‘A Question of Saddles’: Nelson in 1805
John Terraine describes how, in the months before Trafalgar, the French Fleet from Toulon was ordered to the West Indies, but Nelson was convinced that their real aim was Egypt.
1798 was the year of Nelson’s masterpiece - paid for at a price. The price, for a man of his temperament, was not to be measured by the pain and temporary blindness due to being struck on the forehead by a piece of flying metal at the Battle of the Nile; that was a hazard that Nelson would never balk.
Far worse, for him, was the misery of losing contact with the French fleet and convoy from Toulon in May, the chase to Alexandria in June, missing them by a hair’s breadth on the way, not finding them when he arrived; the return to Sicily and the sense of abject failure, not redeemed until his return to Alexandria and that ‘charming thing’ (as his friend Collingwood quaintly called it), the annihilation victory at Aboukir Bay in August.1
In 1803 Nelson was in the Mediterranean again, this time as Commander-in-Chief, and once more watching Toulon, where a French squadron was preparing for who knew what enterprise. The not-so-far-distant past was very present in his mind; in October (the escaping season) on a seven-day-old rumour that a strange fleet was at large, he wrote to his friend, the Duke of Clarence (later, William IV):
Your Royal Highness will readily imagine my feelings, although I cannot bring my mind to believe they are actually out; but to miss them - God forbid! They are my superior in numbers, but in everything else, I believe, I have the happiness of commanding the finest Squadron in the world... If I should miss these fellows, my heart will break: I am actually only now recovering the shock of missing them in 1798, when they were going to Egypt...'