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Today in history... Britain's naval hero reports for duty

12:00am | & News

One of England's greatest heroes, still celebrated as the nation's saviour and immortalised atop a 170ft column in central London, was born on this day in 1758.

Horatio Nelson was born the sixth of 11 children to a moderately prosperous family in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, where his father was the Rector. An unremarkable grammar school student, it was decided he should join the Royal Navy, serving aboard a ship commanded by his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. Joining as an ordinary seaman and coxswain, he was soon appointed midshipman and began officer training.

Very soon after going to the sea, Nelson discovered he suffered from chronic seasickness, a condition which plagued him for the rest of his life. Even so, he showed a natural affinity for life as a naval officer and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a captain himself at the age of just 20.

Sailing the world's oceans, he saw action raiding Spanish colonies in the West Indies and Central America, earning a reputation for personal courage and a firm grasp of tactics. However, there were also periods of inaction when Britain was not at war and needed fewer military personnel. Between 1787 and 1792 he received no new naval commission and languished on land, trying his hand at various enterprises with little success.

Long-awaited relief came in 1793 when war broke out with Revolutionary France and Nelson was recalled to service, given command of the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon. Serving in the Mediterranean, he fought at Toulon and helped capture Corsica. It was while ashore there, assisting in the siege of Calvi, that he lost the sight in his right eye after being struck by debris from a French shot.

Four years later he happened upon a squadron of Spanish ships waiting to ambush a small British fleet off Cape St Vincent, in Portugal. Acting on his own initiative he single-handedly engaged the Spanish ships, harrying them until reinforcements arrived to secure a British victory. Celebrated as a national hero, Nelson was knighted and promoted to rear admiral.

Later that year his luck ran out when he led an unsuccessful British assault on Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. During the engagement he was shot by a musket ball which shattered the bone in his upper right arm. It had to be amputated by his ship's surgeon, but Nelson was issuing orders to his captains just half-an-hour later.

After recuperating from his wounds in London, Nelson returned to sea in 1798 and succeeded in destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, stranding Napoleon Bonaparte and his army in Egypt. Once again he was hailed a hero and subsequently promoted to vice-admiral. Even scandal in his private life – taking mistresses despite having a wife in England – could not dent his popularity.

It grew still further in 1801 when Nelson engaged Danish forces at the Battle of Copenhagen. When his superior officer raised the signal for Nelson to withdraw from the ferocious battle, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and declared: "I really do not see the signal." An hour later victory was his and rather than being punished for disregarding a direct order, he was promoted to Admiral and created Viscount Nelson.

He was also appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet and given command of its flagship, HMS Victory. It would be the setting for his most famous victory – and his death. In late 1805, Nelson pursued a fleet of 33 French and Spanish ships, catching them off Cape Trafalgar, in the south-west of Spain, on October 21st.

Despite being outnumbered, Nelson divided his fleet of 27 ships into two divisions and famously signalled from HMS Victory that: "England expects that every man will do his duty". In five hours of ferocious fighting the British devastated the enemy fleet, sinking 19 ships without a single British ship lost.

Even so, 1,500 British seaman were killed or wounded, their Admiral chief among them. The fighting had been fiercest around the Victory and Nelson was shot by sniper firing from the rigging of a French vessel, the musket ball driving down through his shoulder and into his chest, passing through his spine. Taken below decks, he told the ship's surgeon: "You can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live. My back is shot through."

Nelson died three hours later, about half-an-hour before the battle ended. His last words, on being told that victory was imminent, were: "Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty."

Victory at Trafalgar finally ensured Napoleon would never invade Britain, with Nelson hailed the saviour of the nation. A magnificent funeral was held in St Paul's Cathedral and a spectacular monument to Nelson erected in the newly-named Trafalgar Square. Throughout Britain streets, public houses and even whole towns were named or renamed in Nelson's honour, while HMS Victory is preserved to this day in dry-dock at Portsmouth.

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