W - Wounds

Nelson wounded at the Nile, 1 August 1798 Nelson wounded at the Nile, 1 August 1798, attributed to Guy Head © NMM London, Greenwich Hospital Collection. Repro ID: BHC2903 In 1802 during the brief period of peace following the Treaty of Amiens Nelson jotted down a list of his main wounds:

'His Eye in Corsica
'His Belly off Cape St Vincent
'His arm at Teneriffe
'His Head in Egypt,'

and then added ruefully, 'Tolerable for one war'. It was indeed a 'tolerable' list – one that no other senior officer could match. And in fact it was not even complete.

The first wound Nelson received was relatively minor – so much so that he barely mentioned it and it is often omitted from accounts of his wounds, including his own. All that is known of it is from two brief references in his letters, from which we learn that he received a 'sharp cut in the back' during the siege of Bastia in Corsica. Even the date is uncertain – although it may have occurred on 12 April 1794 when, as he recorded in his journal, Captain Clerke of the Army was severely wounded, and a Corsican guide killed, by a roundshot fired from the French defences.

The next wound was more serious. On 12 July 1794, while directing his ship's guns set up in a shore battery during the siege of Calvi, a French shot struck the battery rampart in front of him driving a shower of earth, sand and pebbles into his face, lacerating it and badly damaging an eye. He made light of the incident in his letters home and to Lord Hood his commander-in-chief, and so it has tended to be presented as a relatively minor injury in most biographies. But a recently discovered letter reveals that he had to be carried out of the battery to his tent which suggests that the actual blow was much more disabling than he admitted.

The lacerations healed, leaving no visible sign other than a partially-erased eyebrow, but the eye itself never recovered. To the end of his life he could only distinguish light from dark with it and so it was virtually useless to him. Modern opthalmological experts have tried to reconstruct exactly what caused the blindness and the most favoured theory would appear to be a severe internal haemorrhage; although a detached retina is also possible. What is certain however is that eye itself remained intact, so that to all appearances it was undamaged. There was certainly no need for him to wear the mythical eyepatch so beloved of modern film-makers and cartoonists.

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio NelsonRear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson by Leonard Guzzardi. Repro ID: BHC2895 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonThree years later, Nelson was again wounded, this time at sea and during a major battle.

At the height of the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797, while in the thick of the action in HMS Captain, he was struck in the stomach by a large splinter of wood from a shattered rigging block. As at Calvi, he made light of the wound reporting himself for the benefit of the official Casualty List, as 'bruised but not obliged to leave the deck'. A recently-discovered private account of the battle by the commanding officer of the Captain, Ralph Miller, has revealed that the blow was so severe that Nelson '…wou'd have fallen had not my arms support'd him'. He added, 'I was shockingly alarmed at the idea of losing him,' which suggests that it appeared to be serious, even fatal, at the time.

Following the battle, Nelson began to encounter problems with the wound and reconstructing his symptoms, modern medical research suggests that he had suffered a severe abdominal trauma, which could have killed him. As it was, he was left with a weakness, or hernia, which troubled him for the rest of his life.

His next and most disabling wound was again the result of a shore operation – this time, an attack in boats on the town of Santa Cruz in Tenerife, 24-25 July 1797. Nelson was struck in the upper right arm by a musket ball just as he was preparing to land from his boat, his arm raised to draw his sword. He was taken back to his flagship HMS Theseus, where the arm was immediately amputated, without anaesthetic. To begin with, the arm appeared to be healing well but complications set in and eventually he was forced to go home to Britain to recover. He was in such pain that he had to take opium every night in order to sleep; he lost so much weight that he appeared almost emaciated; and his normally sandy hair turned white temporarily. Eventually, after over four months of suffering, the arm healed almost overnight and he recovered very quickly. Thereafter, it appears to have given him little trouble, apart from occasional 'phantom' pains, usually linked to changes in the weather.

The Hero of the NileThe Hero of the Nile by James Gilray. Repro ID: PW3888 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.Less than a year after losing his arm, Nelson was again badly wounded, this time in the head, at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, by a piece of flying scrap metal, known as 'langridge'. On this occasion, there was no doubt about the seriousness of the wound: indeed he clearly thought it was fatal, collapsing into the arms of the captain of the Vanguard, Edward Berry, with the words, 'I am killed. Remember me to my wife.'

A flap of skin from his forehead had fallen over his good eye, blinding him with blood, and giving the impression that he was fatally hurt. In fact, although messy and painful, the wound itself was fairly superficial – but for months afterwards he suffered headaches and nausea.

His final and fatal wound at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, was well-documented at the time by the surgeon of HMS Victory, Dr William Beatty, and has been much analysed and discussed by medical experts ever since. Striking Nelson on the left shoulder with a force that threw him onto his knees, the French musket ball smashed two ribs and tore through his left lung, severing a major artery on the way. Then, having fractured his spine, it lodged beneath his right shoulder-blade.

Nelson felt death enter with it, for when the horrified Hardy bent over his stricken friend, he heard the rueful words, 'Hardy, I believe they have done it at last. My backbone is shot through.' He was taken below to the Victory's cockpit where he took over three hours to die. For most of that time he was in agony. In the end he died of loss of blood from massive internal bleeding, although even if the artery had not been severed, he would almost certainly have died from his spinal injuries. However, death would have taken even longer to release him from his pain.

Part of the Nelson A to Z, Edited extracts taken from The Nelson Encyclopædia by Dr Colin White, Chatham Publishing London, 2002.