Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

The Battle of the Nile

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The Battle of St Vincent

Off the Cape of St Vincent on 14 February 1797, the British fleet consisting of 15 ships-of-the-line, including HMS Captain commanded by Nelson, sighted the Spanish fleet of 27 ships, which included 22 ships-of-the-line. Although outnumbered, the British fleet was confident of victory owing to its superior efficiency. This was Nelson’s first fleet action and one that was marked with typical daring. Jervis ordered his ships to sail through the two divisions of Spanish ships and then split into two separate divisions to attack them. During this manoeuvre Nelson noticed that some Spanish ships might escape. On his own initiative Nelson ordered HMS Captain out of the line towards the Spanish ships, which surrounded and fired at her. HMS Excellent, HMS Culloden and HMS Blenheim went to Nelson’s assistance. The action that ensued was fierce. HMS Captain was rendered immobile by enemy fire - ‘not a sail, shroud, or rope left, her wheel shot away, and incapable of further service in the line or in chase’ (Morriss page 72). Nelson manoeuvred his ship alongside the Spanish San Nicolas and led a boarding party to take her. Although San Nicolas was still firing her guns at British ships, some of her officers surrendered. Nelson’s boarding party came under musket fire from the Spanish San Josef, whose rigging was entangled with that of San Nicolas. Seizing the opportunity, Nelson also boarded San Josef, using what he described as ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First-Rates’ (Hibbert, page 109). The officers on this ship also surrendered.

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View Jervis's despatch about the Battle of St Vincent

At the end of this battle Britain had attained a great victory, with Nelson’s actions being the battle’s highlight. Although Nelson had disobeyed orders by breaking the line, and risking a court martial if the action had gone wrong, he was warmly received by Jervis. It was rare for flag officers to capture one ship in this way but two was without precedent. Jervis, when writing to the Admiralty, praised ‘the correct conduct of every officer and man [making] it impossible to distinguish one more than the other’ (Hibbert, page 111). Nelson, however, wrote his own battle account which he sent to his friend Captain Locker for publication in the press. News of Nelson’s heroics captured the public imagination. Nelson was made a Knight of the Bath and was promoted in terms of seniority to rear admiral, whilst Jervis was created Earl of St Vincent. On hearing of her husband’s deeds, Fanny implored Nelson ‘that all these wonderful and desperate actions such as boarding ships you will leave to others’ (Morriss, page 74). But Fanny seemed to misunderstand Nelson’s nature.

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