In December, as a holiday freebie, I wrote a story for my readers. If you were not one of my readers in December, or if you missed it, I have reproduced it here.



A Man-of-War on Christmas Day

Copyright © 2024 by Jennifer Newbold


All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher, except for the use of brief quotations in book reviews.


Yesterday Press

124 Hillcrest Rd.

Concord, MA 01742



A Man-of-War on Christmas Day

A Nell Nobody short story


The early hours of the middle watch, Christmas Day.

I had retired to my hammock an interminable time ago, but found that sleep would not come. Around me, the other members of my mess sigh, snore, cough, and shift position, contented and dead to the world. There’d been an extra liquor ration with dinner, and fresh beef, and a crate of oranges. Tomorrow morning we will be required to stand in ranks to attend Divine Service, but tonight there had been music, and dancing, and countless yarns—some true, undoubtedly, but more were fantastic tales, embellished in the telling. My favourite had been the Christmas ghost story told by one old gaffer who had been at sea perhaps more years than I had been alive. It had reminded me of Christmas Eves at home, years ago, when both my parents were still living.

Slipping from my hammock, I pull my coat on and step into my boots. It is warm enough down here on the lower gun deck, with all the sleeping bodies surrounding me, but it will be colder above. Last night’s temperature was not much above freezing.

I emerge from the companion ladder into the brisk air. As the squadron is at anchor tonight, off the Italian Riviera, there is a reduced watch and the deck is quiet. The moon was new only a few nights ago, and it will not rise until the beginning of the morning watch, but the sky is as clear as crystal. I can see clearly in the starlight. I slip my father’s watch from my pocket: it lacks ten minutes to 1 AM.

I walk to the waist where I can look out over the rail. There is a light, cold breeze coming off the mountains north of the coast, and gentle waves reflect the stars. The night is still, almost silent.

My family has been at the edge of my memory for much of the evening, ever since the ghost story. I have not allowed them room in my mind, but now I lower the defences and let them in.

My mother, gone now almost twenty years, along with the baby boy who never had a name. My father, who died unexpectedly and left my brother and me well-provided for, but unprepared for what life had in store — at least, in store for me.

My brother Arthur is still in London, now the owner and director of a healthy silk-importing company. But he and his wife have had their share of sorrows, too… and I don’t dare write to him with Christmas greetings. Not yet.

And there are other departed souls that beg my attention. Having let my family in, it is harder not to think of these others. At least my parents did not die by violence.

I become aware of a shift in the stillness, a soft rustle of fabric and the scuff of a shoe. Turning slightly, I can see the silhouette of another solitary person gazing at the twinkling starlight on the sea. I feel no inclination to disturb him, and no real desire to have another intrude on my memories. But then he raises his head and looks at me, and I recognise my captain.

Captain Nelson rarely smiles, but having worked closely with him for so many months, I can tell when he is pleased. It shows in the set of his face and the expression in his eyes.

‘Mr Buckley.’ He acknowledges me quietly. ‘Happy Christmas.’

‘Happy Christmas, sir.’

‘Did you have an agreeable evening?’

‘Yessir. Yourself, sir?’

‘’Most agreeable. But I find myself alone with my thoughts, and until I turn them all over I will not rest.’

‘I think I know what you mean, sir.’

‘Do you? Well, you ought to know my nature by now.’ He produces a flask and offers it to me. ‘Brandy?’

I take the flask. It is warm from his body. ‘Are you standing here drinking alone, Captain?’ I ask. I tip a little of the brandy into my mouth and feel it warm my throat and belly.

‘Of course not. I am drinking with you.’ He raises the flask in a salute, then takes a swallow of his own.

The captain hands me the flask again for another nip, then slips it back into his coat.

I hesitate to ask, but given the nature of my own thoughts this night I almost feel that I should. ‘Do you wish to share them, Captain?’

‘Hm? My thoughts, do you mean?’


‘They are of no import, Mr Buckley. But… well, why not? I was thinking of home, and of people from whom I have been parted, at least in this life.’

‘Strange. As was I, sir.’

‘Is it strange? I rather think it perfectly reasonable to remember them tonight. Tell me, Mr Buckley, do you miss them?’

‘I… well, yes. Although I try not to. Such thoughts only seem to weaken my resolve. And… erm… it makes me feel… lonely,’ I admit. I had not known that I was about to confess this, and I wonder if he will think less of me.

‘That feeling will lose some of its power, in time,’ he says quietly. ‘I miss them, myself. But even though it make you uncomfortable, do not be afraid to remember the ones you have loved and lost. Otherwise, you risk losing a bit of what makes you human.’

I am afraid to meet his eyes, afraid that he will be able to read my naked emotions in my face. I turn back to the sea, look up at the spangled sky. ‘I am afraid that perhaps I already have,’ I murmur.

‘How do you mean, lad?’

‘It seems to me a natural progression, sir, from thinking of people I have loved who are gone, to thinking of people whom my actions in this war may have caused to be gone. And if I were to let myself think of that, I would not be able to pick up my rifle tomorrow.’ When I turn my face to him again, I cannot read his expression. Then, he nods.

‘When you take aim with your rifle, what do you see?’

‘A target.’

‘Does that trouble you?’

‘Shouldn’t it…?’

‘As you observed a moment ago, Mr Buckley, if you were to think of your target in any other context, would you be able to pull the trigger?’

This doesn’t require an answer, and I have none to give anyway.

This time it is Captain Nelson who pauses, his eyes on the sea.  Without looking at me, he says quietly, ‘I do not know if you will find this helpful, but this is my advice. The true measure of your humanity is in your conduct after battle. Those who have fallen are gone, and you can do nothing for them. But if you treat your vanquished enemy with dignity and charity, if you minister to their wounded in the same manner that you treat your own, I suggest that you will retain your humanity intact.’

I turn this over in my mind in silence. ‘Yes, that is helpful,’ I decide. ‘Thank you, sir.’

‘But..?’ he prompts. He can sense from my voice that there is more, even though I had not meant to convey any doubt.

‘It is only… well, we are meant to rejoice and celebrate—“For unto us a child is given… He shall be called the Prince of Peace”—and all, but here we are, at war. How are we to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace when tomorrow—or the day after—we will go back to fighting the French until one or the other of us succumbs? How do we reconcile all this misery?’

‘You obviously remember your scripture. Do you remember this verse from St. John: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved”?’

I look down at my hands, resting on the rail. ‘Yessir,’ I say quietly. ‘But I am afraid, sir, that I no longer believe in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. I do not believe in the possibility of any earthly Paradise.’

‘Certainly not in this world as we know it now,’ he agrees, gently. ‘Humanity has much work yet to do, and there are still many sacrifices we must make, before such a thing can come to pass.’

‘So is that what we are doing, then?’ I do not mean to challenge him, but I do not have his certainty.

‘I believe it is what we do every day,’ he says. ‘Wherever we find ourselves.’ He puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘You cannot change the condition of the world with a broadside, Mr Buckley. You can alleviate some of the misery of another human being with a bit of compassion. That will change the world incrementally.’

His hand is warm, a comforting weight. No one has touched me this way in years, not since my father died. I mentally will him not to take it away.

‘I told you once that my father is a clergyman,’ he says. ‘A shipmate of mine once said that I had God in my veins. I am not sure he was being entirely complementary, either. I was not a particularly devout child, no more than my father required me to be. But if you will allow me, I will tell you one of the things he instilled in me.

‘We have been promised that through this child, this Prince of Peace, we, and the whole world, will be redeemed. We do not know when this might happen, but are asked to be faithful. Faith is not perfect, Mr Buckley. We will likely fail many times in our faith, and in our duty. But keep in mind, faith only requires trust, not absolute certainty.’

He squeezes my shoulder briefly. ‘I believe you have a stout heart, lad. Keep your faith alive.’

Captain Nelson retrieves the flask from his coat and offers it to me again. We drink together, gazing up at the velvet sky, brilliant with stars.

He returns his hand to my shoulder. ‘Happy Christmas, Mr Buckley.’

‘Happy Christmas, Captain.’


Perhaps there is some measure comfort and joy to be found, on a man-of-war on Christmas Day.



Horatio Nelson was a ruthless commander in battle, but he was also a humanist, and a man of deep faith. This story isn’t intended to be a homily on Christian doctrine, but rather to explore how he might have balanced the two facets of his character. ‘Humanity after battle’ was a principle of the Royal Navy, and it was certainly one of Nelson’s.

And if the reader can take any heart from Nelson’s faith, well, that’s alright, then.




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