Copy Book Archive

‘Really, I do not see the signal!’ During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Horatio Nelson decided it was time to turn a blind eye.

In two parts

1801 King George III 1760-1820 Music: Franz Joseph Haydn

From Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

About this picture …

A monument to the Battle of Copenhagen, in a park in the Danish capital. In 1793, the new Republic of France began exporting ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ across Europe at the point of gun and sword. The Danes became involved because ships of the Royal Navy would arrest and search merchant vessels of neutral nations such as Denmark to make sure they were not aiding the French campaign. In 1800, Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Prussia revived the League of Armed Neutrality, first founded twenty years earlier, as a defensive measure but the Royal Navy stepped in, thanks to rising (and well-founded) fears that the league was empowering a French invasion.

‘Really, I do not see the signal!’

Part 1 of 2

Horatio Nelson lost his right eye in battle off Corsica in 1793, and his right arm at Tenerife in 1797. Undeterred, and now a Rear Admiral, he was in the line of fire again at Copenhagen on April 2nd, 1801: a vital action, as Denmark was hampering England’s efforts to fend off invasion from Napoleon’s France. By lunchtime his Commander-in-chief Sir Hyde Parker, some way behind, was getting anxious.

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.” [...]

Jump to Part 2

* 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)

Part Two

By Thomas Luny (1759-1837), from the Royal Museums, Greenwich, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

About this picture …

The Battle of Copenhagen on April 2nd 1801, by Cornish artist Thomas Luny (1759-1837). Sir Hyde Parker new little of what was going on further up the line. He did know that a series of misfortunes had already weakened his attack, but he did not know how serious the situation was, nor what Nelson wanted to do about it. Nelson’s anxieties vanished as the gunfire started. “No sooner was he in battle,” wrote Southey, “where his squadron was received with the fire of more than a thousand guns, than, as if that artillery, like music, had driven away all care and painful thoughts, his countenance brightened; and, as a bystander describes him, his conversation became joyous, animated, elevated, and delightful.”

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!”*

Copy Book

* 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)


Abridged from ‘Life of Nelson’ Vol. 2 (1814) by Robert Southey (1774-1843). Additional information from ‘Life Of Admiral Lord Nelson, from His Lordship’s Manuscripts’ Vol. 2 (1809) by James Stanier Clarke (1766-1834) and John McArthur (1755-1840).

Suggested Music

1 2

Symphony No. 100 G major (‘Military’)

3: Menuetto: Moderato

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Performed by the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen.

Media not showing? Let me know!

Transcript / Notes

The Symphony is one of twelve composed for London audiences. No. 100 was performed during the composer’s second visit to London, in 1794 to 1795.

Symphony No. 100 G major (‘Military’)

4: Finale: Presto

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Performed by the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen.

Media not showing? Let me know!

Transcript / Notes

The Symphony is one of twelve composed for London audiences. No. 100 was performed during the composer’s second visit to London, in 1794 to 1795.

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