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Band of Brothers in History and Literature

Lord Nelson's Band of Brothers

Horatio Nelson was born the son of a Parson and was sent away early to the Royal Navy in 1770 at the age of twelve. This early age was typical for officers of the Navy to begin their training as midshipmen and contributed greatly to the feeling of fellowship that would arise as the violent era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars progressed.

Young Lord NelsonTraining was long, rigorous and technical. Captains in the Royal Navy were required to understand the most complex, most powerful and most elegant war machine devised up to their time. It required an incredible amount of skill to safely navigate the oceans with three masts, over twenty sails and a rudder pitted against all the forces a vast ocean could muster. Without landmarks the only way to navigate the oceans required a complex series of mathematical equations, precise observations of celestial bodies and equally precise chronometers to measure time. A captain had to be courageous, intelligent and a leader of men.

The men of the British Navy were tested time and again in conflict. Nelson's own record can serve as an example. He was part of an expedition to the Arctic. He caught a malarial fever in India that affected him his whole life. He fought in the American Revolution in the West Indies. In the 1780's he hounded smugglers in the same region. When war broke out with France in 1792 he was called to the Mediterranean Sea where he led an expedition to take Corsica from the French. There he lost the sight of one eye during an attack on Calvi.

In 1797 he fought in a large engagement of Cape St. Vincent where a heavy defeat was inflicted upon the Spanish. His tactics in this battle earned him a knighthood. Promoted to rear-admiral he fought another engagement in the Canary Islands where he was hit by grape shot and had to have his right arm amputated. This was followed in 1798 by the battle of the Nile where the French fleet was nearly annihilated. Nelson was wounded again in this battle. In 1801 he became a vice-admiral and was made second in command in an expedition to Denmark where he destroyed the Danish fleet at Copenhagen. He famously ignored a signal from his commanding officer that indicated he should not engage. He held a spy-glass to his blind eye and said he could not see the signal.

Nelson himself was a sea-officer par excellence. Yet there were many who struggled, suffered and were wounded as often as he. This could not help but develop a close relationship among the men. Nelson himself was very aware of the brotherhood which had arisen. In his biography of Nelson, David Howarth makes this clear:

"...Nelson's famous phrase, "I had the happiness to command a band of brothers'...After his first great victory, Nelson called his captains 'my darling children', and none was the least embarrassed by that. Under Jervis, the captains of the Mediterranean fleet were becoming a brotherhood, bonded by skill, experience, mutual respect and a common cause. Maybe they had not thought of it in that way before; but from about this time they all did, and Nelson most of all. And the concept - so suitable to his nature - became an important, conscious element in his conduct of the war."

Lord Nelson would eventually die at the very apex of his career. The battle of Trafalgar put to an end, for good and all, Napoleon's efforts to take control of the seas away from Britain. With victory in sight he was mortally wounded as he paced the quarter-deck with his faithful companion and brother-in-arms, Captain Hardy. A monument was erected to Nelson in London and it is still famously known as Trafalgar Square.

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