Was Nelson Overrated?

Feb 2019
Napoleon had called off the 1805 invasion, yes, but he certainly did not abandon the idea of an invasion permanently. Even after the loss at Trafalgar he was intent on rebuilding the navy to make another attempt sometime in the future. Luckily for the British he was defeated before his navy could reach a significant size again.

Not true. From 1807 onwards he took up a large shipbuilding programme and by 1811 at Toulon his fleet outnumbered the British blockading squadron. By 1812-1813 he had 80 ships of the line with roughly 40 or so more under construction. His fleet reached a significant size and even after Trafalgar he still had 4 more minor fleets. The naval threat was always there to a degree and while Bonny didn't understand naval warfare and had inferior* ships to the British he did have a significant fleet in size. The British blockade prevented him from doing too much with it but he had the fleet, he also had many privateers and raiders to attack British merchant shipping.

I also have to agree with @pugsville on the idea that the French invasion was hardly possible regardless if Trafalgar happened or not or if Nelson commanded or not. The French simply didn't have the commanders, quality and the general means to land, let alone hold in Britain. The British blockade sealed their fate before Trafalgar even began. The French challenged Britain in the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean etc. but this would not let them achieve an invasion of Britain itself. Even if they managed to break the blockade by some miracle how would they pass through the Channel and North Sea fleets? And then how would they land enough soldiers and supplies fast enough to break the British militia and army. This home defense was not of too high quality but it was large, add to that the likely French numerical and logistical inferiority and it is safe to say that the invasion was next to impossible.

*Inferior is not straightforward in this case. The British had better gunnery, discipline and overall design and maintenance but the French ships had heavier broadsides, more cannons and were more resilient. The Battle of San Domingo and the French ship ''Imperial'' are perfect examples of what these heavy ships could do and how difficult they could be to take on.
Likes: BuckBradley
Feb 2019
Yes, he is. He was still the best but he is overrated. I addressed why he is overrated in some other threads so here is a repost:

We all know his victories at the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar however he had his fair share of blunders. His failed adventure to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, his flawed blockade of Toulon, his mistakes in the Atlantic chase of 1805 among others. In this chase the French fleet which he was blockading in Toulon broke out and went towards the West Indies, Nelson misunderstood the situation and sailed towards Sicily as he thought the French were heading there. By the time he realised what was going on the French were already halfway through the Atlantic and while he did pursue them he didn't manage to catch their fleet. The French fleet which also picked up Spanish ships along the way to the West Indies was only stopped at Cape Finisterre by a British squadron. Despite Nelson's failure on his return to Britain he was greeted as a hero as if he had won. At Trafalgar he won a brilliant victory without a doubt however many like to pretend his victory decisively crippled France, this is a pure myth as Napoleon still conducted naval campaigns regularly and eventually rebuilt his fleet, particularly after 1807 naval warfare intensified and Napoleon had invested great deals of money towards naval reconstruction and naval campaigns. His death was mourned as a national tragedy in London and 10s of thousands of people came to see his tomb while it was being transferred up the Tames to the St. Paul's Cathedral and his victory was extensively used for propaganda afterwards and is still overblown today. His tactics of breaking the line and splitting the enemy fleet, while brilliantly implemented weren't anything new and are falsely credited to him as their inventor. It was thought about in Britain as a tactic by the Admiralty at the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars and was implemented over 100 years earlier by Niels Juel, a Dano-Norwegian admiral in the Scanian War. In conclusion I think Nelson was still a brilliant figure, as a tactician there was probably none better at the time and he is equaled by few in history by overall ability, he was also a great strategist and knew how to lead and inspire his men. However I feel he was transformed into some supernatural mythical hero over the 200 years and his achievements are many times overrated. This also leads to an idea that there weren't other sailors and admirals that were great at the time and many brilliant commanders such as Lord Keith, Earl St. Vincent, Collingwood, Duckworth, Peter Rainer and most of all Home Popham are either completely forgotten or extremely downplayed.
Likes: BuckBradley
Feb 2019
Apr 2014
Istanbul Turkey
If we judge a commanders performance only according to compared the opposition he faced on battlefield then let's see :

-Confedarate Generals of American Civil War like Lee , Bragg , Forest all faced substandart Union geneals like McKellan
-Napoleon during his entire career fought and triumphed against Ancient Regime aristocratic Austrian , Russian , Prussian , Spanish commanders who were at best mediocre but mostly assigned to command due to breeding and family connections not meriocracy (except maybe Archiduke Charles)
-Most of the invincible wargod German generals of World War 2 from Guderian , Manstein , Von Bock , Hoth to Rommel , Kesselring defeated or bested substandart or downright bad French (Gamelin , Georges , Bilotte) , British (Auckinleck , Cunningham , Ritchie) , Soviet generals (Mekhis , Kulik , Budyonny , Timoshenko) or American (Fredenhall , Clark ) generals
Mar 2019
There's lot more to effectiveness than just design/build quality. And I from more limited naval reading do not think ethere was a clear cut French advantage in ship build quality. The French were veyr short of decent naval officers, had not maintained their ships, nor well trained there crews. Capatains and Crews were more decisive than some marginal design advanatge.
At the time the admiralty kept very extensive records of repaired (captured) French ships. Under moderate to good conditions they found the lighter construction and sail plan to be better than British ships. They did also note a lot of this advantage was wasted by over gunning the ships, causing stress to the frames. And usually the first thing the British did was drop the caliber of guns on the ship.

A side note to all this was the terrible smell found on French ships. Apparently it was a tradition to bury your dead in the ballast sand in the bottom of the ship......whoever thought this was a good idea lol.


Ad Honorem
Dec 2014
Well Nelson was the best naval commander in his days in naval battles (as Santa Cruz, van der Ruyter or Tromp).. but not in amphibius operations.. in landing operations he was average...
Oct 2014
it really depends by which standards he is judged.
As an aggressive ships captain who translated aggression into an operational philosophy when promoted , he stands as tall as Napoleon on land in his Italian campaign
Successful Ship to ship and fleet warfare in sailing ships was an art in the 18 th century, just finding a fleet in open sea took great skill let alone engaging it and leading boarding parties.
At the Battle of cape Vincent his disregard for orders and his aggressive actions (including boarding the San Nicolas) were notable: His promotion though to Rear Admiral was not for this success. Promoted to Post - Captain in 1779 he gained command experience until 1797. Once Nelson commanded squadrons he was to prove an able and brave commander who used aggression in a consistent manner at sea. But his amphibious (combined)operations such as Santa Cruz and to a lesser extent Cadiz were less effective.
The Med campaign of 1798 the Nile campaign and subsequent death while victorious at Trafalgar really shaped the historical view of Nelson. At Sea though his aggression is notable and so was his search for taking the initiative. The effect here of the strategic importance of these victories has a lot to do with the esteem Nelson is held in.
Likes: BuckBradley
Feb 2019
There's lot more to effectiveness than just design/build quality. And I from more limited naval reading do not think ethere was a clear cut French advantage in ship build quality. The French were veyr short of decent naval officers, had not maintained their ships, nor well trained there crews. Capatains and Crews were more decisive than some marginal design advanatge.

When the other side's crews can get off 2.5 broadsides to your 1, you're going to lose.....