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)

This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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.
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.
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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Nelson annihilates the French

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now