How England broke faith with its greatest admiral, Lord Nelson: in two parts.
The English have erected only two statues outside their parliament. They are of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill. In their prime, these men loomed larger over their people than did any European monarch or Eastern potentate. We have not seen anything remotely like either in our time. Each was the ultimate servant and master of that gift of England to the world called parliament. Each was a fierce and successful defender of that parliament, the first against a devious, grasping monarch; the second against a vicious foreign dictator. On each count their nation and we are grateful to them and we celebrate their memory. Each remains subject to bitter recrimination, but putting to one side the war crimes that Cromwell perpetrated in Ireland in the name of God, that hostility smacks of jealousy, meanness and mediocrity.
The City of London has two great monuments to national heroes: the Wellington Arch and Nelson’s Column on Trafalgar Square. Each of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington was one of the greatest commanders of armed forces that the world has ever seen. Each had come up the hard way and learned his craft from the bottom up. Each showed a kind of courage that could scare the rest of us or at least look reckless. Each had the gift of command – each had the insight to see the issue and the character to pursue his answer to it. What we miss most in public life now is the courage of decision. You cannot teach this; nor can you measure it. The best that you can do is mutter the word ‘genius’ in something like awe and shrug your shoulders – like you do with Shakespeare, Mozart, or Newton. And as a result, and most importantly, each was a winner. And mutter though Tolstoy may, each of Nelson and Wellington turned the whole course of history by the force of his character.
And they have something else in common. Each was reputed to be unfaithful to his wife. Fidelity is the first call of the fighting man. Another word for fidelity is loyalty – what counts is constancy. We must see at least some part of it between all of us if we want to get on together. And it has to be a two-way street – as the authors of the medieval Sachsenspiegel knew and as the current President of the United States will eventually discover. When Churchill spoke to the nation about ‘the miracle of deliverance’ at Dunkirk, he went into overdrive on the role of the RAF. He spoke of their valour, perseverance, perfect discipline, faultless service, resource, skill, and ‘unconquerable fidelity.’ In this and other speeches, Churchill was calling on all the reserves of a singular nation that had been built up by people like Cromwell, Nelson and Wellington.
Our previous readiness to put a curtain around the marital infidelity of a commander in chief has been shattered by the appalling misconduct of commanders like Kennedy, Clinton and Trump. We now also see a change brought about by a growing conviction that one half of the human race may be as good as the other and an accompanying sense of guilt over our past behaviour. Yet somehow the cloud of infidelity that lours over the house of Lord Nelson seems so much darker to some than the cloud over his Grace, the Duke of Wellington. Why is this so?
As it happens, in looking into this aspect of our frailty, we may come across another and perhaps worse cloud that lours over all our houses.
Before looking at Wellington and Nelson, may we briefly consider the claims of Napoleon? Andrew Roberts wrote a book in which he sought to justify the title Napoleon the Great. Was the little Corsican up there with Nelson or Wellington? Not on your bloody Nelly, Mate.
Nelson and Wellington won; Napoleon lost. He lost because he invaded both Spain and Russia. (Hitler committed only the second of those errors, but he had the example of Napoleon before him.) Napoleon committed those errors because, like Hitler, he lived for war. War for both of them was like a Ponzi scheme for crooks. It perpetuated itself because it had to. Napoleon’s most balanced biographer, Georges Lefebvre, said that Napoleon gave France and the world la guerre éternelle because ‘he was a man whose temperament, even more than his genius, was unable to adapt to peace and moderation.’
Napoleon left France in ruins and he left Europe to bury five million dead. He ignored the warning of Robespierre that no one likes armed missionaries*, and he sought to impose hopelessly inept members of his family on places they could not possibly fill, in a way that has only been matched since by Donald Trump. He was profligate with even French casualties, but above all, and undeniably and unanswerably, he walked out on his own army not once but twice – something that Nelson or Wellington could have done as easily as travelling from London to New York – by foot.
The liaison between Nelson and Lady Hamilton was public, and later admitted, but people throughout celebrated it with the kind of verve that we now associate with the paparazzi doing a number on the royal family thirds or fourths or a serial Hollywood divorcée. This is a big part of the difference. By and large, Wellington was more discrete. There was from the beginning something about the Nelson case that brought out the worst of the voyeur in all of us, and that ghastly mean, green streak that gives us a guilty form of comfort in seeing someone who is so much better than us cut down to size. (If you wanted to look for the world champions in this callous levelling, you could do worse than start here in Australia.)
Both Nelson and Wellington served overseas to endure long separations from their wives at a time when the stresses of their position were the most wearing – and when they were being white-anted at home. Elizabeth Longford quotes an officer who served with Wellington in India as saying that Wellington ‘had at that time a very susceptible heart, particularly towards, I am sorry to say, married ladies.’ That was before he was married, but not before the marriages of the objects of his attention. Adultery can of course occur at either end of an affair. I daresay that His Grace would have had some trouble coming to grips with #MeToo, but even at that distance from the year of Our Lord 2019, even the most the most complete patrician could have seen complications from an officer sleeping with the wife of a man of lesser rank.
My namesake, Guy Gibson, was one of the great heroes of World War II, and he will remain so for me, but Old Jack, my neighbour at Blackwood, who flew forty seven missions in Mosquitoes, said that he and his mates took a very dim view of Gibson dating girls from lesser ranks. You don’t need training in moral philosophy to sniff the abuse of power.
But there is not much doubt among historians that at least after Spain, Wellington was putting it about in France. Andrew Roberts says of Wellington and Napoleon.
Attractive to women and voraciously sexual, neither man enjoyed a happy marriage. They did share two mistresses however, or, more precisely, Wellington picked up two of the emperor’s cast-offs.
How do you know someone had a voracious sexual appetite if you haven’t been to bed with them? Is there a failure to distinguish between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power?
Well, there is no doubt that Wellington got up people’s noses by his infatuation with at least one of those cast-offs. He gazed upon Guiseppina Grassini, the onetime La Chanteuse de l’Empereur, with ‘ecstasy’, and Kitty, his wife, was appalled to see this notorious woman on the arm of his Grace. As Elizabeth Longford remarked, ‘What she did not see, her friends told her about.’ When asked if he had received all that feminine adulation, His Grace replied: ‘Oh, yes! Plenty of that! Plenty of that!’ It was conduct like that which had turned some off Nelson.
It does look like Wellington consorted with what we would call high end call girls. The result was a contribution to our language. One very lubricious tart gave him prominence in her memoires. Wellington was invited to pay their owner to suppress them in order to protect his name. His response: ‘Publish and de damned.’ (The asking price was £200 – the New York attorney, Mr Cohen, may have tried that response, but his client was an established coward.) Her story was said to be flawed because she said Wellington wore his badges of honour to her assignations – but one French count said that he did the same to reduce the risk of getting a girl with the clap.
Another tart who was well qualified to assess the Duke and the Emperor in bed said; ‘Mais M le duc était de beaucoup le plus fort.’ Well, His Grace would have been gratified, but he did not learn that stuff at Eton (although well-bred young Englishmen were then commonly shouted a trip or two to a knock shop by their fathers to break their duck and send them on their way).
We can imagine the Englishman’s competitive streak being activated. Breguet watches are hugely expensive. The brand name got a kick along because it was known that Napoleon had one. Breguet still trades on that history (and a mention by Stendhal). Obviously His Grace was not to be outdone. He bought himself a Breguet – for the stellar price of three hundred guineas (about $A30,000?).
So, Wellington’s dalliances with the demi monde were predictable if sordid, hurtful to the long suffering Kitty, but hardly an affair of or a threat to the State. His Grace would later find politics more difficult – it was easier to give an order than to herd opinionated cats. And crass snobbery and brutal honesty is not a good political mix, even in a High Tory Duke. Someone said he had a ‘social contempt for his intellectual equals, and an intellectual contempt for his social equals.’ And the dalliances went on.
How did it stand with Nelson?
Before looking at Nelson, may I go back to Guy Gibson, VC, to make two obvious points? First, the fact that man is a hero doesn’t mean he’s not a man. Secondly, people get called on to do things in war time that they don’t do in peacetime.
In December 1942, Gibson had become close to an extrovert rugby international, Group Captain Walker, who had a reputation for ‘Hun hate’ to match his own. Some incendiaries had fallen out of a parked Lancaster and were burning under a 4000 pound ‘cookie’. With matchless courage, Walker was seeking to rake the fire when the cookie went off.
The thump was heard twenty miles away at the RAF hospital. Two nurses, including Corporal Margaret North, were despatched. Walker was in an appalling condition. Maggie and another got him back to the Crash and Burns Unit. The next day, North told Walker, in the presence of his wife and Gibson, ‘You and I held hands last night.’ Gibson thought that this was hilarious. He got to know North and took her out. (There is a photo of Margaret North in 1941 looking just like my mum at that time, but in uniform.) According to the wonderful biography of Gibson by Richard Morris, Maggie was ‘wary, being conscious of her non-commissioned rank and the presumption against fraternising with officers.’ (I may have forgotten having read this when Old Jack commented on the point.)
They saw some films together. Gibson liked musicals. (We know that from the film.) He called at the hospital one night looking like death. He had just lost a mate, and he was reflecting on mortality – surely his end was just a matter of time. Maggie’s superior told her that she had better go out to see him. Gibson was in his car chewing obsessively on an unlit pipe, and shaking uncontrollably. At length he pleaded ‘Please hold me.’ She did, and after about half an hour, the tremors subsided, and he regained control. He never spoke of it again.
The nurses were used to dealing with pilots who got love-lorn. Gibson then started showing those symptoms. Maggie North had suitors, one of whom had proposed. These things happened faster in war time. When Maggie told Gibson, he simply said ‘Don’t do it.’ She in turn broke down in tears when she spoke of her dilemma with her friends. Gibson rang her on her wedding day to beg her not to go ahead. She then finally gave the sensible response of an English woman of her time. ‘Guy, you are spoken for.’ You see, Gibson was not just of senior commissioned rank – he was also married. And even in the most devastating war known to man, a woman had to draw the bloody line somewhere. Margaret North did, and she got married a few hours later.
Next to no one reading these lines will have had any experience of the life forces confronted by Guy Gibson and Maggie North – or by the elements confronting Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton. If we were to ask what happened between those two, we might get two responses. What bloody business is it of yours? How the hell would you know?
Happily, we can trace a course for Nelson and Lady Hamilton through letters and a well witnessed confrontation.
Nelson was the son of a Norfolk clergyman. He joined the navy as an ordinary seaman at the age of twelve. He became a midshipman and progressed through the ranks. The brutality of the British navy then defies our understanding. It made the hell of English boarding schools look almost sane, and it would lead to the nation-threatening mutinies that Melville wrote about in Billy Budd.
Nelson was a natural sailor who had the gift of leadership, and the nerve to pursue the insights of his cunning in both tactics and strategy. He was one of that tiny band who leads through his own example and who will never ask a man to do what he had not done himself. No sailor at war could ever have asked to serve under a better officer and leader of men.
Nelson also routinely engaged in what we call hand-to-hand combat. The law of prize then rewarded naval officers financially for taking enemy ships. Nelson personally led boarding parties. It was enough to drive his wife Fanny to distraction. After one engagement that saw rewards, honours and promotion, and reports of Nelson’s being wounded, Lady Nelson, as she was then entitled to call herself, wrote:
What can I attempt to say to you about Boarding? You have been most wonderfully protected; you have done desperate actions enough. Now may I – indeed I do – beg that you never Board again! LEAVE IT for CAPTAINS.
Her Ladyship raised the stakes in her next letter.
With the protection of a Supreme Being, you have acquired a character or name which, all hands agree, cannot be greater; therefore rest satisfied.
That was decent sensible advice from a decent and sensible wife, but something in Nelson’s make-up led him almost to flaunt himself before God. He knew he could not be immortal, but something inside drove him to see how far he could push hubris before nemesis intervened to level the score. He was frequently wounded. He lost an eye and an arm when surgery was a barbaric lottery. He would also confess to miserable, repeated and incurable sea sickness.
During the battle of the Nile, Nelson was again shot in the head. He was blinded. As he fell, he said ‘I am killed. Remember me to my wife.’ In her beautiful biography, Carola Oman said:
This was the end he had long foreseen, and it was indeed as good as he could ever have hoped, for he had fallen when a victory, to be greeted as ‘the most signal that has graced the British Navy since the days of the Spanish Armada’, was already assured. He proceeded to carry everything in the high style dear to him and Shakespeare.
What a happy phrase! The wound was far from fatal, but every word there prefigures Trafalgar, not least ‘the high style dear to him and Shakespeare.’ For very good reasons, there was more than a touch of showman about both Nelson and Wellington. (George Patton would later understand that his men wanted their leader to put on a show. It comes with the job.)
[To be continued.]