Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar, fought on 21 October 1805, was the most significant naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars and the pivotal naval battle of the 19th century. A Royal Navy fleet of 27 ships of the line destroyed an allied French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships of the line west of Cape Trafalgar in south-west Spain. The allies lost 22 ships; the British none. The British commander Admiral Lord Nelson died late in the battle, by which time his victory had ensured his place as one of Britain's greatest military war heroes.

The British victory put an end to Napoleon's plans to invade Britain across the English Channel. Once the threat of invasion was removed, British troops could be used to fight on the European continent, which was a major factor in Napoleon's ultimate fall. After the battle, the Royal Navy remained unchallenged as the world's foremost naval power until the rise of Imperial Germany prior to the First World War, 100 years later.

2005 sees the 200th anniversary of the battle, marked by Trafalgar 200 celebrations.

The Battle of Trafalgar

Strategic background to the battle

In 1805, the First French Empire, under Napoleon, was the dominant military power on the European continent, while the British Royal Navy controlled the seas. During the course of the war, the British imposed a naval blockade on France, which affected French trade and kept the French from fully mobilising their own naval resources. Despite several successful evasions of the blockade by the French navy, they were unable to inflict a major defeat on the British. The British control of the seas enabled them to attack French interests at home and abroad with relative ease.

When the Napoleonic War broke out in 1803, after the short lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon Bonaparte was determined to invade Britain. To do so, he had to ensure that the Royal Navy would be unable to disrupt the invasion flotilla, which would require the French fleet to control the English Channel.

At that time, there were major French fleets in Brest, Brittany, and Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. Other ports on the French Atlantic coast had smaller but potent squadrons. In addition, France and Spain were now allied, so the Spanish fleet based in Cádiz and El Ferrol was also available.

The British possessed an experienced and well-trained corps of naval officers. By contrast, most of the best officers in the French navy had either been executed or dismissed from the service during the early part of the French Revolution. As a result, Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was the most competent senior officer available to command Napoleon's Mediterranean fleet. However, Villeneuve had shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm to face Nelson and the Royal Navy after his defeat at the Battle of the Nile.

Napoleon's naval plan in 1805 was for the French and Spanish fleets in the Mediterranean and Cádiz to break through the blockade and combine in the West Indies. They would then return, assist the fleet in Brest to emerge from blockade, and in combination clear the English Channel of Royal Navy ships, ensuring a safe passage for invasion barges.

West Indies

Early in 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson was commanding the British fleet blockading Toulon. Unlike William Cornwallis, who commanded the Channel Fleet's tight blockade of Brest, Nelson adopted a loose blockade in hopes of luring the French fleet out of port. Nelson hoped to engage and destroy the French in a major battle. However, Villeneuve's fleet successfully emerged and evaded Nelson's fleet when his forces were blown off station by storms. While Nelson was searching for them in the Mediterranean, Villeneuve passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet, and sailed as planned to the West Indies. Once Nelson realised that the French had evaded him and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he abandoned his station in the Mediterranean to pursue them. Admirals of the time, due to the slowness of communications, had to have considerable autonomy to take strategic as well tactical decisions. Nelson's task was to contain or destroy Villeneuve's fleet. As they had managed to evade his forces off Toulons, he decided to pursue them.

Cádiz

In the West Indies, the French fleet again evaded Nelson's forces. The French sailed for Europe, originally intending to break the blockade at Brest, but after two of his Spanish ships were captured during the Battle of Cape Finisterre by a squadron under Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, Villeneuve decided not to attempt joining the fleet in Brest, and sailed back to Ferrol.

Napoleon's invasion plans for England depended entirely on his ability to rendezvous a sufficiently large number of ships-of-the-line before Boulogne, France. This would require Villeneuve's force of thirty-two ships to successfully join Vice-Admiral Ganteaume's force of twenty-one ships at Brest, along with a squadron of five ships under Captain Allemand, which would give him a combined force of fifty-three ships of the line.

When Villeneuve set sail from Ferrol on 10 August, he was under these strict orders from Napoleon to sail northward toward Brest. Instead he grew nervous of the British observing his manoeuvres, so on 11 August he sailed southward towards Cádiz on the south-western coast of Spain. With no sign of Villeneuve's fleet, by 26 August the three French army corps invasion force near Boulogne became needed elsewhere. This force broke camp and made for Germany, where it would thereafter be fully engaged.

The same month, Nelson returned home to England after two years of duty at sea for some well-earned rest and recuperation. He would be ashore for a total of twenty-five busy days, and he was warmly received by the British who were understandably nervous about the possibility of French invasion. Word reached England on 2 September about the presence of the combined French and Spanish fleet in the Cádiz harbour. Nelson had to wait until 15 September before his ship HMS Victory was ready to sail.

On 15 August, Cornwallis made the fateful decision to detach twenty ships of the line from the fleet guarding the channel and to have them sail southward to engage the enemy forces in Spain. This left the channel somewhat denuded of ships, with only eleven ships of the line available. However this detached force would form the nucleus of the British fleet that would fight at Trafalgar. Initially this fleet was placed under the command of Vice-Admiral Calder. This force reached Cádiz on 15 September, and Nelson would join the fleet on 29 September to take command.

The British fleet kept a constant watch on the Cádiz harbour by means of frigates, while his main force remained out of sight 50 miles (80 km) west of the shore. Nelson's hope was to lure the combined Franco-Spanish force out and engage them in a battle of obliteration by means of a "pell-mell battle". The force watching the harbour was led by Captain Blackwood, commanding HMS Euryalus. He was brought up to a strength of seven ships on 8 October, consisting of five frigates and two schooners.

Supply situation

At this point Nelson's fleet badly needed provisioning, however, and on 2 October six ships of the line, Queen; Canopus, captained by Francis Austen, the brother of author Jane Austen; Spencer; Zealous; Tigre; and Endymion were dispatched to Gibraltar for supplies. These ships were later diverted for convoy duty in the Mediterranean, whereas Nelson had expected them to return. British ships continued to arrive, and by 15 October the fleet was up to their full strength for the battle. Although it was a significant loss of strength to the fleet, once the first-rate Royal Sovereign had arrived, Nelson allowed Calder to sail for home in his flagship, the 90-gun Prince of Wales rather than sending him back in a smaller ship. Calder was under a cloud for his actions during the engagement off Cape Finisterre on July 22.

Meanwhile, Villeneuve's fleet in Cádiz was suffering from a serious supply shortage that could not be readily rectified by the cash-strapped French. His ships were also more than two thousand men short of the force they would need to sail. In these circumstances he received fresh orders from Admiral Decrès in Paris to return to the Mediterranean, and sail to the port of Naples in southern Italy. Villeneuve's supply situation began to improve in October, but news of Nelson's arrival made Villeneuve reluctant to leave port. Indeed the captains of the fleet had held a vote on the matter and the result was a decision to stay in the harbour.

Naval tactical background

During the 18th Century naval battle tactics developed from the free-for-all melées of the 17th Century where the admiral commanding a fleet had little or no control of the disposition and actions of his ships. The concept of the line of battle was developed where every ship of the line had its predetermined position in the line of battle and the fleet attempted to stay in this formation during the battle. Both admirals would attempt to form up into long lines. The two lines would then manoeuvre, sometimes for days, in an effort to close to within gunfire range often seeking the advantage of the weather gauge. Each ship was then supposed to attack its opposite number in the enemy line. This led to battles of attrition where lines of ships battered at each other until one side withdrew, at which point both would limp home for repairs.

More damage could be done when a ship could rake another. Firing the length of a ship from either the bow or stern was more advantageous, because a single shot would fly down the length of the decks causing damage and death to more of the gun crews. An additional benefit was that the opponent could not return fire using their broadside cannon. However, this was more often seen in single ship actions rather than when a fleet was fighting in line.

There had been some developments of new tactics as early as 1782. After defeating the British attempt to reinforce their deployment in what would soon be the United States during the Battle of the Chesapeake, the French decided to attempt the taking of Bermuda. Facing them was a smaller fleet under George Rodney. When they met in the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April things looked excellent for the French, but a missed signal made their line split up. Rodney quickly signalled a 90 degree turn in his own line, running his ships between the French line while they continued to sail in their original directions. His ships ended up raking the French ships and soon forced six of their ships to strike their colours (lower their flags as a sign of surrender).

Nelson's battle plan

During their station-keeping off the coast of Spain in October, Nelson first revealed his new plan of engagement to the fleet's captains at a combined dinner. Rather than adopting the standard technique of manoeuvring to approach the enemy in a long battle line, then engaging their opponent in a parallel formation, Nelson's method would form two close parallel lines and go straight at the enemy. This method would simplify communication between the ships, which could otherwise be quite difficult in an extended formation. The basic premise of his plan was to break the battle into a number of individual ship to ship fights, Nelson believed that the British ships would prevail as they were superior in gunnery. It also eliminated the time-consuming manoeuvres needed to bring the enemy into engagement.

The approach was to consist of two columns of sixteen ships, sailing in line. They would be accompanied by a reserve column of the fast-sailing two-deck ships which would serve as a mobile reserve under Nelson's command. This third column could join either of the other two lines, forming a tactical force of twenty-four ships. He intended to attempt to break the enemy line of battle with two or three columns in order to cut the centre and rear of the fleet from its van, and then to concentrate his forces on the ships in rear part of the line. The enemy commander is normally located near the mid-point of the line, so this plan would engage and overwhelm his ship and the neighbouring two or three vessels.

Since the opponent's ships would be sailing downwind, it would be difficult for those in the van to sail back upwind and come to the aid of the rear. This is a similar tactic to that which Nelson had already used successfully at the 1797 Battle of Cape St Vincent, but here it was applied as a deliberate plan on a larger scale.

The most significant drawback to this plan would be that the French and Spanish force would form a horizontal bar to the British vertical column. The allies would be able to maintain a raking broadside fire on the lead ships in each of the columns as they approached. During their approach, the British ships would be unable to return fire. The allies' ships would be in a position to fire on these lead ships for a period of up to half an hour. Nelson's biggest regret about the upcoming battle, however, was that he lacked sufficient forces to finish off the enemy completely. He would be outnumbered during the fight, but he displayed no doubts about gaining a victory.

In preparation for the battle, Nelson ordered the ships of his fleet in a distinctive yellow and black pattern that would make them easy to distinguish from their opponents.

Battle

On 18 October, Villeneuve received a letter informing him that Vice-Admiral François Rosily had arrived in Madrid with orders to take command. At the same time, he received intelligence that a detachment of six British ships had docked at Gibraltar. This gave Villeneuve the military pretext he needed to leave, as he perceived that Nelson's fleet would be weakened. Suddenly Villeneuve was frantic to depart, and following a gale on 18 October the fleet began a rapid scramble to prepare to set sail. Villeneuve became determined to leave Cádiz for good and even engage the enemy, rather than suffer the humiliation of loss of command.

Departure

The weather however had suddenly turned calm following a week of gales. This slowed the progress of the fleet departing the harbour, giving the British plenty of warning about the departure of the French and Spanish fleet. Villeneuve had drawn up plans to form a force of four squadrons, with intermixed French and Spanish ships. Following their earlier vote to stay put, the captain's were reluctant to leave Cádiz and as a result they failed to follow closely Villeneuve's orders (Villeneuve had reportedly become despised by many of the fleet's officers and crew). As a result the fleet straggled out of the harbour in no particular formation.

It took most of 20 October for Villeneuve to get his fleet organised, and they set sail in three columns for Gibraltar to the south-east. That same evening the ship Achille spotted a force of 18 British ships of the line in pursuit. The fleet began to prepare for battle and during the night they were ordered into a single line. The following day Nelson's fleet of thirty-one ships was spotted in pursuit from the north-west with the wind behind them. Villeneuve again ordered his fleet into three columns, but soon changed his mind and ordered a single line. The result was a sprawling, uneven formation that did not at all resemble a line.

The British fleet was sailing, as they would fight, under signal seventy-two hoisted on Nelson's flagship. At 5:40 a.m. the British were about 21 miles (34 km) to the north-east of Cape Trafalgar, with the Franco-Spanish fleet between the British and the Cape making for the straits of Gibraltar. At 6 o'clock that morning, Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle.

Suddenly at 8 a.m. Villeneuve ordered the fleet to wear together and turn back for Cádiz. The course was changed from near southward to turn to the north, taking them towards the oncoming British. This would place the rear division under Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley in the van, rather than the rear. The wind became contrary at this point, often shifting direction. The inexperienced French crews had difficulty with the changing conditions, and it took nearly an hour and a half for Villeneuve's order to be completed. The French and Spanish fleet now formed an uneven, angular crescent, with the slower French ships generally leeward of the Spanish and closer to the shore of Spain.

By 11 a.m. Nelson's entire fleet was visible to Villeneuve, drawn up in two parallel columns. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour. Villeneuve was concerned at this point about forming up a line, as his ships were unevenly spaced and in an irregular formation. The French-Spanish fleet was drawn out nearly five miles (8 km) long as they were approached by Nelson's fleet.

As the British drew closer, they discerned that the French and Spanish fleet was not sailing in a tight order but rather in irregular groups. In addition, Nelson could not make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants from any of their ships.

The six British ships dispatched earlier to Gibraltar had not returned, so Nelson would have to fight without these ships and so had to make some adjustments. He was also outnumbered and outgunned by his opponent, as the Spanish and French had nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to his 17,000 men and 2,148 guns. The Franco-Spanish fleet also had six more ships of the line than did the British, and so could more readily combine their fire. There was no means by which some of Nelson's ships could avoid being "doubled on" or even "trebled on".

Order of battle

The French had 18 ships of the line: Bucentaure, Formidable, Neptune, Indomptable, Algésiras, Pluton, Mont-Blanc, Intrépide, Swiftsure, Aigle, Scipion, Duguay-Trouin, Berwick, Argonaute, Achille, Redoutable, Fougueux, and Héros. These were supported by the frigates Cornélie, Hermione, Hortense, Rhin and Thémis, and the brigs Argus and Furet.

The Spanish had 15 ships of the line: Santissima Trinidad, Principe de Asturias, Santa Anna, Rayo, Neptuno, Argonauta, Bahama, Montanez, San Augustin, San Ildefonso, San Juan Nepomuceno, Monarca, San Francisco de Asis, San Justo, and San Leandro.

The British had 27 ships of the line: Britannia, Royal Sovereign, Victory, Dreadnought, Neptune, Prince, Temeraire, Tonnant, Achille, Ajax, Belleisle, Bellerophon, Colossus, Conqueror, Defence, Defiance, Leviathan, Mars, Minotaur, Orion, Revenge, Spartiate, Swiftsure, Thunderer, Africa, Agamemnon, and Polyphemus. These were supported by the frigates Euryalus, Naiad, Phoebe and Sirius, the schooner Pickle, and the cutter Entreprenante.

Engagement

The battle progressed largely according to Nelson's plan. At 11:35, Nelson sent the famous flag signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" (he had intended to send "England confides that every man will do his duty", but the word "confides" was not included in the signal codebook, so he had "expect" sent instead; the word "duty" was also absent, but was sent letter by letter, "D-U-T-Y"). He then attacked the French line in two columns, leading one column in Victory; while Admiral Collingwood in Royal Sovereign led the other column.

As the battle opened, the French and Spanish were in a ragged line headed north as the two British columns approached from the west at almost a right angle. The northern, windward column of the British fleet was headed up by Nelson's 100-gun flagship Victory. The leeward column was led by the 100-gun Royal Sovereign, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. Nelson led his line into a feint toward the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet and then turned toward the actual point of attack. Collingwood altered the course of his column slightly so that the two lines converged at the line of attack.

Just before the South column engaged the allied forces, Collingwood said to his officers, "Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter." Because the winds were very light during the battle, all the ships were moving extremely slowly, and the lead British ships were under fire from several of the enemy for almost an hour before their own guns would bear.

At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal "engage the enemy", and the Fougueux fired her first trial shot at the Royal Sovereign. The Royal Sovereign was sailing with all sails out, and outrunning the rest of the English fleet, heading for the Santa Anna. Before reaching her, Royal Sovereign took ineffective fire from the Fougueux, Indomptable, San Justo and San Leandro, and retaliated at point-blank range against the Santa Anna.

The only English ship able to follow, the Belle-Isle, was engaged by the Aigle, Achille, Neptune and Fougeux; she lost her four masts and was unable to fight further, her sails blinding her batteries, but yet kept flying her flag for 45 minutes until the following English ships came to rescue.

For 40 minutes, the Victory was under ineffective fire from the Héros, Santísima Trinidad, Redoutable and Neptune; almost all shots went astray and the Victory did not respond. At 12:45, Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable. The Victory came so close to the Bucentaure that Villeneuve thought that boarding would take place, and with the Eagle of his ship in hand, told his men: "I will throw it onto the enemy ship, and we will take it back there !" However, fearing for Nelson's safety, Hardy, captain of the Victory, engaged one of the smallest French vessels, the Redoutable. The Bucentaure was to be dealt with by the Téméraire and the Neptune.

A general mêlée ensued, and during that fight, Victory locked masts with the French Redoutable. The crew of the Redoutable, which included a strong infantry corps (with 3 captains and 4 lieutenants), gathered for an attempt to board and seize the Victory. A musket bullet fired from the mizzentop of the Redoutable struck Nelson in the left shoulder and passed through his body lodging in his spine. Nelson exclaimed, "They finally succeeded, I am dead". He was carried below decks and died at about 16:30, as the battle that would make him a legend was ending in favour of the British.

The Victory ceased fire, the gunners having been called on the deck to fight the capture, but were repelled to the below decks by French grenades. As the French were preparing to board Victory, the English ship Temeraire approached from the starboard bow of the Redoutable, and fired on the exposed French crew causing many casualties.

At 13:55, Captain Lucas, of the Redoutable, with 99 fit men out of 643, and severely wounded himself, was forced to surrender. The French Bucentaure was isolated by the Victory and Temeraire, and then engaged by the Neptune, Leviathan and Conqueror; similarly, the Santísima Trinidad was isolated and overwhelmed without being rescued. They surrendered after three hours.

The British took 22 vessels of the Franco-Spanish fleet and lost not one. Among the taken French ships were the Aigle, Algésiras, Berwick, Bucentaure, Fougueux, Intrépide, Redoutable, and Swiftsure. The Spanish ships taken were the Argonauta, Bahama, Monarca, Neptuno, San Agustino, San Ildefonso, San Juan de Nepomuceno, Santísima Trinidad, and Santa Anna. Of these, the Redoutable sank, the Santíssima Trinidad and Argonauta were scuttled by the British, the Achille exploded, the Intrepide and San Augustino burned, and the Aigle, Berwick, Fougueux, and Monarca were wrecked in a gale following the battle.

Nelson dying in the melee

As Nelson lay dying, he ordered the fleet to anchor as a storm was predicted. However, when the storm blew up many of the severely damaged ships sank or ran aground, and a few were recaptured by the French and Spanish prisoners overcoming the small prize crews or by ships sallying from Cádiz.

Aftermath

Vice-Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner and was brought back to England. On his return to France, he was found stabbed six times in the chest in his inn room while returning to Paris. The verdict was that he had committed suicide.

Only eleven ships regained Cádiz, and of those only five were considered seaworthy. Under captain Julien Cosmao, they set sail two days later an attempted to re-take some of the English prizes; they succeded in re-capturing two ships, and forced Collingwood to scuttle a number of his prizes.

When Rosily arrived in Cádiz, he found only five French ships remained rather than the 18 he was expecting. The surviving ships remained bottled up in Cádiz until 1808, when Napoleon invaded Spain. The French ships were then seized by the Spanish forces and put into service against France.

Napoleon had tight control over the Paris media and he kept the defeat a closely guarded secret until following his victory at Austerlitz. In a propaganda move, the battle was then declared a "spectacular victory" by the French and Spanish. As he could no longer defeat Britain at sea, however, Napoleon went on to impose a continental blockade in an attempt to deny Britain trade with the continent.

Consequences

Following the battle, the Royal Navy was never again seriously challenged by the French fleet in a large-scale engagement. Napoleon had already abandoned his plans of invasion before the battle but they were never revived for fear of the Royal Navy.

Nelson became Britain's greatest military war hero, and an inspiration to the Royal Navy but his unorthodoxy was not often emulated by later generations. In 1808, Nelson's Pillar was erected in Dublin to commemorate Nelson and his achievements (many sailors at Trafalgar had been Irish), and remained until it was blown up by the IRA in 1966. London's famous Trafalgar Square, which was named for his victory, and Nelson's statue atop Nelson's Column finished in 1843 towers triumphantly over it. Conversely, generations of French schoolchildren were taught that Trafalgar was an "inconclusive battle in which the British Admiral was killed".

The Royal Navy proceeded to dominate the seas for the remaining years of sail. The rise of Imperial Germany as a naval power in the early 20th Century challenged the Royal Navy for the first time. The First World War set them against each other and resulted in the inconclusive large fleet action at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. In the Second World War the Germans turned to unrestricted submarine warfare as an alternative to large fleet action.

An anecdotal consequence is that French Navy officers are not called "sir" ever since.

200th anniversary

In 2005, the 200th anniversary of the battle will be marked by six days of celebrations in Portsmouth during June and July, and at St Paul's Cathedral (where Nelson is entombed) and in Trafalgar Square in London in October, as well as across the rest of the UK. On June 28th, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom was involved in the biggest fleet review in modern times in the Solent, in which 167 ships from 35 nations took part. The Queen inspected the international fleet aboard the Antarctic research ship HMS Endurance. The fleet included six carriers: Charles De Gaulle, Illustrious, Invincible, Ocean, Príncipe de Asturias and Saipan. The frigate Grand Turk played the part of HMS Victory.

In literature

  • In the Richard Sharpe series of novels (specifically Sharpe's Trafalgar) by Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe finds himself at the Battle of Trafalgar aboard the fictitious HMS Pucelle, following a complicated series of events which began in India.
  • In 1805, one of the Nathaniel Drinkwater series of novels by Richard Woodman. Drinkwater is a prisoner aboard the French flagship Bucentaure.
  • Trafalgar, a book about the battle of the same name, opens the series of novels Episodios Nacionales by Benito Pérez Galdós.
  • In the alternate history collection Alternate Generals, John W. Mina's short story "Vive l'Amiral" posits Admiral Nelson fleeing an English debtor's prison, ending up in France and leading Napoleon's navy to victory at Trafalgar.
  • Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte has published the novel Cape Trafalgar (Cabo Trafalgar, ed. Alfaguara 2004, in Spanish). A naval story of the battle of Trafalgar, the writer combines the historical facts with the most spectacular action.
  • Recently an Alexandre Dumas novel was discovered entitled Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine. The book is an adventure story set in the Napoleonic Era in which the main character is alleged to be the one who shot Nelson.

Further reading

  • Adkins, Roy, Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle, 2004, Little Brown, ISBN 0316725110.
  • Corbett, Julian S., The Trafalgar Campaign, 1910, London.
  • Desbrière, Edouard, The Naval Campaign of 1805: Trafalgar, 1907, Paris. English translation by Constance Eastwick, 1933.
  • Harbron, John D., Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy, 1988, London, ISBN 0851779638.
  • Howarth, David, Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch, 2003, Phoenix Press, ISBN 1842127179.
  • Pope, Dudley, England Expects (U.S. title Decision at Trafalgar), 1959, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  • Schom, Alan, Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803-1805, 1990, New York, ISBN 0-689-12055-9.

 

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