The Battle That Changed The World
Nelson's brilliant victory at Trafalgar shaped history and enshrined his name among its greatest warriors
Decisive as Trafalgar was, however, it took just one of those British casualties to make Oct. 21, 1805, a day of tragedy as well as a day of triumph for Britain. For just as the battle unfolded as Nelson had planned, so did his death come as he had even more uncannily foreseen. "God bless you, Blackwood, I shall never speak to you again," he had told one of his frigate captains as the fighting got underway, and that was not the only time he voiced his premonition that day. Almost exactly an hour after his parting words to Blackwood, at around 1:15, a shot fired by a French marksman from the mizzenmast of the Redoutable, then locked in gunwale-to-gunwale combat with the Victory, tore through Nelson's left shoulder, severing a branch of his pulmonary artery and lodging in his backbone. "They have done for me at last, Hardy," the admiral muttered. Probably paralyzed below the waist, Nelson managed to cover his face and medals with his large handkerchief, hoping that his men would not be able to identify their fallen leader as he was borne below deck to the ship's surgery. Once there, he assured the surgeon that there was nothing he could do: "I have but a short time to live; my back is shot through." He was right. It would take a little over three hours for death to arrive, as Britain's most beloved hero verged increasingly on delirium, calling on Captain Hardy--and indeed on England itself--to look after his beloved mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, and their daughter, Horatia. But around 4:30, not long after Captain Hardy assured him that the battle was effectively won, Nelson uttered his last words several times over: "Thank God, I have done my duty."
It is hardly surprising, given the importance of the man and his victory, that the bicentenary year of the Battle of Trafalgar has occasioned hundreds of public conferences and academic seminars, countless commemorations, at least one major re-enactment (though the Royal Navy, out of sensitivity for the feelings of the Spanish and French, dubbed the opposing sides of last summer's mock battle the Red and Blue fleets), and a raft of popular and scholarly books. Among the last are excellent treatments of the battle itself ( The Trafalgar Companion by Mark Adkin), the contemporary cultural significance of Nelson's heroism and his many legacies ( Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar by Adam Nicolson; Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy, edited by David Cannadine), the lasting influence of Nelson's style on naval command and control ( Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control Since the Sixteenth Century by Michael Palmer), the great man's correspondence (Nelson: The New Letters, edited by Colin White), and Nelson's own most remarkable life ( Nelson: A Dream of Glory, the first of two volumes by John Sugden; The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Horatio Nelson by Roger Knight).
The "Nelson touch." Not that there was a lack of interest in Nelson or his most famous battle in the years leading up to the bicentennial. Reviewing many of the new works in the Times Literary Supplement , N. A. M. Rodger observed, without irony, that "a man who has already received roughly one biography for every year which has elapsed since his death is obviously in need of some more." Rodger is not alone in recognizing the need to locate and rectify errors in the millions of words written about Nelson and Trafalgar. But if the new scholarship dutifully succeeds in doing so, even discrediting some of the more endearing myths (it now seems as though the adolescent Nelson did not, alas, go mano a mano with a polar bear on a North Pole expedition), the brunt of this more scrupulous examination reveals a man no less heroic, and achievements no less significant, than what earlier history, biography, and legend purported. Nelson with warts and weaknesses--including vanity, occasional pettiness, and a sometimes reckless arrogance--is no less an awe-inspiring figure for all those flaws. Likewise, if Nelson's tactical and strategic innovations were not all strictly of his own making, the way he put them into practice through his remarkable style of leadership more than justifies his exalted standing in the annals of military history. Stressing discipline and hard training, along with empathy with and concern for his men, he above all encouraged (and prepared) his subordinates to seize the initiative whenever necessary, particularly in the fog of war. "That," says Palmer, a naval historian at East Carolina University, "was what he called the 'Nelson touch,' and the men who served under him knew what he expected."