Tales from Nelson’s navy

As historical treasures go, a book containing sailors' first-hand reports from some of Britain's greatest naval victories takes some beating. Sam Willis introduces 10 dispatches that offer us a unique perspective on the golden age of the Royal Navy

An oil painting depicting the battle of Camperdown, a "crushing British victory" over the Batavian (Dutch) Republic in the North Sea. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

In a satin-lined wooden box in the bowels of the British Library is one of the jewels of British history. Inside is a massive book, so heavy that it requires two people to pick it up. It is bound in navy-blue velvet and decorated with exquisite nautical detail.

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Inside are the naval dispatches sent back to London after the major fleet victories of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. They describe a period of military dominance that equals any in history, a period in which the Royal Navy shaped the modern world.

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The book contains the official dispatches from the admirals describing their victories, but also, to support their evidence, there are reports from captains, ships’ logs, damage reports, casualty lists, captured enemy accounts, even battle plans. Some of the original envelopes even survive. History comes off them like heat.

To view those battles through the original sources is to peer over the shoulders of the lords of the Admiralty and the king as they learned the fate of nations. It is a profoundly powerful experience, and one that must be shared. That was clearly the intention when, in 1821, the year that Napoleon died in exile, the Admiralty ordered these dispatches to be collected together and bound with such ostentation. Now, for the first time, the documents can be given the audience they deserve.
1

“My unfortunate situation” 

A grievously injured Rear Admiral T Pasley reports to Admiral Howe in the aftermath of the ‘Glorious First of June’, 1794
As its name suggests, the Glorious First of June – a naval clash between Britain and France in the mid-Atlantic during the French Revolutionary Wars in which both sides claimed victory – took place on 1 June. But Thomas Pasley’s letter is dated 6 June, a full five days after the main battle and more than a week since his ship, the Bellerophon, fired the first shots of this engagement. Why? The answer is that Pasley lost a leg in the action, a blow for which he quickly apologises and refers to, with enormous understatement, as “my unfortunate situation”.
The letter has been dictated to a secretary, and Pasley is barely able to scrawl his name at the end. It finishes with a characteristic Pasleyan flash of splendid language, praising “the officers and crew of the Bellerophon who supported me during the several actions with a steady coolness and determined Intrepidity”. A magnificent letter, it rings with pride and zeal even though it was dictated by a man wracked with exhaustion and pain.
2

Tearing the enemy apart

A boatswain delivers a damage report on HMS Brunswick following the Glorious First of June, 1794
In the midst of the Glorious First of June, two ships, the British Brunswick and the French Vengeur du Peuple, fought the battle in microcosm, the might of the British and the determination of the French playing out in a private duel. And what a duel it was. The two ships smashed into each other, their anchors locking them together. The British captain, John Harvey, was delighted with his ‘catch’ and set about reducing the enemy to kindling by firing his guns alternately high and low, catching the French in a deadly crossfire and tearing the ship apart from the inside.
Yet the Brunswick did not escape lightly – as a damage report compiled by her boatswain, the warrant officer in charge of the ship’s maintenance, reveals. The document describes the astonishing scope of the damage. The entire Mizzen mast, the aftmost of the ship’s three masts, is described as being “shot away” along with “all the Standing & Running Rigging Sails etc” and “the decks much cut”.
Not all of the damage was inflicted by the French, however. Ten gun ports on the starboard side, which are listed as being “Shot & carr[ie]d away”, were destroyed not from the outside but the inside. After the ships collided, the British gun crews on the lowest deck found that they could not open the gun port lids. Unwilling to let this get in their way, they fired all the guns with the lids down, blasting them away so that they could more easily get at the French.
3

A tweet from the 18th century

Admiral A Duncan pens a “startlingly modern” letter to the Admiralty after the battle of Camperdown, French Revolutionary Wars, 11 October 1797 
Admiral Adam Duncan’s dispatch in the aftermath of what was a crushing British victory over the Batavian (Dutch) Republic in the North Sea is one of the most powerful of this collection. He wrote it onboard his flagship at the very moment that firing ceased, surrounded by the chaos of battle, ears ringing from cannon shot, clothes damp from sweat and spray and relieved to be alive. We know from other sources that he was one of only two men left unhurt on his quarterdeck.
Duncan writes with adrenalin coursing through his body. The words do not keep to any rigid line; they gush across the page. He repeats words and crams others in between lines.
The details are minimal. We know he “passed through their line & commenced the action” which was “very severe”, and he mentions that “I shall renew the action and try to distroy the rest if possible”. It fails to describe the action but simply places the author at its location. That immediacy makes it startlingly modern. Not only does it say, “Look at what I have done” but also, “Look at what I am doing”. This is not a proper battle report as much as an 18th-century battle tweet.
4

The shirts off their backs

A certain William Bligh compiles a list of persons who have lost everything from beds to shoes in the battle of Camperdown, 1797
The aftermath of any battle was miserable for the survivors. Even those who had come through unscathed would be cold, wet and exhausted. The food was often destroyed and beer barrels burst. Livestock was thrown overboard before action so that it wouldn’t get in the way of the guns. This list, written in the aftermath of the battle of Camperdown, suggests powerfully the physical discomfort.
It includes the name of each sailor and the items he is missing: there’s William Hetherby, who had lost “Bed & Bedding, 1 Outside Jacket & 1 Hat”; Walter Hewen, who had been deprived of “1 Bed & Bedding, 1 Cotton Shirt, 1 pair White Trowsers, & 1 Black Silk Handkerchf”; and Josh Daniel, who lost “1 Bed & Bedding, 1 pr Blue Trowsers, 1 Hat & 1 pr Shoes”.
Bedding and rugs could be easily replaced but the loss of a pair of shoes, well-worn and soft-fitting, was a bitter blow. The man who wrote the list certainly knew about discomfort – it was William Bligh, once captain of the Bounty, who had survived that epic 3,500-mile open boat journey across the Pacific after the infamous mutiny.
5

Splinters and shattered limbs 

A surgeon lists the wounded aboard HMS Monarch following the battle of Camperdown
Surgeons’ journals of any type from the age of sail are scarce and those kept by surgeons in fleet battle particularly so. That makes the surgeon’s report from HMS Monarch following Camperdown a gem. It gives the sailor’s name, rank and the nature of his wounds. It describes how Adam Ross, a landsman [unskilled seaman], suffered a “compound fracture of the leg”; how William Finlay, an able seaman [skilled seaman], was wounded “dangerously by splinters”; how William Meyers, an able seaman, was badly cut in “back and thighs splinters severe”; how William Kelson was wounded in “cheek and eyeball by splinters”. Some 103 sailors are listed, just over 17 per cent of the crew, a high proportion of casualties for a British warship in battle.
Many sailors suffered from “splinters”. The wooden walls of the largest warships in this period were a full three-feet thick and it was rare for a cannonball to penetrate a ship’s hull. Rather, the ball embedded itself in the hull or bounced off, back into the sea. The impact, however, tore off vicious daggers of timber that cut flesh to the bone and shattered limbs.
6

Nelson annihilates the French

Three maps tell the tale of the Royal Navy’s triumph at the battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798

The maps reveal in magnificent detail how Nelson surprised the French fleet at the mouth of the Nile. The first shows the French fleet neatly anchored and the British coming down in a mass. The second displays how one of Nelson’s captains, Thomas Foley of the Goliath, took his ship between the French and the land. In doing so, it demonstrates that the French fleet could be ‘doubled’ – that they could be attacked on both sides.
The third map shows the chaos that unfolded in what became one of the most decisive battles in naval history – in which Nelson’s ships annihilated the enemy – and clearly marks the spot where the French flagship, L’Orient, exploded. At the end of the battle, Nelson had captured nine of the enemy ships and destroyed two. Only two French ships escaped.
7

The boy on the burning deck

A tragic account of the fate of a commodore’s 10-year-old son in the battle of the Nile
This anonymous account is important for what it tells us about a naval legend, immortalised in Felicia Hemans’ poem Casabianca, which begins with the line known to generations of British schoolboys: “The boy stood on the burning deck. Whence all but he had fled.”
Hemans’ poem describes the scene on the burning decks of the French flagship, L’Orient, and then describes her destruction before wondering what has happened to the boy. “The boy-oh! Where was he?” The account, written by a French officer, provides an answer:
“Commodore Casa-bianca, and his son only 10 years old, (who during the action gave proofs of bravery and intelligence far above his age) were not so fortunate. They were in the water upon the wreck of
the L’Orient’s masts, not being able to swim, seeking each other till 3⁄4 past 10 when the ship blew up.”
We now know, therefore, that the boy who stood on the burning deck found himself in the sea. Unable to swim, he clung to the ship’s wrecked masts with his father. It is unclear if either survived, though the ferocity of the explosion makes it extremely unlikely. The fire was so dreadful that it melted the tar on the decks of a nearby ship.
8

Echoing down the ages

Vice Admiral C Collingwood announces Nelson’s death following the battle of Trafalgar, 22 October 1805
Collingwood’s missive in the aftermath of Trafalgar is a masterpiece. For Collingwood, and the thousands who read this letter when it was published, the headline of the battle was not the defeat of the French and Spanish allies but the death of Nelson.
Collingwood solved the problem of how to begin such a problematic dispatch with a phrase that echoes through the centuries: “The ever to be lamented death of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson…” It is an impressive piece of writing for someone who was distracted, and lost for many hours after the battle. Collingwood was in shock.
The letter describes some important aspects of Trafalgar. We hear of the attack, which was not executed, as Collingwood is at pains to add, “in the usual manner”, but by the British fleet in two columns with “the leading ships of the columns breaking through the enemy’s line” at two points.
The letter is also fascinating for what it omits. Collingwood refuses to “enter into encomiums [eulogies]” on the behaviour of the fleet captains. By doing so he deliberately protects several captains who failed to fight properly. Far more than a letter describing a battle, this is a press release spinning the story in the way that he wanted. Collingwood was determined that nothing would tarnish the esteem in which the navy was held.
9

“Sir, you surrendered yourself to me”

Vice Admiral Collingwood reminds Spain’s Vice Admiral D’Alava that he is a prisoner of war, 30 October 1805

In an earlier letter, Collingwood had mistakenly written of the Spanish vice admiral D’Alava’s death at Trafalgar, but as soon as he discovered him to be alive, Collingwood dashed off a letter reminding the vice admiral of his status as a prisoner of war.
“It is with great pleasure that I have heard, the wound you received in the action is in a hopeful way of recovery, and that your country may still have the benefit of your future service. – But, sir, you surrendered yourself to me…”
Collingwood apologised in case his letter would “disturb the repose of a man supposed to be in his last moments” but pressed ahead nonetheless. “But your sword, the emblem of your service, was delivered to me by your captain, and I expect that you consider yourself a prisoner of war.”
D’Alava’s reply is not included but we know that he disputed the details of his surrender. Collingwood was unimpressed but did not press matters. Instead, he sent D’Alava a large English cheese and a cask of porter. D’Alava generously returned the gesture with 60 melons and baskets of grapes, figs and pomegranates. The two remained in touch for some time, a relationship that played a role in Spain’s decision to change sides and ally themselves with the British in 1808.
10

“A moment’s time may not be lost”

Collingwood instructs John Lapenotiere to take the good and bad news from Trafalgar home, October 1805 
This is a wonderful letter, written by Collingwood to Lieutenant John Lapenotiere, the British lieutenant sent back to England with the Trafalgar dispatches. The urgency and excitement are tangible. “You are hereby required, and directed to proceed in his majesty’s schooner under your command to England, and on your arrival at Plymouth, you are immediately to forward the accompanying dispatches to the secretary of the Admiralty”.
Collingwood concluded: “As I trust you are fully aware of the great importance of those dispatches being forwarded as soon as is possible, I rely on your using every exertion, that a moment’s time may not be lost in their delivery.”
After a voyage of nine days, Lapenotiere arrived in Falmouth. We know everywhere he stopped on that 271-mile journey to London. After only 37 hours of hard driving, he arrived at the Admiralty building in Whitehall. It was one o’clock in the morning but the Admiralty secretary was still awake. Lapenotiere met him with words that would unite the nation in both celebration and mourning: “Sir, we have gained a great victory; but we have lost Lord Nelson.”

Dr Sam Willis is a presenter, maritime historian and archaeologist.