Lord Nelson indebted to life-saving coxswain John
Ever since Nelson defeated Napoleon at Trafalgar in 1805, Britannia really has laid claim to rule the waves.
Admiral Lord Nelson’s victories were stunning – the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and Copenhagen in 1801, followed by Trafalgar where he was killed.
Yet he could so easily have remained a mere footnote in history had a humble Lincolnshire sailor not saved his life – twice – during a ferocious hand-to-hand sea battle eight years before Trafalgar with Spaniards who “fought like devils”.
The little-known story of how coxswain John Sykes, born in Kirton, near Boston in 1770, used his own body – even his head – to shield Nelson from cutlass blows features in a new book called History’s Narrowest Escapes.
Mr Sykes, whose stepdad Thomas Huddlestone is believed to have been a Lincoln fishmonger, suffered injuries to his head, shoulders and back but survived the daring night raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz in 1797.
Nelson reportedly caught the injured Mr Sykes in his arms and vowed: “I cannot forget this.”
Mr Sykes replied: “Thank God sir you are safe.”
Nelson later wrote: “This was a service hand-to-hand with swords, in which my coxswain John Sykes twice saved my life.”
During the raid on July 3, Nelson and Sykes sailed in a barge with 11 men alongside other small craft in support of bomb vessel The Thunder.
The Spanish launched their own counter flotilla to repel the invaders and commander Don Miguel Irigoyen and 30 men headed straight for Nelson’s barge in the San Pablo.
The two boats drew up against one another and after pistols fired and cutlasses clashed, the British emerged victorious, capturing 18 Spanish including Irigoyen.
An eyewitness recalled: “John Sykes was close to Nelson on his left hand and he seemed more concerned for the admiral’s life than his own.
“He hardly ever struck a blow but to save his gallant officer.
“Twice he parried blows that must be fatal to Nelson for Sykes was a man … who never knew what fear was any more than his admiral.
“It was cut, thrust, fire – the Spaniards fought like devils. Twice had Sykes saved him and now he saw a blow descending which would have severed the head of Nelson.
“In that second of thought which a cool man possesses, Sykes saw that he could not ward the blow with his cutlass … he saw the danger; that moment expired and Nelson would have been a corpse: but Sykes saved him – he interposed his own head.
“We all saw it – we were witnesses to the gallant deed and we gave in revenge one cheer and one tremendous rally.”
Nelson arranged for Mr Sykes, tipped for a great Navy career, to be given a commemorative silver watch.
And his heroics against the French’s allies at Cadiz made him so famous that some falsely claimed to be him.
Mr Sykes became a gunner on HMS Andromanche but died in May 1798 after a cannon blew up during a skirmish off Gibraltar.
James Moore, co-author of History’s Narrowest Escapes, said: “What’s intriguing is that Nelson is remembered but Sykes is forgotten.
“We are talking about an ordinary but heroic Englishman who’s out there doing some pretty high things for his country – he saves someone who goes on to save his country from invasion by Napoleon.”
Also included in History’s Narrowest Escapes are the stories of the plot to kill Winston Churchill and how Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert averted war with the USA from his deathbed.
The book is published by The History Press priced £9.99.