One of the most spectacular and famous victories by the Royal Navy has its anniversary on 1st August.  Although now largely forgotten in the popular mind, it’s an extraordinary story that was commemorated by the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle.  The conflict is called the Battle of the Nile and it was won in 1798 by Horatio Nelson against the French navy that had carried Napoleon Bonaparte’s army from Europe to Alexandria in Egypt where the army had landed.  Napoleon wanted to invade Egypt as part of an effort to expand France’s power and to drive Britain out of the French Revolutionary wars.

Cat and mouse

Napoleon’s fleet had travelled for over two months in the greatest secrecy.  All that time Nelson had been searching for them, chasing them and sometimes missing them by just a few hours.


The French fleet had anchored in a long line not far from the shore in Aboukir Bay near Alexandria when Nelson finally caught up with them.  It was late afternoon and darkness was about to fall.  The French saw the British fleet coming but didn’t believe a) that Nelson would be crazy enough to attack in the dark in a location he didn’t know and b) that he would be able to squeeze past them on the inside, between their ships and the shore.  He immediately did both those things and started firing at 6.30pm shortly before night fell.

As well as passing by the French on the inside, some of Nelson’s fleet also passed on the outside so that their enemy was caught in a pulverizing crossfire.  Raging through the night, the battle was a picture of hell, illuminated only by the flashes from the cannons and the fires on board the ships.  It was also illuminated – at 10.30pm – by the volcanic explosion of the huge French flagship, L’Orient.  Nelson’s biographer, John Sugden, calls that event ‘perhaps the most shattering moment of eighteenth-century warfare’.  The explosion was heard ten miles away.

The cost of victory

By the next morning Nelson, who had not lost a ship, had captured or destroyed fourteen French ships.  About 6250 French sailors had been killed, wounded or captured for the loss of 895 British dead or injured.  Napoleon’s army was left stranded in Egypt, his plans to expand French power in the Middle and Far East lay in tatters and Europe learned that the terrifying French Republic could be beaten.

But the statistics I quoted conceal a carnage beyond imagination.  Naval battles of that period were sheer butchery.  Among the casualties was Nelson himself.  A piece of iron from a French cannon hit his forehead and caused an injury that went down to his skull.

Injuries were nothing new to Nelson.  In previous conflicts he had had his back bruised by flying splinters, he had lost the sight of his right eye, he had received a blow to the stomach that left him with lifelong health problems and, of course, he had also lost his right arm.  To participate in naval battles demanded the utmost physical courage.

Why did he do it?

But Nelson didn’t just participate in battles, he desperately went looking for them and put himself at the centre of them.  The classic and fatal example was Trafalgar where the brilliantly decorated uniform that he was wearing made him a target for a French sniper.

Why did he do it?  Well, when he was eighteen, recovering from malaria and deeply depressed because he felt his career was going nowhere, he believed he had a vision of a ‘radiant orb’.  He later wrote that ‘a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me, and presented my king and country as my patron.  My mind exulted in the idea.  ‘’Well then,’’ I exclaimed, ‘’ I will be a hero, and confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger’’.

Whatever we make of the vision, it seems to me that, from that moment on, Nelson did exactly what he said and ‘confided’ (trusted) in God’s providence to protect him for as long as God wanted, thereby gaining a total freedom to put himself in harm’s way repeatedly.  Not only was he a better all-round Admiral than anybody else at the time but he was prepared to take risks and be bolder and more imaginative than anybody else too.  You could say that he ran towards danger.


Now, in psychoanalytic parlance, running towards danger is called counterphobia.  It means an unconscious drive to deny or overcome a phobia (fear) by actively and perhaps compulsively seeking it out.  Examples might be someone who has a fear of heights taking up mountaineering, or someone who fears intimacy becoming a sex addict, or even someone who fears disease becoming a doctor.

It doesn’t mean that every mountaineer or doctor is dealing with an underlying anxiety but it can sometimes be the case.  And because the process is an unconscious one, the person concerned may often not realize what’s going on in them.  If the risks they take eventually lead them to therapy then part of the work will be bringing to their awareness an anxiety that is buried.

Reading Nelson’s tea leaves

What’s interesting about Nelson is that he seems to have been fully conscious of his drive to confront danger and be brave.  It’s not wise or probably even possible to try and psychoanalyze a figure from history so we don’t know what underlying and unconscious anxieties may have been at work in Nelson.  He lost his mother when he was nine and his relationship with his perhaps rather inadequate father doesn’t seem to have been particularly close.  So the world may have seemed a very dangerous place and maybe that was a fear to be mastered.  The world may also have seemed a very lonely place so possibly God, king and country became the young Horatio’s parental figures.  Who knows?  But the fact remains that, whatever unconscious processes were going on in him, a very conscious decision to trust providence was taken and became ingrained in Nelson so that it was soon a way of life.  Thus, to give another example, you get the young naval officer, wielding a sword and gun, successfully leading his men to board an enemy ship, apparently without much thought for the potential consequences.

The pay-off

Of course, if you live long enough there can be a pay-off to this counterphobic attitude.  That’s why it’s attractive.  It turns anxieties into pleasures and it can reap considerable rewards.  It brought Nelson huge success and huge acclaim and it changed the course of history on several occasions.  (I haven’t even mentioned Nelson’s undoubted and insatiable narcissism that craved constant adulation and flattery).

The giant

But the courage also rubbed off on those who served under him, from his most senior officers to the most humble seamen.  People were prepared to follow him to hell and back, as in the case of the Battle of the Nile.  They respected and loved him.  And whatever we might think of it, Nelson put them in danger just as he put himself in danger.  As John Sugden says in his epic ‘Nelson, the Sword of Albion’, he ‘placed men and ships where they had to fight for their survival, but in the doing they won victories that raised the morale and reputation of the service and reached new horizons.’

Sugden quotes Joseph Conrad’s words about Nelson that explain – I think (and I don’t wish to trivialize or demean his achievements) – how the counterphobia of one man changed the entire British navy as it spread to countless others and made Nelson the toughest act to follow:  ‘He brought heroism into the line of duty.  Verily he is a terrible ancestor.’