How Nelson lost his arm and other facts about Britain’s greatest naval commander

A portrait of Horatio Nelson
Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott. Background: The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield | Wikipedia | Public Domain

When it comes to great British military leaders, few can rival the achievements and tactical capabilities of Horatio Nelson. Immortalised for defeating the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, Nelson was equally famous for losing various body parts during his time at sea.

Let’s take a look at some fascinating facts about Britain’s greatest naval commander.

Nelson was one of eleven children

Born and raised in Norfolk in 1758 to a Reverend and his wife, Nelson was the sixth of eleven children. His mother passed away when he was relatively young. In early 1771, Nelson’s naval career began after his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, agreed to take him aboard his ship.

Nelson was prone to seasickness

Not long after going to sea, Nelson realised he suffered from seasickness, something that would continue to bother him throughout his naval career. Writing in 1804 from HMS Victory, Nelson said, ‘I am ill every time it blows hard and nothing but my enthusiastic love for the profession keeps me one hour at sea.’

Nelson fought walrus’s and polar bears in the Arctic

Just two years after going to sea for the first time, Nelson went on an expedition to the Arctic in 1773. The voyage hoped to discover whether there was a navigable passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Although the expedition was a failure, Nelson had an eventful trip after saving a rowboat from a walrus attack as well as going toe-to-toe with a polar bear he hoped to skin. After his gun misfired, legend has it he went at the creature with the butt of his musket, before fellow crewmembers fired into the air to scare the bear away.

By the age of 21, Nelson was a captain

Nelson rose through the ranks of the British Navy swiftly. By 19 years old he was a lieutenant and just two years later he became a captain. By the age of 25, Nelson had been appointed captain of HMS Boreas, which was stationed in the West Indes. It was here that he met his future wife Frances Nisbet on the Caribbean Island of Nevis.

Nelson was unemployed for five years

After his commission in the West Indes ended, Nelson and Nisbet returned to the UK and settled in Norfolk. Nelson failed to secure another appointment and spent the next five years unemployed on half-pay. However, soon after the start of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792, Nelson once again found himself back in command. This time he was in charge of the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon.

The biggest scandal of the age

In 1793, 35-year-old Nelson first met Lady Hamilton, the 28-year-old wife of Sir William Hamilton who was the British Envoy in Naples. Captivated by her beauty and ‘amiable manners’, the two would later embark on a love affair that saw Lady Hamilton fall pregnant with Nelson’s child. Rumours of the affair swirled around society news back in London. Nelson would eventually leave his wife for his mistress, a scandalous move that was lapped up by the press.

Nelson lost an eye and an arm

After being sent to the Mediterranean to establish naval superiority, Nelson embarked on an invasion of Corsica in 1794. During the conflict, debris from a French shot flung into Nelson’s face leaving him almost blind in his right eye.

During the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, which saw the Royal Navy attempt a failed assault on the Spanish port city in the Canary Islands, Nelson was wounded in the arm. Shot in the right elbow by a musket ball, his humerus bone was shattered in multiple places. Back on his ship, most of Nelson’s arm was amputated without anaesthetics.

Disobedience was commonplace

A theme running throughout Nelson’s career was a wilful disregard towards orders. He often ignored direct commands, a trait that would have got him in trouble with the Admiralty had he not been proved right on multiple occasions. Victories at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and The Battle of Nile in 1798 saw Nelson awarded a knighthood and promoted to Vice-Admiral in 1801.

Nelson’s tactics were revolutionary

Nelson's strategic flair, combined with his unconventional tactics revolutionised naval warfare. Before Nelson, the majority of sea battles saw two opposing forces gather in a single line before going toe-to-toe and engaging broadside. At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson split his forces into two columns and sent them head-on right into the enemy. He also gave his officers a greater level of freedom and encouraged them to think for themselves, a significant break away from the rigid command structure of the time.

Nelson was killed by a French sniper

During the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson paced up and down the deck of HMS Victory wearing full uniform. At just after 1 pm, a French sharpshooter felled the Vice-Admiral; a musket ball entered Nelson’s left shoulder, passed through his spine and punctured a lung. Nelson was taken below deck where he’d pass away three hours later.

Nelson’s words have become immortalised

During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Nelson was given the order to discontinue his action against the enemy. He famously raised his telescope to his blind eye and declared ‘I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal'. Nelson continued to press home his advantage and forevermore the phrase 'turning a blind eye' has been in the English language.

Before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson sent a message to his fleet using the Popham flag code signalling that ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ The message has gone down in legend as one of the greatest military quotes of all time.

In his dying moments, Nelson famously said to his flag captain Thomas Hardy ‘Kiss me, Hardy’. Hardy kissed Nelson on the forehead in farewell before the Vice-Admiral ushered his final words, ‘Thank God I have done my duty’.

Nelson was preserved in brandy

After his passing, Nelson’s body was placed in a cask of brandy where it would remain until the ship could next dock. The cask was lashed to the mainmast and protected by armed guards.