Two hundred and five years ago today, the British fleet of 27 ships under Viscount Nelson launched an attack on the combined French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships off Cape Trafalgar. The twofold result of the battle was, as every schoolboy used to know, a decisive victory for the British, and the death of Lord Nelson in the hour of victory.
A very long time ago, I went to school at the Garrison Primary Mixed and Infants School in Portsmouth. As this was the nearest primary school to the Dockyards, a party of children were invited to the annual commemorative ceremony on board H.M.S. Victory. (This was of course years before ‘Historic Portsmouth’ – most of the areas which were not bomb-sites were still used by the army and navy and very much out of bounds to civilians.) I wish I could remember more about it: there is a photograph taken by the local newspaper of four of us looking piously down as the Captain of the Victory points out the plaque on the deck marking the spot where Nelson fell.
Collingwood’s dispatch to the Admiralty pays a personal tribute to Nelson: ‘… my heart is rent with the most poignant grief for the death of a friend, to whom, by many years’ intimacy, and a perfect knowledge of the virtues of his mind, which inspired ideas superior to the common race of men, I was bound by the strongest ties of affection; a grief to which even the glorious occasion in which he fell, does not bring the consolation which perhaps it ought…’.
Death in the hour of victory, on board the Victory – the outpouring of public grief at Nelson’s death was unparalleled. It turned the admiral – who was much admired for his skills as a commander and strategist, but who was also savagely lampooned for his irregular private life, and sometimes resented by his brother officers for his talent for self-publicity – into an untouchable hero. There are thousands of Nelson Roads and Nelson Streets, Trafalgar Squares and Streets, all over the UK (and the former colonies). The town of Nelson in Lancashire was not named after him directly, but – in a very English manner – the railway station serving Great Marsden and Little Marsden was built next to the Lord Nelson pub, and took its name from that; gradually the Marsdens were submerged into the bigger town that grew up beside the railway…
There are hardly any subsequent volumes of the Naval Chronicle which do not contain ‘Nelsonalia’: anecdotes, reminiscences, designs for memorials, discussions of his strategy. And not unsurprisingly, books followed: a three-volume biography, ‘from His Lordship’s Papers’, by Clarke and McArthur, the Chronicle’s editors; a two-volume biography by Robert Southey (at the time the Poet Laureate) which is, frustratingly, too small to scan at the moment; Nicolas’s edition of the dispatches and letters; Mahan’s controversial biography of 1897. And of course a continuing stream of new books, articles, websites and blogs: clearly, the interest in our ‘ever to be lamented hero’ shows no signs of waning.