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Nelson’s Leadership — the Reason for British Naval Success?

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Was the leadership of Britain’s most famous admiral the key to British success in the Napoleonic Wars?

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. He was noted for his inspirational leadership, grasp of strategy, and unconventional tactics, which together resulted in a number of decisive British naval victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars.

However, was this the sole reason for British Naval Success at the time? There are many other themes surrounding this question other than leadership, including the role of Captains, the technology and tactics, which can be credited to British success, rather than just Nelson’s leadership.

Nelson appears with one of his midshipmen at the moment of victory during the famous Battle of the Nile (1798). Guy Head (1753–1800), Artist.

Firstly, Nelson’s qualities of leadership through his willingness to follow his own good judgement and support from his subordinates proved to be a key cause for his success as a naval commander.

He inspired men and fellow officers, winning their trust and affection. This meant that they were more willing to follow him into battle. An example of this was at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, in which he took his 74-gun ship HMS Captain out of the British ships and into close-quarters combat despite severe damage, leading his men into battle on the enemy’s deck; he was able to capture two Spanish warships and gained an even stronger reputation.

This breaking away from the rest of the ships to prevent almost certain British failure, despite his orders, shows Nelsons willingness to follow his good judgement over his commanding officers. Although seemingly negative, it showed Nelson’s instinct to lead, and in fact, resulted in further victory.

However, British success was not always a result of Nelson’s leadership and was often due to him being able to take advantage of mistakes by the French. A key issue of the French, for example, was the damaging relationship between Napoleon and Villeneuve.

Admiral Villeneuve French commander at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars

In October 1805, French Admiral Villeneuve, the commander of the French/Spanish Fleet was still in the harbour at Cadiz. Villeneuve received a stinging rebuke from Napoleon, accusing him of cowardice, and Villeneuve steeled himself to leave the harbour and make for the Channel.

British frigates relayed a signal to their navy that the fleet was leaving, and a few days later the Franco-Spanish fleet was attacked and defeated at Trafalgar. This mistake by the French through the pressure of their leaders was one of the key results of the success of the British navy, and therefore it can be argued that British success was not always down to the good judgement of Nelson and his treatment of sailors.

Moreover, there was a lot of guesswork in Naval strategy, ships relied on wind and movements were seldom predictable, furthermore, it was all about being in the right place at the right time.

“L’Orient” explodes the Battle of the Nile, Aboukir Bay, 1st August 1798

An instance during the war in which luck played a key part in causing the victory of the British was at the battle of the Nile, in which the British came across the French fleet when they were highly unprepared for battle and had all French vessels crowded into the ports.

This made the attack relatively easy for the British and resulted in their victory. Therefore, it can be seen that there was a high element of luck to British naval victory at the time rather than simply as a result of Horatio Nelson’s leadership.

Moreover, Nelson’s use of captains was a key reason for his success as a naval commander. He briefed his captains thoroughly before each engagement; discussed plans openly with them; and often held dinners in which he would be able to form judgements about them.

This allowed and encouraged his captains to use their initiative within the overall plan in battle. These factors all proved to be extremely effective and at the battle of Trafalgar, he emphasised that any captain who engaged the enemy could not go far wrong. He instilled not only the notion of ‘duty’ in his officers but also teamwork as a ‘band of brothers’.

However, although Nelson’s leadership through the use of captains was strong, there were other commanders and captains that also made notable contributions towards the success of the Navy in these wars.

An example of this was Vice-Admiral Collingwood at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805 in which the British formed two columns, one led by Nelson and the other by Collingwood, both broke through the Franco-Spanish line and fighting at close quarters ensued, resulting in a British victory.

This was one of the most decisive battles of the wars and was in fact of joint leadership between the two. Therefore, successes such as this cannot be credited always towards Nelson’s leadership, but also others.

Nevertheless, Nelson’s tactics were a vital element resulting in his success as commander. Nelson’s early career taught him the effects of close-range gunnery on wooden ships, and although in battleships were usually supposed to stay in line, Nelson was never shy of ignoring this.

His favourite ploy was to break the enemy’s line, so his ships could fire in turn, sending broadsides to rake enemy ships from bow to stern. An example in which he used this was at the Battle of Copenhagen, in which ships manoeuvred to deliver broadsides, wreaking havoc and destruction, and ultimately resulting in another clear victory of the British.

Battle of Copenhagen 1801

However, Nelson was not, in fact, a tactical innovator, and although he was capable of implementing these tactics, they were not his. Ideas adapted and used by him such as ‘breaking the line’, used in Battles such as at Trafalgar, had previously been devised by other commanders such as George Rodney in this case.

So as a result, British success through the use of tactics under his command cannot be entirely credited to Nelson. In addition, despite being tactically strong, the sheer size and professionalism of the British navy gave a huge advantage in battling enemy forces and technologically the British were at a huge advantage.

British vessels were improved by the 1780’s innovation of ‘coppering’, which covered their hulls with copper sheets. This enabled boats to go faster and remain at sea for longer. This movement by the British was heavily exploited tactically by Nelson who used it to outmanoeuvre enemy ships.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797
by Robert Cleveley

This proved to be effective at numerous battles such as at the Battle of Cape St Vincent and was key to Nelson’s use of ‘breaking the line’ as he was able to outmanoeuvre the Spanish vessels to deliver broadsides with his boat the HMS Captain.

Therefore, Naval success through tactical innovation can not be directly credited to Nelson, as ideas were not original, and all tactics exploited the technological advantages of the British navy.

From this, Nelson’s qualities of leadership were shown through his planning and reconnaissance of in battle. Nelson devised his plans appropriately to each campaign and made optimum use of British Naval strengths, as discussed previously, through advantages in technology and through the sheer size of the navy such as his use of close quarters gunnery with use of carronades.

A Carronade aboard a British Ship, 1790s

Nelson also understood the importance of reconnaissance and getting accurate information about the enemy quickly, which ultimately gave them the upper hand when it came to devising plans. Fast frigates and cruisers were used to keep watch of the enemy and to report movements.

An example of this was his use of frigates around Cadiz during Trafalgar, this meant Nelson could come up with an effective plan resulting in a decisive victory that annihilated the French and Spanish navies, capturing or destroying two-thirds of their force.

Despite, the luck, roles of other captains, and the Innovation of the British Navy, it can be said that Nelson was the Reason for Naval Success and superiority for the British at the time.

Nelson’s quality of leadership was the primary reason for his success as a naval commander; despite him using technology among other advantages of the British, along with a high element of luck and use of previously implemented tactics.

He was successful in battle through his leadership, and made full use of his captains, gained the trust of his men and used of reconnaissance, planning and good judgement in order to achieve overall success and ultimately protect Britain from a naval attack.

Horatio Nelson was killed at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He truly pushed forth the British Navy, boosting the morale of many sailors and his tactics revolutionised Naval warfare.

‘The Death of Nelson’ (1859–1864) by Daniel Maclise

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