Walter Runciman : Nelson and Wellington ép. 2

There were clear similarities between the two great contemporary British commanders by land and sea : « The Duke of Wellington, of whom it is said no dose of flattery was too strong for him to swallow »19, only met Nelson once. While he was waiting to see the Secretary of State at the Colonial Office in Downing Street he was shown into a small room where he recognized the one-armed Nelson from portraits he had seen of him. He was initially far from impressed : « He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it a conversation, for it was almost all on his side and all about himself, and in, really, a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me ». When Nelson realized he was talking to someone of equal merit he changed his tone completely : « in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman. The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and certainly, for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more »20.

Wellington was not used to being on the sidelines and he had a mighty opinion of himself. He : « showed it in a cold, haughty, unimaginative, repelling self-importance ; fearful of unbending to his inferiors lest his dignity should be offended »21. Although they both considered themselves the bee’s knees there was also a clear difference between the two men. Nelson believed in explaining his orders and tactics to his fellow officers and his personal generosity and enthusiasm motivated them and filled them with confidence.

Although he was a strict and harsh disciplinarian where others were concerned, Nelson thought that rules and regulations should apply to everyone but himself. At the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 he turned his famous ‘blind eye’ to a signal from his commanding officer : « He deliberately disobeyed orders, and saved England’s honour and fleet by doing so »22. Furthermore, far from being hanged for ignoring a direct order in the presence of the enemy at a time of war, he was made a Viscount. To someone with an ego the size of Mars, this must have convinced him that he was a man apart – someone who could pick and choose which orders he should obey and dismiss those with which he disagreed. Similarly, with his infatuation with Emma Hamilton, he totally ignored the social conventions of his day. The couple flaunted their affair and Nelson even took personal affront if there was any criticism of his behaviour.

When he was back in England Emma Hamilton turned the house they shared with her husband into a shrine for Nelson. On March 22nd 1802, Lord Minto described a visit he made there in a letter to his wife :« I went to Lord Nelson’s (Merton) on Saturday. The whole establishment and way of life makes me angry as well as melancholy… She goes on cramming Nelson with trowels of flattery, which he takes as quietly as a child does pap. The love she makes to him is ridiculous and disgusting. The whole house, staircase and all, are covered with pictures of her and him of all sorts and sizes. He is represented in naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour, the flagstaff of the L’Orient. If it was Lady Hamilton’s house, there might be pretence for it ; but to make his own a mere looking-glass to view himself all day is bad taste »23.

It should come as no surprise that George III turned his back on Nelson publicly on account of his dubious morals. This insult from his own King affected Nelson deeply. In like manner, when he and Emma visited the Duke of Marlborough’s estate to see the delights of Blenheim, they were virtually ignored as if they had been mere common interlopers, although the Duke condescendingly ordered some refreshments for them. Nelson was left boiling with rage, affronted personally and also maddened by the refusal of others to bend the knee to Emma – the goddess he himself worshipped. The self-aggrandizing temple to Nelson at Merton was their response. And these were the very privileged nobles and ‘betters’ that he would literally die for at Trafalgar, playing his part in upholding the vicious, corrupt and heartless hierarchy of his day.

As Runciman says : « There is always some fatal weakness about a great man that lures him into littleness, and this was an overwhelming tragedy in Nelson’s career. The approbation of men was gratefully received and even asked for, but the adoration of women reduced him to helplessness »24.

To be continued…

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  1. Ibid. 46
  2. Ibid. 46
  3. Ibid. 47
  4. Ibid. 36.
  5. Ibid. 41
  6. Ibid. 58