Nelson and Napoleon

The lives and careers of Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte are inextricably linked, as two dominant leaders and adversaries. 

Their careers overlapped considerably during the French Revolutionary Wars (1793-1802) – Nelson as a commander in the British Navy and Napoleon as a general in the French army – though they never met in combat. Both proved to be gifted leaders and their victories in battle heightened their personal reputations.

Close encounters in battle

Siege of Toulon, 1793

Nelson was still relatively unknown warship captain and Napoleon a junior general when their paths first crossed during the Siege of Toulon. Britain and Spain occupied the French port of Toulon to protect its Royalist inhabitants from the armies of the French Republic. It was Napoleon’s brilliant use of artillery that was largely responsible for driving the Anglo-Spanish fleet out of the port and ending the brief allied occupation.

The Italian campaign, 1796-97

The French Revolutionary Army, now under the command of Napoleon, engaged in a series of conflicts in 1796-97 in order to advance into Italy. Nelson commanded a Royal Navy squadron off the north-west coast of Italy, attempting to hold up the advance of the French and bolster Britain’s Italian allies. Again, there was no direct contact between them, although by now Nelson had heard the name Napoleon Bonaparte and had begun to respect him as a formidable opponent.

Battle of the Nile, 1798

Nelson and Napoleon’s closest encounter came in 1798, when Nelson commanded a squadron sent into the Mediterranean to discover and destroy the French expedition that eventually captured Egypt. At one point, as the British fleet chased the French fleet down the Mediterranean, Nelson’s ship was within a few miles of Napoleon’s.

Personal rivalry

Although Napoleon and Nelson were formidable rivals they had a begrudging respect for each other’s ambition. This feeling was intensified after the Battle of the Nile in 1798 when Nelson got his hands on some of Napoleon’s personal correspondence, which indicated his ambitions to rule France. ‘He [Napoleon] does want and will strive to be, the [George] Washington of France,’ wrote Nelson.

Napoleon was aware of Nelson’s heroic reputation in Britain. During the Peace of Amiens, he placed a bust of Nelson on his dressing table as a reminder of the man who had caused him and France the most trouble during the preceding war. The ultimate tribute, however, came after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. On being told of Nelson’s famous ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ flag signal, which was hoisted on HMS Victory on the morning of the battle, Napoleon ordered a French translation to be placed prominently in all his ships: ‘La France compte que chacun fera son devoir’ (‘France expects that everyone will do his duty’).

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Find out more about Nelson's life and legacy at the National Maritime Museum's 'Nelson, Navy, Nation' gallery. Entry to the National Maritime Museum is free, open daily from 10am. Plan your visit