelson was now pretty well convinced that Bonaparte intended to take some port in Egypt, establish himself at the head of the Red Sea, and carry a formidable army into Hindustan. If this surmise were correct, British interests in India were in great danger.

But if to Egypt, where in Egypt had they gone? After a consultation with his most trusted captains, Nelson decided to head for Alexandria.

Cruel suspense marked the next few days of the chase. Every moment, night and day, the lookouts in the foretops were at their posts, hoping to be able to report the first sight of the French. But disappointment still prevailed.

Alexandria was reported in view on the 10th. Not a French sail was to be seen, nor could any information be gathered of the whereabouts of the other fleet. Nelson was much downcast, even mortified. His judgment for once had played him a trick. He did not know that he had really outstripped his adversary; that his unerring reasoning power had led him to Alexandria before Bonaparte had arrived. The truth was, the French fleet had veered to the south shore of Candia, and strange as it may be, under cover of the night and a dense fog, the two rival forces had at one time been within gun range of one another without knowing it.

Not aware of this, Nelson now stretched his ships over the coast of Asia, then steered along the northern shore of the Mediterranean, passed Candia once more, and returned to Syracuse sorely disappointed and humiliated, after a cruise of twenty-seven days.

On the 23rd of July, not to be thwarted, Nelson again set out in quest of the elusive French. Once more he sailed eastward and southward, still convinced that Egypt was the goal of the enemy but puzzled at his inexplicable disappearance. Six days later he sighted the Pharos of Alexandria—and there, in Aboukir Bay, fifteen miles from the port, rode the French fleet in solid battle array!

Nelson was not found unprepared. All through that long chase it had been his custom to hold almost daily conferences with his captains, during the courses of which plans for attack or defense under every conceivable condition had been worked out. Therefore it took but the briefest word now for the commander-in-chief to acquaint his officers with their part in the problem that confronted them.

It is from the extended accounts of Captain Berry of the Vanguard  and Captain Miller of the Theseus  that we know the details of this wonderful battle fought in the inky darkness of the night, in waters and among islands and headlands entirely unknown to every officer in the British fleet.

When the French first saw him, the enemy was nine or ten miles to the southward, with Aboukir promontory and island and a network of dangerous shoals and reefs lying between. The keen eye of Nelson saw the weak point in the enemy's position; he noted that where there was room for a French ship to swing, there was also room for a British ship to anchor. By taking up positions inside as well as outside of the French line, he could concentrate his fire on the van and center of the enemy, while the wind would prevent the rear of the French from coming to the assistance of their consorts.

Circling around Aboukir point, and giving the shoals a safe berth, the British ships advanced upon the enemy in a single column. First came the Goliath, followed in order by the Zealous, the Orion, the Audacious, and the Theseus. The Vanguard, Nelson's flag-ship, was sixth in line. A few minutes before sunset the Goliath  and the Zealous  opened up with their heaviest guns, and ten minutes later Nelson gave the signal to engage the enemy at short range.

Advancing with silent guns, the British ships could be seen to have many sailors aloft who were furling sails and hauling in braces, preparatory to casting anchor. As they swung in to take their positions, the concentrated fire of the French broadsides was projected into their bows. Then with swift movement and masterly daring the Goliath  and the Zealous  worked around the enemy's flank. Although deluged by his fierce, raking fire, they passed inside his line. A moment later the inshore side was taken by the Orion, the Theseus, and the Audacious, while the Vanguard  and four other vessels pitched into the French front and center on the outside.

Considering that they had been thus cleverly subjected to two fires, the French fought with admirable courage. The Theseus  and the Guerrier  engaged in almost a grapple, not six feet apart. The guns of the former, loaded with two and three round-shot, belched their flame and hot lead directly into her adversary. In the twinkle of an eye the mizzenmasts of the British ship fell by the board, her foremast having gone before. A little way off, twenty minutes later, the Conquérant  and the Spartiate, both French, were also dismasted.

In the very face of success, Nelson was struck down. A bullet had hit him in the forehead, blinding him completely for the moment. Quickly he was carried below in the arms of Captain Berry, and a surgeon summoned. After his wound had been dressed, and while he was still suffering intensely, he groped for a pen and paper and scrawled the first words of his dispatch to St. Vincent announcing the victory.

The Victory at Trafalgar

Following the events recorded, Nelson had gained a brilliant victory at Copenhagen, had been raised to the rank of viscount, and in October, 1801, took his seat in the House of Lords. About the same time cessation of hostilities with the French republic was announced, and the following March a treaty of peace was signed.

Just a little over a year later—in May, 1803,—war with France broke out afresh. Nelson was appointed commander-in-chief of the King's ships in the Mediterranean. On the 18th he hoisted his flag on board the Victory, the ship whose name was to become almost as immortal as his own as the one in which he fought his last battle and won the crowning triumph of his life.

Meanwhile at Toulon and Brest the French navy was being daily increased and put into effective condition. New ships were equipped, troops gathered for embarkation; every preparation was being made for a fresh naval expedition of large proportions—none less than the invasion of England. For this purpose Napoleon had been drilling an army of one hundred and fifty thousand men, and collecting a fleet of thirty-five ships. The squadrons were to assemble at the West Indies, and from there sail for the Straits of Dover.

Cognizant of the assembling of the squadron at Toulon; Lord Nelson joined Sir Richard Bickerton, and on the 8th of July began the blockade of that port. It was the most tedious kind of work, this effort to keep the French vessels within from getting out, and keeping those from without getting in. But through fair weather and foul, calms, winds, squalls and gales, the blockading was faithfully carried on, although only four of his ships were strictly seaworthy craft. Nelson's sagacity showed him the importance of preventing the junction of the French squadrons, and he made up his mind to maintain his vigil if it should take the balance of his life. If the French ships did attempt to break through him there at Toulon he would give them battle.

This is exactly what the French presently undertook to do. After being bottled up by the British for fully a year and a half, their fleet, under Admiral Villeneuve, slipped quietly out of Toulon harbor on the night of the 17th of January, bound for Sardinia.

Nelson's two lookout frigates signaled him of the enemy's act two days later. Within three hours Nelson was at sea in hot pursuit. He scoured the Mediterranean in the worst weather he had ever seen; gale after gale tossed his ships over the angry waters. It seemed that the storms never would abate.

Now it happened that the same ill weather that tormented Nelson, and added to the perplexities of the pursuit, created havoc with many vessels of the pursued. So battered did they become, that Villeneuve was driven to return to the port he had just quitted, in order to repair them. When the craft had all been refitted, Villeneuve again set sail.

Meanwhile Nelson, unaware of the enemy's procedure, had been battling and drifting with the storms. He had been to Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia; to Alexandria, Candia, and Malta; he had "covered the channel from Barbary to Toro with frigates and the fleet." Yet—of course—he saw nothing of the French fleet.

It was deeply mortifying to Nelson to be thus outwitted; he smarted immeasurably under the humiliation. He made up his mind, finally, to go out of the Mediterranean, working westward. Storms and unfavorable winds continued to dog him. In his diary at this time we find he has written: "My good fortune seems flown away; I cannot get a fair wind. Dead foul!—dead foul!"

Through the Straits, through the Gut, past Cape St. Vincent, then straight across the Atlantic to the West Indies, the British fleet struggled on. With Nelson at the head there was no such thing as giving up. Then came the Barbadoes and fresh rumors that the French fleet had been seen in the Caribbean waters. On he plowed to Tobago, to Trinidad, to Montserrat, to Antigua.

Had the enemy been at the latter place? Yes; but he had gone. Once more he had slipped through Nelson's fingers. He grimaced, thought of his long and similar chase after Bonaparte, of its successful outcome, and—kept doggedly on.

Following rumors as to the direction taken by the French, he now turned about and headed across the Atlantic toward Cadiz. On the 18th of July, three months after he had left the Strait of Gibraltar and had covered nearly seven thousand miles of sea, he sighted Cape Spartel. But there was no French fleet. Two days later he reached Cadiz, and went on shore for the first time in two years.

A few days following he heard that the enemy had been seen steering northward. In that direction he went. But it was only to find nothing. Receiving orders to return to England, he sailed for Spithead.

His stay was short. Two weeks after his arrival he sailed from Portsmouth to Cadiz, where he joined Vice-Admiral Collingwood. The force under his command then counted twenty-seven warships. In the harbor were the combined fleets of France and Spain under the command of Villeneuve and Gravina. Villeneuve at last! With the enemy were thirty-six warships and a number of frigates, apparently all ready for sea.

On the morning of the 19th of October, Nelson was cruising off Cape Trafalgar, keenly alert to any movement of the enemy. It was a clear day, with an easterly wind. All at once the signal flew up on the British lookout ships that the French were coming out of port. Seeing this, Nelson ran up the signal for a "general chase." The effort was to prevent the enemy from entering the Mediterranean. Toward the Strait of Gibraltar went the British ships, tearing along under full sail.



Two days later—at dawn of Monday, October 21st—the whole French and Spanish fleets had put to sea and were formed in a curved line of battle, stretching five miles from tip to tip, off the southern coast of Spain. On one side lay Cadiz; on the other, Cape Trafalgar; in the far distance was the Strait of Gibraltar, through which the British were bound the enemy should not escape. Evidently he had determined the only alternative left for him now was to fight it out.

Towering high among the craft of the Allies was the great Spanish ship, Santissima Trinidad, the largest vessel afloat and carrying one hundred and twenty-six heavy guns—a ship we have met before. Directly next to her rose the masts of the Bucentaure, the famous flagship of the commander-in-chief, Admiral Villeneuve. On either side of these Spanish and French leader-craft stretched the extensive wing of their consort, bristling with guns, ready for the conflict.

For Nelson the moment sought for two years and four months had at least arrived. Appearing on deck of the Victory, dressed in his admiral's coat, and covered with a blaze of decorations which were the pride of his heart, he made in quick succession the signals: "Form the order for sailing," "Prepare for battle," "Bear up."

Beating round the British now came forward in two columns to the attack. Admiral Collingswood in his flagship, the Royal Sovereign, headed the column to the south, while the Victory  lead the northern ships

Toward eleven o'clock Nelson went below, and on his knees wrote the words of his noble prayer: "May the great God whom I worship grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory. . . . Amen." He followed this almost immediately afterward with the memorable message which was the last to his fleet. "England expects every man will do his duty." Shouts and cheers along the whole line greeted the inspiring words.

Directing her guns full upon the Spanish line, the Royal Sovereign  began firing as soon as she was within range. At the same time the Victory  swept down upon the Bucentaure, on the French wing. As Nelson drew nearer the whole artillery of the French van was directed upon him in a staggering violence. Then he opened up on the Bucentaure  with such a terrific retaliatory fire that twenty of her guns were speedily dismounted and four hundred of her men killed or wounded.

Leaving the French flagship to his consorts, Nelson now turned his attention to the Redoubtable, which had already been attacking him. Running up close to the second French ship, he ordered the guns on that side to be fired. As they spat out their flame and shot, the Redoubtable  shivered, for the range was so close that the guns of both vessels were almost touching.

Nelson and Captain Hardy paced the quarter-deck of the Victory. With satisfaction both noted the effectiveness of the British fire. Almost above them, fifty feet up, the mizzentop of the rival craft swarmed with the best of France's sharpshooters. They had been told by their commander to "bring down Nelson—the officer with the medals" if ever the chance presented itself.

Now that opportunity was theirs. There he stood below them in clear, unobstructed view, hidden only at moments by the shifting clouds of battle smoke. A number of French muskets were quickly raised in the enemy mizzentop. The muzzles were trained downward at the calm and unconcerned one armed admiral.

Just then a number of his men noted his peril—saw the Frenchmen aloft—saw their deadly intent. A warning cry was raised, and a number of British bullets sped upward, and found marks. But it was too late. As Nelson wheeled about several of the French sharpshooters' guns cracked, and Nelson, shot through the back, fell to the deck.

Captain Hardy was quickly stooping over him. "They have done for me at last;" gasped the great admiral, "my backbone is shot through!"

He was carried below to the cockpit, among the wounded and the dying, where everything was done to relieve his suffering. There for three hours he lay, listening intently to the incessant strife going on overhead in an effort to detect which way the battle seemed to be going, while his own life moments ticked rapidly away to the zenith of the dial. Of attendants and wounded alike, as they appeared, he asked weakly, "Are we still winning?"

Before he lapsed into unconsciousness he knew that the Bucentaure  had been taken; that while his flag was still flying seventeen of the French and Spanish ships had been captured, and one of the most glorious of British sea victories had been virtually won. Even as he was closing his eyes for the last time, the roaring guns fell into peaceful silence, and everything was hushed and quiet when he whispered his final words, "Thank God, I have done my duty!"