November 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege for me to propose the time honoured toast of The Immortal Memory in the wonderful surroundings of the Painted Hall and I do so very aware that I have an audience who are not only charming and good looking – as is obvious from inspection – but also wise and erudite.  You have chosen to celebrate Trafalgar Night in this wonderful, outstanding and beautiful building, often described as the most beautiful dining room in Europe.  I see no reason why that should not extend to the most beautiful in the world.

I was appointed to the Royal Naval College twice in my career – once in 1975 and then again in 1977 for the Royal Naval Staff College.  I remember that we were provided with a useful fact guide on the Painted Hall which included the number of naked female breasts displayed.  I cannot remember what the number was – but if any of you should count them, I would be grateful for a reminder.  I do remember that the answer is an odd number.

I trust that you have dined extremely well.  Unlike the poor 11 year old midshipman, a contemporary of Nelson’s, who wrote home to his parents:

“We dine on beef which has been 10 or 11 years in corn and on biscuit which quite makes your throat cold in eating it thanks to the maggots which are very cold.  The water is the colour of the bark of a pear tree with plenty of little maggots and weevils, and wine which is like bullock’s blood and sawdust mixed together . . . Indeed, I do not like this life very much.”  He went on to write “I hope I shall not learn to swear!”  Sadly, he was to die three years later in a fall from the rigging.

Fortunately our hero we are commemorating tonight suffered no such fate.  Nelson was born into a North Norfolk family in 1758 – as it happens the year VICTORY was ordered to be built at Chatham Dockyard.  And although VICTORY was launched in 1765, she wasn’t commissioned into service until 1778 by which time Nelson was 20, had served in the Royal Navy for 8 years and the following year was to be promoted to post Captain.

This very rapid promotion to post Captain was a source of luck to England and the Navy as it meant that he was high on the list of Captains by the time he was in his early 30’s and certainly well above most of his talented peers.  He had also had considerable experience of command and been able to make many of his mistakes while developing his skills, which were to make him a highly able organiser and administrator, a frequent player of organisation politics, a man who was occasionally economical with the truth and one whose skill as a self-publicist was supreme.

As a commander he also came to recognise that a ship could not be managed effectively, or its crew fight with courage and discipline, unless their need for self -respect, fairness and justice were properly recognised.  Basic human needs, I suggest, which are just as important today and which should be intuitive to leaders in all walks of life. Perhaps, even more importantly, experience had taught him that it was impossible to fight a large sea battle employing detailed command and control – apart from anything else the communications to do so were non-existent and the ability of ships of the line to manoeuvre at will was extremely limited.  What he came to realise he had to do as a major commander, was to ensure that his Captains understood what he expected of them and the way his tactics were to be put into practice, allowing individual Captains to meet contingencies as they inevitable arose.  He wanted them to be able to read his mind and to react as he would himself.

But I get ahead of myself.  Returning home from the West Indies in 1787, with no sign of war in sight, he was consigned to half pay and frustration for nearly 6 years.  For a highly ambitious man such as Nelson, this was a time of torment, a time during which he wrote, “My disposition cannot bear timid and slow manoeuvres.  I wish to be an Admiral and in command of the English Fleet.  I should very soon either do much or be ruined.”

But in 1793 war was again declared between France and Britain and to his joy Nelson was given the Command of the 64 gun AGAMMEMNON.  The next five years were to be a time of real development as he left England as a mere Captain and returned as a national hero as Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson.

As a protégée of the great John Jervis, he was to play a major role at the Battle of St Vincent, when he turned out of line to head straight for the van of the Spanish Fleet and captured two Spanish ships of the line by personally leading his boarding parties.  Thus started the legend  - this and personally leading, as an Admiral, the attack on 5 Spanish gunboats soon after losing  the lower part of his right arm trying to take a treasure ship in Tenerife.

And so in 1798, when he was placed in command of a squadron to re-enter the Mediterranean, a French lake at the time, his commanding officers quickly learnt that personal courage, initiative and aggression were expected of them.  And thus when the French Fleet were eventually found at anchor in Aboukir Bay late one August evening, there was no delay in attacking, even though this would mean the battle would be mainly fought at night.

No doubt you all know the story as to how the British astonished the French by sailing between their anchored ships and shoal waters, but perhaps you don’t all know that this was not the result of an instruction from Nelson but brilliant insight by Captain Thomas Foley in GOLIATH who led four other ships into the shallows thus ensuring the French were a warship sandwich with British ships both to port and to starboard.  With such displayed aggression, the outcome was inevitable.  Of 13 large French ships of the line, all but 2 were captured or destroyed.  The magnificent 120 gun French flagship L’ORIENT had completely disappeared in an apocalyptic explosion, following a major fire on board.  It was the greatest British naval victory of all time.

The tactical outcome was significant but the strategic outcome was immense.  In one night, the French had lost control of the Mediterranean, Napoleon and his army were trapped in Egypt and most importantly of all, Napoleon was now unable to threaten British control of India.  For which the East India Company presented Nelson with a gift of £10,000.

There followed for Nelson, now a Baron, a long period in the Mediterranean, based principally in Naples where he could see much of Emma - until in 1802 he returned to England to be appointed 2nd in Command of the Baltic Campaign under Hyde Parker.  I will skate over this but he achieved an extraordinary victory against the odds as well as against his Commander-in-Chief’s orders and was rewarded with a Viscountcy and another year on half pay! However the peace of Amiens was to break down and at last in April 1803, Nelson is appointed C-in-C Mediterranean and embarks in VICTORY for what turns out to be 2 solid years at sea without setting foot on shore.  Most of the time is spent besieging the French off Toulon.

In 1805, Villeneuve breaks out of Toulon and the Mediterranean, merges with the Spanish Fleet and disappears.  Nelson is in a quandary.  In fact Villeneuve is acting as a lure to tempt the British Channel Fleet away from the French invasion ports but it is left to Nelson to chase the combined fleet across the Atlantic and back when the enemy enters Cadiz.  Nelson arrives in Gibraltar in June and returns to England  for a month with Emma in Merton Place from where he is summoned in mid-August to return to his Fleet.

Back at sea he starts to familiarise his Captains with his plans to break the enemy Fleet in two places – an extremely bold plan as all tell him.  The weakness is that the lead ships approaching the enemy will be open to their fire for long before they can return shot.  And on the day of 21 October 1805 conditions could not be worse with very light winds, meaning that ships at the end of Nelson’s two lines take literally hours to enter the battle.  The lines of battle were established by 0630 in the morning but it was not until noon that the first shots were fired.

The firepower carried by both fleets was immense.  Victory alone carried armament equivalent to 2/3 of Wellington’s total at Waterloo.  A 32 pounder cannon was a weapon of carnage capable of despatching its ball to smash through 2 feet of oak half a mile away.  And in passing through the enemy line, Nelson’s ships were able to fire down the exposed sterns of the French and Spanish.   VICTORY’s first broadside down BUCENTAUR’s stern killed 310 Frenchmen and put 20 guns out of action.  From there VICTORY went on to crunch alongside the REDOUTABLE.  And it was from the mizzen top of REDOUTABLE that a marksman shot Nelson through his shoulder after an hour of battle.  Having been taken below, it was up to his Flag Captain Hardy to inform him of progress.  By 1530 Hardy could report that 14 or 15 enemy ships had surrendered.

Nelson died before the final figure was known but 18 of Villeneuve’s Fleet of 33 were captured or destroyed.  A victory so total that Napoleon knew that his plans of an invasion of England were finished;   a victory so total that England and the Royal Navy were to enjoy the Pax Britannica of 100 years without any real challenge;   a victory that was to seal the reputation of Nelson as our greatest warrior sailor of all time.

And now please stand and join me in toasting Admiral Lord Nelson – The Immortal Memory.

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