Nelson and Wellington, the two great British heroes of the Napoleonic Wars, met only once. The date was September 12th, 1805, and the war between Britain and France had been renewed after a brief period of peace. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, had built up an alliance with the Russian and Austrian Empires, and there was the prospect of a British expedition to Germany to fight Napoleon. The future Duke of Wellington, then plain Arthur Wellesley, aged 36 and recently returned home after nine years' service in India, had called at the Colonial Office in Downing Street to see the cabinet minister, Lord Castlereagh. In the waiting room he encountered a naval officer whom he immediately recognized by his missing right arm as being the famous Admiral Lord Nelson. Nelson, however, could not be expected to recognize the Anglo-Irish major-general nine years younger than himself; and in Wellington's later recollection, as told to John Wilson Croker:
"He entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation; for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself; and really in a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me".
(This rather bears out the assessment of Nelson made by Admiral Lord St. Vincent, who was once his commanding officer: "A great captain at sea, but a foolish little fellow on land").
However, Nelson then left the room, and someone must have told him that the unknown army officer was actually someone worthy of his attention, for when he came back his whole attitude had changed:
"All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked with good sense and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact he talked like an officer and a statesman ..... I don't know that I had a conversation that interested me more".
Nelson, it appears, criticized the government's plan to send an expedition to northern Germany, suggesting instead a campaign to expel the French from Sardinia, which he thought made more strategic sense and had a better chance of success. An imaginative painting of the meeting of the two great war leaders shows Nelson pointing at Sardinia on a map, to emphasize his point. Neither man is looking at the map!
The very next day Nelson left London to join his flagship, H.M.S. Victory at Portsmouth, from where he would sail to find death and immortality at the battle of Trafalgar. Wellington's great achievements were still to come.In later life he reflected how fortunate he had been to meet Nelson, and, despite the bad first impressions, to realize that "he was really a very superior person".
(A full account of the meeting can be found in Elizabeth Longford's biography of Wellington; volume 1, chapter 7)
See also: my later post on the Duke of Wellington's duel in 1829