A musket shot came from high in the rigging of the French warship just off the Victory’s starboard beam. It struck Lord Nelson downwards on his left shoulder with a force that threw him to his knees. It smashed two ribs and tore through his left lung, then, having fractured his spine, it lodged beneath his right shoulder blade. Three crew members carried him below deck while another went in search of the officers; the admiral was semi-conscious as he was laid down.
Dr Scott arrived first and began undoing the dying man’s uniform.
Nelson looked up. “Why are you stripping off my clothing, sir? There is no time! I am shot through, sir – I am done for.”
Another officer came and knelt down beside Nelson and, realising how seriously the admiral was wounded, kissed him first on the cheek and then on the forehead.
“My eyes cloud over,” said Nelson. “Who is that?”
“It is I, sir, Hardy.”
“God bless you Hardy,” Nelson murmured before drifting into unconsciousness.
Two other crewmen arrived and, seeing Dr Scott shake his head, they knelt beside the admiral.
Nelson stirred and quietly asked, ” Is the battle won?”
“It would seem so, sir,” said Hardy. “At least there is some good news.”
Nelson’s breathing became ragged for a few moments as he struggled to prop himself up. He looked around. “My vision clears,” he said, “but for how long? Gentlemen – I want you all, including you, Smith, and you, Westerburg, to keep this sad impasse from the crew – at least for now… Agh!” He winced at the pain. “Did the Redoutable surrender?”
“Yes, sir,” Westerburg replied, at which the admiral lapsed into silence again.
“Doctor Scott,” said Smith, “isn’t there something we can do?”
Nelson roused and admonished him. “Divine Providence has no powers to restore me now. I am shot through! It is all over…” He fell back on the deck.
For several minutes the only sounds were from the deck above as the crew cleared the debris and carried the wounded away. Hardy took out his watch and looked enquiringly at Dr Scott, who shrugged; both men knew that there was nothing they could do for Nelson. Neither the officers nor the ratings wanted to leave the admiral to die alone, but the ship needed attention: battle damage had to be inspected and casualties treated.
Dr Scott sighed and left to check on the need to tend the wounded but was soon back to be at his commander’s side. Hardy motioned to Westerburg and Smith to return to their duties; the two seamen went to help secure the cannons but swiftly reappeared, asking permission to stay until it was all over. Smith carried four pottery mugs of undiluted rum which were silently handed round and sipped as the minutes trickled Nelson’s life away.
The admiral groaned and hauled himself to a sitting position.
‘I am thirsty, Hardy… it is so hot down here.’
A mug was passed to him; he took a drink before speaking again.
‘I would ask you all to beseech Parliament to have my remains interred in Westminster Abbey – I think I have earned a place therein; note that, Hardy.’
‘It is noted, sir.’
‘Now, I must rest…’
Half an hour passed; Nelson rallied yet again.
‘Now Hardy, hear me: I do not want my effigy stuck atop a bloody tower like that buffoon Admiral Keppel… indeed sir I have no head for heights… no, Westminster I deserve. Westminster. Note that, Hardy.’
‘Duly noted, sir.’
Nelson once again fell silent.
The officers and men were pacing the deck in uneasy silence. Hardy looked at his watch again. They had been waiting with the dying admiral for over two hours and both officers and crewmen were sighing and fidgeting.
Hardy rushed to the admiral’s side and knelt down.
Nelson waved him closer. ‘Hardy, I will have to leave my beloved Lady Hamilton and our daughter Horatia; can I ask you to look after them?’
He closed his eyes as his voice broke. ‘They are my legacy to the country, Hardy; note that.’
‘Noted, sir.’ Hardy patted Nelson’s thigh. ‘Rest assured, they will be taken care of.’ He looked at Dr Scott and tapped the side of his nose.
The doctor leaned towards Hardy and whispered, ‘I’ll take care of the daughter, if you wish.’
Suddenly the dying admiral grabbed Hardy’s hand. ‘I trust you to ensure that Lady Hamilton gets a lock of my hair, and all my personal possessions on board – and my sword; note that, Hardy.’
Hardy nodded and rolled his eyes.
Twenty minutes later Dr Scott, Smith and Westerburg were looking at each other, miming a silent pact to leave, but Nelson’s voice stilled them.
‘I can feel no pain at all now… I will soon be gone… Kiss me, Hardy.’
The invitation was not welcomed by its recipient.
‘Not in front of the men, sir,’ Hardy stage-whispered, which seemed to annoy the admiral.
‘Do you think they are strangers to the practice?! I am going, sir… Kiss me farewell, you booby! I will not tell a soul.’
The doctor and the other crewmen turned their backs.
The sounds of osculation were loud and prolonged.
Eventually Nelson spoke again.
‘Do I detect peppermint, sir? Have you been taking extra rations? No matter, no matter… a drunken kiss is still a kiss… farewell…’
Vice Admiral Lord Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson,1st Duke of Bronté, the victor of Calvi, Cape Vincent, the Battle of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar slumped lifeless on the deck.
Hardy rose stiffly, let out a long breath and bowed his head.
‘Thank God for his life,’ he said. ‘And thank God he’s finally gone. Now let’s get this mess cleared up.’
Picture source: Wellcome Foundation