10. Oct, 2021

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After Nelson’s death, command passed to Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. His main priority was to get more than 50 damaged ships to the safety of Gibraltar. This was hampered by a terrible storm that lasted seven days. A dying Nelson, knowing that a storm was imminent, had ordered Captain Hardy to anchor the ships to avoid any loss but it was an order that was not followed. In the ensuing storm the captured ship Redoutable sank on 22 October 1805 and the French flagship Bucentaure, captured by the British and recaptured by the French, sank off Cadiz when it struck a rock. Collingwood, fearing British ships towing captured ships could be lost owing to the storm’s ferocity, ordered all men on these ships to be placed on British ships and the captured ships to be destroyed. This led to severe overcrowding and loss of life during the operation to bring the men aboard the British ships. Of the 19 ships captured by the British fleet only four were finally brought into Gibraltar as prizes.

Nelson’s surgeon, William Beatty, was exceptionally competent. At Trafalgar, 96 of 102 casualties treated by Beatty survived, including 9 of 11 amputees. For context,  battlefield statistics collected in 1816 found amputation’s mortality rate in the best case scenario was 33 percent, and in less optimal conditions more like 46 percent. Beatty was not working in the best case scenario, he was in a small, poorly-lit cabin on a ship under attack, and then in a hurricane. To make matters worse, he was understaffed. Beatty’s staggering survival rate is all the more remarkable when you remember that Pasteur’s work on germ theory and Lister’s development of antiseptic surgery wouldn’t happen for another 50 years.