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The Story of Nelson by  Edmund Francis Sellar


 

 

NAPOLEON'S THREATENED INVASION OF ENGLAND

[79] AS soon as peace had been made with the Danes, the British fleet set out for the Baltic, with the object of finding the Swedish squadron.

Nelson had in the meantime shifted his flag to the St. George, and as some repairs had to be made to this ship, he was forced to remain behind till she could be got ready.

"We have reports," he had written to Lady Hamilton, "that the Swedish fleet is above the Shallows. All our fellows are longing to be at them, and so do I, as great a boy as any of them, for I consider this as being at school, and going to England as going home for the holidays; therefore I really long to finish my task."

Before his flagship was ready for sea a [80] report came that the Swedish admiral had sailed.

The idea that a fight should take place, and Nelson himself not be present, was not to be thought of. Instantly he ordered a boat to be lowered, and in this he started off to join the fleet.

His only feeling was one of fear lest the fleet should have sailed before he got on board one of the ships.

So great was his hurry that he would not even wait till his overcoat was brought to him.

"No, I am not cold," he kept repeating; "my anxiety for my country will keep me warm."

"Do you think the fleet has sailed?" he added; "if they are, we shall follow them to Carlscrona, by Gad!"

In the words of one of his officers, "The idea of going in a small boat, rowing six oars, without a single morsel of anything to eat or drink, the distance of about ten leagues, must convince the world that every other earthly consideration than that of saving his country was totally banished from his thoughts."

[81] About midnight the tired rowers reached the Elephant, up whose side Nelson clambered half dead with cold after his five hours' row in the bitter northern night.

Next morning the Swedes were seen, but they quickly retired into shelter behind the batteries of Carlscrona.

After some letters had passed between them, Parker saw that the Swedish Government sincerely wished for peace, and he gave orders for the fleet to sail to the Gulf of Finland.

They had not got far on their way, however, when a despatch-boat from the Russian ambassador at Copenhagen overtook them. This boat had been sent to tell the British admiral of the Czar Paul's death, and to say that the new emperor had accepted an offer made by Great Britain to end the dispute by agreement, without actually coming to blows.

The fleet returned to Zealand on hearing this news, and cast anchor in Kiöge Bay, where they remained till despatches arrived from home on the 5th of May, recalling Parker, and making Nelson commander-in-chief.

[82] Left to himself, the new commander-in-chief was not long in getting to work. First he politely but firmly told the Swedish admiral that his fleet must remain in port. Next, by going to Revel as soon as Parker had left, he let the Russians see that for their own sake they had better stay where they were.

"I shall now go there as a friend," he had written; "but the two fleets shall not form a junction, unless my orders permit it."

On his arrival with his twelve ships of the line, he went on shore and paid an official visit to the authorities, and the presence of the mightiest seaman of the day, backed as he was by a fleet, had the wished-for effect.

The British ships with their goods and their crews were instantly given up; all Nelson asked for was promptly granted, after which the Czar most prudently, to use Nelson's own words, "begged that he would go away."

Soon after this, to his great delight, now that there was no more fighting to be done, he was relieved, and bidding farewell to the Baltic on the 19th of June, he landed at Yarmouth some three weeks after. "To find a proper successor," St. Vincent had [83] written to him, "your lordship knows is no very easy task, for I never saw the man in our profession, excepting yourself and Troubridge, who possessed the magic art of infusing the same spirit into others which inspired their own actions."

On arrival at Yarmouth he was received by vast crowds, who did all they knew to honour the conquering admiral.

Nelson never halted, but quickly making his way through the dense, cheering throng, he went straight to the hospital, where lay so many of his men, wounded in the late battle.

Stopping at every bed, he spoke a few words to each sailor.

"Well, Jack, what's the matter?" he asked of one.

"Lost my right arm, your honour," came the answer.

Nelson stopped, then holding up his own empty sleeve, shook it at the sailor, and said playfully—

"Well, Jack, then you and I are spoilt for fishermen. Cheer up, my brave fellow."

At every bed he came to he said something kind and encouraging. And the surgeon said the admiral did more good than a doctor; [84] every eye seemed to sparkle, and every sufferer to forget his pain when Nelson spoke to him.

Before leaving for the Baltic, Nelson, who, after the Nile, described his career as having been far beyond his greatest hopes in the way of honour and rewards, had serious thoughts of giving up the sea and settling down to a life of peace on shore.

There was yet, however, much of his finest work to do.

Lord St. Vincent had from the first begged him not to retire, and events abroad were in such a dangerous state that Nelson could not possibly leave the service and desert the country he so well and bravely served.

Baffled in his attempt on India, his fleet destroyed at the Nile, Napoleon had declared that he had no choice left but to make a descent on Britain.

To meet this danger the presence of the great admiral was of the greatest importance. The knowledge that he was at the head of the plans made for the defence of his country would alone calm the public mind. At the same time the very name of Nelson was enough to make the enemy think twice before making [85] any attempt in which they were likely to meet him in battle.

In answer to the call of his country, Nelson undertook its defence, and, as usual, entered on his task with energy and zeal.

He found the country quite unprepared to meet an invasion. "Everything must have a beginning," he wrote to Lord St. Vincent, "and we are literally at the foundation of our fabric of defence."

Calais, Boulogne, and Dieppe, although the ports nearest to England, were not in Nelson's opinion suitable for the embarking of troops; that the attack would come from Flanders he thought more likely.

"Great preparations at Ostend," he writes; "Augereau commands that part of the army. I hope to let him feel the bottom of the Goodwin Sand."

That Napoleon thought of making a serious invasion of the country seemed scarcely possible. That he might be able to land some troops, and with them make a dash on London, both Nelson and the nation thought possible.

The aim of the British defence was, as it is to this day, to keep the enemy away from our [86] coasts and attack them the instant they came out of port.

Should the French get a calm day they would most probably row over in boats, in which case our fleet might not be able to get at them, with no wind to fill their sails.

In that case the British were to attack them in small boats, no matter how great the enemy's superiority in numbers might be.

"The courage of Britons," Nelson proudly boasted, "will never, I believe, allow one Frenchman to leave the beach."

The boats would take some twelve hours to row over from France. Although they started in a calm, a breeze might quite well spring up in this time. In that case the British fleet were to make an onslaught on the small craft and transports. Their cannon would mow through the ranks of transports, the loss of the enemy would be terrible, but, as Nelson grimly said, "No delicacy can be observed on this great occasion."

"Whatever plans may be adopted," he wrote, "the moment the enemy touch our coast, be it where it may, they are to be attacked by every man afloat and on shore: this must be perfectly understood. Never fear the event."

[87] England was now like a large armed camp; the great shadow of invasion was hanging over the country. "Bony" himself, with whose name nurses were used to frighten children, was coming over to try and conquer Britain as he had conquered Europe. Small wonder that the whole country sprang to arms!

Having drawn up his plan of defence, the admiral, only three weeks after his return, again hoisted his flag, this time at Sheerness, on the Unité  frigate.

No time was lost; in all his actions he used every haste, "in order to give an example to the country and the service of the advantage of all getting to their posts as speedily as possible."

Nelson never spared himself. One day he would be at Sheerness inspecting the thirty ships there under his command; two days later he would hold a review on land of the "Sea Fencibles," a force newly raised to meet the invasion; again he would appear off Boulogne, where the French admiral, La Touche Tréville, with his fleet, lay moored.

On August 15 an attack was made on Boulogne with fifty-seven boats. The British [88] fought gallantly, but luck was against them, and they were beaten back.

Nelson, however, had seen enough of the French flat-bottomed clumsy craft to feel sure that they would be no match at sea for his own swift cutters. He also saw that there was little on a great scale that could be done, and that owing to tides and sandbanks any attack on the enemy while in port was scarcely worth the risk of so much loss of life to our brave seamen.

At length the French also saw that the invasion of England was too difficult to be thought of, and peace was made.

Nelson, though his flag still continued to fly as commander-in-chief, went on shore and took up his abode at Merton, an estate which he had newly bought, and which was the only home of his own he ever had on English soil.

That the peace would last he never for a moment thought likely. And though he might long for quiet and rest, still he was ready at the call of his country. "Whenever it is necessary, I am your admiral," he wrote to the Prime Minister.

Already there had been some talk of his [89] returning to the Mediterranean. His very presence there would, in the words of Lord Minto, "show Bonaparte, if he hoists his flag, it will not be in joke."

On the 16th of May war was again declared, and four days later Nelson sailed in the Victory.


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