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Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 19460

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"All is over and done.

Render thanks to the Giver;

England, for thy son

Let the bell be toll'd.

Render thanks to the Giver,

And render him to the mould.

Under the cross of gold

That shines over city and river,

There he shall rest for ever

Among the wise and the bold."


Nelson's strategy at Trafalgar is described quaintly, but with real insight, in a sentence which a Spanish novelist, Don Perez Galdos, puts into the mouth of one of his characters: "Nelson, who, as everybody knows, was no fool, saw our long line and said, 'Ah, if I break through that in two places, and put the part of it between the two places between two fires, I shall grab every stick of it.' That was exactly what the confounded fellow did. And as our line was so long that the head couldn't help the tail, he worried us from end to end, while he drove his two wedges into our body." It followed that the flaming vortex of the fight was in that brief mile of sea-space, between the two points where the parallel British lines broke through Villeneuve's swaying forest of masts. And the tempest of sound and flame was fiercest, of course, round the two ships that carried the flags of Nelson and Collingwood. As each stately British liner, however, drifted-rather than sailed-into the black pall of smoke, the roar of the fight deepened and widened until the whole space between the Royal Sovereign and the Victory was shaken with mighty pulse-beats of sound that marked the furious and quick-following broadsides.

The scene immediately about the Victory was very remarkable. The Victory had run foul of the Redoutable, the anchors of the two ships hooking into each other. The concussion of the broadsides would, no doubt, have driven the two hulls apart, but that the Victory's studding-sail boom iron had fastened, like a claw, into the leech of the Frenchman's fore-topsail. The Téméraire, coming majestically up through the smoke, raked the Bucentaure, and closed with a crash on the starboard side of the Redoutable, and the four great ships lay in a solid tier, while between their huge grinding sides came, with a sound and a glare almost resembling the blast of an exploding mine, the flash, the smoke, the roar of broadside after broadside.

In the whole heroic fight there is no finer bit of heroism than that shown by the Redoutable. She was only a 74-gun ship, and she had the Victory, of 100 guns, and the Téméraire, of 98, on either side. It is true these ships had to fight at the same time with a whole ring of antagonists; nevertheless, the fire poured on the Redoutable was so fierce that only courage of a steel-like edge and temper could have sustained it. The gallant French ship was semi-dismasted, her hull shot through in every direction, one-fourth of her guns were dismounted. Out of a crew of 643, no fewer than 523 were killed or wounded. Only 35, indeed, lived to reach England as prisoners. And yet she fought on. The fire from her great guns, indeed, soon ceased, but the deadly splutter of musketry from such of her tops as were yet standing was maintained; and, as Brenton put it, "there was witnessed for nearly an hour and a half the singular spectacle of a French 74-gun ship engaging a British first and second rate, with small-arms only."

As a matter of fact, the Victory repeatedly ceased firing, believing that the Redoutable had struck, but still the venomous and deadly fire from the tops of that vessel continued; and it was to this circumstance, indeed, that Nelson owed his death. He would never put small-arms men in his own tops, as he believed their fire interfered with the working of the sails, and, indeed, ran the risk of igniting them. Thus the French marksmen that crowded the tops of the Redoutable had it all their own way; and as the distance was short, and their aim deadly, nearly every man on the poop, quarter-deck, and forecastle of the Victory was shot down.

Nelson, with Hardy by his side, was walking backwards and forwards on a little clear space of the Victory's quarter-deck, when he suddenly swung round and fell face downwards on the deck. Hardy picked him up. "They have done for me at last, Hardy," said Nelson; "my backbone is shot through." A musket bullet from the Redoutable's mizzen-top-only fifteen yards distant-had passed through the forepart of the epaulette, smashed a path through the left shoulder, and lodged in the spine. The evidence seems to make it clear that it was a chance shot that wrought the fatal mischief. Hardy had twice the bulk of Nelson's insignificant figure, and wore a more striking uniform, and would certainly have attracted the aim of a marksman in preference to Nelson.

Few stories are more pathetic or more familiar than that of Nelson's last moments. As they carried the dying hero across the blood-splashed decks, and down the ladders into the cock-pit, he drew a handkerchief over his own face and over the stars on his breast, lest the knowledge that he was struck down should discourage his crew. He was stripped, his wound probed, and it was at once known to be mortal. Nelson suffered greatly; he was consumed with thirst, had to be fanned with sheets of paper; and he kept constantly pushing away the sheet, the sole covering over him, saying, "Fan, fan," or "Drink, drink," and one attendant was constantly employed in drawing the sheet over his thin limbs and emaciated body. Presently Hardy, snatching a moment from the fight raging on the deck, came to his side, and the two comrades clasped hands. "Well, Hardy, how goes the battle?" Nelson asked. He was told that twelve or fourteen of the enemy's ships had struck. "That is well," said Nelson, "but I had bargained for twenty." Then his seaman's brain forecasting the change of weather, and picturing the battered ships with their prizes on a lee shore, he exclaimed emphatically, "Anchor! Hardy, anchor!" Hardy hinted that Collingwood would take charge of affairs. "Not while I live, I hope, Hardy," said the dying chief, trying to raise himself on his bed. "No! do you anchor, Hardy."

Many of Nelson's expressions, recorded by his doctor, Beatty, are strangely touching. "I am a dead man, Hardy," he said, "I am going fast. It will all be over with me soon." "O Victory, Victory," he said, as the great ship shook to the roar of her own guns, "how you distract my poor brain!" "How dear is life to all men!" he said, after a pause. He begged that "his carcass might be sent to England, and not thrown overboard." So in the dim cock-pit, with the roar of the great battle-bellow of gun, and shout of cheering crews-filling all the space about him, and his last thoughts yet busy for his country, the soul of the greatest British seaman passed away. "Kiss me, Hardy," was one of his last sentences. His last intelligible sentence was, "I have done my duty; I praise God for it."

It may interest many to read the prayer which Nelson wrote-the last record, but one, he made in his diary-and written as the final act of preparation for Trafalgar: "May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet. For myself individually, I commit my life to Him that made me, and may His blessing alight on my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself, and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen, Amen, Amen."

Nelson's plan allowed his captains a large discretion in the choice of their antagonists. Each British ship had to follow the wake of her leader till she reached the enemy's line, then her captain was free to choose his own foe-which, naturally, was the biggest Frenchman or Spaniard in sight. And the huge Santissima Trinidad, of course, attracted the eager attention of the ships that immediately followed the Victory. The Spaniard carried 140 guns, and in that swaying continent of fighting ships, towered like a giant amongst dwarfs. The Neptune, the Leviathan, and the Conqueror, in turn, hung on the quarter or broadside of the gigantic Spaniard, scourged it with fire, and then drifted off to engage in a fiery wrestle with some other antagonist. By half-past two the Spanish four-decker was a mastless wreck. The Neptune at that moment was hanging on her bow, the Conqueror on her quarter. "This tremendous fabric," says an account written by an officer on board the Conqueror, "gave a deep roll, with a swell to leeward, then back to windward, and on her return every mast went by the board, leaving her an unmanageable hulk on the water. Her immense topsails had every reef out, her royals were sheeted home but lowered, and the falling of this majestic mass of spars, sails, and rigging plunging into the water at the muzzles of our guns, was one of the most magnificent sights I ever beheld." Directly after this a Spaniard waved an English union over the lee gangway of the Santissima Trinidad in token of surrender; whereupon the Conqueror, scorning to waste time in taking possession of even a four-decker that had no longer any fight in it, pushed off in search of a new foe; while the Neptune's crew proceeded to shift the tattered topsails of their ship for new ones, with as much coolness as though in a friendly port.

The Africa, sixty-four, less than half the size of the Spaniard, presently came slowly up through the smoke, and fired into the Spanish ship; then seeing no flag flying, sent a lieutenant on board the mastless hulk to take possession. The Englishman climbed to the quarterdeck, all black with smoke and bloody with slaughter, and aske

d the solitary officer he found there whether or not the Santissima Trinidad had surrendered. The ship, as a matter of fact, was drifting into the centre of a cluster of French and Spanish ships; so the Spaniard replied, "Non, non," at the same time pointing to the friendly ships upon which they were drifting. The Englishman had only half-a-dozen men with him, so he coolly returned to his boat, and the Santissima Trinidad drifted like a log upon the water till half-past five P.M., when the Prince put a prize crew on board.

Perez Galdos has given a realistic picture-quoted in the Cornhill Magazine-of the scenes within the gloomy recesses of the great Spanish four-decker as the British ships hung on her flanks and wasted her with their fire: "The English shot had torn our sails to tatters. It was as if huge invisible talons had been dragging at them. Fragments of spars, splinters of wood, thick hempen cables cut up as corn is cut by the sickle, fallen blocks, shreds of canvas, bits of iron, and hundreds of other things that had been wrenched away by the enemy's fire, were piled along the deck, where it was scarcely possible to move about. From moment to moment men fell-some into the sea; and the curses of the combatants mingled with groans of the wounded, so that it was often difficult to decide whether the dying were blaspheming God or the fighters were calling upon Him for aid. I helped in the very dismal task of carrying the wounded into the hold, where the surgeons worked. Some died ere we could convey them thither; others had to undergo frightful operations ere their worn-out bodies could get an instant's rest. It was much more satisfactory to be able to assist the carpenter's crew in temporarily stopping some of the holes torn by shot in the ship's hull.… Blood ran in streams about the deck; and, in spite of the sand, the rolling of the ship carried it hither and thither until it made strange patterns on the planks. The enemy's shot, fired, as they were, from very short range, caused horrible mutilations.… The ship creaked and groaned as she rolled, and through a thousand holes and crevices in her strained hull the sea spurted in and began to flood the hold. The Trinidad's people saw the commander-in-chief haul down his flag; heard the Achille blow up and hurl her six hundred men into eternity; learnt that their own hold was so crowded with wounded that no more could be received there. Then, when all three masts had in succession been brought crashing down, the defence collapsed, and the Santissima Trinidad struck her flag."

The dreadful scenes on the decks of the Santissima Trinidad might almost have been paralleled on some of the British ships. Thus the Belleisle, Collingwood's immediate supporter, sustained the fire of two French and one Spanish line-of-battle ships until she was dismasted. The wreck of her mizzen-mast covered her larboard guns, her mainmast fell upon the break of the poop; her larboard broadside was thus rendered useless; and just then another French line-of-battle ship, the Achille, took her position on the Belleisle's larboard quarter, and opened on her a deadly fire, to which the British ship could not return a shot. This scene lasted for nearly an hour and a half, but at half-past three the Swiftsure came majestically up, passed under the Belleisle's stern-the two crews cheering each other, the Belleisle's men waving a Union Jack at the end of a pike to show they were still fighting, while an ensign still flew from the stump of the mainmast-and the fury with which the Swiftsure fell upon the Achille may be imagined. The Defiance about the same time took off the Aigle, and the Polyphemus the Neptune, and the much-battered Belleisle floated free. Masts, bowsprit, boats, figure-head-all were shot away; her hull was pierced in every direction; she was a mere splintered wreck.

The Téméraire fought a battle almost as dreadful. The Africa, a light ship carrying only sixty-four guns, chose as her antagonist the Intrépide, a French seventy-four, in weight of broadside and number of crew almost double her force. How dreadful were the damages sustained by the British ship in a fight so unequal and so stubborn may be imagined; but she clung to her big antagonist until, the Orion coming up, the Intrépide struck.

At three P.M. the firing had begun to slacken, and ship after ship of the enemy was striking. At a quarter past two the Algeziras struck to the Tonnant, and fifteen minutes afterwards the San Juan-the Tonnant was fighting both ships-also hailed that she surrendered. Lieutenant Clement was sent in the jolly-boat, with two hands, to take possession of the Spanish seventy-four, and the boat carrying the gallant three was struck by a shot and swamped. The sailors could swim, but not the lieutenant; the pair of tars succeeded in struggling back with their officer to the Tonnant; and as that ship had not another boat that would float, she had to see her prize drift off. The Colossus, in like manner, fought with the French Swiftsure and the Bahama-each her own size-and captured them both! The Redoutable had surrendered by this time, and a couple of midshipmen, with a dozen hands, had climbed from the Victory's one remaining boat through the stern ports of the French ship. The Bucentaure, Villeneuve's flagship, had her fate practically sealed by the first tremendous broadside poured into her by the Victory. With fine courage, however, the French ship maintained a straggling fire until both the Leviathan and the Conqueror, at a distance of less than thirty yards, were pouring a tempest of shot into her. The French flagship then struck, and was taken possession of by a tiny boat's crew from the Conqueror consisting of three marines and two sailors. The marine officer coolly locked the powder magazine of the Frenchman, put the key in his pocket, left two of his men in charge of the surrendered Bucentaure, put Villeneuve and his two captains in his boat with his two marines and himself, and went off in search of the Conqueror. In the smoke and confusion, however, he could not find that ship, and so carried the captured French admiral to the Mars. Hercules Robinson has drawn a pen picture of the unfortunate French admiral as he came on board the British ship: "Villeneuve was a tallish, thin man, a very tranquil, placid, English-looking Frenchman; he wore a long-tailed uniform coat, high and flat collar, corduroy pantaloons of a greenish colour with stripes two inches wide, half-boots with sharp toes, and a watch-chain with long gold links. Majendie was a short, fat, jocund sailor, who found a cure for all ills in the Frenchman's philosophy, "Fortune de la guerre" (though this was the third time the goddess had brought him to England as a prisoner); and he used to tell our officers very tough stories of the 'Mysteries of Paris.'"

By five o'clock the roar of guns had died almost into silence. Of thirty-three stately battle-ships that formed the Franco-Spanish fleet four hours earlier, one had vanished in flames, seventeen were captured as mere blood-stained hulks, and fifteen were in flight; while Villeneuve himself was a prisoner. But Nelson was dead. Night was falling. A fierce south-east gale was blowing. A sea-such a sea as only arises in shallow waters-ugly, broken, hollow, was rising fast. In all directions ships dismantled, with scuppers crimson with blood, and sides jagged with shot-holes, were rolling their tall, huge hulks in the heavy sea; and the shoals of Trafalgar were only thirteen miles to leeward! The fight with tempest and sea during that terrific night was almost more dreadful than the battle with human foes during the day. Codrington says, the gale was so furious that "it blew away the top main-topsail, though it was close-reefed, and the fore-topsail after it was clewed up ready for furling." They dare not set a storm staysail, although now within six miles of the reef. The Redoutable sank at the stern of the ship towing it; the Bucentaure had to be cut adrift, and went to pieces on the shoals. The wind shifted in the night and enabled the shot-wrecked and storm-battered ships to claw off the shore; but the fierce weather still raged, and on the 24th the huge Santissima Trinidad had to be cut adrift. It was night; wind and sea were furious; but the boats of the Ajax and the Neptune succeeded in rescuing every wounded man on board the huge Spaniard. The boats, indeed, had all put off when a cat ran out on the muzzle of one of the lower-deck guns and mewed plaintively, and one of the boats pulled back, in the teeth of wind and sea, and rescued poor puss!

Of the eighteen British prizes, fourteen sank, were wrecked, burnt by the captors, or recaptured; only four reached Portsmouth. Yet never was the destruction of a fleet more absolutely complete. Of the fifteen ships that escaped Trafalgar, four were met in the open sea on November 4 by an equal number of British ships, under Sir Richard Strahan, and were captured. The other eleven lay disabled hulks in Cadiz till-when France and Spain broke into war with each other-they were all destroyed. Villeneuve's great fleet, in brief, simply vanished from existence! But Napoleon, with that courageous economy of truth characteristic of him, summed up Trafalgar in the sentence: "The storms occasioned to us the loss of a few ships after a battle imprudently fought"! Trafalgar, as a matter of fact, was the most amazing victory won by land or sea through the whole Revolutionary war. It permanently changed the course of history; and it goes far to justify Nelson's magnificently audacious boast, "The fleets of England are equal to meet the world in arms!"


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