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Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served
 
 

Copenhagen and return home

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Battle of Copenhagen

Meanwhile, Britain had been planning naval operations in the Baltic to undermine an armed neutrality between Denmark, Sweden and Russia. This alliance was led by Russia, whose Tsar supported France. The alliance was deemed dangerous to Britain as it could prevent the supply of vital naval stores and timber on which the Royal Navy was dependent. As a result, Nelson, whose ability and skill St Vincent recognised was more suited to quick decisive action rather than high office, was transferred to HMS St George, a 98-gun ship on 1 February 1801 for service in the Baltic. Nelson was allowed three days leave, 23-25 February 1801, when he met his daughter for the first time.

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Nelson's desire for an immediate and direct attack on Copenhagen

Nelson joined Sir Hyde Parker, commander-in-chief, and the Baltic fleet in Yarmouth on 2 March 1801, the fleet leaving England 10 days later. Parker was a 61-year-old admiral reputed to be cautious and indecisive. Unbeknown to Nelson, Parker had been tasked to force Denmark to withdraw from the neutrality, ‘by amicable arrangements, or by actual hostilities’ (Tracy, page 133). Nelson was for attacking the stronger Russian navy in Reval. Parker thought this action too rash. By March 1801 in a letter to Emma, Nelson fumed ‘reports say we are to anchor before we get to Kronborg…that our Minister at Copenhagen may negotiate. What nonsense! How much better could we negotiate was our fleet off Copenhagen…if they are the plans of [our] Ministers, they are weak in the extreme…I hate your pen-and-ink men; a fleet of British ships of war are the best negotiators in Europe’ (Bennett, page 187). Diplomatic attempts to persuade Denmark to abandon the Armed Neutrality failed. Parker was then in favour of imposing British terms by blockading the Baltic. However, this ran the risk of allowing an opportunity for the Armed Neutrality’s ships to combine forces. Nelson attempted to convince Parker of the need for immediate action. Parker gave in to his subordinate. He authorised a direct attack on the Danish fleet stationed in King’s Deep, Copenhagen. Nelson and Parker, in the days leading up to the attack, surveyed Copenhagen’s defences, which included shore and floating batteries and the guns of Trekroner fort, finding them to be formidable. Nelson, however, remained confident, ‘with ten sail-of-the-line I think I can annihilate them’ (Hibbert, page 255).

On 1 April 1801 Nelson invited captains from ships of the fleet to dinner on board HMS Elephant, to which he had been transferred on 29 March 1801. Some of these captains, whom he called his ‘band of brothers’, had fought with him at Aboukir Bay. In discussing plans of the attack, some officers raised concerns particularly about how the delay may have helped the Danes make their defences stronger and about the dangerous uncharted shoals in the narrow King’s Deep waters. This battle shared many similarities with those faced by Nelson at Aboukir Bay. The Danish fleet was better protected by stronger harbour defences and could call on additional men from the local arsenal to replace any casualties. However, it made no provision to defend or block the harbour entrance.

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Despatch by Nelson to Sir Hyde Parker 3 April 1801 about the Battle of Copenhagen

Nelson was given 12 ships-of-the-line to carry out the attack. Parker, with the remaining ships, kept a watching brief. Nelson stayed up until 01:00 dictating his instruction and orders for the attack. The early hours of the attack on the single-line 18-ship Danish fleet, which had begun at 10:05 on 2 April 1801, saw HMS Agamemnon and HMS Bellona run aground and HMS Defiance stranded on shoals. Two hours later Parker made a signal to discontinue the action. Made aware of the order by his signal lieutenant, Nelson turned to Captain Foley and said ‘You know…I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes’ and raising a spyglass to his right eye added ‘I really do not see the signal’ (Hibbert, page 261). Nelson had once again disobeyed a superior officer’s orders. The bombardment by the British fleet persisted for several hours. The floating defences were battered by the superior firing of the British ships and many Danish ships were destroyed, including the flagship Dannebrog. The Danes suffered 1,700 casualties, the British 941. Nelson sent an ultimatum to the Crown Prince of Denmark. A ceasefire followed and Nelson went on shore to negotiate an extension of the truce. On 9 April 1801 both Britain and Denmark agreed to a 14-week armistice. This gave Denmark time to assess how their defeat and declaration of an armistice affected their allies.

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Ultimatum by Nelson to the ‘Brothers of Englishmen, the Danes’, 2 April 1801

 

Letter by Nelson to the Government of Denmark, 2 April 1801

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Armistice with Denmark, 2 April 1801

Nelson wrote to St Vincent on 9 April 1801, saying ‘just returned from getting the armistice ratified. I am tired to death. No man but those who are on the spot can tell what I have gone through, and do suffer…for heaven’s sake supercede me, for I cannot exist in this state’ (Nicolas, Volume 4, page 341). Nelson had demonstrated that he was an able naval tactician and that he also possessed considerable diplomatic skills. When accounts of the Battle of Copenhagen reached England, Parker was replaced by Nelson as commander-in-chief, due to the former’s inactivity and unsuitability for command in the recent campaign. Nelson, lifted by this appointment, ordered part of his fleet to Karlskrona, Sweden, to watch over the Swedish navy and sailed with the remainder of his fleet to the Russian naval base of Reval, to try and intercept the joining of the Russian fleet there with that coming from Kronstadt. Nelson arrived too late to stop this union. But he need not have worried. The new Tsar, the previous Tsar having been murdered, had already begun to negotiate the end of the Armed Neutrality of the North, which dissolved on 19 May 1801.

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Nelson's ailing health

 

Letter by Nelson to Governor of Revel, 11 May 1801

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Letter by Nelson to Evan Nepean, Secretary to the Admiralty, 22 May 1801

On the 22 May 1801 Nelson was created Viscount Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. He received this news in mid-June 1801 whilst off Copenhagen. Nelson resigned his command of the Baltic fleet and sailed home to England on HMS Kite. He arrived in Yarmouth on 1 July 1801 to find Britain gripped by an invasion scare. He had spent hardly any time with Emma and Horatia when he was appointed, on 24 July 1801, commander-in-chief of a squadron deployed between Orfordness and Beachey Head specifically as a defence against French invasion forces. On 15 August 1801 Nelson planned an attack on the French invasion flotilla at Boulogne. Nelson’s force, consisting of 57 boats, mounted a surprise evening attack. However, the attack was a failure. Britain lost 12 boats and had 45 men killed and 128 wounded. The French did not lose one boat and suffered few casualties. As a result of this failure and his forced separation from Emma, Nelson plunged into depression, ‘I am in silent distraction. My dearest wife, how can I bear our separation? Good God! What a change, I am so low that I cannot hold up my head’ (Morriss, p121). News in September 1801 of Emma having found them a house in Merton, Surrey, lifted his spirits. Peace negotiations that had begun on 1 October 1801 led to the signing of an armistice, the Treaty of Amiens, on 27 March 1802 and a brief end to war between Britain and France. Nelson was now free from active duty for 19 months.

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