Today in Portsmouth
Today in Portsmouth, England a titan of war now rests from the battles of her past. Her shattered beams and bloodied decks are now overshadowed by the modern warships that now command the seas. Yet those ironclad vessels could never claim the glory that the HMS Victory had centuries ago when Napoleon and 90,000 of his finest soldiers stood ready to invade Britain. The invaders called upon the combined navies of France and Spain to transport them across the English channel and into the land of their empire’s last remaining adversary. Britain with no defense capable of withstanding the invincible army of Napoleon, had but one option to intercept and destroy the fleet that would transport their largest threat. To carry out this vital mission, Horatio Nelson was chosen, for as he would soon demonstrate, the HMS Victory along with her experienced seamen, would encounter the Franco-Spanish fleet off of the Cape of Trafalgar and using the tactical brilliance of Nelson, ultimately bring an end to Napoleon’s conquest.
The HMS Victory, despite her monumental size, left little room for the comfort of the sailors who manned her. Her sails, cannon, and everything in between had to be operated by almost all 875 seaman aboard. Most of their labor was not only physically intensive but also incredibly dangerous as well. For instance, when climbing aloft to set sail, men could fall hundreds of feet to their deaths when the very wind they tried to harness would shake the rope they stood upon. Even when below deck, disease would run rampant throughout the crowded conditions and plague and entire voyage. For any sailor who dare refused an order to work in these cruel conditions, the rigorous tradition of the Royal Navy allowed severe punishment and even death to be administered to them. As a result of these dreadful qualities, voluntary enlistment to the navy was incredibly low. So low in fact, that Britain was forced to use vicious “press gangs” made of demanding officers and their obedient crews that searched about England for able bodied men, forcing them against their will to serve aboard ships like the HMS Victory. However, not all aspects of serving aboard a vessel of the Royal Navy were bad, such as the daily meals. A modern historian looked back on the diets of these sailors and concluded that “A diet of salt meat, hard biscuits, and sauerkraut was a shock to us, but our predecessors would have considered it superior to anything available on shore. For them such regular, hot, protein-rich meals, together with a nearly limitless supply of beer, would have been a luxury.” (Andrew Lambert). Food being a luxury to the men certainly conveys how tough life must have been aboard these ships. But if it hadn’t been for their perseverance to withstand these conditions it’s unlikely that the battle they would fight at Trafalgar would have been a success. Those terrible conditions certainly did play a part in making men strong and capable enough of defeating Napoleon’s fleet. However not every man aboard was as fondly remembered for their resilience as one.
In a long and bloody military career Horatio Nelson had suff.