On the 22nd, the day after the battle, the breeze was fresh from the S.S.W., and it was all the ships could do to increase their distance from the shore, such as were manageable towing those that were totally dismasted. On the 23rd it blew a gale, and then the misfortunes of the victors commenced; the hawsers of many of the ships towing parted, and the English vessels had too much to do to save themselves and one another, to attempt to get hold of the prizes again, so they drifted helplessly away, two to be blown safe into Cadiz, but seven to meet an awful end amongst the breakers of that shallow coast. Five others were burnt and sunk to ensure their not falling into the enemy’s hands again.
On the morning of this day, the remnant of the enemy’s ships put to sea to attempt to recapture some of their friends, but the gale coming on, the only result was the loss of two more of themselves, one of which fell into our hands before going ashore. The Victory, with the small amount of sail she could show to the gale, laboured deeply in the heavy sea, and on the 24th, when the wind moderated a little, she was taken in tow by the Polyphemus, In the afternoon, managing to rig up some jury topmasts and a mizen-mast, she was more comfortable, but at 5 p.m. next day, on the storm increasing, the towing hawser parted, the main-yard carried away, and her sails split to ribbons. With nothing now to steady her, the Victory rolled dangerously and unmanageably, and an anxious night was passed, but happily for her as well as other of our ships, the violence of the wind abated in the morning, and the Neptune taking her in tow, after two days brought her safely into Gibraltar.
In the meantime Lord Nelson’s remains had been placed in a cask of brandy, as the best means at hand of preserving them, and on the 3rd of November, having refitted, the Victory, accompanied by the Belleisle sailed on the melancholy duty of conveying the body of her hero to England, and, after a most boisterous passage, reached Spithead, on December 4th.
Here she was the object of a most intense and reverential attention, her battered sides, with, in many places, the shot yet sticking in them; her still bloody decks; her jury masts and knotted rigging; — all attested the severity of the ordeal she had gone through; while the flag that still waved, but at half-mast, reminded the spectator that the great Admiral who had such a short time before sailed from that very anchorage to victory, had now, also, returned to his grave. Amongst other injuries, the Victory’s figure-head, a coat of arms supported by a sailor on one side and a marine on the other, was struck by shot, which carried away the legs of the soldier and the arm of the sailor, and the story goes (but we cannot vouch for its truth), that all the men who lost legs in the action were marines, and those who lost arms sailors. The figure-head is still the same, but the wounded supporters have been replaced by two little boys, who, leaning affectionately on the shield, seem certainly more fitted for the peaceful life of Portsmouth Harbour than for the hard times their more warlike predecessors lived in.
The Victory left Spithead on December 11th for Sheerness, which was reached on the 22nd, when the hero’s remains, having been deposited in the coffin made from the mainmast of the L’Orient the French flagship at the Nile, were transferred to Commissioner Grey’s yacht for conveyance to Greenwich, and thence to St. Paul’s. As this was done, Lord Nelson’s flag, which had flown half-mast ever since the action, was lowered for the last time. The Victory then went to Chatham, paid off on the 16th of January, 1806, and underwent another thorough repair.
It was agreed on all sides that the enemy fought harder and more desperately at Trafalgar than they had ever done before, and at the same time it was undeniable that the victory was the most complete ever gained. The exultation that arose in the breasts of all who heard how the pride of the enemy had been humbled, was embittered by the thought that their hero and idol was dead; that he, whose very name ensured victory, would never again lead his ships to the thickest of the fight, and men doubted whether even the triumph of Trafalgar was not too dearly bought. But Nelson had done his work. Never after did the enemy show a large fleet at sea; and he himself fell, as he had often wished, in the moment of victory; leaving behind him an undying fame, and such an example of entire devotion to his country’s service as had never before been equalled in the world’s history.
Mr. Devis, the painter of the picture of the “Death of Nelson,” now on board the Victory, went round in her from Spithead to Sheerness. On the voyage he took portraits of all the characters depicted, and sketched the locality, so that this picture may be considered as a truly historical and faithful one.
- Captain W.J.L. Wharton, RN, A Short History of HMS Victory, Portsmouth, Griffin & Co,2, The Hard, Portsmouth.
History of HMS Victory – Part One
History of HMS Victory, Early Career – Part Two
History of HMS Victory, Siege of Gibraltar – Part Four
History of HMS Victory, Occupation of Toulon – Part Five
History of HMS Victory, Battle of Cape St. Vincent – Part Seven
History of HMS Victory, Blockade of Toulon – Part Eight
History of HMS Victory, Battle of Trafalgar – Part Ten
History of HMS Victory, Death of Nelson – Part Eleven
History of HMS Victory, Damage sustained by Victory – Part Twelve
History of HMS Victory, Victory again in Active Service – Part Thirteen