display | more...

The term "Nelson Touch" is most often used to describe the battle tactics Nelson used at the Battle of Trafalgar. His method was to form two columns of ships (the "lee" and "weather" columns, the latter led by Nelson in the Victory), heading towards (perpendicular to) the enemy line rather than drawing up alongside as done traditionally. Although this exposed his ships to a period of "raking", the full broadsides of the enemy fired into the bow as they approached, tearing down the full length to exit from the stern; once the enemy line was breached the British could then rake those ships either side of the point of impact in return. Nelson took this risk in part to the fact that they would be sailing directly downwind, so the time they would be exposed was minimised. Ships would then pass through the line and pair up with an enemy counterpart to exchange broadsides and boarding parties as usual. Last one sailing wins. At Trafalgar, of course, the British lost no ships and captured over 20 French and Spanish vessels when they succeeded in scattering the enemy fleet by breaking it into three groups (divided by the lee and weather columns). Whether this is due to the unorthodox tactics of the Nelson Touch or whether it is down to superior crews in terms of rates of fire and boarding parties is questionable, however.

The "Nelson Touch" is also the effect that the man had on the men of his fleet due to his style of leadership. Although relatively small and timid, Nelson evoked great passion in those who fought for him. For example, he was known as "Saint Nelson" by the ordinary seamen after his death at Trafalgar. This is a reflection of the great leadership qualities he possessed, as is the famous signal he ordered as his columns approached the enemy battle line:


As the moment approached, the tension grew almost unbearable: the waiting had been so long. Men suddenly remembered something quite mundane; they were hungry, and the battle was going to start exactly at dinner-time. Some captains had foreseen it and ordered the cooks to have the beef and biscuit ready an hour early: others less wise ordered cheese up from the holds, and a half-ration of rum. Officers, whose cabins had been dismantled, ate where they stood, or grouped round the rudder head, which they used for a table. Some captains called their junior lieutenants up from the gun decks for a final word - mostly to tell them to hold their fire. Captain Hargood of the Belleisle pointed out the black bulk of the enemy ship Santa Ana:

'Gentlemen, I have only to say that I shall pass close under the stern of that ship. Put in two round shot and then a grape, and give her that.'

And Nelson also felt the tension, and the need for a final word. He said to Blackwood, who had been his most constant companion all the morning, 'I will now amuse the fleet with a signal. Do you not think that there is one wanting?' Blackwood said everyone seemed to know exactly what to do. Nelson thought for a moment, and then said, 'Suppose we telegraph "Nelson confides that every man will do his duty".' Somebody suggested "England" instead of "Nelson", and Nelson accepted the change with pleasure. With an air of boyish gaiety, he called the flag lieutenant: 'Mr Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet "England confides that every man will do his duty." You must be quick, for I have one more to make, which is for close action.' Pasco asked to be allowed to use "expects" instead of "confides" because "expects" was in Popham's signal book, but "confides" would have to be spelt. 'That will do, Pasco, make it directly,' Nelson said.

And at 1135 the most famous battle signal ever made was hoisted to the yards and mastheads of Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory.

"England expects that every man will do his duty": the phrase inspired generations of Englishmen. Yet it was not received with unanimous joy in the fleet. Ships cheered it, but in some of them the cheer itself had a dutiful ring to it. In the other flagship, Royal Sovereign, Admiral Collingwood, seeing the flags, said: 'I wish Nelson would stop signalling. We know well enough what to do' - but when the whole signal was read to him, he approved it cordially enough. In the Euralyus, nobody bothered to repeat it to the crew; and in the Ajax, the officer who was sent to read it out on the gun decks heard sailors muttering:

'Do my duty? I've always done my duty, haven't you Jack?'


Source of passage: leaflet at Naval Trafalgar Night dinner, held each year as close to anniversary of battle as possible.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.