Posted: October 14, 2004
lfred Thayer Mahan, the premier American theorist of naval strategy, describes Admiral Horatio Nelson as "the one man who in himself summed up and embodied the greatness of the possibilities which Sea Power comprehends." Mahan's own biography of Nelson (1897) formed an integral part of his masterful and widely read studies of "the influence of sea power upon history," as viewed through the prism of the long series of Anglo-French wars in the period from 1660 to 1815. This historical epoch no doubt strikes the contemporary reader as unimaginably remote, and most unlikely to hold lessons of importance for warfare or politics today. Yet these wars, especially the Seven Years War and the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, were the first true global wars, fought over vast distances and several continents. Moreover, they were the crucible in which the modern world as we know it was formed. Absent the sweeping British victory in the Seven Years War, ironically enough, American independence might well have been delayed indefinitely or taken quite a different shape. And the final triumph of the British-led coalition against Napoleon in 1815 helped ensure that the future would belong to Anglo-American style liberalism rather than some despotic version of modern socialism. From this point of view, the success of British arms at sea has had tremendous world-historical impact. (Hegelians, take note.)
It is also well to remember how rare great naval actions have been over the last two hundred years. After Nelson's decisive victory at Trafalgar (1805), no large fleet action between major powers was fought until the (equally decisive) Battle of the Tsushima Straits in the Russo-Japanese War a century later. Apart from the abortive Battle of Jutland (1916), the main British and German fleets essentially sat out World War I; nor did the American and Soviet navies ever engage one another in the course of a shooting World War III. Only in the Pacific theater during World War II did naval action occur on the scale of the great Anglo-French wars. What's more, not since Nelson has any single naval officer achieved so much or been so honored in his own day or later. In any list of the 10 or so great military leaders of history, Nelson is likely to figure—the only admiral to do so.
The Nelson story has been told many times. Much of its fascination has to do with the man's personality and private life, notably, his long infatuation and love affair, during the height of his fame, with Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador to Naples and a famous and somewhat disreputable beauty of the day. There is an interesting contrast between Nelson and the other great British commander of the Napoleonic wars, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo and later prime minister of Britain. Nelson was a man of "sensibility" in Jane Austen's sense of that term. As Edgar Vincent remarks in this outstanding new biography, Wellington was a cold calculator, a chess player for whom his officers and men were mere pieces, while Nelson's warmth, spontaneity, and sensitivity to the needs of others made him beloved by his men—and very susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex.
Vincent's Nelson is popular history of the best kind. Vincent is an Oxford graduate who served briefly in the Royal Navy before entering the business world. Accordingly, he is not beholden to contemporary fashions and can therefore tell his story without genuflecting before the requirements of the new social history or academic political correctness. He writes almost entirely from the primary sources, and engages in little debate with his predecessors or with academic historiography of the period. The Nelson that emerges from his monumental book is no one-dimensional hero, but a man with very evident limitations and flaws. Yet neither is this one of those biographies, now so common, in which psychosexual speculation overwhelms all else and the debunking of human greatness from the vantage point of our post-modern littleness is the real aim. Vincent is attentive to the conventions and culture of the world in which Nelson existed. He is an admirer of Nelson—the book is plainly a labor of love. What centrally interests him is Nelson's psychological makeup and how it interacted with the world of his day to create a modern tragic hero. But there is little contemporary psychobabble here. Rather, in the delicacy and penetration of his analyses of personal behavior, Vincent is more than a little reminiscent of Jane Austen—herself no slouch, by the way, in naval matters (her brother Francis was one of Nelson's captains). Indeed, his book often reads more like a historical novel than a conventional history.
Nelson was a passionate man, and the passions that drove him were "love and fame." One of eight children, Nelson's mother died when he was nine years old; he was never close to his father, an easy-going, somewhat neurotic clergyman. These circumstances no doubt explain at least in part the force of Nelson's need for intimacy or love in later life. He went to sea at age 13, thanks to the patronage of a well-connected uncle who commanded a "sixty-four," a Royal Navy ship of the line. Returning to England after five years of maritime adventure in various corners of the world, Nelson, ill with malaria and depressed at his prospects for advancement, underwent a kind of epiphany: "After a long and gloomy reverie, in which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me, and presented my king and country as my patron. My mind exulted in the idea. 'Well, then,' I exclaimed, 'I will be a hero, and confiding in Providence I will brave every danger.'" Nelson craved the fame that could only come from heroic military deeds performed in the service of his nation.
How Nelson compartmented his life and emotions between these two powerful impulses is complicated and fascinating. His own early marriage was a failure virtually from the start, made even more difficult by his continual absence from home; but there was never any question of where Nelson's priorities lay in this case. After his capture by Lady Hamilton, by contrast, the tension between his private and public lives becomes increasingly evident. Though Nelson certainly never admitted to himself the influence Emma could exercise over decisions relating to his professional life, such was the reality, and one increasingly noticed to the detriment of Nelson's reputation. This was particularly true in the bizarre atmosphere of Bourbon Naples, where Nelson and the Hamiltons became intimate political advisers of Ferdinand I and his queen, Maria Carolina, and worked together to restore the couple to their throne following the short-lived French occupation of the city and the creation of a puppet republic there in 1799.
Although in the long run Nelson's actions certainly advanced the cause of liberal constitutionalism, Nelson himself was a politically conventional Englishman heartily devoted not only to king and country but to the idea of monarchy. He was genuinely offended by the ingratitude of the Neapolitans toward their egregious Bourbon overlords, and in a series of actions that remain controversial to this day, he may have connived at the betrayal and execution of some hundreds of republican rebels who surrendered after his successful naval siege of the city. He seems to have detested the French generally, but especially so following the Revolution, while he maintained a certain fondness for Spaniards—"the Dons"—even while fighting them. He also had little affection for Americans: when stationed in the Leeward Islands during his first command tour in 1785, he rigidly enforced restrictions on American trading vessels in the area, much to the annoyance of local British merchants. This is not to say that Nelson's political judgment was simply bad. As he rose in rank, his responsibilities increasingly extended into the diplomatic realm, and Nelson was impressive in his ability both to integrate political and military factors into a coherent strategic approach to the situations he faced, and to deal effectively with allied counterparts. Nevertheless, as with many outstanding military figures (consider our own General Wesley Clark), a certain rigidity, tone-deafness, and wrong-footedness can be detected in Nelson's political interventions. His one speech in Parliament, a defense in the House of Lords of the government's peace policy in 1803, was something of an embarrassment.
What was the secret of Nelson's military success, and more broadly, that of the British Navy as a whole during this critical period? Vincent quite rightly emphasizes aspects of Nelson's leadership that are too often overlooked in traditional military histories, mostly relating to his management style and practices. Nelson was a financial micromanager, a consummate logistician, and fanatically devoted to the physical and mental well being of his men. At a time when more sailors were routinely lost to diseases such as scurvy than to enemy action, Nelson involved himself personally to a highly unusual extent in seeing that his ships were provisioned with ample and healthful foodstuffs. He was also unremitting in his commitment to fair treatment for his officers and men alike. At a time when, in Winston Churchill's only half-joking phrase, the Royal Navy ran on "rum, sodomy and the lash," naval discipline was a serious matter. Nelson never hesitated to have sailors flogged, but he was careful to limit the practice to unarguable cases. At the same time, he was extremely sensitive to the need to reward merit (most effectively done, he believed, on the spot, that is, in the immediate aftermath of battle), and was constantly engaged in guiding and promoting the careers of his best officers. Finally, and perhaps of most interest from a contemporary point of view, Nelson developed an innovative and highly effective system of what we would today call command and control. In lengthy informal meetings (often over meals) with small groups of his senior officers, he apparently talked through various strategic and tactical issues facing the fleet and developed a general understanding of how to approach them. The result was that when he went into battle, his captains felt they knew the admiral's mind, did not require an elaborate and cumbersome set of signals from his flagship, and could respond with flexibility and creativity to the demands and opportunities of the moment. All of this is reminiscent of the concept of so-called "mission-style" command that was to make the German army such a formidable fighting force later in the century and beyond, and has been revived in recent years by the United States military.
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But what of the actual tactics that led Nelson to victory in all of his great engagements—the battles of Cape St. Vincent (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and of course Trafalgar (1805)? Here, it has to be said, Vincent disappoints. Although he gives these key battles and others their due, he never really steps back to analyze comprehensively what would come to be known as the "Nelson touch." In the classic studies of Mahan and his British counterpart Sir Julian Corbett (1910), Nelson is probably given too much credit for developing a new tactical doctrine that broke decisively with traditional Royal Navy practices as canonized in its famous "Fighting Instructions." The core of this new approach involved breaking the enemy's line of battle in order to concentrate most or all of one's own force against only part of his. More recent research has, however, blurred this picture considerably (John Creswell, British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century: Tactics in Battle , is an excellent account of the relevant complexities). More recent work by scholars such as Colin White and N. A. M. Rodger, including the discovery of hundreds of Nelson's letters not previously known and not utilized by Vincent, have altered the picture still further in the direction of a more traditionalist interpretation of the admiral.)
It is easy to exaggerate the extent to which British admirals of the day could exercise effective control of a fleet beyond a relatively early stage in any battle. Without in any way denying Nelson's careful attention to tactical possibilities, one may hazard the opinion that in the end it is his unrelenting offensive spirit more than anything else that seems to have been the decisive factor in each of his great victories. In this regard, Nelson seems to have grasped intuitively a truth about naval combat that has too often escaped its practitioners—that at sea (and contrary to Carl von Clausewitz's well-known maxim about combat on land) offense is the stronger form of war. In this respect, Nelson and Napoleon were kindred spirits. Both despised the 18th-century-style maneuver warfare that was to be derided by later military thinkers such as Clausewitz. Nelson for one was well aware that naval warfare in his day was too much influenced by mercenary considerations—captains and their admirals could and did get very rich through taking enemy prizes (see Jane Austen'sPersuasion)—which tended to undermine a true fighting spirit.
One should not leave this subject, though, without at least a glance at the material that Nelson had to work with. On paper, the British Navy throughout much of this period had nothing like decisive superiority even over the French, let alone the French in combination with other theoretical or actual naval adversaries such as the Spanish, the Americans, the Danes, the Swedes, or the Russians. Most of Nelson's major battles involved enemy concentrations that were not markedly inferior in numbers to his own, and at least the French and Spanish ships of the line were fully comparable to those of the British in terms of seaworthiness, firing power, and speed. Where the British excelled, and what helps to account for the one-sidedness of Nelson's great victories, was in basic seamanship; at least arguably, in gunnery; and in discipline, endurance, and perseverance under fire. These were the hidden virtues of a sea-faring nation that was at the same time a proud and free people. Americans today would do well to ponder these sorts of virtues and the conditions required to sustain them.