Nelson Loses Eye
The 12th of July 1794 AD
Horatio Nelson’s brilliant career was based on daring and ability – he famously had ‘the Nelson touch’, the ability of great leaders to get the best from their subordinates. But it was also in part thanks to the good fortune of occupying the right place at the right time, though his rent to fate increased over the years.
The first such payment was the loss of the sight in his right eye – though contrary to the imagined image of him, the eye was never removed, and he didn’t sport an eye patch. Nelson had been sent to blockade Corsica, at first an unglamorous role, but made more significant by the British loss of Toulon and the consequent need for another port. Blockade turned to invasion, with Nelson eventually winning the argument about attacking Bastia (his army counterpart considered it too strong), which was soon taken thanks to the use of naval guns brought ashore by the 34-year-old Nelson, given command of the British land forces. The British moved on to Calvi, where again the naval batteries proved vital. But on the morning of July 12 1794 while inspecting one of these Nelson was hit in the eye by debris from a sandbag hit by an enemy shot. He soon lost all sight in that eye. Calvi fell less than a month later.
Blindness in one eye allowed Nelson at the later Battle of Copenhagen to make his famous gesture of putting a telescope to the useless orb and (though he never said “I see no ships”) stating: “I really do not see the signal” when his commander ordered withdrawal.
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