My husband and I lay together in our cosy marriage bed in our small thatched cottage in the town of Portsmouth. He worked as a bookkeeper for a Mercantile Company while I stayed home to keep our cottage warm and clean. The clock in the hall had just struck five when there came a loud crash from the front door. A few seconds later, four big, burly men dressed in dark clothing stormed into our bedroom. We both awoke shocked and disoriented as the men grabbed my Johnny and dragged him roughly out of bed.
I screamed in terror and yelled, “What are you doing here? Who are you? What do you want with my Johnny?”
The biggest of the men and obviously their leader replied, “Pardon Mrs, but the King needs sailors. Your man belongs to His Majesty now.”
“You can’t do this.” Protested Johnny fervently. “I have a job to do and my wife to take care of. Please unhand me you scoundrels.
“Sorry gov, you are coming with us. Besides, the King pays his sailors well, you’ll never regret it.” said the big man and they dragged him out into the early morning.
I followed them to the door in my night dress frantically clutching at Johnny trying to bring him back, but it was to no avail. My Johnny was bound to serve as a sailor on HMS Victory under Captain Hardy, reputed to be a staunch disciplinarian. There was nothing I could do but cry in anguish as he disappeared into the gloom.
Johnny sent me letters as often as he could. He told me all about the hard training, the discipline and the fellowship he was finding with other men who were forced into His Majesty’s navy under similar circumstances. The pay was reasonable and he sent money home regularly. His letters began to change in tone from regret and anger at his situation to pride and pleasure in his progress in becoming a sailor. He told me all about the Victory and what a grand ship it was. He was actually looking forward to going into battle against the combined might of the French and Spanish navies. His last letter arrived a day after the Victory left the harbour. It was sent just before he sailed. I was not to see another before his return to tell me the story of the Battle of Trafalgar. Here is what he told me.
Soon after Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson came on board HMS Victory set sail to join the British Navy ships gathering in the English Channel. Nelson took command of the fleet and split them into two columns. The first column was to sail straight for Trafalgar to draw the French and Spanish ships out of harbour. The second column kept well clear so that the French and Spanish captains would be unaware of them. The plan worked. Thinking that they greatly out-numbered the British, the French and Spanish fleets came out to meet them.
A great and decisive sea battle was about to begin. Nelson ran up the flags to signal his ships, “England Expects Every Man to do his Duty.”
“I want to see every English ship along side a French one with all guns firing.” He ordered.
My Johnny was on the second gun deck loading cannon. They fire a broadside salvo into the French ship blasting away half her rigging and smashing great holes in her side. The French returned fire with a salvo of their own, opening up large holes in the side of the Victory. Gun deck two got the worst of it but Johnny, only slightly injured, picked himself up and began reloading for a second salvo. This was made doubly difficult by French snipers shooting at the gun ports to try and stop the British from reloading. Johnny and his gang did get their second shot off successfully, then a third and a fourth. The harassment from the French lessened each time as they took more and more damage.
Some of the crew noticed a stretcher being hastily carried below decks while other wounded crew members lay about waiting for help. The top half and face of the wounded man was covered with a cloth. Even above the din of battle a rumour began to spread that Vice-Admiral Nelson had been shot. It was said that Captain Hardy wouldn’t deny it nor confirm it and urged the men to fight on. Fight on they did and won the day for England. The French and Spanish fleets were decimated. England ruled the waves. Only then did Captain Hardy announce the death of his close and trusted friend. All felt extreme sorrow for his loss but also elation at the victory over the French.
The Victory was badly damaged. Having taken the fight right into the face of the enemy, she had taken the worst they had to offer. She was taken in tow to be brought back to Portsmouth. However, during the voyage home the tow line parted and in the confusion that followed, the ship doing the towing rammed the side of her right at the point where Nelson had died earlier. Taken in tow a second time she was eventually brought safely to port.
I rushed down to the dockyard when I heard that the Victory was coming home. My Johnny came down the gangway carrying his duffle bag. When he saw me, he dropped the bag on the dock and rushed into my arms. My Johnny, my sailor had returned to me safely. As we walked together arm in arm to our little cottage, I wondered how many of the other women waiting at the dock would be walking home alone.
Gordon Nightingale is a local author and poet and the convenor of the U3A Writers’ Group.