Commander of the fleet and master of spin

Nelson - The Command of the Ocean - Nelson
January 7, 2005

Nelson's talent for self-promotion, driven by a huge ego, had as much to do with his success as his boldness in naval warfare, writes John Crossland

"Britannia's God of War", the subtitle of Andrew Lambert's book on Nelson, is taken from some banal lines in Byron's Don Juan , which in the present context are worth quoting more fully:

There's no more to be said of Trafalgar,

'Tis with our hero quietly inurn'd;

Because the army's grown more popular,

At which the naval people are concern'd.

The veritable publishing deluge building up to this year's bicentenary of Trafalgar - not to speak of commemorative events and a Spithead review - effectively rebut such romantic nonsense. That "naval people" are still concerned, however, about the state of our maritime consciousness was proved recently at a seminar at the National Maritime Museum, where Nicholas Rodger, professor of naval history at Exeter University, sparked a lively debate with his claim that an awareness of Britain's maritime heritage and importance among the political elite has declined markedly in less than a generation. "But then this elite had never understood sea power in this country." Perhaps this superb second volume in his new naval history of Britain should be required reading in Whitehall. Certainly, anyone seeking the reality behind the Nelson cult can do no better than use these three books as their vade mecum . Together they cover the apogee of our maritime power under sail, the formative years of its greatest exponent and his apotheosis as hero incarnate and saviour of his country.

Rodger, with his frequent ironic barbs and his rare ability to conjure the men of the sailing navy from the masses of logbooks and letters they left - and place them authentically for the reader in that "wooden world" of which he is the master recorder - is less reverential towards Nelson than his two fellow historians. In fact, he is positively scathing about the aftermath of the Battle of the Nile, when Nelson became de facto Neapolitan military supremo, as well as continuing to command a detached squadron of the Mediterranean fleet, and was ultimately responsible for a campaign to drive the French from Rome, which backfired disastrously. Rodger says: "Nelson refused three direct orders from Lord Keith (his commander-in-chief) to join him. But by this time he was in thrall to Lady Hamilton and through her to Queen Maria Carolina." The author claims that this monstrous regiment had, in effect, taken control of his squadron, and points to the whole episode as "an outstanding example of the dangers of promoting admirals on professional ability alone, without education or knowledge of the world." Hunting the French fleet before the Nile, Nelson's flagship, the Vanguard , was dismasted in a sudden gale. Rodger blames bad seamanship, implicating the flag-captain, Edward Berry - a "gallant bungler" - but indicates that an impatient Nelson may also have driven the ship on under extra canvas. (He was "not the outstanding seaman of his generation".) Finally, Rodger corrects the popular image of Nelson winning his first great victory off Cape St Vincent by disobeying orders. "In fact his initiative (in 'wearing' his ship out of the British battle line to head off either a developing counterattack by the Spanish fleet, or its possible escape) was in response to the admiral's (Sir John Jervis's) known intentions, and only in the most technical sense without orders." The two ships that Nelson captured by personally boarding them - using one as his "patent bridges" to secure the other - had, Rodger says, already been battered by four other ships before the little commodore delivered the coup de grâce .

Whereas Rodger takes a cool, even occasionally sceptical view of the Nelson legend, Lambert is committed to buttressing the cult of the hero, as established in Nelson's lifetime, and shorn of modern moralising. This is particularly true in the case of the "black legend" surrounding the execution at the yardarm of Commodore Francesco Caracciolo on Nelson's direct orders. Lambert will have none of the liberal argument that the admiral had given his parole to the surrendered French Republican garrisons of the Naples forts. As the representative of Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies at the recapture of his capital, Nelson was acting under his orders to offer no quarter to rebels, as opposed to the French troops.

Whatever attempt is made at extenuation, Lambert knows that Nelson's name is still execrated among Neapolitans. Also, in trying to distance Lady Hamilton from the garrotting of the intellectuals who had supported the Parthenopian Republic, the author seems unaware of the letter in Emma's hand, which was displayed in the Nelson exhibition at the Maritime Museum nine years ago, in which she listed, with apparent indifference, former friends of hers and her husband who were among the proscribed.

Nelson dismissed the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies as "this country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels", yet the 18 months he was based there, to secure the Mediterranean as a maritime counterweight to French domination of Europe, were the most crucial of his career. Lambert is totally convincing in his portrayal of a rising young admiral, maimed in body but whose spirit surmounts the daunting obstacles - diplomatic as well as military - thrown up by a lone command. The reader shares the rising tension of the chase to the Nile, and its denouement at sunset on August 1, 1798, as Captain Thomas Foley in Goliath leads the "band of brothers" through shoal waters to exploit the exposed flank of the anchored French fleet - and anticipate his admiral's intentions of a battle of annihilation.

I do not go along, however, with the author's interpretation of the hero's irregular private life. His affair with Lady Hamilton may have been "short" - he was at sea for most of the five years - but it was hardly "small" or "trifling". His emotional letters, longing for a life of ease with her at "Paradise Merton", argue the contrary. Nelson was not unusual in the late 18th century in abandoning his wife for a mistress of humble background who shared his taste for social climbing. It was an affair that became public very quickly, affecting Nelson's standing with the King and giving marvellous material to the cartoonists - a seamy side to the admiral's iconography that Lambert does not mention.

As Wordsworth observed, the child is father of the man and we are indebted to John Sugden for Nelson: A Dream of Glory , this fruit of his 30 years' intermittent research into thousands of primary sources, including previously unused naval, military, diplomatic and personal documents that illuminate Nelson's early life. He had a natural tactical flair, ruthlessly exploiting the enemy's Achilles' heel, as at Cape St Vincent and the Nile, but those tactics flowed naturally from a global strategic vision, practically unique in our naval annals. No wonder that Napoleon (like Montgomery with Rommel) kept an image of his enemy in the form of a marble bust on his study mantlepiece in the Tuileries. After Napoleon's surrender, the emperor told the captain of the man-of-war taking him to St Helena:

"Wherever it was possible to float a ship you (British) were in my way."

Britain's then only competitor in ruling a worldwide commercial imperium had been eliminated, and Nelson, pre-eminently, was responsible. But what had gone into making this indispensable hero the "saviour of his country", adored by the populace and grudgingly honoured by the ruling elite he at once supplicated for favours but held in contempt? A clue to Nelson's psychological make-up comes ironically from the man who more than any other was to "make the Army more popular" - Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington. They met only once, three months before Trafalgar, in the anteroom of the War Secretary. One was about to set the seal on a glittering naval career; the other was a relatively unknown general seeking a posting after his Indian campaign. Wellesley found the conversation "almost all on his side and all about himself, in a style vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me". Suspecting, however, that his audience was a "somebody", Nelson briefly left the room to investigate and returned "a different man, both in manner and matter. Now he spoke as an officer and statesman and I cannot recall a conversation that interested me more." As Sugden points out, "to understand Nelson it is necessary to see the whole of the man. In fact, the triviality and the professionalism were born of a common dynamic - driven by Nelson's need for distinction and acclaim. It spurred him to extreme endeavour, and to theatrical vanity.Both were sides of a single coin."

Patronage, or "interest", was the essential lubricant of Georgian society and this rather delicate third child of a country parson of modest means was fortunate in his connection to the Walpole family - through the mother he lost at the age of nine. His uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, is supposed to have asked Nelson's father: "What has poor Horace done, who is so weak, that he above all the rest, should be sent to rough it out at sea?" Suckling, who became comptroller of the Navy Board, was the central influence in his nephew's early career. Yet when he achieved fame, Nelson denied this family indebtedness and, as Sugden says, simply "wrote his uncle out of his life". Here we see the strange dichotomy with which many biographers have had difficulties. The hero was a confirmed paternalist who believed in a hierarchical society, of which loyalty was the bonding agent.

He himself protected, where possible, those beneath him, even in one case a murderer, and expected unswerving loyalty in return - which he famously obtained, by his personal magnetism, sheer professionalism and a warm, personal touch with "the lower deck", reflected in the tears shed throughout the fleet as the lights were extinguished in his great cabin on the evening of Trafalgar. Both Sugden and Lambert make the point that the essence of Nelson's genius lay in his appreciation of the way his age was changing. Two hundred years before the term became synonymous with devious and unsavoury manoeuvrings in Whitehall, Nelson was a master of "spin", or the art of self-promotion. The most blatant instance was his rewriting of the narrative of the battle of Cape St Vincent, in answer to his commander Jervis's non-committal official dispatch, and placing himself centre stage.

This dramatic description of him leading the boarding party and leaping from his ship's anchor cathead onto the stern gallery of the huge San Nicolas was rushed over to "that favourite rag" The Sun by Captain William Locker, Nelson's "sea daddy", and the most important formative influence in his early career after Suckling.

As Locker's second lieutenant in the Lowestoffe , Nelson had taken to heart his lesson: "Lay a Frenchman close and you will beat him!" Their commander in the West Indies during the American War of Independence, Admiral Hood, encouraged his captains to use their initiative and take the offensive, and 12 years later in the Mediterranean Nelson was fortunate to find himself serving again under this irascible old firebrand who had first picked him out for greater things. Both Hood and his successor Jervis knew how to maximise Nelson's talent for independent, proactive command. The line of battle and the fighting instructions covering it were already redundant when the French Revolutionary Wars presented Britain with the first real threat to its national existence since the Armada. Employing the "weather gage" to break the line and then manoeuvring to leeward to pick off the enemy's most powerful ships had been the aim of Nelson's mentors Hood, Jervis and Rodney, but he used it to most devastating effect at Trafalgar.

He took a calculated risk. Having lured his reluctant opponents out of Cadiz harbour, he calculated that his strongly built ships, his "hearts of oak", and particularly the Victory , could withstand the inevitable pounding they would receive until the superior gunnery of his "jolly tars" could redress the balance and batter the French and Spanish line into submission.

It was touch and go as the wind dropped away reducing the British advance to a snail's pace. Furthermore, the French, and particularly the Spaniards, put up an unexpectedly ferocious resistance, which the latter - caught up in an unpopular alliance - are very properly honouring on this anniversary.

The Spanish captains fought so bravely that they were automatically promoted in the aftermath, when Spain embarked on its war of liberation from Napoleon's thrall.

As Rodger points out, Britain won the Napoleonic Wars too conclusively.

Nelson's overwhelming victory guaranteed the ascendancy of the City of London throughout the expansion of the British Empire, with its domination of the world's shipping lanes and banking. But the complacency that resulted had potentially catastrophic results in both world wars, when an obsession with winning another Trafalgar produced some painful lessons.

Also the sea-mindedness, which I mentioned earlier, can never be taken for granted, as the Falklands War proved. But the recent conference at the National Maritime Museum agreed that naval history writing had never been in a healthier state, and these three books certainly prove the point.

John Crossland is a military and naval historian.

Andrew Lambert will take part in a Times Higher -sponsored debate on Nelson at the National Portrait Gallery on the evening of April 14. Contact Sonya Allen (sonya.allen@newsint.co.uk) for details.

Nelson: Britannia's God of War

Author - Andrew Lambert
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 446
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 571 21222 0

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