Alphen, Netherlands. 29 October. Last Thursday night on board HMS Nelson in Portsmouth I had the honour to give the Trafalgar Night dinner speech to the ancient Royal Navy Club of 1756 and 1785 in commemoration of Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous victory and untimely death off Cape Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805. Entitled Nelson and the Pursuit of Victory my speech also considered the challenge of the Royal Navy in the face of the revolution in military technology underway and how Nelson would have fought what is euphemistically called future war.
Nelson and the Pursuit of Victory
Honoured Guests, Distinguished Officers of the Naval Service, ladies and gentlemen
My subject tonight is Nelson and the pursuit of victory. My aim is to pose and answer a question - how would Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte, Admiral of the White and Colonel of the Marines have pursued victory in what we euphemistically call future war?
To that end, I will consider Nelson’s victories at Copenhagen, the Nile and, of course, his valedictory victory at Trafalgar on October 21st 1805, before I conclude with a very personal anecdote.
My themes? Selection and maintenance of the aim (the Master Principle): the destruction of the enemy, Nelson’s genius for combining innovation, superior technology and firepower at the decisive moment, his acceptance of considered and controlled risk, and his understanding of the power of a trusted and committed team in battle. But, above all, Admiral Lord Nelson’s mastery of decisive leadership through instinct, experience and learning, not least from his own many mistakes.
At the August 1795 Battle of the Nile Nelson seized the moment created and afforded by a tactical mistake by his opponent the French Admiral Brueys. However, it was an opportunity sealed by his tactical genius and his innovative thinking. At the Nile, Nelson ensured each French man-o-war always faced at least two British. Then, with the superior rate and weight of fire his gunlock cannon and their well-trained gun-crews afforded the Fleet, allied to a willingness to take a calculated risk in shallow waters, Brueys was quickly disabused of his complacent belief that his defensive position was strong.
Nelson was also willing to take personal risk. The night before the action during dinner on board HMS Vanguard Nelson said, (and I quote) “This time tomorrow I shall either have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey”. And, whilst Nelson eventually battered the French fleet into submission it was not before he had been wounded in the head. He knew the risk, but he also knew that ending Bonaparte’s ambitions on Egypt was a strategic prize worth the risk-reward decision he had to take.
Nelson’s understanding of the role of force in the national interest was also evident at the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. Indeed, Nelson fully understood the grand strategic implications of ensuring the modern Danish fleet could never have been employed against the Royal Navy in possible combination with Russia and Sweden. To that end, Nelson was prepared to accept significant risk against a strong defence because again he understood the strategic significance of the action. When Admiral Sir Hyde Parker signalled that Nelson might consider withdrawing under heavy fire Nelson said to his flag captain Thomas Foley, “You know, Foley, I only have one eye and I have the right to be blind sometimes”.
Nelson’s use of truce during the battle also demonstrated just how politically savvy he had become, unlike earlier in his career. Under a flag of truce Nelson sent a note to the Danish Crown Prince. It is a masterpiece of forceful British diplomacy. It said, and I quote: “To the Brothers of Englishmen, the Danes. Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when she is no longer resisting, but if firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power to save the brave Danes who have defended them”.
However, it is the October 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s relentless pursuit of victory for which the world best knows the Great Man. Indeed, as an example of the Master Principle applied in action, it is unsurpassed. By Trafalgar Nelson had established psychological superiority over his enemies, particularly the French commander Admiral Villeneuve, who he had pursued across the Atlantic and back. Critically, Trafalgar is also the apex of Nelson’s ‘band of brothers’ forged not only by his decisive leadership, but by his trust in those under his command – naval officers, Royal Marines and ratings, and by no means all of them British. As my good friend Lt General Ed Davis, the Governor of Gibraltar, told this august body in 2013 (and note the emphasis on Marines), “…17,000 Sailors and Marines, from 22 nations manned Nelson’s Fleet of 27 ships off the Cape of Trafalgar…[and] contemplated how they would ‘do their duty’ to deliver their Commander’s battle-plan for defeating Napoleon’s Fleet…..“Swift and bold, swift and bold; engage closely, engage closely”.
You see Nelson believed in the fighting spirit and had supreme confidence in the skills, experience, tactical nous and fighting power of his brother officers from Collingwood down and the men who served them. It showed in the risk he took by sailing slowly at the Franco-Spanish fleet in two columns with the intention of breaking the enemy’s battle line. To do that Nelson effectively enabled Villeneuve to ‘cross his T’, something that Jellicoe was to achieve twice over a century later against Scheer’s High Seas Fleet at Jutland.
For an extended period, the French and Spanish were permitted to pour a much heavier weight of fire upon the British fleet than could be immediately returned. However, even though the British fleet was out-numbered and out-gunned, such was Nelson’s belief in his ‘team’ he felt emboldened to take the risk as he knew the discipline, patience and seamanship needed for his masterstroke to work would be maintained. That is why prior to the battle Nelson famously said, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”.
Once the enemy line had been broken what happened thereafter was an exercise in systematic destruction by a patently superior British fleet. The strategic consequence? Not only was the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s Grande Armee lifted, but Britain’s dominance of the seas was confirmed for over a century.
Nelson’s determination to put the right people with the right stuff in the right place at the right time brings me to my own very personal anecdote. In June 1980, shortly after Schools at Oxford and confident of a very good degree in Modern History, I tried to join the Naval Service. Hard though it is for this noble throng to believe I was a little full of myself at that age. In I breezed to the Recruiting Office where I handed over my CV to a grizzled old Chief Petty Officer who looked like he had stepped straight from the gun-deck of Victory. ‘Where do I sign?” was written all over my face. A face which clearly filled him with all the enthusiasm of the middle watch on a stormy South Atlantic night. Suddenly, what passed for a grimace emerged from beneath the beard – “You failed your physics O-Level, did ya?” he asked in a broad Devon drawl. “Yes”, I said, somewhat recoiling, “but I have a legion of other O-levels and a host of top grade A-levels”. “Not good enough”, he growled, “…now bugger off”.
Chief Petty Officer? That man should have made Admiral, Admiral, for he undoubtedly saved the Naval Service and the country from perhaps the worst naval officer ever to have darkened the forecastle of any British man-o-war. Indeed, I can only imagine Nelson’s response to my misplaced ambition. “Sink me, sir. Hoist your Colours elsewhere and be smart about it!”
Nelson’s pursuit of victory was built on the solid principle embodied in Vegetius’s third-century insight and motto of the Royal Navy – si vis pacem para bellum – if you want peace prepare for war. That is not bellicosity, but rather the recognition that if a peace endures that honours our ancient freedoms the Naval Service must be at the core of a new band of brothers and sisters – a warfighting deep joint force that respects Britain’s place as a top five world power, that projects Britain's still undoubted power, reinforces our American allies, assures the defence of Europe and keeps open the sea lanes which are still the sinews of prosperity. A naval fighting force with carrier strike at its expeditionary warfighting core that knows it history from Drake to Hawke to Nelson et al and through confident self-belief enables coalitions central to our strategic method, exerts our legitimate interests, and deters our enemies and adversaries.
It is my firm belief that if the Navy’s build programme is honoured by the government (a very big if) the new Royal Navy – the future force - will be of sufficient power and capability to sit at the heart of future Allied maritime/amphibious power projection coalitions and when needed exert Britain’s authority.
My cri de coeur is thus: having invested in so many new assets it would be irresponsible bordering on criminal not to ensure our ships, submarines and aircraft, but above all our people, have the right tools to do the job that a no-longer-impossible major war could call upon you to fight. To afford you the necessary protections in the face of the future war revolution in military technology that is now upon us. My responsibility to you as a citizen is to afford the Naval Service, sufficient confidence of mission success at a reasonable level of risk and underpinned by an appropriate scale of forces and resources. THAT is for me what I would call the Prime Nelsonic Lesson.
So, to conclude, my master message is this? Whatever the technology there are enduring principles of leadership in the crises of warfare that Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte, Admiral of the White and Colonel of the Marines embodied. For Nelson the Naval Service must, first and foremost, be a warfighting force designed, equipped, trained and educated to prevail in war. The Nelson Touch did not refer to diplomacy or his sensitivity to humanitarian need, however rightly important they are in this modern age. No, the Nelson Touch referred to the combination-in-action of innovation, education, instinct, technology and teamwork in the pursuit of victory.
Leadership IS thus the Nelson Touch which he is why the Great Man is not only Britain’s greatest naval hero, he is regarded the world-over as THE naval hero. He also remains for many of us the very embodiment of a national hero – a man who served and saved his country through valour at a decisive moment in its history and being.
Let me leave the last words to Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, his brother in arms at Trafalgar. Soon after Trafalgar Collingwood wrote: “He possessed the zeal of an enthusiast directed by talents which Nature had very bountifully bestowed on him, and everything seemed, as if by enchantment, to prosper under his direction. BUT, it was the effect of system, and nice combination, not of chance”.
Admiral. Thank you.
Julian Lindley-French, Portsmouth, October 2018