Friday Special for May 13 – Nelson’s death (not for the squeamish)


London calling. London Walks here with the Friday Special.

Yes, Friday’s the day we double down – put out two podcasts. The daily Today in London History podcast. And a special, a wild card.

October 21st is a Friday this year so I probably should have held off on this one until then.

But I couldn’t wait. I’m in the mood now.

What are we doing today? We’re going to take a look – a closer look than people normally take – a London Walks look – at the Nelson memorial in Trafalgar Square.

Look at just one of the four bronze relief panels that decorate the pedestal.

That mention of October 21st was the giveaway. The Battle of Trafalgar took place on October 21st, 1805. 

So we’re looking at the Battle of Trafalgar panel. The one that depicts a wounded and dying Nelson. It’s the 

one that’s the furthest from the National Gallery, the one that faces down Whitehall, toward Parliament.

Nelson’s just been hit by the French sharpshooter’s musket ball. 

So let’s see what you can see if you take a close look, an informed look at that panel. Let’s identify some of the other people shown there – find out what they did, what happened to them. Nelson’s the main act. But he’s not the whole show. The supporting characters aren’t just spear carriers. They’re important too. 

First we need to know that at that part of the engagement the ships were so close together they formed a solid mass. The French sniper in the rigging of the Redoubtable who fired the shot that killed Nelson was only 15 yards away from him. 

It was almost as if Nelson was courting a hero’s death. He was wearing his famous four stars on his left breast. He would have been easy to pick out. Those brilliant stars announced that he was the main man. They were directly over his heart. It’s thought that the sniper took aim at those four stars. In the event, the musket ball hit him in the left shoulder. It might have been the deficiencies of the weapon. It was an old pre-Revolutionary musket. It might have been the marksman. More probably it was that the Victory was heaving and rolling a little bit. He aimed for the heart, he got the shoulder.

Needless to say, it wasn’t just Nelson. The ships – friend and foe – were so close just about every gun that was fired hit somebody. Before the Victory fired its first shot 50 of its men and officers were killed or wounded. Dr Scott, the Victory’s surgeon, said, “it was like a butcher’s shambles.

Nelson’s uniform already had blood all over it. Blood from his 18-year-old secretary Thomas Whipple who was in close attendance on Nelson as he and Hardy paced on the deck. A cannonball ripped the young man apart, splattering Nelson with his blood. 

And then there was the close shave of the musket ball that passed between Nelson and Hardy.  It tore the buckle off Hardy’s shoe and bruised his foot. Hardy’s depicted in the panel. He’s in the middle holding in his left hand his officer’s hat. Nelson’s dying words were spoken to Hardy, “Kiss me, Hardy.”

Now look at the left-hand side of the panel. An old seaman wearing a porkpie hat is pointing at the French sniper who did for Nelson. He’s directing two midshipmen, both of them holding weapons. “There he is, get him.” 

That old seaman was the quartermaster. Even in the act of pointing out the French sniper he was shot in the mouth and fell dead on the deck. 

A second later the midshipmen fired. They hit him. Killed him. He fell out of the rigging. When the battle was over, when the Victory took possession of its prize, they found the body of the enemy sniper. Those two midshipmen were good shots. One ball went through the French sniper’s head; the other through his breast. Look closely at the leftmost of the two Victory midshipmen. He’s got African features. It’s an extraordinary detail, an extraordinary moment of discovery for anyone in Trafalgar Square who’s taking a really good look at the Trafalgar panel. It’s a reminder of the international composition of the Victory’s crew. In fact, nine West Indians were listed on board the Victory at the battle of Trafalgar. 

Now back to the decisive moment. Hardy and Nelson were pacing on the quarterdeck. Hardy suddenly realised Nelson wasn’t at his side. He looked round. Nelson was on his knees, supporting himself with the fingertips of his left hand on the deck. Nelson gasped, “they have done for me at last, Hardy. Hardy said, “I hope not.” 

Nelson replied, “yes, my backbone is shot through.”

Nelson was right. The ball had hit him in the shoulder and then made its way to his backbone. In the words of Dr Ann Mary Hills who cast a professional medical eye over the evidence, “the wound rendered nelson quadriplegic. He had no right arm anyway; he had paralysis below his mid-chest extending to both legs; he could move his left arm but his left shoulder was fractured; and in addition, his breathing was difficult due to two fractured ribs, a fractured thoracic spine and blood leaking from ‘a large branch’ of the pulmonary artery.’

Nelson knew full well about “the backbone being shot through” because that had happened to Able Seaman James Bush. He and Nelson were shipmates for two years on the Victory. And here’s the kicker, James Bush was an American. A pressgang had rounded him up and frog-marched him to the Victory. He was 34 at the time. That was old. The average age for his fellow Able Seamen on the Victory was 22. The pressganged, middle-aged American seaman had received his mortal wound – a severed spine – some months before. The case had made a great impression on Nelson. At the time he’d asked the Victory’s surgeon to explain it to him. Two years later when he when, when his spine was broken and he knew he was dying, he cited what happened to the American ableseaman.

Bad enough so far. But, alas, we’re not all the way there. Nelson suffered the most terrible of deaths. Every single breath he drew after he was hit would have been extremely painful. 

He bled to death internally, in his chest cavity. And he knew it. He said, ‘I feel something rising in my chest that tells me I shall soon be gone.’

Basically, Nelson slowly suffocated in his own blood. 

He was several hours dying. Several hours of the most acute agony,

A medical summary – here’s what you’re looking at when you’re looking at that panel on the pedestal, looking at that badly injured man being carried by four members of his crew. 

Five bones were fractured 

The pulmonary artery was torn

There was lung tissue destroyed in two segments of the left lung

The spinal cord was destroyed.

Come forward to now, to modern medicine, what could it have done in a modern hospital with a patient with those injuries.

If – big if – the ER specialised were able to stabilise the patient, the long term effect – here I’m quoting from Dr Hills again – the long term effect would have been a permanently transected spinal cord, resulting in loss of control over bowels and bladder, impotence and paralysis in both legs.

My god, it’s grim. But it’s what happened. And grim as it is, I think it’s better than ignorance or some sanitised version.

And I hope it’s all right if I put in a quick plug for London Walks here – 

what you’ve just heard, this is why you get yourself a good guide. You see so much more.

That’s it for this Friday Special.

Good night from London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *