At about a quarter past six o’clock, the Action commenced. Smoak belched from the leading three French Ships half a mile ahead of us, and the furious concussion reached us soon after. My people looked less sprightly now, and I clapped the nearest two or three upon the shoulder with what I trust was a confident smile. Our Van bided its reply.
“What does he?” exclaimed Mr. Berry after a few moments. Goliath appeared to have begun a turn to starboard.
“Bless me!” replied Nelson, “I do believe he sees room upon the shoreward side!”
“The plan was to anchor to seaward.”
“Indeed it was, but if Foley can pull it off we shall double their Van and have them to splinters in no time.”
Zealous turned in Goliath’s wake. As Goliath crossed the bows of the leading French Ship, which proved to be Guerrier, she raked her with her first broadside and Guerrier’s foremast fell at once.
“Oh, capital fellow!” exclaimed Nelson.
In the last of the day-light we saw Goliath turn to larboard upon Guerrier’s shoreward side and, with her third or fourth broadside, bring down the other two masts just ten minutes after opening fire.
“I believe that will prove to be the quickest dismasting in the annals,” remarked Nelson.
We would soon anchor by the stern. To anchor by the head, a Ship turns into the wind which slows her to a stand, upon which the hook is dropped. To anchor by the stern, the Ship must take in sail by well-judged degrees to slow the Ship lest her speed tear the bitts out of her when the anchor bites. Thus was it of the first importance that every one should discharge his duties to perfection. Accordingly I had my people recite the actions they would shortly perform. They knew them well enough, but the recital served to draw their minds away from the gun-fire and towards their own parts.
Firing had become general. I could see only the guns’ flashes in the darking bank of smoak. All five Ships ahead of us had gone to the shoreward side of the French.
With courses now brailed up, we attended the moment to do likewise to the topsail. The order came, the helm was put down, we curved round smooth as you please, the anchor was let go and we settled upon the seaward side of Spartiate, the third Ship in the French Line but the first still firing, our starboard broadside letting go at her before we had come to a stand. I could spare no eyes for the fall of shot, but she had already received much attention from both Theseus and Goliath upon her other side and can not have been in a good case.
When all was smug at the pin-rails, I sent my party to take their places in the powder train. Powder is made up into canvas cartridges in the Magazines at either end of the Orlop, then each cartridge is placed in a small lidded cask and passed hand-to-hand from the Magazine up to the Guns. Above 40 men are required for this duty, and my men served in that work when there were no sails to be handed.
My own work was to scan constant for damage in my part of the Ship, and to attend swift to any I observed. So occupied was I with this duty that I gave no thought to the thud of iron balls, the hiss of passing splinters, nor even the roar of the nine pounder just feet astern of my post, though I did take care not to impede the work of the eight men serving it. From time to time I would run aloft lest I miss any damage in the topmast or topgallant mast.
As I regained the deck from such a foray, a ball parted the main yard, leaving a few feet of the yard-arm hanging ahoo in the lifts, and like to spear down upon us if struck again. Judging that I could secure it without assistance, I sprang aloft once more and laid out 40’ along the yard to the fracture. There I severed the nearest bunt-line – which gathers up the bunt of the sail when furling – to use in the repair. Using the mainsail, which remained attached to both parts, I pulled the outer part towards me, the yard here being about a foot thick, tugged it inboard until there was an overlap and bound it tight with the robbed bunt-line, and then repeated the actions with a second and third buntline for greater security. It was as sweet a piece of work as any I have undertaken.
Only when I had completed it did I recall that we were in Action. From my perch aloft I could make out little. The Ships that had been astern of us in the Line had now passed and were engaged with the Enemy’s Centre, their positions shewn by the lines of four lanthorns at their Mizzen Tops. More than that I could make out in but fragments as the guns spoke up and down the line, and most of what I saw was powder smoak illumined orange by the guns’ flashes.
It being near two hours into the fight, the Enemy’s Rear ought to have come up by now to belabour us upon the larboard side, but of them there was no sign. The Enemy’s Van was near silent now, whether through striking to us or running out of fight I could not say. Below me, Mr. Galwey, our First, was taking a party of Marines towards Spartiate, our immediate opponent, to accept their surrender I made no doubt. Our guns were stilled for a while. Bosun had shifted the spring to the larboard side and a party at the capstan was heaving in to bring our broadside to bear upon Franklin 80 and L’Orient 120, the sixth and seventh in the French line, some half mile distant and the nearest still firing.
Spartiate had not struck yet, however, as I collected when a man in her foretop pointed his musket at me, his face shadowed outlandish in the feint glow from the lanthorns below. I saw the flash in the pan then the flame from the muzzle as he fired. Whether distracted by my looking him in the eye or he simply a poor shot, the ball was so wide I did not even hear its passing.
“Oi, Sim!” I heard from behind me, “You going to be long? Only we can’t shoot round yer!” I scampered into the top. My shipmate gave me a cheery clap upon the shoulder, then levelled his piece. He fired, but to what effect I saw not for at that moment I observed Nelson flung back into Berry’s arms upon the Quarterdeck with blood streaming upon his face. I seized a backstay and slid down to render assistance. Nelson’s Servant Tom Allen, never far from his Master in Action, broke away from a Quarterdeck 9-lber and rushed to his side. “I am killed,” said Nelson, as Allen and I took his shoulders, Berry his feet, “Remember me to my Wife.” We bore him straightway to the Orlop, Nelson voicing his despair, though soft for even in extremity he was sensible that he must avoid alarming the People. In the Cockpit, the Surgeon Mr. Jefferson was attending to near 30 wounded, but broke off at once to examine Nelson. I took what I thought to be my last look at the Admiral and hastened back to my station, considering as I went that the Victory that must surely attend our endeavours would be his whether or no he lived to see it. That was scant comfort, though, for his gifts would surely be needed in Battles yet to come.
Berry returned to the Quarterdeck some ten minutes later and I was sufficient presumptuous to move close enough that he could speak to me privily should he chuse to do so. “He was lucky,” he muttered. “A piece of langridge struck near his sightless eye and opened his scalp to a length of three or four inches. He sees again now the blood has been wiped from his good eye. He will be stunned for some while, but is awake.”
“I am right glad to hear it. Thankee, sir.” We parted with a nod apiece.
Vanguard’s guns resumed firing, but slow and deliberate for our shots must go past our Ships Minotaur, Defence and Swiftsure to fetch their objects. This called for a very nice aim, but our Gun Captains proved equal to the need and the Quarter Gunners soon gave off with their imprecations and allowed the months of repeated practice to yield their reward.
“Fire! Fire! Fire on the French Flag!” was hailed from Minotaur and taken up throughout the Ship …