The Nelson Touch: An Effects Based Approach?

The Nelson Touch: An Effects Based Approach?

21 Oct 23
Posted by: Prof Geoffrey Till
Message from the Editor

For the bicentenary of Trafalgar Day in 2005, distinguished scholars and Naval Review members produced a series of articles on Nelson’s legacy for the 21st century [93/4, p. 320]. Professor Geoffrey Till provided the following comparison between the then emerging Effects Based Approach (EBA) and the illusive Nelson Touch. Reprinted here for the 218th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. A 20 minute read.

At first glance, it might seem just a touch spurious to try to apply an emerging and very contemporary concept of operations to this 200-year commemoration of the world’s most famous sailor. But, as many recent and otherwise excellent books have demonstrated, it is quite difficult to say anything fundamentally new about Nelson – maybe this will help. Equally, the Effects Based Approach (EBA) is still very new, so comparing some familiar naval history to this particular type of theory may help us see what there is in it, if anything. So then, was Nelson an effects based operator?

All change in the late 18th century?

Nelson certainly faced a world that was transforming as ours is now, and this produced a ferment of ideas on every aspect of human behaviour, with consequences for the conduct of maritime operations that needed seriously to be thought about, also as now. Developments in domestic, and so international, politics created a real ‘revolution in military affairs’. The French Revolution produced a ferocious new kind of adversary, especially when its energies were channelled by the organising genius of Napoleon. This was a much more total kind of war; the survival of regimes and civilisations seemed at stake, not just the ownership of a province or a colony here and there. Grenville, the Foreign Secretary in 1799, defined the British-led coalition like this: “It was a coalition of powers gloriously in arms to defend all just and legal governments, and the rights of every people, against the madness, the wickedness, the oppression, the tyranny and the injustice of the French Directory.”[1]

Such conceptions led Nelson and his band of brothers to a degree of antipathy to the French as an “…unprincipled and bloodthirsty nation,” committing “numerous and horrid atrocities”[2] that bordered on the ideological. For their part, patriotic Frenchmen in the opposing fleets were just as committed to the justice of their cause, and fought with equal fervour, if not always with equal skill.

Unlike ours, perhaps, this revolution in military affairs was not so strongly driven by technological innovation, for the Industrial Revolution was only beginning to kick into effect. As yet there were no radical departures equivalent to today’s technological revolution in information networks to stimulate new conceptual thinking as there are now. Nonetheless, a whole series of minor, incremental changes in the production, design and maintenance of major warships that were improving operational performance – signalling, victualling, even improvements in the accuracy of long-range gunnery (not that Nelson, famously, was particularly interested in that!) – were all making their mark at this time.

Conceptions of battle

To accompany this, there was also a fast developing body of theory about the conduct of naval operations led, in the British case, by John Clerk of Eldin. Clerk was convinced of the need to help the Royal Navy break out of its “total neglect of naval tactics” as a subject for intellectual consideration, and encouraged a widespread debate on the operational (or maybe Grand Tactical to use the old phrase) level issue of exactly how the British should dispose their ships to force the elusive French into battle under varying conditions of position, number, disposition and wind. It remains unclear how much Nelson was influenced by the detail of Clerk’s work but he was certainly well used to the theoretical parameters that the Scotsman helped develop. Nelson seriously thought about these issues well in advance. There is significant stress in EBA on the requirement to analyse, prepare and plan – so Nelson gets a tick in the box there.

What he was after was not merely the defeat of the adversary but his annihilation (a word he was fond of using), because that was the effect that the new style of war and what was at stake (at the Nile, the loss of India, and at Trafalgar, and apparently, the invasion of England) both seemed to require. “It is… annihilation that the country wants, and not merely a splendid victory… honourable to the parties concerned but absolutely useless in the extended scale… numbers can only annihilate.”[3]

Annihilation was not merely an exercise in the ruthless infliction of death and destruction: it meant the permanent loss of key platform and manpower resources to the other side and, if at all possible, taking them into British service. With the resultant dominance of the sea, the Royal Navy could sustain its armies and allies ashore, protect the home islands, the colonies and seaborne trade from interference, and blockade the French and their enforced allies into final submission. That was the effect he was after.

Two EBA issues arise here. The first is that these days a lot of stress is put on the desired cognitive/psychological/behavioural effects rather than on the simple physical, ‘kinetic’ destruction and degradation of the enemy’s capability. Given all Nelson’s talk of ‘annihilation’, this seems a problem at first glance. But it isn’t really, since Nelson was well aware that the experience and promise of ‘annihilation’ would indeed be extremely demoralising for the opposition and so help determine their behaviour. Because of his experience at the Nile, for example, Admiral Villeneuve was half defeated at Trafalgar before the first shot was fired. Nelson’s reputation after the Nile was a potent weapon in its own right: it was hugely encouraging to the British and deeply depressing for the opposition. And, of course, it was a reputation built on his capacity to annihilate. The same process was true at the tactical level: the first catastrophic, devastating, raking of an enemy warship destroyed its crew’s cohesion and capacity to resist. Nelson’s success shows that kinetic and non-kinetic effects are closely intertwined. They are not alternatives.

The second problem seems more acute; Nelson was quite clearly working to a linear concept of operations – that is, get command of the sea, and then exploit it. This seems to go against the burden of much of the pioneering, conceptual work on EBA undertaken recently by the US Air Force, where there is stress on parallel operations in which air control is seized and exploited simultaneously. In some ways this is analogous to US Marine Corps thinking on ‘three block warfare’ where very different peacekeeping, warfighting and humanitarian operations may all be going on in the same city at the same time. Nelson’s situation, however, was radically different from this. He had a serious and major adversary to defeat in conventional military operations and he had to concentrate on that. No doubt today’s USAF would do the same if they had first an air supremacy campaign to win.

In fact though, even Nelson has been criticised by historians for sometimes straying from the linear expectations of conventional maritime strategy. In 1799, for example, he disobeyed orders and prematurely dispersed his victorious forces around the Mediterranean to engage in amphibious raids and the like, thereby exposing the British strategic position to real danger when the Brest fleet under Admiral Bruix unexpectedly appeared in the area.[4] In this case, though, Nelson would seem to have breached the EBA concept rather than observed it. Nelson’s next issue was how to annihilate the adversary? Pacing the part of his garden at Merton he called his “quarterdeck” with his Captain Keats a few weeks before Trafalgar, Nelson outlined his intentions: “I would go at them at once if I can… about one-third of their line from their leading ship. What do you think of it?… I’ll tell you what I think of it. I think it will surprise and confound the enemy. They won’t know what I am about. It will bring forward a pell-mell battle and that is what I want.”[5]

There would clearly be three stages to the process. The first mission, at the operational level, was actually to find the adversary in time, preferably before he had the chance to strike a decisive blow. At both the Nile and Trafalgar, this was the real problem for, in today’s parlance, Nelson was decidedly short on ‘situational awareness’. French intentions were absolutely unclear. The ‘Toulon Armament’ might be on its way to Egypt, but could equally well be set on attacking British strategic interests elsewhere in the Mediterranean, more remotely in the Caribbean, or even striking at Ireland, Britain’s Achilles’ heel. As today, therefore, the absolutely essential and most difficult task was to study and to know the adversary, to discern the effect he was after and to deduce from that what he was likely to want to do. Nelson’s approach was entirely consistent with the principles of the EBA – the only problem lay in the limitations of his means of gathering information.

Basically, Nelson was on his own in this. Perforce, the Board delegated control of the campaign to him; their instructions were supportive and vague, although he was well aware they could be very detailed and critical in retrospect had things gone wrong. He had access to a wide variety of reports from a surprisingly sophisticated national intelligence system, he quizzed friendly, neutral and hostile merchantmen for the latest news, but he never had enough frigates – a point his successors need to make more strongly than they seem able to do now. The result was some pretty demoralising chasing around of Brueys in the Mediterranean and Villeneuve in the Atlantic until he finally ran them to ground in Aboukir Bay (unfortunately after Napoleon had landed in Egypt rather than before) and off Cape Trafalgar respectively. This illustrates exactly the kind of focus on the outcome, the objective and its consequences that is so emphasised in the EBA.

Then it was a question of using overwhelming force to secure the tactical effect he wanted, namely a close engagement from which the adversary could not escape and which would lead to his inescapable downfall. It really was a question of ‘fixing’ (or ‘fetching’ in Clerk’s terminology) the adversary through a manoeuvrist approach and finishing him off through asymmetric attrition in the battle, a timely reminder that these two aren’t alternatives either. There were risks in the manoeuvrist approach of course. At the Nile, the British went straight into action without a preliminary reconnaissance. Several ships grounded as a result. At Trafalgar, Nelson had the advantage of the winds but they were so light that the British drifted into action ship by ship rather than hit the enemy battle-line like the avalanche Nelson wanted. In consequence, the leading ships took a terrible pounding as, given the position and strength of the French and Spanish battle-line, they were effectively crossing their own T.

Once in position, the focus shifted. In both battles, Nelson’s style of command was completely to delegate to his captains the responsibility for delivering the effect he wanted. He did not, indeed could not, engage in detailed tactical planning – there were simply too many uncertain variables in the equation. As he once said: “A sea officer cannot, like a land officer, form plans; his object is to embrace the happy moment which now and then offers – It may be this day, not for a month, and perhaps never.”[6]

He relied instead on his captains knowing his intent and having the tactical initiative, sense of teamwork, seamanship and gunnery skills to do the job. This all worked out because Nelson knew his captains, the fighting power of his ships, and the gunnery skills of his highly trained crews. And they all knew him and his intent, even though the Mediterranean squadron had only recently been assembled and this provided very little opportunity for the collective working dinner parties on which his success is often said to have been based. We are not therefore quite sure how this ‘cerebral networking’ (to use the grisly phrase of one recent American analyst)[7] was actually achieved, but it certainly was. To some extent, no doubt, success rested on the fact that this aggressive and innovative tactical approach had become a common characteristic of the Royal Navy by this time. The seed was therefore falling on fertile ground. These days this tactical teamwork would have been more extensively achieved through common communications networks, chatrooms, common tactical pictures, CEC and all the rest of it, but no doubt the advocates of EBA would hope that widespread familiarity with their concepts will have the same beneficial influence on the starting assumptions of today’s captains.

One sidelight that perhaps deserves to be mentioned is the fact that Nelson was far from being a remote commander of today’s type. In action, he could not be restrained from personally mixing it with the enemy in the most dangerous and ultimately fatal way. He did this (probably largely because he couldn’t help it, but also because of his awareness of the power of example) but it indicated acceptance of the fact that even he was not in full control of the operation by that stage. This, it could be said, was hardly consistent with EBA tenets.

Both battles were designed to plunge the enemy immediately into a hopeless confusion. Again in today’s parlance, the desired effect was not just ‘kinetic’ in terms of masts brought down, guns dismounted and enemy sailors killed. It was deliberately intended to deliver ‘shock and awe’, a paralysing psychological effect which resulted in some Allied ships striking their colours before they needed to, others abandoning their fellows or just milling about in game but hopeless confusion. In every sense and despite their personal bravery and commitment, the French and Spanish Commanders simply lost control. Faced with chaos (which Villeneuve expected but Brueys didn’t) they lost the capacity to command their fleets as fighting units.

Poor Villeneuve was half beaten before he started. Back in August 1805, he wrote: “I do not hesitate to say… I should be sorry to meet 20 of them. Our naval tactics are antiquated. We know nothing but how to place ourselves in line, and that is just what the enemy wants.”[8] The secrets of British success in both battles were tactical concentration at decisive points (sometimes where the enemy was strongest, particularly going for his flagship, but often where he was weakest – the whole justification for raking fire through comparatively vulnerable bows and sterns) and the accuracy and speed of fire at point blank range (sometimes with the yards locked) which promised the decisive results that Nelson was seeking. Nelson knew how the fighting quality of his fleet compared with that of the adversary. He took risks, because some of the French ships at Trafalgar were very good (Captain Lucas’ Redoutable for one), but it is important to remember that they were calculated risks. From the EBA point of view, evidently, Nelson appears to have been ticking most of the right boxes!

But there is much more to it than this…

In today’s circumstances, though, like-against-like, navy-on-navy engagement of this sort is hardly likely and the focus of the EBA is much wider than this. Today, of course, we are all Joint and given the complexity and the challenges posed in the 21st century, the EBA depends on true synergy between the sea, land and air Services, such that the platform from which the desired effect is delivered becomes irrelevant and the whole becomes much larger than the sum of the parts. In the littoral environment in which Nelson in fact did much of his fighting, close cooperation with the Army was likewise essential. Despite his private opinions about his opposite numbers and their limitations, he did his utmost to follow the Admiralty’s injunction to foster “good temper and spirit of co-operation” between the Army and the Navy.[9]

In the main, the fleet delivered the effect required, namely transporting the Army to the theatre of operations, projecting power ashore through amphibious operations, providing firepower, keeping the landed forces supplied while interdicting the adversary’s supply lines. And much of this capacity was in a real sense of the word ‘sea-based’. Nelson made the most of the fleet’s capacities in this regard but was well aware of the debt he owed to people like St Vincent who “taught us to keep the seamen healthy without going into port, and to stay at sea for years without a refit.”[10] While it might literally be true that he could “…command on shore as well as some of the generals,”[11] (a comment more on the quality of some of the generals he was operating with) his touch was less secure here than it was on his natural element.

Sometimes zeal outran reality; sometimes, too, his allies were simply not up to the job. This was particularly true of the Austrians, and, for that matter, the Neapolitans in the Italian campaign – a timely reminder that the success of EBA also sometimes depends on close co-operation with allies. In this area, too, Nelson generally scores highly. He was firm but conciliating with all his allies – the Austrians, the Portuguese, the Neapolitans, the Turks, even the Russians, although he found the latter’s tendency to do their own thing in the Eastern Mediterranean particularly annoying. There was never to be any doubt as to who was in charge of any major maritime endeavour, but he disposed Allied Forces and made use of them in a manner which lessened their need to play their national ‘red cards’.

One example of this was his skill in dealing with the Barbary States. Because they were at war with the French Republic and so a potential ally, Britain preserved its shipping from their piratical attack by in effect buying them off. Britain’s closest allies, Portugal and Naples, however, were at war with the Barbary States. Managing this complex situation called for real diplomatic skill because it was very uphill work to rally such diverse parties into a coherent Alliance with a common aim. “The Allied Powers,” he remarked despairingly in 1795, “seem jealous of each other, and none but England is hearty in the cause.”[12]

This also called for a sophisticated information campaign aimed at winning and retaining the hearts and minds of bystanders and allies, potential and actual, as exemplified by his solicitude for the inhabitants of liberated Corsica.[13] The same campaign had to be directed upwards towards Nelson’s political masters and downwards to his captains and crews, sometimes apparently to the extent of vain self-aggrandisement. Today, of course, there is a good deal of emphasis also on the diplomatic and economic lines of operation as means of securing desired strategic effect. Because of this the military line needs to be carefully interwoven with the other two for the desired overall effect to be achieved. Although this is a much less well-known aspect of Nelson’s achievements which hardly ever gets talked about at Trafalgar Night dinners, the Admiral scores heavily here, and making use of the EBA to look at Nelson’s career may be useful in reminding us of this fact. There was a lot more to Nelson than his stunning capacity to win naval battles, crucial though that was.

In the Mediterranean, and perhaps especially in the Baltic, Nelson showed himself to be always well aware of the wider strategic and international context and of his place in it. Accordingly, he was acutely aware of the importance of naval diplomacy and adept in its performance. In Naples this was not always successful – perhaps through having other things to think about – but in the Baltic he achieved all that could be wished for. Here, the Northern League with its insistence on neutral rights represented a major threat to Britain’s main weapon against occupied Europe – the commercial blockade. The League had therefore to be dismantled but hopefully without turning Denmark and other potential sympathisers against Britain forever. This called for Nelson, who, in practical effect if not official status, was Britain’s plenipotentiary in the area, to exercise a strategy in which coercion and persuasion were nicely blended. Nelson took a robust view of what made for diplomatic effectiveness – Naval strength: “You will believe the English seldom get much by negotiation except their being laughed at, which we have been; and I don’t like it. Had we taken… the men of war and convoy… how much better could we have negotiated.”[14]

The Battle of Copenhagen was the consequence of this robust approach, but afterwards Nelson was the soul of magnanimity and diplomatic sensitivity. Denmark’s Prince Royal was very impressed, and so was Addington, the Prime Minister, “Lord Nelson had shown himself as wise as he was brave, and proved that there may be united in the same person, the talents of the Warrior and the Statesman.”[15] Nelson was also equally well aware of the importance of relating maritime activity to the economic line of operation. Britain’s security depended on trade. For that reason, early in his career, he made many enemies in the West Indies and risked both his career and his financial prospects by his strict enforcement of the Navigation Acts against those who would trade with merchant ships from the United States. He took much the same line in the Mediterranean, enforcing Britain’s line on neutral rights in time of war.

This wasn’t simply the result of officiousness; it was because he recognised how important this all was to Britain’s required outcome, sometimes rather more than did his superiors. He acted in full “…consciousness that I am doing what is right and proper for the service of our King and Country.”[16] In short, Nelson was mostly highly successful across the whole range of naval activity – not simply in the conduct of fleet actions. After all, the first of these only took place after he had been in the Navy for 17 very effective years.


So, what are we to make of this effort to use the EBA to illuminate Nelson’s achievement, and Nelson’s achievement to explore the concept of EBA? The two can be made to fit reasonably well. The EBA seems quite a useful framework for an analysis of Nelson’s success, because it raises questions to ask and since it does help focus on areas that often seem a little neglected, reminding us that there was far more to the man than the capacity to win battles. As such, and even given the considerable difference between now and the world 200 years ago, EBA comes out as a reasonably usable tool for the analysis of past campaigns.

By the same token, therefore, this suggests that the EBA might be a good starting point for planning new ones. Making use of Nelson’s experience does help illuminate some of the more arcane conceptual aspects of EBA; providing practical and often familiar real-world examples show what such abstractions can actually mean. This is potentially rather valuable since the concepts of EBA do seem to have considerable merit, at least if wisely used. EBA, we are told, is a mindset; it has what social scientists like to call ‘heuristic value’ – it may not be right but it makes you think. And in an age when we could all otherwise be overwhelmed by a flood of techno-babble about the latest gizmos, this modest aim seems really quite worthwhile. But maybe what comes out most clearly from this application of modern theory to ancient practice, is that there’s nothing new about EBA other than the disciplined requirement to think about things and some of the technical means of delivering desired effects. Nelson was the supreme example of the breed, but as an effects based operator, he was doing what first-rate sailors have always done and doubtless always will.


[1] Quoted in Brian Lavery, Nelson and the Nile: The Naval War Against Napoleon, 1798 (London, 1998) p. 288.

[2] Capt. Laughton Miller’s narrative, in J. L. Laughton, (Ed) Letters and Despatches of Horatio, Viscount Nelson, K.B. (London, 1886) p. 158.

[3] Letter to G. Rose, 6 Oct. 1805, Laughton op cit, 420.

[4] Lavery, op cit, p.283, 288.

[5] For an account of this meeting compare Clayton, Tim and Craig, Phil, Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm (London, 2004) p. 66; and Warner, Oliver Nelson’s Battles (London, 1965) pp 172-4.

[6] Letter to F. Drake, 28 April 1796, Laughton op cit, p. 99.

[7] Edward Smith, Effects Based Operations, Applying Network Centric Warfare in Peace, Crisis and War, US DOD, Nov 2002. Cited in Clayton and Craig, op cit pp. 217-8. But note also Lavery, op cit pp. 154-167.

[8] 13 August 1905 to Minister Decres, to cited, Lambert, A. Nelson: Britannia’s God of War (London, 2004) p. 276.

[9] Hayward, J. For God and Glory (Annapolis, 2003) p. 145.

[10] Letter to St Vincent, 1 Feb 1800, Laughton, op cit, p. 233.

[11] Cited Sugden J., Nelson: A Dream of Glory (London, 2004) p. 650.

[12] Cited, Lambert, op cit, p. 17.

[13] Sugden, op cit. pp. 466-7.

[14] Letter to Capt. Locker, 15 Jan 1785, p. 25.

[15] Cited Warner, op cit, p. 138.

[16] Cited Padfield, op cit, p. 185.