Was Admiral Nelson a prima donna?

I am reading Mahan’s* Life of Nelson*.
It seems that when he wasn’t winning magnificent naval victories, he was bitching about how no one respected him or how sick he was.
The dislike of Torbridge when Torbridge became a Lord of the Admiralty. Hanging about Malta with Lady Hamilton when he should have been at sea.

Was he truly that good, or just lucky as hell?

Yes, he was a prima donna. He was also a hypochondriac and total drama queen.

But he really was that good as well - an inspirational leader of men and brilliant tactician.

You don’t have to be nice to be good.

This is true. See Wagner. :slight_smile:

Yes, he had flaws to go with his virtues.

Off the top of my head I can name four particular strengths Nelson exhibited:

  1. Knowing when to disobey – on more than one occasion, he famously disobeyed orders and turned out to have been right.

2 Killer instinct – Nelson measured and understood risks, but having done so, went right for the throat, trying to wring maximum advantage from having taken those risks.

  1. Inspirational leader – loved by officers and men for “the Nelson touch”

  2. Deliberately groomed promising junior officers (and listened to them)

Wasn’t the reason he got shot by a French sniper because he was wearing a chest full of silver stars he thought looked rather dandy? Not only was he a prima donna, it ended up getting him killed.

Every captain had many muskets trained on him during a battle. It came with the territory.

Yeah, the reason he was killed wasn’t because he dressed gaudily, it was because (unlike many other admirals) he was in close contact with the enemy.

Don’t forget 5) Profoundly understood how and why the Royal Navy was superior to the French and Spanish, and took advantage of that understanding.

In short, the British had better training in both seamanship and gunnery, and inferior ships. Nelson understood this and his tactics reflect that- his goal was to take advantage of the better seamanship to get his forces into a position where the superior gunnery could take hold. So if he had the weather-gage, he’d bear down on the enemy with all speed in hopes of getting a close-action, where the British gunnery would translate into victory, and if not, the idea was to outsail them to the point where they did have the weather-gage.

Damn, I thought this was going to be a “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” thread. Disappointing.

The impression I get was that, afloat, he was truly a genius; ashore, he was generally a fuck-up. :wink:

Although, allegedly, he could turn his prima-donna-ness on and off at will. The first (and only) time that Nelson met Wellington, the former had no idea who the latter was (they met in a waiting-room by total accident). Nelson was, allegedly, in full prima-donna mode - offputtingly conceited and arrogant, talking of nothing but himself; Wellington thought he was a fool. However, halfway through the wait, some aide told Nelson who he was talking to, and his conversation turned 180 degrees - now he was all business and set himself to charm, he seemed (to Wellington) like a great military leader.

Bear in mind that in his position, he had to make split-second decisions that could cost thousands of men their lives. He had to be sure he was making the right decision, otherwise he’d project his lack of confidence to his men, or even worse, freeze up and make no decision at all. Having an enormous ego is very helpful in those situations - if you can back it up.

At the time Nelson was a national hero. Wellesley was just an up and coming officer with victories on the other side of the world. When Nelson was told who Wellesley was, he surprised the later by i) being knowledgeable about Wellesley’s victories, something few in England were and ii) being cognisant about the strategic situation world wide.

Plus he was a great Naval leader.

Finally, someone mentioned his penchant for disobeying orders and being right. This was something that only the RN had at the time. The first and foremost duty of an RN officer was to win. How he did it was up to him and if he disobeyed the odd order, so be it. It is this promoting of excellence and ability above birth and rewarding results and initiative is what set the RN from pretty much all military and Naval services of the time. It encouraged men like Nelson, hard fighting, unorthodox confident and imaginative. Nelson was not just a prima Donna, he came up in a system which created a lot of them.

And I thought Major Nelson got a promotion or 2… and transfered to the Navy.

Nelson’s advocate was Sir Peter Parker of Spiderman fame.

Totally concur about ego/self-confidence being key, and I know he had to act quickly and decisively; but I do find the phrase “split-second decisions” unintentionally humorous, when we are dealing with ships that might take 15-30 minutes to come about to a new heading, and two or three hours to close with the enemy.

Since he died in 1805 and Louise Ciccone was born in 1958, he was definitely a pre-Madonna.

But a post-Raphaelite, by a couple hundred years. But he had good reasons to be a prima donna, considering who surrounded him. I mean, just the way Kowalski got taken over by aliens every other week had to make him feel better about himself, comparatively.

Why were British ships inferior? in what ways?

The counterpoint to this comes from the first sentence. You had to win. If you disobeyed or were perceived to have disobeyed and lost - or if you just lost, disobeying or not - you could end up fucked. It didn’t come up all that often, but some classic examples are admiral Thomas Matthews who was cashiered for essentially losing the Battle of Toulon and admiral John Byng, who was (partially ) scapegoated and executed for the loss of Minorca early in the Seven Years War.

Of course this was hardly unique to the British, but it should be kept in mind that naval officers were given enough leash that they could also hang themselves with it from time to time.

I don’t know that they were consistently inferior per se, but they often had different strengths and weaknesses. At least in the latter half of the eighteenth century French warships were generally more fragile, but faster and favored a general policy of avoidance which caused no end of frustration for British planners, as it was often hard to bring them to battle where British superiority in other areas could be brought to bear.

For instance in the latter half of the Seven Years War, British naval superiority became overwhelmingly dominant. But in the first half the French achieved pretty fair success at times by the simple expedient of dodging British interdictors and concentrating force at the right place at the right time. Said success didn’t lead to battle victories mostly ( Minorca excepted I suppose ), but rather victories of strategic positioning that stymied various British plans.