Nelson's Flagship

This is the last piece written for the ATLANTIC by Charles W. Morton. For twenty-four years he presided over these pages with the tart humor and discerning eccentricity that made him a singular writer and editor. If there was one place he loved second to his own country, it was England, and he died therein a London hospitalin September. If there was one childhood excitement that stayed with him longer than others, it was for fighting ships and the men who command them, and his last essay is about Nelson and his flagship.
There is no measuring Charlie’s unique contribution to the magazine during the past quarter century except to say that the wit and creative criticism he introduced into its pages were at least equaled by the wisdom and discrimination he brought to our private deliberations. He always believed in the widest degree of editorial diversity and disagreement (“The only real equipment you have for this business is your opinion”). In his last days, he worried about the war, about what it was doing to his country and to his friends. He thought about the magazine he loved, about where it was going, how it would get there. Wherever he issomewhere in Thurber Country with Mencken, Mr. Dooley, DeVoto, and the other rare ivory-billed woodpeckers of American lettershe is certain to be appalled by the food, outraged by the service, and unavoidably generous to the fellow at the gate.The Editors

The royal arms of England, freshly and richly emblazoned, have a great way of seeming to bring to life the location of their mounting. The occasion may be unexpected, but something of it calls for recognition: a significance is still there, and a sprightly way of showing it is in the gold and the colors of heraldry.

One could hardly imagine a better place for the royal arms than their position on an oval shield, topped by a crown and supported on each side by a white figure of classical purport, as figurehead of H.M.S. Victory. This is all in a generous dimension, and it leads the stranger’s gaze first up the 110-foot bowsprit and its booms, and thence to the tall masts, the mainmast rising 205 feet above the dockside. But most of all, the bright colors of the figurehead proclaim a great ship in truly pristine condition, her myriad of lines in good order, brass gleaming, decks immaculate, and not even a fragment of litter from her swarms of visitors (no admission charge). The greatest ship of her day, Victory remains the incomparable example of sea power in the days of sail.

Never decomissioned since her launching in 1765, Victory is still in service as flagship of the Portsmouth command. Thousands of visitors come daily to see her and to read the small brass plaque on her quarterdeck: “Here Nelson fell, 21st October, 1805.” Save for the absence of canvas on her yards, Victory’s appearance today is much as it was at Trafalgar, when she led British sea power to overwhelming success in the most decisive battle in naval history. She is raised sufficiently in her permanent dry dock to bring her normal waterline parallel with the top of the dock, so that the whole sweep of her three gun decks and her silhouette are seen in a proper perspective, at a distance or from nearby.

The general impression one gets from Victory is of stark, simple force: a sense of indestructibility of the ship itself, with a hull of oak two feet thick; and the implied impact of the firepower of the guns, a hundred or more in all and constituting the main way of life for those on board. Everything was accomplished by human muscle with no power assists, so that weighing an anchor called for 280 men on the capstan bars. Launching the ship’s boats, which included the Admiral’s barge (fourteen oars) and a launch (sixteen oars), made the same kind of physical demands. (During a battle it was common practice to tow all the boats astern, to prevent damage to the boats and to the furniture and valuables from the Admiral’s and officers’ cabins with which they were loaded.) Amenities for the crew were nonexistent, and the men themselves were likely to be an odd collection of a dozen nationalities, farmers, criminals, volunteers, including many seized from merchant vessels and kidnapped into the naval service. It was a harsh life with few rewards, and the more one considers the completely one-sided results of the major battles in Nelson’s career, the more puzzling becomes the question of how such consistent victories seemed to result almost automatically for the British forces, even though they were often outnumbered and operating at the fatend of a long supply line. The French ships were equally good, and many of their commanders fought them bravely and energetically. Yet the outcome at Trafalgar, for example, was that the British lost no ship while the French and Spanish fleets lost eighteen, destroyed or surrendered, and four more taken some days later. In the gale that followed the battle, many enemy ships foundered, but no British ship was lost, even though some had been dismasted and heavily damaged.

The Nelson legend is of course founded on solid fact, and volumes by the score, by historians, contemporaries, eyewitnesses, and friend and enemy alike, set forth his unique talents as a master tactician, fighting man, mariner, and perhaps above all, a leader who inspired the devotion of every man in his command. These were great assets for the British fleet, but there were other ingredients not found in the navies of its enemies, according to Lieutenant Commander C. W. Whittington, R.N., commanding officer of Victory, a Nelson scholar and the author of “H.M.S. Victory, a Short History and Guide,” who has managed to transmit in this sixteen-page booklet a wonderfully complete account of the ship.

Commander Whittington believes that British naval success in general came from an iron discipline and the policy of keeping the fleet actively at sea for months, often years, at a time. Seamanship and gunnery gained accordingly, the rate of fire reaching a point where an enemy vessel of the same armament, locked in close combat with a British ship, often found itself outgunned by something on the order of three to one. There were few surprises, and much experience with which to deal with them. A constant readiness and full maintenance were the routine minimum. The truculence of the environment comes through to the visitor immediately on entering Captain Hardy’s spacious dining and day cabin, one of the three great cabins in the stern of Victory. It is paneled in white, chastely furnished with old mahogany of much patina, a beautiful carpet older than the ship; and on each side, immediately within, is a twelve-pounder cannon nosing out of its gunport just like the rest of the ship’s armament.

Portsmouth is not on the usual tourist itinerary, and more people would probably see Victory if she were stationed in London, but there is a delightful appropriateness in her permanent berth in H.M. Dockyard, still surrounded by navy men and their doings and by the antique stone buildings of the establishment.