A Detailed Look at Nelson’s Innovative Strategy at Trafalgar

Much is made of the innovative tactics Nelson used at the Battle of Trafalgar, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find a single article explaining just why those tactics were considered so innovative. I couldn’t find one, despite hours of searching, so I’ve done something I rarely do: I’ve edited three different articles together to highlight the innovative aspects of Nelson’s tactics. I’ve made no changes to the information presented in each article on that subject, merely removed unrelated information and reorganized what remained. Any mistakes are my own, and any conclusions drawn about said tactics do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the original authors.

The Introduction

In early September 1805, Captain Richard Keats, commanding officer of the 74-gun battleship HMS Superb, called at Merton Place in Surrey, the home of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton. Keats and Nelson had served together for over a year in the Mediterranean and had recently taken part in the remarkable chase of the combined French and Spanish fleets to the West Indies and back during July and August of 1805. Now Nelson was enjoying a brief spell of leave in England and Keats had brought his worn-out ship home for a much-needed refit.

The two men were not lifelong friends: they had met for the first time in July 1803, when Nelson took command of the Mediterranean fleet. But they had quickly come to admire each other and less than a year later Nelson wrote to their mutual friend the Duke of Clarence, ‘…the more I know of him the more excellent qualities I find not only as a Sea Officer but as a Man who knows much of the World.’1 By 1805, Keats had become one of Nelson’s most trusted subordinates and, as the two men walked together in the Merton grounds, Nelson began explaining how he proposed to fight his next battle, whenever it might happen. Many years later, in 1829, Keats told the story of that memorable walk to Edward Hawke Locker, an assiduous collector of naval anecdotes, who wrote it down:

‘…[H]e said to me, “No day can be long enough to arrange a couple of Fleets and fight a decisive Battle according to the old system……I shall form the Fleet into three Divisions in three Lines. One Division shall be composed of twelve or fourteen of the fastest two-decked Ships, which I shall keep always to windward, or in a situation of advantage and I shall put them under an Officer who I am sure will employ them in the manner I wish if possible. I consider it will always be in my power to throw them into Battle in any part I may choose……With the remaining part of the Fleet formed in two Lines I shall go at them at once, if I can about one Third of their line from their leading ship.” He then said, “What do you think of it?” Such a question I felt required consideration. I paused. Seeing it he said, “But I’ll tell you what I think of it. I think it will surprise and confound the Enemy. They won’t know what I am about. It will bring forward a pell-mell battle and that is what I want.”2

The Innovation

The “pell-mell” battle Nelson described to Keats was a new and radical step in naval warfare at the time. By the late 1700s the development of the modern “ship of the line” had progressed to the point where the larger naval cannons were just able to break through the ever-thickening sides of the ships – but only after repeated shots. This led to battles of attrition where lines of ships battered at each other until one side lost, at which point both would limp home for repairs. The great challenge was finding a way of “bringing the Enemy to Battle in such a manner as to make the business decisive”.

Nelson discovered this way by focusing on the weakest point on ships of the era: the stern. Here a single shot would often penetrate the thinner plankings, and if it did so, could run down the length of the decks. A hint of this new tactic was first seen in 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 Brydges Rodney. When they met on April 12th things looked excellent for the French, but a missed signal made their line split up. Rodney quickly signaled 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 firing right into the sterns of the French ships and soon reduced six of their main ships to hulks.

Nelson made specific reference to this event when discussing his strategy with another friend,  Lord Sidmouth (formerly Prime Minister Henry Addington). This time he apparently illustrated his ideas by sketching them out with his finger on the surface of a small table. Sidmouth (who preserved the table as a relic) later recalled that Nelson had remarked, ‘Rodney broke the line in one point; I will break it in two.’3 Most famously, he also described the plan to his assembled captains after dinner in the great cabin of the Victory on 29 September (see fig. 2), reporting to Emma Hamilton, ‘…it was like an electric shock, some shed tears, all approved….’4

Pros and Cons

The plan had three principal advantages. First, it would allow the British fleet to close with the Franco-Spanish fleet as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that it would be able to escape without fighting. Second, it would quickly bring on a mêlée and frantic battle by breaking the Franco-Spanish line and inducing a series of individual ship-to-ship fights, in which the British were likely to prevail. Nelson knew that the better seamanship, faster gunnery, and higher morale of his crews were great advantages. Third, it would bring a decisive concentration on the rear of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, and this would take a long time.

The main drawback of attacking head on was that as the leading British ships approached, the Franco-Spanish ships would be able to direct at their bows a raking broadside fire to which they would be unable to reply. In order to lessen the time the fleet was exposed to this danger, Nelson had his ships make all available sail (including stuns’ls). This was yet another departure from the norm. Nelson was also well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained, would probably be supplemented with soldiers, and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform. The Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell, causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating these problems. Nelson’s plan was indeed a gamble, but a carefully calculated one. By the autumn of 1805, Nelson had a good idea of how he would fight his next battle – and he was sure enough of his plan to discuss, and even to demonstrate, it to colleagues and friends.

Strategy and Chance

Nelson was careful to point out that something had to be left to chance. Nothing is sure in a sea fight, and he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them in his Trafalgar Memorandum of Oct. 9, 1805, that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” In short, circumstances would dictate the execution, subject to the guiding rule that the enemy’s rear was to be cut off and superior force concentrated on that part of the enemy’s line.

Admiral Villeneuve himself expressed his belief that Nelson would use some sort of unorthodox attack, stating specifically that he believed he would drive right at his lines. But his long game of cat and mouse with Nelson had worn him down, and he was suffering from a loss of nerve. Arguing that the inexperience of his officers meant he would not be able to maintain formation in more than one group, he chose not to act on his accurate assessment of Nelson’s intentions.

The Plan In Action

The battle progressed largely according to Nelson’s plan. At the outset, the French and Spanish were in a ragged curved line headed north. As planned, the British fleet was approaching the Franco-Spanish line in two columns. Leading the northern, windward column in Victory was Nelson, while Collingwood in the 100-gun Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column. The two British columns approached from the west at nearly a right angle to the enemy line. Nelson led his column into a feint toward the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet and then abruptly turned toward the actual point of attack. Collingwood altered the course of his column slightly so that the two lines converged at this line of attack.

At this point, the best the French could have done would have been to turn their ships 90 degrees, essentially splitting up into 33 individual lines. Instead they held their ground, and watched in dismay as the British sailed right through the lines.

A general mêlée ensued. As more and more British ships entered the battle, the ships of the allied centre and rear were gradually overwhelmed. The allied van, after long remaining quiescent, made a futile demonstration and then sailed away. The British took 22 vessels of the Franco-Spanish fleet and lost none. Among the taken French ships were the L’Aigle, Algésiras, Berwick, Bucentaure, Fougueux, Intrépide, Redoutable, and Swiftsure. The Spanish ships taken were Argonauta, Bahama, Monarca, Neptuno, San Agustín, San Ildefonso, San Juan Nepomuceno, Santísima Trinidad, and Santa Ana. Of these, Redoutable sank, Santísima Trinidad and Argonauta were scuttled by the British and later sank, Achille exploded, Intrépide and San Augustín burned, and L’Aigle, Berwick, Fougueux, and Monarca were wrecked in a gale following the battle.

The Aftermath

Just before his column engaged the allied forces, Collingwood said to his officers, “Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter.” And so the world has been. The Battle of Trafalgar was not the first time a strategy like Nelson’s had ever been used; Rodney was the admitted influence, and the intention of going straight at the enemy echoed the tactics used successfully by Admiral Duncan at the Battle of Camperdown and Admiral Jervis at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, both in 1797. Still, it was the first time a tactic of the kind was planned with such foresight and used to such glorious advantage. Instead of leaving England with a questionable victory, Nelson’s strategy ensured that Britain would dominate the oceans of the world for 100 years, and changed everything the world thought it knew about successful naval tactics.


  1. Unpublished letter. Nelson to the Duke of Clarence 14 April 1804. British Library Add Mss. 46356 ff88/9.
  2. Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, (London 1844/6) VII, pp. 241-2.
  3. G. Pellew, Life and Correspondence of H Addington, Viscount Sidmouth. II, p. 37.
  4. Nelson to Emma Hamilton, 1 October 1805, British Library, Eg.1614, f.121.

The Introduction and the last paragraph of The Innovation were taken from a free article in the Journal of Maritime Research (May 2002) called Nelson’s 1805 Battle Plan by Colin White (Director of Trafalgar 200 at the NMM). The article focuses partially on Nelson’s strategy and partially on the discovery of a sketch of the strategy made by Nelson himself; I removed the information about the sketch for the sake of focus and clarity, but the entire article is fascinating. It can be found here. The rest of the information was taken from two different encyclopedia articles, one from Wikipedia and one from Fact Index (though the article at Fact Index was actually an older version of the same Wikipedia article with some additional information). Again, no facts were changed. The Aftermath was written by your captain and might possibly suck.

Image: Battle of Trafalgar 21st of October 1805 – Situation at 17h (a.k.a. the aftermath of the battle) by Nicholas Pocock. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

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2 Comments on A Detailed Look at Nelson’s Innovative Strategy at Trafalgar

  1. Andrew McConnell // April 2, 2012 at 9:51 am //

    After reading this article, you may be interested in a letter which came to light on “The Antiques Roadshow”, written by an assistant surgeon on Nelson’s flagship “Victory”. (The Antiques Roadshow, BBC, series 34, Wimbledon episode first shown Sunday 1st April, 2012).

    The letter gives a “blow by blow” account of the ship movements, including the feints Nelson made, running up to the battle.

    • The Dear Knows // April 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm //

      Ooh I’m going to have to track that down! Surely the text of the letter must be available SOMEWHERE…

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