Who Put His Telescope to His Blind Eye?
Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté KB (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. He was noted for his inspirational leadership, superb grasp of strategy, and unconventional tactics, all of which resulted in a number of decisive naval victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was wounded several times in combat, losing most of one arm in the unsuccessful attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife and the sight in one eye in Corsica. He was shot and killed during his final victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Nelson’s death at Trafalgar secured his position as one of Britain’s most heroic figures. The significance of the victory and his death during the battle led to his signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, being regularly quoted, paraphrased and referenced up to the modern day. Numerous monuments, including Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, and the Nelson Monument in Edinburgh, have been created in his memory and his legacy remains highly influential.
When Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero, was given the signal to retreat at the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, he put his telescope to his blind eye and remarked: “I really do not see the signal.” The battle continued until the Danes were forced to agree to a truce that put an end to Napoleon’s hope of overthrowing British naval supremacy.
This event in the Napoleonic War occurred after Tsar Paul I, an ally of Napoleon, had formed “armed neutrality” against the British with Denmark, Sweden and Prussia. A British fleet under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Nelson as second-in-command, was sent to attack the Danish fleet lying at anchor a mile off Copenhagen in the narrow sound between Denmark and Sweden.
Faced with 40 enemy ships-of-the-line in a strong defensive position protected by shore batteries, Parker agreed that Nelson should open the battle with 12 ships-of-the-line and a number of smaller vessels. While Parker waited at the entrance to the sound, Nelson sailed through the tortuous channels between the sandbanks. The fighting began at 10 a.m. on April 2, and was carried on by both sides with great courage and stubbornness. At 1 p.m. Parker saw that Nelson’s force was in great danger and hoisted signal 39-an order to break off the action.
Nelson’s reaction was typical: “Leave off action! No, damn me, if I do!” Turning to his captain he remarked: “You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes. “After pretending not to see the signal, he remarked: “Damn the signal! Keep mine for closer battle flying? That’s the way I answer such signals. Nail mine to the mast.” After considerable losses on both sides, the Danes accepted the offer of a truce which effectively ended the threat to Britain of the Northern Alliance.
Some experts believe that there was an understanding between Parker and Nelson, also known to Foley, whereby Nelson would be allowed to use his own judgment even if officially ordered to stop fighting.