Turning a Blind Eye

There are tons of English phrases that have dubious folk origins. “Pig in a poke”, for example, allegedly comes from the medieval practice of selling suckling pigs in burlap bags at markets. Sometimes unethical sellers would (allegedly) put a stray cat in the bag instead, and the hapless customer wouldn’t discover this until he got home and “let the cat out of the bag”.

There is a phrase that has a folk origin that’s probably true… and it involves one of England’s greatest naval heroes.

Horatio Nelson wasn’t like other commanders in the Royal Navy. Where other captains seemed to relish flogging sailors for any offense, Nelson kept floggings to a minimum. Where other commanders treated his sailors like chess pieces, Nelson got to know each one and often asked about their families and interests. As a result, Nelson’s crew was very dedicated – more than one sailor said he’d “follow Nelson through the Gates of Hell”. Which was a good thing, since Nelson was far more aggressive than other commanders in the Royal Navy. Ships were expensive, both in terms of money and manpower. It was common to sail away from a losing battle so as to “fight another day”. But not Nelson. It was precisely when things looked their worst that Nelson fought the hardest, which led to the string of improbable naval victories he is remembered for today.

Once such victory happened at the Battle of Copenhagen. British ships under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sailed into sight of the Danish capital on April 2, 1801. HMS Agamemnon ran aground almost immediately, and took no part in the battle. HMS Russell and HMS Bellona also ran aground, but were able to provide some fire on the Danish defenses. And speaking of, the Danish land defenses fired at the British fleet with considerable skill, providing far more resistance than the Royal Navy had anticipated. The battle seemed to tilt between a stalemate (at best) or a British loss (at worst).

Admiral Parker was known for being cautious, so it wasn’t a big surprise when he ran up the signal flags ordering a retreat. But Nelson wasn’t one to retreat, especially in a difficult situation like this. When Thomas Foley, one of his flag captains, pointed out the signal, Nelson turned towards it, put his telescope up to his right eye – which had been blinded in the Siege of Calvi in 1794 – and said “[y]ou know, Foley, I only have one eye — I have the right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal!” Thus, Nelson “turned a blind eye” to the retreat signal.

It was precisely at this moment that the battle turned in favor of the British. The Danes had put up a stout defense, but the relentlessly-trained gunners of the Royal Navy fired shot after shot at their defenses. One by one, the defender’s guns fell silent. But the pivotal moment happened when Nelson noticed that some of the Danish crews, not nearly as experienced as the British, were still firing from ships flying the flag of surrender. Nelson quickly penned the following note:

To the Brothers of Englishmen, the Danes

Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when she is no longer resisting, but if firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them.

– Nelson

Nelson gave the message to Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger, a Danish-speaking officer, and sent him to Crown Prince Frederik under a flag of truce. In truth, both the Danes and the British forces were exhausted, and neither side could have fought for much longer.

Frederik replied:

If your guns are not better pointed than your pens, then you will make little impression on Copenhagen.

Nelson replied:

Lord Nelson’s object in sending the Flag of Truce was humanity; he therefore consents that hostilities shall cease, and that the wounded Danes may be taken on shore. And Lord Nelson will take his prisoners out of the Vessels, and burn and carry off his prizes as he shall see fit.

Lord Nelson, with humble duty to His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark, will consider this the greatest victory he has ever gained, if it may be the cause of a happy reconciliation and union between his own most gracious Sovereign, and His Majesty the King of Denmark.

—Nelson

A couple hours later, a cease-fire was agreed upon, and the battle ended. Sadly, not 30 minutes later, the Danish flagship Dannebrog exploded, killing 250 men… almost 20% of all Danish casualties in the battle.

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