How Lord Nelson lost his arm and became a hero

Horatio Nelson was born the son of a rector from Norfolk in 1758. A sickly child, his family were unsure as to how long he would live, and likely did not expect any greatness from him. He would grow up to become one of the most celebrated commanders of the British Navy however, leading an extremely successful military career even after the loss of his right arm.

Nelson first went to sea at the age of 12, and despite suffering from extreme sea sickness (something that would trouble him his entire life) he soon found that he loved being at sea and aboard a ship. He was frequently ill, both with malaria and dysentery, and in 1780 he and many other members of the ship he was on contracted scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. It causes swollen and bleeding gums, and often the opening of previously healed wounds. It was common amongst sailors of the time and could have been life threatening to those infected.

Despite the barrage of illnesses, he not only survived but thrived, working his way up the naval ranks. In 1784 he was given command of the Boreas whilst on duty in the West Indies. This would be the start of his ascent through the ranks, all the way to the title of admiral. He would be continuously involved in battles until his death, some of which would leave him with disabling injuries.

The most famous of these was the loss of his right arm. In 1797 Nelson had been given command of a squadron and ordered to capture Spanish merchant vessels near the island of Tenerife. The first assault was directed at the forts to the west of town and has been described by historians as a “total failure”. The second assault, led by Nelson himself, was no better. A landing force of sailors and marines were attacked as soon as they stepped ashore and the English casualties numbered over 200, one of which was Nelson himself. As he stepped ashore he was hit in the right arm with a musket ball. Bleeding heavily, he was immediately taken to the hospital ship the HMS Theseus. The diary of the ship’s surgeon recorded a “compound fracture of the right arm by a musket ball passing thro a little above the elbow; an artery divided; the arm was immediately amputated.” 

Nelson’s return to active duty was remarkably fast. It was reported that only 30 minutes after his arm was amputated he was already back to giving orders to his men. Despite his fast recovery a collection of letters at the British Maritime Museum reveal that he was riddled with self doubt after he lost his arm. He worried that he would become “a burthen to my friends and useless to my Country.” His fears were unfounded however, as his naval career would continue an he would be remembered as one of the most successful naval officers of British history, especially for his win at the battle of Trafalgar.