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The Story of Nelson by  Edmund Francis Sellar


 

 

TRAFALGAR—DEATH OF NELSON

[110] THE rival Fleets were made up as follows:—

Franco-Spanish,33 ships of the line, firing a broadside of 30,000 lbs.
British, 27 ships of the line, firing a broadside of 29,000 lbs.

It will thus be seen that though Nelson had fewer ships, yet the destructive power of his fire was almost as great as that of his enemies.

On the 13th of October Nelson's old ship, the Agamemnon, under the command of "the hero of a hundred fights," Captain Berry, joined the fleet. "Here comes Berry. Now we shall have a fight!" joyfully exclaimed his chief.

At last the action for which the great admiral was so eagerly longing was about to take place.

[111] On the 21st October, forty-eight years earlier, his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, had greatly distinguished himself in a desperate action against a superior force of the enemy. "The 21st will be our day; it is the happiest day in the year for my family," Nelson had declared a few days previously.

"This day or to-morrow will be a fortunate one for you young gentlemen," he said to a group of midshipmen. And again on the evening of the 20th he said, "To-morrow I will do that which will give you younger gentlemen something to talk and think about for the rest of your lives, but I shall not live to know about it myself."

The morning of the 21st showed the sea to be calm, with only a slight swell; the wind was light, and made the progress of the sailing ships slow.

To understand the battle we must picture to ourselves the allied fleet moving in two long lines abreast. Nelson, on the other hand, divided his ships into two columns which moved to battle in "line-a-head" and "line-a-bearing," or what we might almost call Indian file. Thus, while the Franco-Spanish fleet came on in a crescent shape, [112] Nelson sailed to meet them in two perpendicular lines, which he flung right on their centre.

His object was, as ever, destruction, and complete destruction, of the enemy, no matter what loss he himself might sustain.

"In cases where signals cannot be seen or clearly understood, no captain can do wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy." These were roughly his orders to the fleet. Before entering the battle he thought deeply for a suitable signal to give to his ships and men. Finally he decided on the now immortal words: "England expects that every man will do his duty." Amidst ringing cheers the flags spelt this sentence out to the fleet. "You must be quick," Nelson said to his signalers, "for I have another signal to make—'Close Action!'"

Duty and close action, these were the watchwords of Nelson's life and career. No more fitting sentiments could come from him on the day of his death and last and greatest victory.

Nelson's own ship, the Victory, led his column. Collingwood, in the Royal Sovereign, led the other column.

[113] The battle began about noon. The allies commenced firing at long range. Nelson, confident in the better discipline and fighting powers of his crews, pressed on in silence, withholding his fire.

The Victory  was under a storm of shot and shell. In a minute fifty of her men were killed or wounded. One shot alone killed a party of eight marines; another actually went screaming on its way between Nelson and Captain Hardy. Still the British stood to their guns, but the order to fire did not yet come.

At last the weary waiting and suspense were at an end. The Victory  was at length to speak and to hit back. "This is too warm work to last long," Nelson said to Captain Hardy.

When close between the French ship Redoubtable, and the huge Spanish Santisima Trinidad, the longed-for order came; the Victory's  broadsides poured in at close range. The effect was nearly instantaneous; so close were the combatants that the flames from Nelson's guns set fire to the French and Spanish ships.

The enemy fought with unflinching courage. [114] Twice was the order given to cease firing on the Redoubtable, as it was thought that she had struck her flag and that her guns were silenced. Twice did the Redoubtable  reply with shouts of defiance and a storm of shot.

From this ship, which he had twice spared, came the hero's death.

Conspicuous by the medals which covered his breast, the admiral made an easy mark for the French sharp-shooters stationed in the mizzen-top.

"In honour I gained them, in honour I shall die with them," he declared when his officers begged him to take them off before action.

Recognising Lord Nelson, a French sharp-shooter took careful aim and fired. "They have done for me at last, Hardy," the admiral exclaimed, sinking to the deck.

In mortal agony he was carried below. Heedless of his own pain, he gave orders that a handkerchief should be spread over his face and medals, lest his men should see, and be disheartened by the knowledge, that he was hit.


[Illustration]

"THEY HAVE DONE FOR ME AT LAST, HARDY."

"You can do nothing for me," he said to [115] the surgeon who hastened to his side, and he bade him go and attend to those whose lives he had a chance of saving.

From the first he knew he had only a few hours to live; but in spirit he was still on his quarter-deck, and his thoughts were of the battle raging round him, not of his own suffering. He repeatedly asked for Hardy, who could not as yet be spared from his duty on the quarter-deck.

At length, feeling victory was assured, Hardy left the deck. "Well, Hardy, how goes the battle?" was his chief's first eager question.

On Hardy bringing the joyful news that all was going well, and that twelve or fourteen of the enemies' ships had struck, "I hope none of our  ships have struck, Hardy?" Nelson anxiously exclaimed. "No, my lord, there is no fear of that," came the answer. Nelson then again shook hands with him, and, assuring him that he was dying, said farewell to his old and well-tried friend.

Again Hardy returned. This time he confirmed the capture of fourteen or fifteen ships. (There were really eighteen.) "That is well," replied the dying admiral, "but I bargained for twenty." "Anchor! Hardy, anchor!" He [116] gave the order, ever mindful of the well-being of his fleet, and in those last moments feeling sure that a storm was coming on. This was indeed the case, and in the gale that followed the battle, many ships which had been captured foundered and were lost.

The end was now near. The shouts of triumph and victory were in his dying ear.

"Thank God, I have done my duty. God be praised, I have done my duty," he kept repeating at intervals.

Finally, with the words, "God and my country," the mighty spirit left the pain-racked body. Nelson, "the saviour of our silver-coasted isle," the greatest seaman the world has ever seen, had fought his last fight, gained his most splendid victory.

The destruction was complete; the naval power of our foes was shattered; the British loss was almost trifling in comparison with that of the enemy. Some 4400 of the allies were killed, about 2500 were wounded, and many were prisoners. On the British side there were 402 killed, and about 1129 seriously wounded.

Seventeen of the enemies' ships were in the hands of the conquerors, and one had blown up.

[117] Nelson, before battle, had prayed for a great and glorious victory, and that no misconduct in any one might tarnish it. "May humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet," so ran his prayer.

His wishes were fulfilled, and our tars spared no effort to save the lives of their gallant foes, now that the battle was over.

Of the whole allied force only eleven sail of the line succeeded in making good their escape to Cadiz. Nelson's fondest hopes had been realised: the enemy were annihilated.

In those days news traveled slowly, and the official despatches did not reach London till November 6, or rather more than a fortnight after the battle.

They were carried by post-chaise, to which was fastened a pole with the Union Jack flying above the Tricolour. Thus, as the horses galloped through the country on their way to London, was the news of victory conveyed to the country-people and wayfarers. The mail-coaches took up the tale and spread the tidings. Many were draped in black, and the triumphant flag they carried was wreathed in crape, to tell the people [118] that though a glorious victory had been won, Nelson, the national hero, had laid down his life to gain it.

"I had their huzzas before: I have their hearts now," Nelson had written to Hardy before he embarked from England for the last time. Then cheering crowds had followed him, striving to get a glimpse of his well-loved face, or even to touch the hem of his garment.

Now, amid the mourning of a whole nation, he was followed by a sorrowing people to his resting-place in St. Paul's. Sir Peter Parker, his early admiral, who had been one of the first to discover his genius, was chief mourner.

As Lady Londonderry then wrote: "He now begins his immortal career, having nothing to achieve left, and bequeathing to the English fleet a legacy which they alone are able to improve."

That legacy the British fleet to this day strive to guard jealously.

Nelson, the boy who knew no fear, had gained his great end. He had saved his beloved country; nay, he had saved the whole of Europe. He had made the British navy a force which no power has since dared to [119] attack: he had secured to us India and our colonies.

In the words of Southey we may bid farewell to our greatest national hero:—

"He has left us a name and an example which are at this moment inspiring hundreds of the youth of England—a name which is our pride, and an example which will continue to be our shield and strength."


THE END.


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