William Hargood, Belleisle's captain, ordered the crew to lie down as the first incoming shots tore through the rigging. A young recruit near Nicolas was decapitated by a cannonball. Blood and body parts spattered the deck. Nicolas would have given his eyeteeth to lie down, but he was second in charge of a detachment of marines, and as an officer he had to stay on his feet. So he moved next to John Owen, a junior lieutenant, who was slightly older. Years later, Nicolas would write that Owen's spirit "cheered me on to act the part it became me."
It also cheered him that across the water he could see the towering outline of H.M.S. Victory, the 100-gun flagship of the British fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson. Nicolas had never met Nelson. But like everyone in the Royal Navy, he knew the stories—how Nelson had taken a Spanish ship, then used it to board and capture a second one; how he had lost his arm leading a nighttime raid on Tenerife; how he had annihilated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay seven years earlier. With Nelson in command the outcome was certain. Earlier that morning Nelson had run signal flags up Victory's mast spelling out the words "England expects that every man will do his duty." The whole fleet had cheered.
But it was going to be a bloody fight. Not like the textbooks, where the fleets lined up side by side and bludgeoned it out with broadsides. Nelson wanted what he called a "pell-mell battle." He had split the fleet of 27 British ships of the line into two columns and ordered them to sail straight at the enemy line, cutting it in two places, like a pack of wolves running at a herd of deer.
Following Royal Sovereign, Belleisle was the second ship in the lee squadron, which was commanded by Cuthbert Collingwood, or Old Cuddie as the men called him behind his back. He was a reserved, bookish man who longed to be back home in his Northumberland garden planting cabbages and potatoes and who preferred the company of his dog, Bounce, to most men. Bounce went everywhere with him, sleeping beside his cot or trotting beside him on the quarterdeck. Earlier that morning, Collingwood's servant, John Smith, had taken Bounce down to the hold and tied him up for safekeeping.
Nelson's plan had one potentially fatal flaw. By sailing head-on at the enemy fleet, he would be doing something that every naval manual warned against: He would be crossing the T. For the last 20 minutes of the approach, his ships would be in range of the enemy's broadsides. With a strong wind behind them, that time might be reduced to ten minutes, but the wind had died. Belleisle was moving at an agonizing pace.