Admiral Benjamin Caldwell: from Drogheda to the British Royal Navy

By C. A. Tremayne

On 3 May, 1803, the legendary British sea Admiral, Lord Nelson hoisted his flag in the most famous of his ships, the Victory, his task at that moment was easy to define but difficult to achieve.

Napoleon’s armies were ready at Boulogne for the invasion of England, which was his greatest ambition. But they could not cross the Channel unless his fleet could win command of it, if only for a few days.

What followed was one of the greatest sea battles ever to take place, a battle that Napoleon was to lose, and although Lord Nelson was the victor and claimed the glory, it turned out he was lucky to have done so, because had Drogheda man Admiral Benjamin Caldwell been at Trafalgar, he would have been in command.

Although born in Liverpool, Benjamin grew up in the town of Drogheda, County Louth, and at the time of this famous battle, Nelson was only a Vice Admiral, while the man from Drogheda held a higher rank in the navy, that of Full Admiral. Benjamin was not at Trafalgar due to the highly publicised disputes with Admiral Lord Howe and Admiral Sir John Jervis, over perceived slights against his name following the battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794.

During this battle Benjamin was in command of HMS Impregnable, when Howe attempted to destroy a large French fleet who were protecting a grain convoy. But he failed and the convoy escaped, Impregnable was heavily engaged in the action, and was responsible for the capture of two French ships.

But Howe totally overlooked Benjamin’s part in the fighting, and failed to mention him or his crew in dispatches, because of this snub he was even denied a commemorative medal which was issued to all officers who had fought at the battle. Despite an outcry from the overlooked officers, the Admiralty endorsed Howe’s version of events.

Putting his feelings behind him, he transferred to the West Indies serving on HMS Majestic, but he was thwarted again when the Admiralty appointed John Laforey to replace him after only a few months, knowing full well that this second slight to be a consequence of the first, he came to the decision to returned to England and refused to serve at sea again, even if the Admiralty offered him a ship, which they did not. Because of this, Lord Nelson, Benjamin junior, was placed in command and he went out and won the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was to die in battle and at his funeral in London, Benjamin was one of the officers that took command of the funeral.

He suffered a further snub at the conclusion of the War, when he was overlooked for a knighthood unlike many of his contemporaries who received this honour at a lavish ceremony, and it was not until 1820 that this was reversed, when he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. This award was conferred on him just a few months before his death at his son Charles Andrew’s estates in Basingstoke.