Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 08 March 2021

Nelson's band of brothersfree

(act. 1798)
  • Andrew Lambert

Nelson's band of brothers (act. 1798), were the Royal Navy captains who served under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson while he pursued the French expeditionary force led by Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt, and in the decisive battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798.

Throughout the long pursuit—one that often seemed doomed to fail—Nelson's determination, intellectual penetration, and magnetic leadership inspired the fleet. Finding the French at anchor in Abu Qir Bay, the British attacked with irresistible élan, teamwork, and skill. With the enemy trapped at anchor, and the wind blowing directly down their line, Nelson ordered an immediate attack, without forming a line of battle. Instead Thomas Foley, who led the attack, used his initiative to manoeuvre inside the French line. He was closely followed by Samuel Hood. They acted as Nelson wished, applying their skill to the situation as it unfolded, always seeking to destroy the enemy. Nelson then directed the attack on the outside of the French line, to crush each French ship between two opponents, rapidly annihilating what was, on paper, an equal force. At the height of the battle an apocalyptic explosion ripped apart the French flagship, the massive l'Orient, adding a stunning son et lumière to a defining moment. An unprecedented eleven out of thirteen French battleships were taken, sunk, or burnt by an élite British squadron under Nelson's inspirational leadership.

But the Nile was far more than a naval battle: the scale and timing of the victory, coming at the darkest hour of the revolutionary war, transformed the national mood, elevated Nelson to the status of national hero, and helped to define the newly forged British identity while the catastrophic explosion of l'Orient symbolized the 'sublime' character of Nelson's triumph.

The 'band of brothers' comprised, in order of seniority, James de Saumarez, Thomas Troubridge, Henry d'Esterre Darby (1764?–1823), Thomas Louis, John Peyton (1760?–1809), Alexander Ball, Samuel Hood, Davidge Gould (1758–1847), Thomas Foley, George Westcott (who died of a wound sustained during the battle), Benjamin Hallowell [see Carew, Benjamin Hallowell], Ralph Miller, Thomas Thompson, Edward Berry, and Thomas Hardy. Those whom the naval historian Sir John Laughton considered worthy of an entry in the original Dictionary of National Biography were, with one exception, outstanding officers. Saumarez, Troubridge, Louis, Foley, Hood, Hallowell, and Hardy would hold important commands as admirals. Ball was the first governor of Malta, although he died before reaching flag rank. Thompson ran the Navy Board for a decade. Hardy topped them all: he became first sea lord in 1830 and helped erect Nelson's Column. By contrast to the others, Edward Berry was prone to serious errors of judgement at sea and in combat.

Of those of the band not considered by Laughton to be worthy of notice, Henry d'Esterre Darby came from an Irish family and his uncle Sir Charles Darby had been a senior officer in the American war. He had seen much service, but without making any great mark in the navy. He seems to have been competent, and was certainly brave, but such qualities did not elevate him above the ordinary run of captains. John Peyton was the grandson of an admiral, and the son of a naval civil servant. This may explain how a man of modest abilities reached captain's rank. He suffered from ill health, and was anxious to go home, but he commanded his ship with good sense and courage. Both Darby and Peyton outshone the lacklustre Davidge Gould, a man who waited for orders while everyone around him vied to exceed the admiral's expectations. In truth Gould was not meant to be there; George Murray (1759–1819) had been selected, but his ship required a major refit, and he missed the opportunity. By common consent the least of the band, Gould had seen action and never disgraced himself, but his wooden, unimaginative handling of his ship during the battle stood in stark contrast to the bold, decisive action of his fellow captains, and fell far below the standard that Nelson expected.

The concept of a band of brothers emerged on the morrow of victory. On 3 August the surviving captains agreed to commission a sword and a portrait of Nelson as a 'proof of their esteem' for his 'prompt decision and intrepid conduct' (Nicolas, 3.67). In response Nelson stressed that 'the conduct of every officer was equal' (ibid., 3.92). The band were already marked men. They had witnessed the terrible power of total war at first hand, and taken their part in the most complete naval victory of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Although he knew that not all had been equal Nelson was anxious to pre-empt any controversy. After the battle of Cape St Vincent (14 February 1797), many captains had been dissatisfied with the admiral's account of their role, and jealous of those who were noticed. On that occasion Nelson, who understood the value of a good press notice, had written his own publicity release. This time he was careful to praise all. He did so both to pre-empt any criticism that might detract from the glory of the action, and to ensure that Troubridge, who had missed the battle, his ship hard aground on a reef, was included in the list of officers who received the coveted king's gold medal—worn around the neck on a ribbon, this was the most public endorsement of an officer's courage and services.

On 29 September 1798 Nelson employed the line from Shakespeare's Henry V, 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers', referring to his 'band of brothers' in a letter to Sir Roger Curtis (White, 215). Curtis had been involved in the decisions not to award gold medals to all the captains who fought under Admiral Lord Howe at the battle of 1 June 1794. This had created festering resentments—Nelson contrasted the uneven performance of Howe's captains with his own. In January 1799 Nelson received the congratulations of Howe, the greatest living admiral. He knew that Howe had declared the action unparalleled because 'every Captain distinguished himself' (Nicolas, 3.84). In response Nelson observed: 'I had the happiness to command a Band of Brothers' (ibid., 3.230). While Nelson considered all had been equally valiant, he did not mean that all had been equally able, or equally significant. He never invited Darby, Peyton, or Gould to resume their place in his line of battle.

For many years the combination of an overly literal reading of Nelson's letter, and a misleading account written by his excitable flag captain, Edward Berry, shortly after he arrived in England, led historians to conclude that Nelson had consulted his officers as a group, and accorded them equal status in reaching the key decisions of the campaign. In truth, as Brian Lavery demonstrated in Nelson and the Nile, Nelson consulted relatively few of his officers, a privileged inner group. A truly homogeneous band of brothers existed only as a figure of speech: while at sea Nelson never assembled all his captains on board the flagship. Not only were such meetings very hard to arrange at sea, they were also unnecessary. Nelson's direct conception of the art of war was easily transmitted in simple written instructions, suitably reinforced, when the occasion admitted, by verbal briefings. His captains were intelligent, experienced officers; they needed no more.

Although best-known as a talismanic fighting admiral, Horatio Nelson brought a powerful, well-informed mind to the art of command, quoting or more often paraphrasing Shakespeare frequently in his correspondence, along with a number of contemporary authors. The Shakespearian sobriquet has often been applied to all those who served under the great admiral, but it was only ever intended for the Nile captains. Those who fought at Copenhagen in 1801 were deemed 'a very distinguish'd sett of fine fellows' (White, 259), while the Trafalgar heroes were denied an appropriate collective by the death of the hero. The band of brothers has stood the test of time as a specific and a generic descriptor of the captains of the Royal Navy in Nelson's age because it captures the unity and cohesion possessed by a supremely professional fighting force, led by an admiral of genius who inspired those under his command with a sense of fellowship, of shared endeavour, and of national pride. It was entirely appropriate that England's greatest warrior found the words to immortalize his companions in the heroic verse of the national bard. While the phrase soon entered the Anglophone lexicon as the ideal title for a group of heroic warriors, it will forever be connected with the unsurpassed achievement of Nelson and his captains at the battle of the Nile.