- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- 19th century wars, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Yes, the Navy of Nelson could be brutal and repressive – but it was operating in a society which was itself frequently violent and brutal. The exigencies of war forced the operation of the press gang – which was really an early form of conscription – but there were always many more volunteers and these volunteers as often as not had a personal connection with their officers and captains.
People supported each other because they had to. And the Admiralty regarded it as a key test of a captain’s competence that he could collect and retain a crew. In normal circumstances in the eighteenth century, if there was a mutiny, the Admiralty first confirmed whether the sailors had been paid and if they had been kept with their own officers. It is striking how often the Admiralty decided that a mutiny was actually the result of bad leadership. While the men involved might be punished, the Admiralty also readily fired captains and officers or failed to give them further appointment. If you could not lead effectively, you could not survive in Nelson’s navy. I think that the parallel with the present day is clear and another reason why we should continue to look to Nelson and to study him as a model for the naval service.
Nelson – Embodiment of Community
Nelson embodied the navy’s sense of community. He knew that he was charismatic and he pushed himself forward as the leader in the public eye because that was what his people wanted and needed. He inspired confidence and enthusiasm. He was a captains’ admiral – leading what he termed his band of brothers – he was an officers’ admiral – encouraging and supporting the youngest midshipmen even when he was the Commander in Chief – and he was a sailors’ admiral.
His personal care for his crews and his fleet was striking at all stages of his career. It was arguable during his command of the Mediterranean Fleet that the 20,000 or so men in his ships were the healthiest people in Europe – Nelson spent much time organising for fresh meat and vegetables to be provided. He argued for proper clothing, for adequate medical support and for pensions for those wounded or injured on active service. He pursued the claims of his people for their prize money to be paid on time and in full. He tried to get promoted the senior sailors, warrant officers and junior officers who had served him. He loved his people and they loved him – there is no other word for it. If there was a universal reaction in the fleet and in the Navy at large to his death, it was tears. He had the minds of his subordinates, as his successful battles show so clearly, but he also had their hearts.
When Nelson’s funeral was complete and his coffin had been lowered into the crypt of St Paul’s, the sailors of the Victory who had been accompanying the body took the ensign which had served as a pall and tore it into pieces so that each had a personal souvenir to take away. No one stopped them. The senior officers who watched knew that it was those sailors’ privilege and their right. They would not have done it for a lesser man and they would not have done it for someone who had not led them so well through years of hard and dangerous blockade and hard and dangerous battle, who had not cared for them and ensured that their needs were met, who had not asked them to do anything that he would not do himself and who had not displayed the physical and moral courage which Nelson did.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you ‘The Immortal Memory’.
At the time of writing, Rear Admiral James Goldrick, AM, CSC, RAN was Commander Joint Education, Training and Warfare