When Admiral Horatio Nelson personally led an amphibious assault in 1797, a French musket ball shattered his right humerus just above the elbow. Helped back to his ship, the British naval commander coolly directed his surgeon to amputate the arm. Within half an hour, he resumed command.
The ensuing infection nearly killed him. Nelson took a few months to recuperate, then returned to rejoin the fight France on the high seas.
Adversity was nothing new to Nelson. Born today in 1768, he lost his mother when he was nine. At age twelve, he went to sea and built a distinguished 35-year naval career, despite chronic seasickness, scurvy, malaria, migraines, dysentery, yellow fever, partial paralysis in his left leg, arm and hand, plus brief spells of unemployment between wars.
Nelson had been wounded before. When a French blast blinded his right eye in Corsica in 1793, he accepted brief medical attention and then promptly returned to the fray. After the battle, he understated the severity of the permanent injury, merely writing, “I got a little hurt this morning.”
At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1806, Nelson led 27 ships and 17,000 men into battle against 33 vessels and 30,000 sailors in the combined fleets of France and Spain. His innovative strategy destroyed 22 enemy crafts and routed the rest, without the loss of a single British ship.
However, at the height of the battle, a French musketeer shot Nelson through the spine. Carried below decks, he lived three hours, long enough to learn Britain had carried the day. His last words were, “Thank God I have done my duty” and “God and my country.”
The greatest victory in the history of the world’s greatest and longest-reigning naval power, Nelson’s triumph at Trafalgar broke Napoleon’s power on the high seas and hastened the despot’s ultimate defeat.