What are we at war about?

Isaac Land

  • The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson by Roger Knight
    Allen Lane, 874 pp, £30.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 7139 9619 6
  • Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy edited by David Cannadine
    Palgrave, 201 pp, £19.99, June 2005, ISBN 1 4039 3906 3

Writing for the centenary celebrations of the Trafalgar victory one hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad produced a remarkable, and peculiar, essay arguing that Nelson was a great, and a modern, artist. His genius was to revolutionise ‘not the strategy or tactics of sea-warfare, but the very conception of victory itself’. In pursuing a total annihilation of the enemy, Nelson led the attack even at the risk that a contrary breeze would leave his ship isolated in the middle of the enemy fleet. Conscious, in 1905, that Nelson’s audacity and skill were increasingly hard to appreciate as the age of sail gave way to the age of steam, Conrad recorded his own observations of the changeable weather off the Spanish coast and his ‘gasp of professional awe’ at the thought of what Nelson undertook that October morning, when ‘for some forty minutes, the fate of the great battle hung upon a breath of wind.’ Nelson’s art and ‘prophetic inspiration’ ennobled everything it touched. His victories, Conrad claimed, were ‘no mere smashing of helpless ships and massacres of cowed men’, but exalted the nation as a whole, and seafarers everywhere. Conrad closed with a sombre image reminiscent of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, an obsolete warship suffering a puffing steamboat to tow it into the glorious sunset of oblivion. The progress of time threatened to dissolve all that was noble. In ‘this ceaseless rush of shadows and shades . . . even the sea itself seems to wear a different and diminished aspect from the sea of Lord Nelson’s day.’

Roger Knight’s life of Nelson is almost fifty times as long as Conrad’s centenary essay (excluding the appendices, which take up more than a hundred additional pages), but readers may nevertheless conclude that biography too is ‘different and diminished’ in our less than heroic age. Knight treats Nelson’s professional life in a scholarly and thorough fashion, but there is little exalting of anyone. We learn, for example, of the role that luck played in Nelson’s rapid promotion to high rank (born in 1758, he benefited from a well-timed series of wars) and discover much about the distribution of prize money, a system by which the proceeds from the sale of enemy vessels were divided among those who had played a role in their capture. The wars themselves take a back seat in a narrative driven by squabbles over precedence and the apportionment of credit and blame, but if Knight at times forgets the bigger picture, this is at least partly the fault of his source material. Nelson himself wrote to his wife in August 1793: ‘I hardly think this war can last, for what are we at war about?’ The French had executed Louis XVI in January, which might have given Nelson a hint.

Further clues to the significance of this particular war could be found at the Battle of the Nile five years later, when British ships with names derived from classical antiquity (including both a Theseus and a Minotaur) confronted French vessels such as the Peuple Souverain, the Franklin and the Guillaume Tell. Knight does not invite us to reflect on the meaning of this epic collision of ancient and modern mythologies. Instead, the Nile victory was about ‘risk-taking seamanship, complex anchoring manoeuvres, highly skilled crews, a rapid rate of fire and determination by every officer and seaman’. Knight is clearly more comfortable discussing the technical aspects of war at sea (such importance is attributed to the superiority of British carronades that some readers may abandon his book and look for a good history of artillery instead), but there remains the problem of the participants’ motivation. As readers of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class will recall, not everyone thought the French had made a mistake in doing away with their king. Why were the officers and men at the Nile so ‘determined’? What did Nelson do to help them answer the question ‘What are we at war about?’

Nelson managed to live through an age of unprecedented revolutionary ferment without reflecting too deeply on his place in the order of things. He did not lack for opportunities. By the age of 30 he had already visited India, the Arctic (on the same ship as the abolitionist writer Olaudah Equiano), Quebec, New York City, Central America and the Caribbean. In an ill-fated military expedition of 1780 aimed at breaking the Spanish grip on Nicaragua, the young Captain Nelson shared a tent – and the rigours of jungle warfare – with Edward Despard, an Irish-born army engineer. Despard’s encounter with maroons and Mosquito Indians transformed his political outlook. Back in London with his black wife, Catherine, Despard joined a crowd that broke the prime minister’s windows. He was later sentenced to death for a regicidal plot which aimed to establish what the presiding judge called a ‘wild scheme of impracticable equality’. Nelson appeared at the trial as a character witness, but their shared experiences had not led them to the same ideological destination. Nelson believed in keeping the proles in their place – by violence, if necessary. He condemned the ‘damnable and cursed’ anti-slavery doctrine of Wilberforce ‘and his hypocritical allies . . . who would certainly cause the murder of all our friends and fellow subjects in the colonies’. Notwithstanding his supposed rapport with those under his command, Nelson’s last and most famous ship, the Victory, acquired a reputation for flogging.

Knight does not inquire into the significance of the friendship with Despard (Equiano escapes mention altogether), but he argues convincingly that Nelson’s style of leadership was – in the context of his times – quite radical. As a commander, he promoted the notion that he and his fellow officers were a ‘band of brothers’. Once he had made his intentions clear, his subordinates could exercise their own judgment on how to carry them out: ‘The predominant feeling was not fear of censure, but apprehension of not gaining his approbation.’ This collegial approach was very different from that of the previous generation of admirals, and it paid off in combat, when individual captains felt empowered to seize opportunities rather than wait for orders. Clearly the ‘band of brothers’ did not truly include those beyond the privileged space of the quarterdeck, but Nelson’s habit of leading from the front, incurring grievous injuries in the process, earned him the respect of his crews. One sailor who lost an arm in battle exclaimed that this made him just like his hero. Another thing Nelson did to cement the loyalty of his men was to shake hands with the crew of the Blanche at a delicate juncture during the Mediterranean campaign of 1796. It was a legendary gesture. Nelson had not drawn the same conclusions as Despard from the rough equality of the Nicaraguan jungle, but he may have learned more from the experience than he let on. ‘The Nelson Touch’ has gone down in history as the name of the manoeuvre that crushed the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, but in the age of Tom Paine and ‘Ça ira’, the navy’s cleverest tactical ploy may have been the great man’s handshake.

Knight’s name for this is ‘benevolent paternalism’, but in a larger political context it might be called conservative populism. Nelson was not unique in his efforts to make the British ancien régime appear fresh, appealing and inclusive. Even monarchs had now to court – and flatter – the people. George III and his advisers worked hard at this, seeking to erase the memory of the terrifying 1797 mutinies by holding a grand victory parade in London (at the risk of being criticised for aping the public spectacles of the French Revolution), and hiring the theatrical impresario Charles Dibdin to compose patriotic songs about saucy, lovable and brave sailor lads. The essays in David Cannadine’s collection illustrate the many ways that Nelson-worship served the war effort. Kathleen Wilson observes that his wounded body became ‘the screen upon which all those who had fought . . . who had lost their limbs or senses or a loved one to [war’s] cruelties, could project their own experience, identifications and desires for recognition’. Kate Williams explores another dimension of populism: the marketing of Nelson to women. The outpouring of Nelson jewellery and decorative memorabilia offered a patriotic equivalent to tricolour cockades. The affair with Emma Hamilton seems to have enhanced his appeal as the object of erotic fantasies. A character in Vanity Fair remarks: ‘That was the most beautiful part of dear Lord Nelson’s character . . . He went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that.’

Holger Hoock’s essay, ‘Nelson Entombed’, is perhaps the most interesting in Cannadine’s volume. His analysis of Nelson’s funeral and subsequent commemoration in St Paul’s Cathedral reminds us that, despite the populist propaganda, the old elites had no intention of relinquishing control. The funeral was a state occasion – the forms prescribed for burying royalty were adapted for Nelson. The inclusiveness stopped there, however. Naval officers replaced the College of Heralds, but they also supplanted Nelson’s own family: neither his wife nor his mistress had a place at the funeral. There were some women, presumably, among the onlookers, but the funeral procession represented the grieving nation as male. Hoock’s focus is on the design and arrangement of the statuary that remade St Paul’s into a shrine for the heroes of the war against revolutionary France. Here, hierarchy was set in stone. The new monuments – 32 in all, commissioned by Parliament between 1794 and 1823 at a cost of some £110,000 – carefully graduated by rank, were meant to inspire respect and emulation. One publication suggested that as an aide to morale, statues of heroes were ‘the cheap defence of nations’. Who were the heroes? No one below the rank of captain (or, in the army, major-general) was commemorated in St Paul’s. Soldiers and sailors appear in a few of the monuments, gazing upward in adulation. There were no ‘general war monuments’ to the fallen, in St Paul’s or elsewhere: this refusal to develop ‘a more democratic commemorative culture’ put Britain behind not only France, but Prussia and Austria.

One cleric questioned whether military heroes deserved a place of honour in any church: they died for their friends, but had not Christ died for his enemies? Nelson, in particular, wasn’t a saint – he had ruined his marriage and had a reputation for cruelty. Adultery was tolerated, and probably even expected, in his professional circle; Nelson’s prolonged affair with a woman in Leghorn drew only winks and nods. His later entanglement with Emma Hamilton was a disaster, however, not because both of them were already married, but because the lovers refused to compromise. He sent his wife, Fanny, an allowance – but refused ever to see her again. Nelson’s ruthless suppression of the shortlived Neapolitan Republic in 1799 also fits this pattern of cruelty. By the time Nelson arrived, the republicans had already been cornered by a sort of Catholic jihad; while the peasants cheerfully looted the city, the rebels sued for peace. Nelson’s prompt execution of the republican leadership served the purposes of the Queen of Naples (a sister of Marie Antoinette’s) and of her confidante, Emma Hamilton, but proved to be a public relations disaster for the navy. The killing of a Neapolitan admiral, in particular, did not sit well with Nelson’s captains. Italian historians have speculated that this revolutionary cadre, left to mature, could have saved the southern half of the country from backwardness and decline. Nelson, however, was interested only in how many rebels he needed to kill in order to achieve a decisive victory.

As the Naples episode demonstrates, the story of the navy, of Trafalgar, and even of Nelson himself was never solely an English (or even a British) one, and it has become less so with every generation. The essays by John MacKenzie and John Hattendorf in Cannadine’s collection address this subject, although clearly the ‘global’ Nelson could have filled a volume by himself. A substantial percentage of his crews were not from the British Isles: the navy did not require its captains to conduct a census of national origins (and few cared to improvise one), but we can make an informed guess that every territory the British Empire possessed in 1805 was represented at Trafalgar. Nelson spent most of his adult life defending one imperial conquest or another, and after his death the empire commemorated him with towns, streets and pedestals. Some of his posthumous honours took more peculiar forms, as when perplexed missionaries, unable to pronounce Rolihlahla, gave us Nelson Mandela. In eastern waters, the Trafalgar centenary in 1905 was both an imperial high point and a sign of impending decline; Australia and New Zealand hailed the navy as the past, and future, guarantor of their security, but another student and admirer of Nelson was Count T¯og¯o Heihachiro, whose defeat of the Russian navy at Tsushima earlier that year showed that the Pacific would no longer be a European lake.

The most thorough exploiter of Nelson’s name was Nelson himself. Conrad saw this clearly: ‘Whatever earthly affection he abandoned or grasped, the great admiral was always, before all, beyond all, a lover of Fame.’ Nelson constructed his own legend with meticulous care. He wished to be remembered for convivial dinners at sea at which he instructed his captains on the finer points of naval tactics during the days before a battle, and this story has survived, despite the fact that the choppiness of the open ocean meant that such visits between vessels were rare. Reading Nelson’s letters to family and colleagues, we hear the voice of petulant Achilles, seething at the failure of his king to assign him the honours and treasure that his merit deserved. But he was shrewd enough to wrap himself in the mantle of Prince Hal when he thought his public might be watching.