I Really Do Not See the Signal

Nelson is often, mistakenly, supposed to have said, "I see no ships!"

The reason for the incident's notoriety is the implication that Nelson was deliberately disobeying orders – which he was in a way, but in truth it's not as simple as that.

Denmark and Sweden had signed a treaty of armed neutrality, which Britain saw as a hostile act as it cut its supplies of timber and other supplies from the Baltic. On 2 April 1801, Nelson (on board HMS Elephant) led twelve ships of the line in an attack on a large fleet of Danish and Norwegian ships that was anchored near Copenhagen.

Three British ships ran aground in the early stages of the battle. Admiral Hyde Parker, the Commander of the British fleet and Nelson's immediate superior, knew that Nelson would fight to a standstill, which might mean that he was unable to retreat if necessary. According to Wikipedia, Parker said to his flag captain: "I will make the signal of recall for Nelson's sake. If he is in condition to continue the action, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat and no blame can be imputed to him."

In other words: Parker knew that Nelson would probably disregard the signal, but was giving him the option to retreat if he needed to.

Nelson ordered that the signal be acknowledged, but not repeated. He turned to his flag captain, Thomas Foley, and said "You know, Foley, I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes," and then, holding his telescope to his blind eye, said "I really do not see the signal!"

It was at this point that the superior gunnery of the British ships began to take effect, and the battle swung their way. Nelson gave the Danes the opportunity to surrender; some historians have regarded this as a bluff, as the British ships had suffered just as much damage as the Danish. But the Danes agreed to a ceasefire, and Nelson was able to secure an indefinite armistice the next day.

© Haydn Thompson 2019