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Leadership – Horatio Nelson

  • Vice Admiral Nelson always led from the front – he lost his right eye at Calvi, his right arm at Tenerife, his life at Trafalgar

  • Whilst of no great physical stature, clearly he was no shrinking violet in battle and this proved inspirational to his fellow officers and crew, and the nation

  • He was clever, brave, clear thinking, understanding, tactful (mostly) and prone to sudden, unpremeditated kindness to any member of his crew

  • He also had human weaknesses, being more than a tad arrogant with those he didn’t know or respect – with the Duke of Wellington, for instance, before he knew it was him he was talking to – and vain in flaunting his medals and bestowed titles whenever moving in society e.g. the Duke of Bronte n.b. the father of the Bronte sisters was a fan and so adopted this name for his family

  • His great strength was to outline his battle plans to his captains – his ‘band of brothers’ as he called them, following on from ‘Henry V’ – and tell them he had selected and trained them so well that he trusted their judgement, experience and originality to sort out the tactics and do the right thing in the mayhem to follow

  • Such trust, from such a man, was an enormous boost to their confidence and team spirit – it made things more exciting for them, so they were more effective overall

  • The Nelson touch was never defined by him:

    • It’s taken to mean clever, daring, well thought-out, always a winner

    • The Oxford English Dictionary only has it as ‘a masterly or sympathetic approach to a problem’ which sells it a cable or two short

  • In essence, Nelson generated an atmosphere of excellence that inspired others to raise their game

  • He thus won all his big battles and, in the process, saved England from defeat by Napoleon


  The Battle of Trafalgar – 21 October, 1805:

  • At Trafalgar, 22 British and 33 French/ Spanish ships of the line were involved, led by Vice Admiral Lord Nelson and Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve respectively

  • The prevailing orthodoxy was to approach an enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engage broadside in parallel lines – if all the ships were in line, signalling between them became possible facilitating control of the fleet – the line also allowed either side to disengage by breaking away in formation and, if the attacker chose to follow, their line would be broken as well which often led to inconclusive battles

  • Nelson’s plan was to cut the enemy’s line in three by approaching in two columns, sailing perpendicular to them, one towards the centre and one towards the trailing end – his ships would break the enemy formation into three, surround one third, and force them to fight to the end – he hoped to cut the line just in front of the flagship so the isolated ships in front of the break would not be able to see the flagship’s signals, taking them out of combat while they couldn’t coordinate their movements

  • The plan had three big advantages:

    • First, the British fleet would close the Franco-Spanish as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that they would be able to escape without fighting

    • Second, it would bring on a mêlée and frantic battle by breaking the enemy line and inducing a series of ship-to-ship actions, in which the British were likely to prevail because of superior seamanship, faster gunnery and better morale

    • Third, it would bring a decisive concentration on the rear of the Franco-Spanish fleet – the ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, which would take time – and once the Franco-Spanish line had been broken, their ships would be relatively defenceless against powerful broadsides from the British fleet

  • The main drawback of attacking head-on was that as the leading British ships approached, the Franco-Spanish fleet would be able to direct raking broadside fire at their bows, to which they would be unable to reply – to lessen the time the fleet was exposed to this danger, Nelson had his ships make all available sail, yet another departure from the norm

  • He was also well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained, would probably be supplemented with soldiers, and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform as they were sailing across a heavy swell, causing the ships to roll heavily

  • Nelson admitted some things had to be left to chance – nothing is sure in a sea battle – so he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy” i.e. circumstances would dictate the execution of his plan, subject to the enemy’s rear being cut off and superior force concentrated on that part of the enemy’s line

                         ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’     

N.B. Originally, Nelson wanted ‘confides’, not ‘expects’, but the latter was quicker to flag up