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  • James Houser

October 21, 1805 - The Battle of Trafalgar

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

October 21, 1805. The French and Spanish fleet moves out at full sail. Lord Nelson’s ships are outnumbered, but he knows that this will be the critical battle of England’s war against Napoleon. He hoists the Union Jack and sends his HMS Victory forward, with one message to his fleet: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” The great naval battle of the Age of Sail is about to commence at Trafalgar.

Ever since 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Empire had been at war with Britain. Be that as it may, there was just one problem: Britain, obviously, is an island. Britain was also a nation with a powerful, world-beating navy, by far the largest and most professional navy in Europe. The Royal Navy was king of the seas from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a position it would not give up until the rise of the U.S. Navy in World War II. As long as the Royal Navy could keep the French Navy from putting a sizeable fleet in the ocean, there was no way that Napoleon could invade Britain. The large Channel Fleet, full of powerful warships, was always watching the waterways between England and France.

Napoleon needed naval strength to defeat the British, his most persistent and most hated enemy – “perfidious Albion”, he called them. To get this strength, he allied with Spain, which had a powerful battle fleet, and used French control over the Netherlands to gain control of a third. This gave Napoleon control of every port from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Cadiz on the Spanish coast, as well as many other ports in between and in the Mediterranean. Half of Europe was aligned under Napoleon’s banner to prepare for the great invasion of Britain. From 1803, Napoleon had begun to gather a huge army in northern France, right across the Channel from Britain, to plan and prepare for this invasion – think D-Day in reverse.

Napoleon’s dozens of ports and naval dockyards had the potential to produce a powerful force that could challenge the Royal Navy, but the problem was clear. Uniting the ships from all these ports would be very difficult as long as the British stood in the way. The British government was aware of what Napoleon was up to, and they took two countermeasures to deal with the threat of a French invasion. First, they began to search for allies on the European continent that could distract this enormous army away from invading their homeland.

Second, they deployed the Royal Navy to its limit, dispatching forces to watch every single French port to keep the individual forces from bursting out and uniting. Britain did not have a big army, and spent most of its money on the Navy; if any of the French or Spanish fleets managed to join together into a large body, there would be hell to pay. Napoleon was fond of saying "Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world." All the French needed was to achieve total superiority in the Channel for a brief period, and Napoleon could cross his army over and be in London in a matter of days. That was the challenge the Royal Navy faced: they had to control the Channel 24/7, while the French only had to control it for a day.

In May 1805, Britain had successfully gotten the Austrians and Russians to join a coalition against Napoleon. The French Emperor knew that his enemies would take time to get their armies ready, and that his window for action against Britain was closing. If he was going to move against his hated enemy, the time was now. Napoleon ordered Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, commanding the fleet at Toulon on the French Riviera in the Mediterranean, to prepare to break the British blockade and head for the Caribbean. At the same time, the main French battle fleet in Brest was also to break the blockade and rendezvous with Villeneuve, and from there they could unify into a massive fleet. They would be strong enough together to break through any British fleet, thus freeing more and more ships as they unraveled the British blockade. With any luck, the Royal Navy’s stranglehold on the Atlantic could finally be broken.

Villeneuve was nervous about running the blockade, mainly because of his opposition. Commanding the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean was a strong contender for the greatest admiral who has ever lived. Horatio Nelson was Britain’s living legend, a naval hero who had earned his fame the hard way – by 1805, he had lost an eye and most of an arm. He had destroyed Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and wrecked the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in 1801, in two of the heaviest blows to Napoleon’s naval dreams. Lord Nelson was both hero and scoundrel, thanks to his scandalous personal life. His accomplishments at sea were the greatest in the history of any Western navy. He also carried on infamous extramarital affairs nearly in the public eye, and was vain beyond all comprehension. He was obsessed with his reputation in the press and pissed off almost every superior he ever had with his glory-seeking ways. His charisma was massive, his ego even bigger. Nelson was a living legend in 1805, and the French knew and feared his reputation.

Villeneuve’s fleet slipped out of Toulon only when Nelson’s ships were caught in a storm, scattering them and blowing them off station. By the time Nelson had got his fleet back together, his quarry had flown the coup, and Nelson raced across the Mediterranean frantically as Villeneuve made for the Western Hemisphere as fast as possible. Once Nelson realized that his opponent had crossed the Atlantic, he set off in hot pursuit. This long-distance, high-stakes game of cat and mouse played out across the Atlantic, as Nelson stalked the seas trying to catch his prey and Villeneuve, terrified of encountering the one-eyed English rogue, stayed one step ahead of him.

By August, Villeneuve had returned back to Europe and reached safety in northern Spain. Napoleon breathed a sigh of relief. Good, he said, now you can come up and join the Brest fleet, and together break the English blockade. With Nelson still several days away, Villeneuve made a faint-hearted effort to move out and clear the way for Napoleon’s invasion. On August 11, though, he spotted a British fleet and immediately chickened out. He sailed south for the main Spanish port of Cadiz. By August 25, Napoleon – who had been sitting on the Channel coast for four months, waiting for his opportunity to invade England – realized that Villeneuve was not coming. Disgusted, he ordered his army to break camp and head east; he could not put off facing the Austrians and Russians any longer. Napoleon’s army marched out of this story and on to its great victories at Ulm and Austerlitz. (Catch you on December 2!)

In the meantime, Villeneuve’s fleet still posed a major threat to the Royal Navy. When Nelson finally returned from his wild goose chase, he received troubling news. With all the ships that the French admiral had gathered, he had 33 massive battleships, both French and Spanish, stationed at Cadiz. This force could go anywhere and wreck any battle fleet the British could put together. As long as Villeneuve’s fleet existed, it posed a major threat to the British homeland, whether or not Napoleon’s army was nearby. There weren’t enough British ships available even to equal the French numbers, since so many vessels were still watching all the scattered ports where French warships were hiding. All Villeneuve had to do was destroy these small forces one after another, and then the Atlantic would belong to France.

Nelson’s return to Britain saw him greeted as a hero – indeed, the only one that could save the United Kingdom. Villeneuve’s great fleet hung over Britain like a great shadow, and no one knew when it would descend upon them. The Admiralty took a drastic step: they gave Nelson half the Channel Fleet, the previously untouchable reserve force of the Royal Navy that was meant to defend Britain and only Britain. This meant that if Nelson lost these ships – well, there wasn’t much standing between England and Napoleon after that. The Emperor would be taking his tea in London. (Or so they believed.)

On September 28, Nelson’s fleet of 32 ships took station of Cadiz to stare down Villeneuve’s 33 ships in port. As much as I’ve hyped up the French threat to Britain, the real weak link in the Franco-Spanish fleet was its commander. As you might have guessed from his lack of nerve in August, Villeneuve was scared shitless of the Royal Navy and especially of Nelson. When he did set sail in October 1805, he would do so with an eye to escaping, not attacking, the Royal Navy. Nelson, on the other hand, was determined to destroy the enemy fleet. Only by sending it to the bottom could he ensure the safety of Britain.

Nelson planned a battle to take place as soon as the enemy fleet left port. Traditional naval battles of the Age of Sail were fought in the “line ahead” formation, where the two opposing fleets would fight in parallel lines and hammer away at each other until one side managed to break off. The main reason for this formation was command and control, since it was amazingly difficult to control large numbers of sailing ships on the open ocean. Only by using a single-file line could most admirals lead their ships in the correct direction at the correct speed. This method of fighting allowed admirals to keep close control of their ships, but also meant battles were usually indecisive. It was very easy for the other navy to just sail away if it started to lose.

Nelson broke completely with these tactics, so completely that it seemed like an almost suicidal risk. Over several conferences with his captains, Nelson explained and rehearsed his plan for the upcoming confrontation – a thoroughly modern procedure that was almost unheard of in those days. Instead of attacking the French in a parallel line, Nelson would divide his fleet into TWO lines, both of which would charge the French straight ahead. These two lines would break through the French formation, whereupon each British ship would find a single French ship and duel it to the death. The formation would also chop the French fleet into three portions, separating them from each other, and induce panic among the enemy when their line was divided. The strategy ALSO carried enormous risk, since the British would be exposed to French fire during their approach while being unable to return it. Also, if the British started to lose, they had no real means of escape.

This high-risk, high-reward tactic was stunning to Nelson’s ship captains, but they were all in. Nelson’s personal magnetism and charisma were legendary, with his captains being referred to as the “band of brothers” who would lead the Royal Navy throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Nelson also knew that he couldn’t just beat the French fleet, but had to destroy it. He had confidence in the skill of his captains and the superior discipline and training of his crews, and trusted his subordinates to carry out the plan even if the fleet got divided – or if he himself was injured. Lord Nelson trusted his men, trusted his ships, and trusted himself, and that would prove to win the day.

Villeneuve, a demoralized and dejected man even before the great encounter, set his fleet out on October 19, 1805 in an attempt to run past the British. Immediately Nelson was on his tail – even though he was shorthanded since he had to send several ships out for resupply. Nelson would only have 27 ships to Villeneuve’s 33, even though many of the French ships were bigger and had more guns. Nelson followed Villeneuve down the Spanish coast, and soon he had outrun the French. By dawn on the day of October 21, 1805, Nelson was in a position to attack the French. Observing their line of battle through his spyglass, the British Admiral ordered his ships to prepare for battle at 6:00 AM. Off the coast of Cape Trafalgar, the Royal Navy swung into action for the fight of its life.

Nelson had ordered his ships painted black and yellow in order to tell them apart from the enemy, and almost like a swarm of bumblebees, the great wooden ships unfurled every sail they had and drove directly at the enemy. Nelson’s second-in-command Cuthbert Collingwood led one line in his HMS Royal Sovereign, while Nelson himself led the other in his famous flagship the HMS Victory. The Victory was the pride of the Royal Navy, 227 feet long, bristling with 104 cannon and a crew of 850 men. This enormous battleship was the tip of Britain’s spear, the vanguard of the King’s fleet, as it rollicked over the swells of the Atlantic on its course with destiny.

It’s impossible to truly understand how the men on these ships – British, Spanish, and French – all felt. With pistols and cutlasses dangling at their hips, they raced across the decks to wheel their guns around, haul up ammunition, and reach out a hand to steady themselves as the ship lurched and saltwater sprayed across the deck. Already they could hear the enemy guns, see the splashes of cannon fire, hear the whistling of shot passing overhead. It was a nerve-wracking experience as almost 30,000 men on 70 battleships converged for one of the great battles of history. Most of them were just trying to do their jobs, and hopefully not die in the process. But the British were the more motivated. They had years of training, iron discipline, and the pride and reputation of the Royal Navy to keep them going. And they had Lord Nelson, the great hero of the seas.

As the British advanced, Nelson’s ship lifted its signal flags to send out a message that still rings today in the history of the Royal Navy: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” This message was received by every ship in the fleet, and read out to the crews as they hauled the sails and loaded the cannons. They were on an intercept with destiny, because this was Trafalgar.

As the battle opened, the French were curving their line northward, trying to escape the oncoming British battleships. Nelson’s ships advanced in their two lines, with Nelson to the north in Victory and Collingwood south in Royal Sovereign. The two British columns approached the French at a right angle, even as the French and Spanish ships blasted away at them. Nelson’s crews took advantage of the choppy sea and high swell, constantly maneuvering to give the French a hard target to hit. Nelson’s column faked towards the very tip of the Franco-Spanish fleet, causing the ships there to panic and turn inward, then abruptly performed another twist to hammer in at their point of attack. The lead British ships were under enemy fire for almost an hour before they slammed into the enemy line.

Collingwood’s ship was the first British vessel to come alongside the French, and he unleashed a slashing cannon volley that raked the Spanish ship Santa Ana. The ship right behind him was quickly disabled by the volleys of four French ships, but managed to stay afloat. Collingwood’s ships came roaring into the Spanish portion of the fleet, completely unnerving their enemies as they swirled into single combat and disrupted their foes. Soon the great wooden ships creaked and moaned under the strain of maneuver in the choppy swell, as the British vessels leaped on their opposite numbers like tigers pouncing on their prey.

In the other line, Nelson’s HMS Victory had been under fire from no less than five French ships during its attack approach. The Victory suffered many casualties from this crossfire and even had her ship’s wheel shot away, so that she had to be steered by men pushing the tiller belowdecks. Nelson stalked the ship, bellowing at everything, encouraging his men and waving his sword with his one good arm. The Victory, bloody and smoky but unbroken, finally cut the enemy line at 12:45, cutting right behind Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure. Nelson’s guns raked the French vessel, nearly cutting the floor right out from under his opponent. Though Villeneuve rallied his ship to turn around, he was soon engaged by three British vessels, while Nelson turned around to face the French ship Redoubtable.

Victory and Redoubtable grew so close in the angry sea that their masts locked together.

The Redoubtable had an unusually strong marine detachment, and they prepared to cross over and capture the Victory. During the fight, as Nelson rallied and encouraged his crew, one of the French infantrymen climbed the mast of the Redoubtable with a rifle. Aiming carefully between the two rolling ships, he fired a round.

On the Victory, Lord Nelson felt the impact. The musket ball struck him in the shoulder and lodged in his spinal column. He collapsed to the deck, screaming “They finally succeeded, I am dead.” He was carried belowdecks. The British continued the fight without their admiral, but he had instructed them well, and they knew what to do.

As the French prepared to cross over and seize the Victory, the HMS Temeraire burst out of the smoke and din of battle and blasted the Redoubtable to pieces. Only a few minutes later, the French ship surrendered. All across the sea, the French and Spanish ships were being individually overwhelmed and forced to surrender by packs of furious, determined British captains. Within hours, the Battle of Trafalgar was over, and the British had won their overwhelming victory.

Speaking of Victory…Nelson lay dying. He slipped in and out of consciousness as he was told of the triumph, murmuring only “Thank God I have done my duty.” He looked up as the surgeon took his pulse, then closed his eyes, murmuring his prayers. The ship’s chaplain reported that Nelson was able to make out “God and my country” before he fell into his death coma. Lord Nelson died three hours after he was shot, just as the battle was winding down.

The British were utterly victorious. Out of 33 enemy ships, they had destroyed one and captured no less than 21, including Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure – and the French admiral himself. The few remaining enemy ships were damaged so badly that most did not survive the subsequent storm. Though the British fleet had suffered 458 men dead and around 1200 wounded, they had not lost a single ship sunk or surrendered; it was one of the most lopsided victories in naval history.

With his victory, and his death, Lord Nelson had secured Britain’s permanent protection from Napoleon. Never again would the Emperor’s fleet challenge the seas, and never again would any nation come close to invading England’s shores by sea. The Royal Navy’s dominance over Europe’s oceans, and the world’s oceans, was secured for a century and a half by the glory at Trafalgar. Nelson had died a hero, one of Britain’s greatest heroes, but even had he lived he could never have matched the victory of October 21, 1805.

For the tourist, you don’t have to look too hard to see one of these ships – you can see the HMS Victory itself. Preserved as a monument ever since Nelson’s death, it still sits at the docks in Portsmouth as a Royal Navy museum, and has officially served as the First Sea Lord’s flagship. Nelson himself, of course, occupies pride of place in London’s Trafalgar Square, where pigeons will crap on him for eternity.

Fame is fleeting, after all.

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