During lockdown, and in the brief craze for sea shanties, we were rather taken with the song Nelson’s Blood, a refreshing piece of doggerel with the repeated refrain “A drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm”. Every so often you must be reminded of the basics – and what a man Horatio Nelson was. A captain before he was 21, a household name throughout most of Europe at 39 and killed in action just three weeks after his 47th birthday. He won three resounding victories in British history at the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805).
Nelson was a charismatic leader who inspired those who served with him. He grasped the essence of naval warfare in the age of sail and had total confidence in the ships – the ‘wooden walls of old England’. He knew their capabilities, what they could and could not do. In the absence of an outbreak of fire, they could take a reasonable amount of punishment, time after time.
He also had confidence in his men. It was fortunate that his officers and men had been trained in the ‘hard school of knocks’ and were often at sea for months, even years at a time. The result was an understanding of seamanship that enabled them to grasp any brief tactical opportunity and gave them the ability, through relentless drill, to fire two or three broadsides in the time it took the French to fire one – firing four or five to every shot fired by the hapless Spanish. As a result, every British ship was worth two or three of their enemies. This enabled Nelson to take risks with utter confidence in his ships and men.