Reply To: Sixth Form Project On Nelson

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Frank Scott

    Rather than merely answering myself, I passed this on to others, so that you have several viewpoints.

    Q1: Do you think Nelson was the decisive factor when it came to Britain‘s naval superiority at Trafalgar?

    A1a: He was the critical factor in devising the battle plan. However, British naval superiority was the result of seamanship skills honed by years at sea in all weathers, and years of fighting and winning at sea. Nelson did not select his Captains for Trafalgar, expressly stating that he would be happy with whoever the admiralty sent.

    A1b: In an earlier day, my boyhood for example, the expression, “a band of brothers” was frequently used in relation to how Nelson prepared for the complexities of naval warfare. He met frequently with his Captains discussing what we would call, ‘what if’ scenarios knowing full well, for example that at Trafalgar, once his fleet was divided, each fleet commander was on their own but not quite since they knew from Nelson the overarching plan. I see this as essentially a collaborative exercise in trust and maybe the most that any Admiral (maybe General) can expect once the battle is underway. Now this is how his leadership was illustrated to me. Is my understanding still valid or has modern research moved entirely in another direction. And yes I am familiar with the work of Roger Knight and N.A.M. Rodger.

    A1c: Yes!

    Q2: Do you think that Nelson’s self-obsession and hunger to be idolized is a reason he has become so well known today?

    A2a: These flaws make him more interesting, but his victories are what make him famous.

    A2b: A clever student could argue that Nelson can still be cherished because he overcame his physical disabilities while he commanded the RN in its most important victory.

    A2c: Trafalgar, and dying on the scene guaranteed that.

    Q3: What do you think of the accusations that Nelson was a white supremacist?

    A3a: By today’s standards everyone was a supremacist. Moreover his nationalist views include a sense of superiority towards white nations – notably the French. Worth noting that although Nelson did not fight the Barbary Corsairs (who enslaved both Whites & Blacks), other British officers had to, and they were regarded as a serious foe.
    PS: Racial views in the past were not simply black vs white. Mahatma Gandhi’s views on Africans are a case in point.

    A3b: White supremacist? Everybody was a white supremacist back then. Well, perhaps not William Wilberforce and some others, but that’s one of those questions where it is simply impossible to impose 21st century standards on 18th century people.

    A3c: The British Navy had quite a few men of colour in its ranks at the time of Trafalgar.

    Q4: Do you think that leading from the front in battle was a smart decision?

    A4a: How else could he have controlled the fleet given his tactic of breaking the line? With all the smoke of battle the fact that he was shot was not a matter of picking him out as an easy target.

    A4b: Worth noting that admirals were killed in action as recently in the second world war. For example (far from exhaustive list):
    Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips RN (KIA, HMS Prince of Wales, Dec 1941)
    Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland RN (KIA, HMS Hood, May 1941)
    Vice-Admiral Gunther Lutyens (KIA, KMS Bismarck, May 1941)
    Rear Admiral Callaghan USN (KIA, USS San Francisco, Nov 1942)
    Rear Admiral Scott USN (KIA, USS Atlanta, Nov 1942)

    A4c: Leading from the front? Admirals don’t have a whole lot of choice. Nelson was on a very powerful ship and there was simply no way he could lead from anywhere but somewhere in the battle. Generals do have a choice and have a much more complex battle with which to deal, generally speaking, than Admirals, particularly 18th- early19th century Admirals.