Overview of the Battle of Trafalgar

Entire books have been written about the Battle of Trafalgar, and many encyclopedia entries and articles as well. Even people without a strong interest in the Age of Sail or the Napoleonic Era (or, you know, both) probably know a bit about the battle. This article by the brilliant Andrew Lambert explains the battle in an interesting and approachable way that I think must appeal to both newbies and the nautically minded.

The Battle of Trafalgar

By Andrew Lambert

Global Power

The Battle of Trafalgar was to witness both the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans to invade Britain, and the death of Admiral Lord Nelson. It was never going to be any ordinary battle, and quickly acquired a heightened, almost magical, reality.

During the engagement at Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805, the Royal Navy annihilated the greatest threat to British security for 200 years, but lost Britain’s national hero in the process. Little wonder the battle transcended the mundane calculation of ships and men, victory and defeat. It guaranteed Britain’s control of the oceans, the basis of her global power for over a century.

By 1805 Nelson was already a national hero, and considered the ultimate naval commander. His elevated conception of war ensured that every battle he fought was used to solve major strategic problems, and his many successes ensured he was the only contemporary to rival Bonaparte as ultimate exemplar of total war. Nor did Bonaparte disagree – he kept a bust of Nelson in his private quarters.

Nelson developed the art of war at sea to the new, terrible form he characterised as ‘annihilation’ to counter the war effort of Napoleonic France. He did so by taking the command system of Admiral Sir John Jervis, the tough old officer who taught him how to keep a fleet efficient, and melding it with the genius for battle and strategy he developed while serving under Admiral Lord Hood.

Nelson used this combination of strategic flair and practical management to help Britain survive the 22 year struggle with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. He understood that invasion by France was the least of Britain’s worries – the real threat was the destruction of her global commercial system.

Defensive Strategy

In 1803 the Peace of Amiens – a temporary armed truce between Britain and France – broke down, and for nearly two years British strategy rested on the defensive, waiting for the French navy to make the first move. Late in 1804, however, Spain joined the war as an ally of France, giving Napoleon the ships he needed to challenge Britain.

This was the context of Trafalgar. Napoleon was looking for an opportunity to strike at Britain, without having to fight Nelson and the Royal Navy – while all his attempts to attack British interests were thwarted by expert seamen who countered his every move.

Thus, when Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, Commander of Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet bottled up in a safe haven at Toulon, broke out into the Atlantic in early 1805, Nelson chased him all the way to the West Indies in the most daring of all his campaigns.

By September 1805, however, Villeneuve’s fleet had found shelter at Cadiz, and was ideally positioned to attack British trading ships or Britain itself. It had to be destroyed.

Battle Plan

Nelson joined the British fleet off Cadiz in late September. His very presence electrified the men under his command, while his new battle plan, explained at his table on HMS Victory, was key to decisive combat. If the enemy put to sea Nelson wanted to be able to annihilate them completely, ending the need for Britain to stand on the defensive.

Nelson’s arrival unsettled Admiral Villeneuve, who was already being bullied by Napoleon, who wanted his fleet to support an attack on Naples. Thus under pressure Villeneuve, believing Nelson’s fleet to be weaker than his own, put to sea on 19 October. In fact his 33 ships of the line faced 27 British vessels.

Nelson anticipated his enemy’s every move. At dawn on the 21st the fleets were in visual contact. Nelson’s fleet was formed into two columns, for a risky head-on approach that exposed the unarmed bows of his leading ships to the full weight of enemy broadsides. He knew a storm was coming, and he had to engage the enemy quickly.

He was to lead the first column into the attack and destroy the enemy flagship, leaving his opponents, leaderless and confused, to be destroyed by the second column, led by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. With the enemy admiral disabled, Nelson knew his skilled captains could wipe out the rest of the opposing fleet in the remaining hours of daylight.

‘England Expects …’

As his vessels approached their enemy, Nelson walked around his flagship, talking with the crew – having sent the immortal signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ to the fleet. All his men cheered this example of courage and confidence that they had but to follow.

The enemy had reversed course during the morning, heading back to Cadiz, leaving their line confused. Now the fleets were off Cape Trafalgar, and the British sailors had time to eat a good meal in preparation for the engagement – although their opponents may not have had such healthy appetites. Nelson waited for Villeneuve to show his flag, so he would know where to strike.

As Victory bore down on the enemy line she had to endure heavy fire from the allied line, without being able to reply. Round shot came smashing through the flimsy bow of the ship, killing and wounding the men on the upper deck. John Scott, Nelson’s Public Secretary, was standing on the quarter deck talking with Captain Thomas Hardy, when a shot cut him in two.

Then the steering wheel was smashed, and a double-headed shot scythed down a file of eight marines on the poop. Still Nelson and Hardy paced up and down on their chosen ground, the starboard side of the quarterdeck, with splinters flying around them.

When a splinter hit Hardy’s shoe, tearing off the buckle, Nelson observed: ‘This is too warm work to last for long’. Fifty men had been killed or wounded, and the crew of the Victory had yet to open fire.

The Battle

At 12.35pm the concave enemy line allowed the Victory to open fire at last, shrouding the ship in smoke. Soon afterwards the Victory ran right under the stern of the French flagship, the Bucentaure, and fired a double shotted broadside that made the enemy ship shudder, and killed or wounded over 200 men. Admiral Villeneuve was the only man left standing on the quarter deck.

The Redoutable then blocked Victory’s way through the enemy line, and Nelson was immobilised on a ship fighting three opponents in the middle of the combined fleet – but he had administered the decisive stroke. Villeneuve was trapped on a crippled ship, and the Franco-Spanish centre was reduced to chaos, lacking the leadership to meet the irresistible British.

Nelson, his work done, continued to walk with Hardy, while the captain of the Redoutable tried to clear Victory’s upper deck with musket fire and hand grenades. Then, at about 1.15pm, Nelson was hit by a 0.69in-diameter lead ball, which cut an artery in his lung and lodged in his spine. He was knocked to the deck, and it was clear the wound was mortal. Hardy had his chief carried below, where Surgeon William Beatty was hard at work on the mounting list of casualties.

Meantime the battle raged, with the faster and more effective British gunnery steadily wearing down the enemy. Over the next three hours the Franco-Spanish force would collapse. Nelson’s attack had broken all the rules of tactics, treating a fleet waiting for a fight like one running away, substituting speed for mass, precision for weight, and accepting impossible odds.

At the start of the battle, when the first British ships arrived, they were initially fighting a far greater number of enemy ships. They won the day because of their speed and flexibility, and by the time they were weakening, a later wave of vessels was in place to administer the coup de grace.

In fact the battle was won while the enemy had far more ships in the fight than the British. The real triumph was not of 27 ships against 33, but of 12 against 22. British casualties tell the story – 12 ships fought the early and decisive phase of the battle, suffering some 1200 deaths and injuries.

Nelson’s Death

As Nelson lay wounded, the battle with the Redoutable reached a crescendo. The French repeatedly tried to board the Victory, only to be driven back by heavy fire, and at 1.30pm the captain of the Redoutable surrendered.

At 2.15pm Villeneuve surrendered. The genius of his opponent, the power of the Royal Navy and the failure of his lead squadron to come to his aid had doomed his brave effort. He lived to return to France, only to be murdered by Napoleon.

By 2.30pm Hardy was able to go below, to report to Nelson that 12 or 14 of the enemy were taken, and no British ship had surrendered. That last answer betrayed Nelson’s anxiety about the outcome of the battle. Hardy, however, could not linger, the lead enemy squadron was belatedly trying to join the battle, only to be bettered by Edward Codrington’s brilliantly handled Orion, the Minotaur and the Spartiate. Hardy went back on deck and signalled the ships nearby to support the flagship.

Hardy visited Nelson again at 3.30pm to confirm a glorious victory, but could not satisfy Nelson’s determination to have 20 prizes. ‘Anchor, Hardy, Anchor!’ the dying man demanded, as the rising sea reminded him of his weather forecast.

Hardy knelt and kissed him, as Nelson struggled to breathe and kept repeating his motto: ‘Thank God I have done my duty.’ Unable to endure his grief at his leader’s plight, Hardy went back to the upper deck, burying his feelings in the fighting. Nelson died shortly before 4.30pm, as the battle died down. Nineteen enemy ships had been taken.

Cost of Victory

The cost of victory was high. Some 1,700 British were killed or wounded, with 6,000 enemy casualties and nearly 20,000 prisoners. Many of those lives, as well as Villeneuve’s flagship, were lost in the storm that followed the battle.

The following day, Nelson’s oldest friend, Admiral Collingwood, opened his wonderful Order of Thanks for the men of the fleet with the following lines:

‘The ever to be lamented death of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte, the Commander in Chief, who fell in the action of the 21st, in the arms of Victory, covered with glory, whose memory will be ever dear to the British Navy and the British Nation; whose zeal for the honour of his King, and for the interests of his Country, will ever be held up as a shining example for a British seaman.’

This powerful document only heightened the emotional impact of the news across the nation – for Britons the triumph over Napoleon was cancelled out by the loss of Nelson. The loss, however, provided a national hero to help enhance the newly formed British identity. Trafalgar, as the battle was named by George III, had crushed the naval power of a deadly enemy, and – although they had fought like heroes – the Spanish and French had been annihilated.

Trafalgar was the coda to Nelson’s achievement. He had destroyed Napoleon’s maritime strategy and invasion plans when he pursued Villeneuve to the West Indies and back. This had set the limit to Napoleon’s empire, and plotted the course of his downfall.

Other British admirals could have won at Trafalgar, but only Nelson could have settled the command of the sea for a century. Trafalgar was the product of one man’s obsessive genius and unequalled commitment to his country.

Courtesy of Andrew Lambert and the BBC.
Image: The Battle of Trafalgar Mural by Peter Parr.

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1 Comment on Overview of the Battle of Trafalgar

  1. All the best to The Dear Surprise and to you, joy, on Trafalgar Day. Huzzah!

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