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Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 19192

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Wherever the gleams of an English fire

On an English roof-tree shine,

Wherever the fire of a youth's desire

Is laid upon Honour's shrine,

Wherever brave deeds are treasured and told,

In the tale of the deeds of yore,

Like jewels of price in a chain of gold

Are the name and the fame he bore.

Wherever the track of our English ships

Lies white on the ocean foam,

His name is sweet to our English lips

As the names of the flowers at home;

Wherever the heart of an English boy

Grows big with a deed of worth,

Such names as his name have begot the same,

Such hearts will bring it to birth."


It was the night of October 20, 1805, a night moonless and black. In the narrow waters at the western throat of the Straits of Gibraltar, at regular intervals of three minutes through the whole night, the deep voice of a gun broke out and swept, a pulse of dying sound, almost to either coast, while at every half-hour a rocket soared aloft and broke in a curve of stars in the black sky. It was one of Nelson's repeating frigates signalling to the British fleet, far off to the south-west, Villeneuve's movements. Nelson for more than a week had been trying to daintily coax Villeneuve out of Cadiz, as an angler might try to coax a much-experienced trout from the cool depths of some deep pool. He kept the main body of his fleet sixty leagues distant-west of Cape St. Mary-but kept a chain of frigates within signalling distance of each other betwixt Cadiz and himself. He allowed the news that he had detached five of his line-of-battle ships on convoy duty to the eastward to leak through to the French admiral, but succeeded in keeping him in ignorance of the fact that he had called in under his flag five ships of equal force from the westward.

On October 19, Villeneuve, partly driven by hunger, and by the news that a successor was on the road from Paris to displace him, and partly tempted by the belief that he had before him a British fleet of only twenty-one ships of the line, crept out of Cadiz with thirty-three ships of the line-of which three were three-deckers-and seven frigates. Nelson had twenty-seven sail of the line with four frigates. The wind was light, and all through the 20th, Villeneuve's fleet, formed in seven columns-the Santissima Trinidad towering like a giant amongst them-moved slowly eastward. Nelson would not alarm his foe by making too early an appearance over the sky-line. His frigates signalled to him every few minutes, through sixty miles of sea-air, the enemy's movements; but Nelson himself held aloof till Villeneuve was too far from Cadiz to make a dash back to it and safety. All through the night of the 20th, Villeneuve's great fleet-a procession of mighty phantoms-was dimly visible against the Spanish coast, and the British frigates sent the news in alternate pulses of sound and flame to Nelson, by this time eagerly bearing up from Cape St. Mary.

The morning of the 21st broke misty, yet bright. The sea was almost like a floor of glass. The faintest of sea-airs blew. A lazy Atlantic swell rolled at long intervals towards the Straits, and the two fleets at last were visible to each other. Villeneuve's ships stretched a waving and slightly curved line, running north and south, with no regularity of order. The British fleet, in two compact and parallel columns, half a mile apart, came majestically on from the west. The ships in each column followed each other so closely that sometimes the bow of one was thrust past the quarter of the ship in advance of it. Nelson, in the Victory, headed one column, Collingwood, in the Royal Sovereign, led the other, and each flagship, it was to be noted, led with a clear interval between itself and its supports.

Villeneuve had a tactician's brain, and his battle-plan was admirable. In a general order, issued just before leading out his fleet, he told his captains, "There is nothing to alarm us in the sight of an English fleet. Their 64-gun ships have not 500 men on board; they are not more brave than we are; they are harassed by a two-years' cruise; they have fewer motives to fight well!" Villeneuve explained that the enemy would attack in column, the French would meet the attack in close line of battle; and, with a touch of Nelson's spirit, he urged his captains to take every opportunity of boarding, and warned them that every ship not under fire would be counted a defaulter.

Nelson's plan was simple and daring. The order of sailing was to be the order of battle. Collingwood leading one column, and he the other, would pierce the enemy's lines at points which would leave some twelve of the enemy's ships to be crushed betwixt the two British lines. Nelson, whose brooding genius forecast every changing eddy of battle, gave minute instructions on a score of details. To prevent mistakes amid the smoke and the fight, for example, he had the hoops on the masts of every British ship painted yellow; every ship was directed to fly a St. George's ensign, with the Union Jack at the fore-topmast, and another flying from the top-gallant stays. That he would beat the enemy's fleet he calmly took for granted, but he directed that every effort should be made to capture its commander-in-chief. Nelson crowned his instructions with the characteristic remark, that "in case signals were obscure, no captain can do wrong if he places his ship alongside of an enemy."

[Illustration: The Attack at Trafalgar, October 21st, 1805.

Five minutes past noon.

From Mahan's "Life of Nelson."]

By twelve o'clock the two huge fleets were slowly approaching each other: the British columns compact, grim, orderly; the Franco-Spanish line loose, but magnificently picturesque, a far-stretching line of lofty hulls, a swaying forest of sky-piercing masts. They still preserve the remark of one prosaic British sailor, who, surveying the enemy through an open port, offered the comment, "What a fine sight, Bill, yon ships would make at Spithead!"

It is curious to reflect how exactly both British and French invert on sea their land tactics. French infantry attack in column, and are met by British infantry in line; and the line, with its steadfast courage and wide front of fire, crushes the column. On sea, on the other hand, the British attack in column, and the French meet the attack in line; but the column wins. But it must be admitted that the peril of this method of attack is enormous. The leading ship approaches, stern on, to a line of fire which, if steady enough, may well crush her by its concentration of flame. Attack in column, in fact, means that the leading ships are sacrificed to secure victory for the ships in the rear. The risks of this method of attack at Trafalgar were enormously increased by the light and uncertain quality of the wind. Collingwood, in the Royal Sovereign, and Nelson, in the Victory, as a matter of fact, drifted slowly rather than sailed, stern on to the broadsides of their enemy. The leading British ships, with their stately heights of swelling canvas, moved into the raking fire of the far-stretching Franco-Spanish line at a speed of about two knots an hour. His officers knew that Nelson's ship, carrying the flag of the commander-in-chief, as it came slowly on, would be the mark for every French gunner, and must pass through a tempest of flame before it could fire a shot in reply; and Blackwood begged Nelson to let the Téméraire-"the fighting Téméraire"-take the Victory's place at the head of the column. "Oh yes, let her go ahead," answered Nelson, with a queer smile; and the Téméraire was hailed, and ordered to take the lead. But Nelson meant that the Téméraire should take the Victory's place only if she could, and he watched grimly to see that not a sheet was let fly or a sail shortened to give the Téméraire a chance of passing; and so the Victory kept its proud and perilous lead.

Collingwood led the lee division, and had the honour of beginning the mighty drama of Trafalgar. The Royal Sovereign was newly coppered, and, with every inch of canvas outspread, got so far ahead of her followers, that after Collingwood had broken into the French line, he sustained its fire, unhelped, for nearly twenty minutes before the Belleisle, the ship next following, could fire a gun for his help.

Of Collingwood, Thackeray says, "I think, since Heaven made gentlemen, it never made a better one than Cuthbert Collingwood," and there was, no doubt, a knightly and chivalrous side to Collingwood worthy of King Arthur's round table. But there was also a side of heavy-footed common-sense, of Dutch-like frugality, in Collingwood, a sort of wooden-headed unimaginativeness which looks humorous when set against the background of such a planet-shaking fight as Trafalgar. Thus on the morning of the fight he advised one of his lieutenants, who wore a pair of boots, to follow his example and put on stockings and shoes, as, in the event of being shot in the leg, it would, he explained, "be so much more manageable for the surgeon." And as he walked the break of his poop in tights, silk stockings, and buckled shoes, leading, in his single ship, an attack on a fleet, he calmly munched an apple. To be able to munch an apple when beginning Trafalgar is an illustration of what may be called the quality of wooden-headed unimaginativeness in Collingwood. And yet Collingwood had a sense of the scale of the drama in which he was taking part. "Now, gentlemen," he said to his officers, "let us do something to-day which the world may talk of hereafter." C

ollingwood, in reality, was a great man and a great seaman, and in the battle which followed he "fought like an angel," to quote the amusingly inappropriate metaphor of Blackwood.

The two majestic British columns moved slowly on, the great ships, with ports hauled up and guns run out, following each other like a procession of giants. "I suppose," says Codrington, who commanded the Orion, "no man ever before saw such a sight." And the element of humour was added to the scene by the spectacle of the tiny Pickle, a duodecimo schooner, gravely hanging on to the quarter of an 80-gun ship-as an actor in the fight describes it-"with the boarding-nettings up, and her tompions out of her four guns-about as large and as formidable as two pairs of Wellington boots."

Collingwood bore down to the fight a clear quarter of a mile ahead of the next ship. The fire of the enemy, like so many spokes of flame converging to a centre, broke upon him. But in silence the great ship moved ahead to a gap in the line between the Santa Anna, a huge black hulk of 112 guns, and the Neptune, of 74. As the bowsprit of the Royal Sovereign slowly glided past the stern of the Santa Anna, Collingwood, as Nelson had ordered all his captains, cut his studding-sails loose, and they fell, a cloud of white canvas, into the water. Then as the broadside of the Royal Sovereign fairly covered the stern of the Santa Anna, Collingwood spoke. He poured with deadly aim and suddenness, and at pistol-shot distance, his whole broadside into the Spaniard's stern. The tempest of shot swept the unhappy Santa Anna from end to end, and practically destroyed that vessel. Some 400 of its crew are said to have been killed or wounded by that single discharge! At the same moment Collingwood discharged his other broadside at the Neptune, though with less effect; then swinging round broadside to broadside on the Spanish ship, he swept its decks again and again with his guns. The first broadside had practically done the Spaniard's business; but its captain, a gallant man, still returned what fire he could. All the enemy's ships within reach of Collingwood had meanwhile opened on him a dreadful fire; no fewer than five line-of-battle ships were emptying their guns upon the Royal Sovereign at one time, and it seemed marvellous that the British ship was not shattered to mere splinters by the fire poured from so many quarters upon her. It was like being in the heart of a volcano. Frequently, it is said, the British saw the flying cannon-balls meet in mid-air. The seamen fell fast, the sails were torn, the bulwarks shattered, the decks ran red with blood. It was at that precise moment, however, that Collingwood said to his captain, "What would not Nelson give to be here!" While at the same instant Nelson was saying to Hardy, "See how that noble fellow Collingwood takes his ship into action!"

The other ships of Collingwood's column were by this time slowly drifting into the fight. At a quarter past twelve the Belleisle, the next ship, ranged under the stern of the unfortunate Santa Anna, and fired her larboard guns, double shotted, into that ship, with the result that her three masts fell over the side. She then steered for the Indomptable, an 80-gun ship, and sustained at the same moment the fire of two Spanish seventy-fours. Ship after ship of Collingwood's column came steadily up, and the roar of the battle deepened as in quick-following crashes each new line-of-battle ship broke into the thunder of broadsides.

Nelson, leading the weather column, steered a trifle to the northward, as the slowly moving line of the enemy pointed towards Cadiz. Nelson had given his last orders. At his mainmast head was flying, fast belayed, the signal, "Engage the enemy more closely." Nelson himself walked quietly to and fro on the little patch of clear plank, scarcely seven yards long, on the quarter-deck of the Victory, whence he could command the whole ship, and he wore the familiar threadbare frock uniform coat, bearing on the left breast four tarnished and lack-lustre stars. Then came the incident of the immortal signal. "We must give the fleet," said Nelson to Blackwood, "something by way of a fillip." After musing a while, he said, "Suppose we signal, 'Nelson confides that every man will do his duty'?" Some one suggested "England" instead of "Nelson," and Nelson at once caught at the improvement. The signal-officer explained that the word "confide" would have to be spelt, and suggested instead the word "expects," as that was in the vocabulary. So the flags on the masthead of the Victory spelt out the historic sentence to the slowly moving fleet. That the signal was "received with cheers" is scarcely accurate. The message was duly acknowledged, and recorded in the log of every ship, but perhaps not one man in every hundred of the actors at Trafalgar knew at the moment that it had been sent. But the message rings in British ears yet, across ninety years, and will ring in the ears of generations yet unborn.

Nelson led his column on a somewhat slanting course into the fight. He was bent on laying himself alongside the flagship of the enemy, and he knew that this must be one of the three great line-of-battle ships near the huge Santissima Trinidad. But there was no sign to show which of the three carried Villeneuve. At half-past twelve the ships upon which the Victory was moving began to fire single shots at her slowly drifting hulk to discover whether she was within range. The seventh of these shots, fired at intervals of a minute or so, tore a rent through the upper canvas of the Victory-a rent still to be seen in the carefully preserved sail. A couple of minutes of awful silence followed. Slowly the Victory drifted on its path, and then no fewer than eight of the great ships upon which the Victory was moving broke into such a tempest of shot as perhaps never before was poured on a single ship. One of the first shots killed Scott, Nelson's secretary; another cut down eight marines standing in line on the Victory's quarter-deck; a third passed between Nelson and Hardy as they stood side by side. "Too warm work to last long, Hardy," said Nelson, with a smile. Still the Victory drifted majestically on its fiery path without an answering gun.

The French line was irregular at this point, the ships lying, in some instances, two or three deep, and this made the business of "cutting" the line difficult. As Nelson could not pick out the French flagship, he said to Hardy, "Take your choice, go on board which you please;" and Hardy pointed the stern of the Victory towards a gap between the Redoutable, a 74-gun ship, and the Bucentaure. But the ship moved slowly. The fire upon it was tremendous. One shot drove a shower of splinters upon both Nelson and Hardy; nearly fifty men and officers had been killed or wounded; the Victory's sails were riddled, her studding-sail booms shot off close to the yard-arm, her mizzen-topmast, shot away. At one o'clock, however, the Victory slowly moved past the stern of the Bucentaure, and a 68-pounder carronade on its forecastle, charged with a round shot and a keg of 500 musket balls, was fired into the cabin windows of the French ship. Then, as the great ship moved on, every gun of the remaining fifty that formed its broadside-some of them double and treble loaded-was fired through the Frenchman's cabin windows.

The dust from the crumpled woodwork of the Bucentaure's stern covered the persons of Nelson and the group of officers standing on the Victory's quarter-deck, while the British sailors welcomed with a fierce shout the crash their flying shot made within the Frenchman's hull. The Bucentaure, as it happened-though Nelson was ignorant of the fact-was the French flagship; and after the battle its officers declared that by this single broadside, out of its crew of nearly 1000 men, nearly 400 were struck down, and no less than twenty guns dismounted!

But the Neptune, a fine French 80-gun ship, lay right across the water-lane up which the Victory was moving, and it poured upon the British ship two raking broadsides of the most deadly quality. The Victory, however, moved on unflinchingly, and the Neptune, fearing to be run aboard by the British ship, set her jib and moved ahead; then the Victory swung to starboard on to the Redoutable. The French ship fired one hurried broadside, and promptly shut her lower-deck ports, fearing the British sailors would board through them. No fewer, indeed, than five French line-of-battle ships during the fight, finding themselves grinding sides with British ships, adopted the same course-an expressive testimony to the enterprising quality of British sailors. The Victory, however, with her lower-deck guns actually touching the side of the Redoutable, still kept them in full and quick action; but at each of the lower-deck ports stood a sailor with a bucket of water, and when the gun was fired-its muzzle touching the wooden sides of the Redoutable-the water was dashed upon the ragged hole made by the shot, to prevent the Frenchman taking fire and both ships being consumed.

The guns on the upper deck of the Victory speedily swept and silenced the upper deck of the Redoutable, and as far as its broadsides were concerned, that ship was helpless. Its tops, however, were crowded with marksmen, and armed with brass coehorns, firing langrage shot, and these scourged with a pitiless and most deadly fire the decks of the Victory, while the Bucentaure and the gigantic Santissima Trinidad also thundered on the British flagship.

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