Magazine article History Today

'I Really Do Not See the Signal': April 2nd 1801

Magazine article History Today

'I Really Do Not See the Signal': April 2nd 1801

Article excerpt

On land Horatio Nelson could seem amiably ineffectual. At sea he was a tiger who loved battles because he was brilliant at winning them. On that day in 1801 Vice-Admiral Nelson led the British van against a Danish fleet (with Norwegian support) anchored in Copenhagen harbour. The Napoleonic Wars were raging and the British sought to force the Danes out of the Armed Neutrality league of Russia, Prussia and the Scandinavian countries, which the British regarded as not neutral at all, but a covert alliance with Napoleon's France.

The British were under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, much criticised at the time and since for vacillation and undue caution. The Danish ships and hulks were moored along the shore as a line of floating batteries, reinforced by powerful shore fortresses. Nelson was in HMS Elephant of 74 guns, commanded by Captain Thomas Foley, with 12 ships of the line and all the smaller vessels of the British fleet. At around 10 am they attacked from the south as planned, each ship anchoring opposite a Danish vessel, the next sailing on to engage the next enemy and so on. Three of the British battleships ran aground on shoals, which weakened the attack, but the Elephant still flew Nelson's favourite signal: 'Engage the enemy more closely.'

The British anchored at close range from each opponent and opened fire; the two opposing lines hurled ferocious broadsides at each other for hours.The Danes fought bravely and kept up a heavy fire which caused severe damage. It was 'warm work', Nelson commented, and he called the enemy 'gallant fellows'. Colonel William Stewart, a Peninsular War veteran who was with Nelson, wrote afterwards: 'I never passed so interesting a day in my life or one that so much called for my admiration of any officer.'

Admiral Parker's view from his 98-gun flagship London lying to the north was obscured by clouds of gun smoke, but he could see the distress signals flying from the grounded British vessels and it was clear that the Danes were still unsubdued. At about 1.15pm he flew the signal to discontinue the action. According to Colonel Stewart, Nelson was taken aback. Stewart asked him what the signal meant. …

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