My history hero: Horatio Nelson (1758–1805)

"Nelson not only won a string of great naval victories and was always in the thick of the battle but made enormous sacrifices: like losing the sight in an eye, his arm and ultimately his life": Don McCullin selects Horatio Nelson as his history hero...

Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), 1797. Artist: Abbott, Lemuel Francis (1760-1802)

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Sailor and naval commander Horatio Nelson joined the Royal Navy at the age of 12. After losing the sight in one eye in fighting off Corsica and his arm in an attempt to conquer Tenerife, he took part in the victory against the Spanish at Cape St Vincent (1797). He returned home a hero after defeating the French at the battle of the Nile (1798) and went on to win the battle of Copenhagen (1801). His most famous victory, over a Franco-Spanish fleet, was at Trafalgar (1805), where he was killed during the fighting.

When did you first hear about Nelson?

I must have learnt about him as a boy, but despite history being one of the most interesting subjects, I never paid much attention at school! It was only really when I read a book about him several years ago that I appreciated the magnitude of his achievements.

What kind of person was he?

He was a cultured man and it must have been difficult to spend months at a time at sea on a ship like HMS Victory surrounded by a load of smelly men with no culture, eating vile food. It goes without saying that he was a great leader – but great sacrifice has to be required of great leadership, so I think he would have had to be slightly immune to the suffering of his men. He was also probably quite a lonely person in some ways – leadership can be lonely. When you think about battle conditions then and the war injuries he racked up, he must also have been incredibly brave.

What made him a hero?

You can always be a hero in people’s eyes when you win. And Nelson not only won a string of great naval victories, but made enormous sacrifices: like losing the sight in an eye, his arm and ultimately his life. The force of the musket ball which killed him must have been immense. I’ve seen the damage a modern bullet can do, but a lump of lead? It doesn’t bear thinking about. He really earned his place in history and, but for his strong leadership, where would we be?

What was Nelson’s finest hour?

Leading the Royal Navy to victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the battle of Trafalgar, without question. He found himself in a virtual Francis Drake situation, facing a huge Franco-Spanish armada, and we had to win otherwise we would have gone under. His dedication to his country was supreme and before battle commenced he famously signalled to the fleet: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” His victory was total – the enemy lost 22 ships without a single Royal Navy ship being lost – but of course ended with him laying down his life. His victory put paid to Napoleon’s plans to invade England and laid the basis for a century of British naval dominance.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I suspect he probably became slightly intolerable towards the end, and from what I understand he was always pestering the Admiralty for money and a peerage in his later days.

Do you think he’s remembered today as he should be?

I don’t think Nelson is a man who can ever be diminished. He’s one of our great national heroes and sits atop a column in Trafalgar Square.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I’m a very small human being alongside Nelson. That said, I’ve been in wars too and I know there is a kind of satisfaction to be had from testing yourself in that kind of situation and knowing you’re up to it.

If you could meet Nelson, what would you ask him?

I’d love to know if he really said “Kiss me, Hardy” as he lay dying at Trafalgar.

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Don McCullin was a photographer during the Vietnam War and the Northern Ireland conflict. His three-volume retrospective, Irreconcilable Truths, is out now (donmccullin.com). Don McCullin was talking to York Membery.