Why Army Officers Should Read About Lord Horatio Nelson

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Reposted from The Armchair Colonel with permission of the author.

Why should an Army Officer read 853 pages devoted to maritime operations at the turn of the 18th Century? This review of John Sugden’s Nelson: The Sword of Albion answers this question. It makes no claims as to the relative quality of Sugden’s book. Readers looking for comparative texts could try two that Sugden acknowledges and is occasionally at odds with; Professor Roger Knight’s, The Pursuit of Victory and Marianne Czisnik’s, Nelson a Controversial Hero.

Nelson: The Sword of Albion is more than a biography. The geographical breadth of the narrative and analysis of Nelson’s official correspondence; ships logs, letters and orders, captures the interplay of sea control and Napoleon’s campaigns at the turn of the 18th century. Operationally, this concerns bases, fleets, lines of supply and communications; and tactically, describes the activities of the ships of the fleet, small boats, landing forces, and coastal batteries. An aperture wider than Nelson, and Sugden’s illustration of the convergence between Army and Navy, diplomacy and force, and tactics and strategy gives the book professional value for any Army Officer.

Sugden adroitly judges the detail non-experts need to understand battle at sea. I suspect most will secretly enjoy descriptions of “demonic sweat soaked men, slaving at the ordnance……turning enemy decks and cockpits to shambles.” The author recreates Nelson’s actions at Alexandria, Copenhagen and Trafalgar, each built on surprise and ruthless violence at the point of contact. Despite this, Sugden’s grasp of the wider context demonstrates that each engagement serves a different purpose. Victory at Alexandria positions Nelson’s fleet between Napoleon’s Army in Egypt and points of supply and reinforcement. Destruction of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen creates the conditions for negotiation of a favourable armistice. Finally, the bludgeoning of French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, in 1805, assures British sea control in the Northern hemisphere for a century.

Each of these engagements reads as a vignette allowing the time poor reader to skim much of the intervening detail. Admittedly, Sugden’s perception of the relationship between tactical action and operational or strategic effect may be more obvious in hindsight than in practice – but it is useful nonetheless. From Sugden’s descriptions of these battles, it is also clear that engagements between capital ships change the balance of national power. The stakes in any single engagement at sea are higher than on land and military officers must be attuned to this divergence, which is convincingly portrayed in Sword of Albion.

The secondary value of Nelson: The Sword of Albion is a nuanced consideration of Nelson. Nelson led fleets to perform unprecedented feats of seamanship; a two year blockade in which not a day was spent in port, a 24 day crossing of the Atlantic and thunderous tactical effect in three epoch defining engagements. His fleets were the healthiest in history; his leadership consultative and consensus based – a fore runner of mission command. His command of the Mediterranean fleet showed a gift for combining sea power, land power, and diplomacy in pursuit of national objectives. Given these achievements, is it a surprise that Nelson was an oddball (even for a British Officer – Orde Wingate fans you know what I mean)?

Sugden considers this paradox, exploring a Nelson who was a “curious compound of weakness, with powers of high exertion, of intrepidity and talent whenever great occasions called for the exertion of the nobler qualities and subjection of the former”. Sugden also objectively considers Nelson’s ménage à trois with his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, and her elderly husband, Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples. The book takes no side in the Nelson paradox and lets the reader judge if the personal sullies the professional.

Nelson: The Sword of Albion looks beyond the unconventional domestic arrangements and extraordinary naval feats of a man with one eye and one arm. Sugden reveals a maverick leader executing land, sea and diplomatic engagements in patterns that remain useful for the contemporary student of war to study. It should be the one book every officer reads about Nelson.

About the Author: James Davis is an Australian Army Officer posted to the United Kingdom. The views expressed on this blog are his own and do not express either those of the Australian Army or the United Kingdom Land Forces. Follow James Davis at Twitter and through his blog, The Armchair Colonel.