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Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

The Battle of the Nile

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The making of a hero

Britain’s renewed conflict with France in 1793 meant officers of Nelson’s experience were required. He was given command of HMS Agamemnon on 30 January 1793. Nelson sailed to the Mediterranean in May 1793, joining Lord Hood’s fleet blockading the French fleet in Toulon. Josiah, his stepson, accompanied him. His wife, Fanny, was left to worry about the dangers they faced. Nelson’s letters to her at this time showed signs that their relationship was under strain. Hood ordered Nelson to Naples to seek King Ferdinand IV’s help in defending Toulon against French republicans. Nelson made this request through Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), the British envoy, at the Palazzo Sessa. It was here in September 1793 that he met Emma Hamilton, the envoy’s second wife, aged 28, who was reputed to be one of the most beautiful women of her time. Nelson informed Fanny that ‘Lady Hamilton has been wonderfully kind and good to Josiah…She is a young woman of amiable manners…who does honour to the station to which she is raised’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 326). Having negotiated a promise of 6,000 troops for the siege of Toulon, Nelson returned there to be ordered to join Commodore Robert Linzee’s squadron in Tunis. Linzee was in negotiation with the Bey to hand over a French squadron under his protection. En route, on 22 October 1793, Nelson fell in with some French frigates and engaged the Melpoméne, but his ship was beaten off by superior forces. The diplomatic mission to Tunis proved unsuccessful. Nelson considered Linzee’s approach too cautious, ‘I should have taken every Frenchman here without negotiating; even had the negotiations taken place, I would have had the French men-of-war and believe that the people of England will never blame an officer for taking a French line of Battle ships’ (Pocock, page112).

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Nelson describes the fall of Toulon

Meanwhile, Toulon was captured by French republican forces, which included Napoleon Bonaparte. Britain now required a new Mediterranean naval port. Early in 1794 Nelson was ordered by Hood to blockade the French island of Corsica, which Britain wanted to occupy with the help of Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican patriot. British troops under Sir David Dundas had already captured the port of San Fiorenzo. Forts at Bastia and Calvi were the main points of French resistance, which Britain had to capture if they were to succeed in their aim. Nelson urged Hood to take Bastia quickly. Dundas disagreed and refused support. Nelson, who volunteered to lead the bombardment on Bastia, kept secret that enemy troops numbered three times the amount previously thought, stating that it would be a ‘National Disgrace’ (Hibbert, page 95) if an attempt were not made. Nelson was eventually given command of this bombardment on 4 April 1794. On 23 May 1794 Bastia surrendered.

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Extract from Nelson’s journal regarding the siege of Calvi

After Bastia, the fort of Calvi was to be captured. Nelson, now with army support, was responsible for overseeing the positioning of guns required to attack the fort. This was dangerous work. The guns had to be hauled over two miles of rough terrain in sight of enemy gun batteries. On 12 July 1794 Nelson was wounded in the face and right eye by stones and sand thrown up by enemy shot falling near him. Over the next few weeks the condition of his right eye worsened. ‘I most fortunately escaped by only having my right eye nearly deprived of its sight. It was cut down, but as far recovered as to be able to distinguish light from darkness but as to all the purpose of its use, it is gone. However the blemish is nothing, not to be perceived unless told’ (Morriss, page 62). On 31 January 1795 he informed Fanny ‘My eye is grown worse, and is in almost total darkness, and very painful at times; but never mind, I can see very well with the other’ (Nicolas, Volume 2, pages 2-3). The fort at Calvi surrendered on 10 August 1794. Military despatches printed in the London Gazette about the Corsican campaign failed to mention, much to his dismay, the crucial role that he had played. From now on Nelson ensured the press received his accounts of actions. Nelson spent the winter months of 1794 in HMS Agamemnon blockading Toulon, sailing to Leghorn, Genoa and Corsica for refitting. In Leghorn, he took a mistress, Adelaide Correglia, an opera singer and courtesan.

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