Part 1 of 2
AT one o’clock, perceiving that, after three hours’ endurance, the enemy’s fire was unslackened, he [Admiral Parker] began to despair of success. “I will make the signal of recall,” said he to his captain, “for Nelson’s sake. If he is in a condition to continue the action successfully, he will disregard it; if not, it will be an excuse for his retreat, and no blame can be imputed to him.” Under a mistaken judgment, therefore, but with this disinterested and generous feeling, he made the signal for retreat.*
Nelson was at this time, in all the excitement of action, pacing the quarter-deck. A shot through the mainmast knocked the splinters about; and he observed to one of his officers with a smile, “It is warm work; and this day may be the last to any of us at a moment:” — and then stopping short at the gangway, added, with emotion — “But mark you! I would not be elsewhere for thousands.” [...]
* Southey’s defence of the Admiral’s decision-making was given ‘upon the highest and most unquestionable authority’ in this edition of 1814, but it disappeared from later ones. “The simple version of this circumstance is,” said Nelson’s friend and chaplain, the Revd Alexander Scott, “that it had been arranged between the Admirals, that if it should appear that the ships which were engaged were suffering too severely, the signal for retreat should be made, to give Lord Nelson the option of retiring, if he thought fit.”
Horatio Nelson was in the thick of the Battle of Copenhagen on April 2nd, 1801, when Admiral Parker signalled retreat. Robert Southey assured his readers that Parker half expected Nelson to ignore the signal; indeed at first Nelson did not even see it, as he was too busy (and happy) dodging pieces of ship as Danish fire rained down. (58 / 60 words)
He now paced the deck, moving the stump of his lost arm in a manner which always indicated great emotion. “Do you know,” said he to Mr Ferguson,* “what is shewn on board the commander-in-chief? No. 39!” Mr Ferguson asked what that meant. “Why, to leave off action!” Then, shrugging up his shoulders, he repeated the words “Leave off action? Now, damn me if I do! You know, Foley,”* turning to the captain, “I have only one eye, I have a right to be blind sometimes:” and then, putting the glass to his blind eye, in that mood of mind which sports with bitterness,* he exclaimed, “really I do not see the signal!”
Presently he exclaimed, “Damn the signal! Keep mine for closer battle flying! That’s the way I answer such signals! Nail mine to the mast!”*
* The surgeon aboard Nelson’s ship HMS Elephant.
* Later Admiral Sir Thomas Foley (1757-1833).
* Nelson was vindicated. Within half an hour, the enemy’s guns had been silenced. “The brave Danes are the brothers,” Nelson wrote to the Crown Prince of Denmark, proposing an armistice, “and should never be the enemies of the English.” He sealed his letter not with the proffered disc of dampened starch (a ‘wafer’) but with wax and a large seal. “This is no time to appear hurried and informal” he observed.
* That is, that mood in which people make a joke out of any painful feelings they may have.
When Nelson at last learnt of the signal calling on him to retreat, he was incredulous. Then, remembering that he was blind in one eye, he put his telescope to his eye-patch and declared triumphantly that he could not see Parker’s message. Nelson then pressed ahead into battle, flying his own signal to attack, and went on to win. (59 / 60 words)