'I am a dead man', 1797
With a spirit that astonished every one, [he] told the surgeon to get his instruments ready, for he knew he must lose his arm…
A few months ago I wrote here about the only meeting between Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, with the former noted for his vanity. Lest there should be any doubt as to his courage, though, let’s set the time machine dial a few years earlier, to witness when he lost his right arm. It happened 225 years ago this weekend, on 24th July 1797.
At this point, Horatio Nelson was 40 years old, and already an admiral (technically an Admiral of the Blue, the third in rank). Earlier in 1797 he had defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, although in fact disobeying orders from his superior officer Admiral Sir John Jervis. In May, he had faced the Spanish again in the Blockade of Cadiz, only escaping serious injury during hand-to-hand combat when a junior seaman, John Sykes, stepped in to protect him. While there, Nelson formed a plan to capture a collection of treasure he believed was hidden on the island of Tenerife. This mission was a failure, and it was there, as he was stepping ashore around 1.30am, that Nelson was wounded by gunfire.
Here the story starts to blur between fact and embellishment – Nelson unquestionably showed astonishing bravery and determination, although some of the quotes attributed to him at these events are hard to substantiate. Often, as far as I can find, they come from an early biography of Nelson published in 1809/10 by the Rev. James Stanier Clarke and John McArthur – Clarke had briefly been a naval chaplain before serving as the Prince of Wales’s domestic chaplain, and had offered his (unwelcome) advice on writing to Jane Austen; McArthur was a navy man who served under Admiral Samuel Hood. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sternly observes:
It was for this biography that [Clarke] was best-known—a work badly written, with letters and documents garbled to suit his ideas of elegance, and hearsay anecdotes mixed indiscriminately with more authentic material. For all this Clarke must bear the blame, for it was understood that while MacArthur supplied the material, Clarke supplied the literary style.
It is in Clarke and McArthur’s book, for example, that we learn Nelson allegedly cried out “I am shot through the arm, I am a dead man” – and that when he was being rowed to safety, he asked to be lifted up so that “he might look a little about him” (and then apparently helped rescue some stranded seamen after the Fox was sunk by the Spaniards). And it is in their book that we read another of his most notable alleged utterances:
Let me alone. I have yet legs left and one arm. Tell the surgeon to make haste and get his instruments. I know I must lose my right arm and the sooner it is off the better.
Unfortunately Clarke and McArthur don’t provide a source for these and other great lines, despite clearly indicating the original documents for other details of events at Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Nevertheless, we can appreciate Nelson’s stiff upper lip by other means, for there are various other sources which give us a real sense of the events. Nelson himself was terse about his injury – in a letter to Jervis on 27th July he praises the “daring intrepidity” of his men and singles out some of them who were wounded or lost, but the only reference to his own difficulties at this point is in a long list of the casualties, where he notes “Rear-Admiral Nelson, his right arm shot off.” His journal for HMS Theseus, where he was taken for his arm to be amputated, doesn’t mention his own wounding, and neither does his official dispatch published in the London Gazette later that year. We do get a more personal glimpse of his difficulties… but I’ll come back to that.
There are two contemporary sources which certainly add to the real picture. One is a letter by Midshipman William Hoste (later a captain with a distinguished career of his own). Hoste wasn’t with Nelson when he was wounded, but was on the Theseus when the admiral returned. Hoste wrote to his father on 15th August:1
At two [in the morning] Admiral Nelson returned on board, being dreadfully wounded in the right arm with a grape-shot. I leave you to judge of my situation, when I beheld our boat approach with him who I may say has been a second father to me, his right arm dangling by his side, whilst with the other he helped himself to jump up the Ship’s side, and with a spirit that astonished every one, told the surgeon to get his instruments ready, for he knew he must lose his arm, and that the sooner it was off the better. He underwent the amputation with the same firmness and courage that have always marked his character, and I am happy to say is now in a fair way of recovery…
This letter feels more like the real version that Clarke and McArthur later romanticised. The other source we have is the ship’s medical log, compiled by Thomas Eshelby, the 28-year-old surgeon who (assisted by French Royalist refugee Louis Remonier) performed Nelson’s amputation:2
Admiral Nelson. Compound fracture of the right arm by a musket ball passing through a little above the elbow; an artery divided; the arm was immediately amputated.”
[Next day.] He rested pretty well and quite easy. Tea, soup and sago. Lemonade and tamarind drink.
[29th July] Stump looked well. No bad symptom whatever occurred. The sore reduced to the size of a shilling. In perfect health. One of the ligatures not come away.
The tourniquet that Eshelby used still exists and is in the Wellcome Collection in London. Here it is (along with Nelson’s spyglass):
Nelson’s life was saved both by Eshelby and his own stepson, Josiah Nisbet, who was present at the incident and hastily fashioned a tourniquet from his scarves. Perhaps the most detailed account of events was recorded by Nelson’s wife (and Nisbet’s mother) Lady Frances ‘Fanny’ Nelson in a memorandum written c.1806 and probably used by Clarke and McArthur. Again this feels like one of their key sources, although this too of course may be slightly rose tinted by the passage of nine years. Here is an extract…3
In the act of Sir H. putting his foot over the boat he was shot thro’ the elbow. Lieut. N. who was close to him saw him turn his head from the flash of the guns, say to him ‘I am shot thro’ the elbow.’ Upon which he seated him in the boat. The sight of the blood pouring from the arm affected him. Lieut. N. took off his hat in order to catch the blood and feeling where the bones were broken he grasped the arm with one hand which stopped the bleeding, the revolting of the blood was so great that Sir H. said he never could forget it and he tied up his arm and placed him as comfortably as he could with his two silk neckerchiefs from his throat, and then found one Lovel a seaman and 5 other sailors to assist in rowing him off… Sir H. called ‘Josiah lift me up’, which he did by placing his back against one of the benches and from the very heavy fire of the battery he saw his perilous situation and said ‘Strike out to sea’, upon which Lieut. N. said ‘No Sir, if we do that we never get you on board’, he then said ‘Take you the tiller; and to the sailors ‘Obey Lieut. N.’ upon which they steered close under the batteries, thro’ a heavy fire a and tempestuous sea… When the boat reached the side of the ship Nisbet called out ‘Tell the surgeon the Admiral is wounded and he must prepare for amputation’, upon which they offered to let down the chair, Sir H. Nelson said ‘No I have yet my legs and one arm’, and he walked up the side of the ship, Lieut. N. keeping so close that in case he had slipped he could have caught him.
On getting on the quarter deck the officers as usual saluted him by taking off their hats, which compliment Nelson returned with his left hand as if nothing had happened.
But let’s finish by returning to Nelson himself. We don’t even need to read his letters to see the impact of his injury. Here’s part of the last one he wrote with his right hand:4
And here’s a forlorn PS to the first he wrote with his left:
The latter was from a poignant letter to Jervis on 27th July, only three days after the loss of his arm. Nelson wrote:
My dear Sir, I am become a burthen to my friends, and useless to my Country; but by my letter wrote the 24th, you will perceive my anxiety for the promotion of my son-in-law, Josiah Nisbet. When I leave your command, I become dead to the World; I go hence, and am no more seen…
I hope you will be able to give me a frigate, to convey the remains of my carcase to England. God bless you, my dear Sir, and believe me, your most obliged and faithful, HORATIO NELSON.
Finally, on his return journey to England, Nelson wrote letters to his wife. Here again we see more of the real person, with understandable concerns for this future:
I am so confident of your affection, my dearest Fanny, that I am certain the pleasure you will receive will be equal, whether my letter is written with my right hand or my left: It was the chance of war, and I have I great reason to be thankful; and I know it will add much to your pleasure to find, that Josiah, under God’s providence, was principally instrumental in saving my life. I shall not be surprised if I am neglected and forgotten, probably I shall no longer be considered as useful; however I shall feel rich if I continue to enjoy your affection. The Cottage is now more necessary than ever…
Although Nelson believed (as he wrote in another letter) that “A left handed Admiral will never again be considered as useful”, history had other plans for him, of course. Only a year later he defeated the French at the Battle of the Nile and then the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, let alone his contribution to the defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar in 1805, even if that saw a more serious wound that finally ended Nelson’s life. Quiet retirement in a “Cottage” in the country was never really on the cards.
My source is Operations That Made History by Harold Ellis (Cambridge University Press, 2009).