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The Nelson Touch: Trafalgar at 200   (October 3, 2005)

October 21 will mark the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, in which Lord Nelson's British fleet destroyed the numerically superior combined French-Spanish fleet, thus ending Napoleon's quest to conquer England. The battle remains a much celebrated event in Britain, for it laid the foundation of nearly 150 years of maritime supremacy, enabling England to control the sea trade to her far-flung colonies.

Though that supremacy has shifted to the U.S., the English Admiral continues to command affection and admiration around the world. Why? Although there are many fine biographies of Nelson, I recommend a lesser-known work: For God and Glory: Lord Nelson and His Way of War

The book provides a number of key points about Nelson as a human being and as a military leader.
  • Nelson was a logistical genius. It's nice to be brilliant on the battlefield, but if your men are exhausted, poorly fed and sick, and your equipment falling apart, you will probably lose despite your brilliance. As hundreds of written commands show, Nelson worked tirelessly to supply his men with fresh food whenever possible and gather the materials needed to keep the ships in fighting trim. He was at sea for months before Trafalgar, in weather that wore down his wooden ships and exposed sailors, while the French and Spanish were in port. By all rights they should have been rested and full of spirit, but it was they who were ill and the British who were fit. This stems largely from Nelson's obsessive concern for the logistical train needed to support his massive 27-ship fleet.
  • Nelson truly cared about the men under his command. While he understood the need for discipline, he was neither bullying nor cruel toward his men, who were often "pressed," i.e. virtually enslaved by press-gangs which prowled the waterfronts and ports of England to fill the fleet's gundecks. Nelson focused enormous attention on finding fresh meat and other foodstuffs for his sailors, even spending his own money at times to do so.
  • Nelson's confidence inspired those under his command. By all accounts, the English sailors went into battle confident of victory, simply because Nelson was their leader.
  • Genius is not transferable to other fields of endeavor. One might guess that Nelson would have brought some military genius to land warfare as well, but in fact his personality and naval skills did not transfer at all to land. He was an abysmally inept leader on land, impulsive when planning was key, impatient when patience was key, and reckless when victory was impossible. Indeed, both his injuries (loss of vision in one eye and loss of an arm) occurred in land battles in which he'd been tasked to overcome forts. He failed in both battles.
  • Nelson empowered his captains to pursue an overall battle plan with their own initiative. Nelson was very careful to explain his overall plan for the battle--the so-called "Nelson touch"--but he left the details and implementation up to each captain. Thus as the battle unfolded, the English always had the advantage of individual initiative, while the competing fleets tended to rely on direct orders issued through signal flags-- flags which were often obscured by the smoke from black powder gunfire or the interference of other ships.
  • Nelson rose through the ranks in a window of British naval history when command was based on merit rather than birthright. While the higher reaches of naval command continued to be filled by those born into nobility, the war with Napoleon forced the British to look outside the narrow confines of the noble classes for actual talent in battle. After all, what good is a peerage if your estate is occupied by the French?
  • Like many "great people," Nelson was a jumble of contradictory internal forces. The son of a vicar, Nelson remained deeply devout throughout his life, despite the violence of his chosen trade and his blatantly adulterous affair with Lady Hamilton. Though he held no special rancor for the various other enemies he was ordered to battle in his career (Americans, Danes, etc.), he did hate the French with what can only be called unbridled passion. He thought they were threatening civilization as he understood it and Napoleon had to be crushed. Though there were periods of "peaceful co-existence" in the Napoleonic Wars, Nelson believed the only solution was to completely defeat the French. Though blessed with compassion for the men under his command, he was vainglorious to a fault, often emblazoning himself with a chestful of gaudy medals.
  • "The Nelson Touch" consisted of thinking outside the norms of 18th century sea warfare. Nelson generally gained the advantage by doing the unexpected or taking what others would see as unacceptable risk. For instance, in the Battle of the Nile, which drove Napoleon from North Africa, he engaged in a night battle, a very chancy affair considering the presence of nearby shoals and the impossibility of communicating with his captains.

    So consider celebrating Trafalgar's 200th anniversary by reading more about a fascinating personality and genius-- even if his genius was war at sea.

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    copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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