In 1805, the future of Europe looked decidedly French. Napoleon’s armies were on the march and had already subjugated much of Europe. Both the Prussians and the Austrians would be stripped of their self-determining rights as they were brought to heel under French military power, and the Holy Roman Empire would be dissolved. Holland and much of Italy had already succumbed. France also had an alliance with Spain, and for Britain, this was particularly worrisome, for Napoleon intended to invade. France and Spain gathered a mighty fleet that would wipe away British naval resistance and pave the way for French troops on British soil, but the British, naturally, would not give up without a fight. The British took the initiative and engaged the French, managing to draw them into battle near Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. What happened next would be a legendary engagement that changed the course of history: The Battle of Trafalgar.
Prelude to the Battle of Trafalgar
Europe at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar stood on the receiving end of the burgeoning French Empire. In 1805, the First French Empire under Napoleon had become the dominant land empire in Europe, with its armies poised to conquer lands to the east, notably the Italians, the Prussians, and the Austrians. At sea, however, Great Britain was the dominant power and had imposed naval blockades, successfully interrupting the flow of goods to and from French territories.
Because of Britain’s naval dominance, France was unable to invade Britain in 1804, as per Napoleon’s plan. In that year, The British fleet, under Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, had chased the French fleet under Admiral Villeneuve all the way to the West Indies and back but had been unable to force an engagement. Frustrated by the inability of the French navy to overcome the obstacles, Napoleon turned his attention to Austria, which had just declared war on France. The French fleet, bolstered by ships from the Spanish navy, now had 33 ships of the line and was sent to attack Naples to divert Austrian attention away from a direct attack on France. The British, however, were not about to ignore the Franco-Spanish fleet either. They decided to chase Admiral Villeneuve and neutralize Napoleon’s fleet.
The British fleet, however, was far from being in the best shape. It was numerically inferior, as Nelson had only 27 ships of the line. To defeat the combined French and Spanish fleet, Nelson knew that he would have to rely on cohesiveness and drill his captains and crew into following a battle plan instead of waiting for opportunities to present themselves or, even worse, trying to win through attrition.
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Nelson reached a consensus with his captains that their plan would rely on the perceived superiority of the British gunners in a battle fought at close quarters. Their plan would be vastly different from the standard naval doctrine of the time. For 150 years, naval battles were usually fought in lines with ships presenting their sides to the enemy while shielding their vulnerable bow and stern. The ships would then blast cannon fire at each other in this formation, looking for weaknesses in the line to break through and blast the bows and sterns of the opponent’s vessels, causing much damage and forcing the line to disintegrate in confusion, as holding the line together was vital for communication.
In September, Villeneuve’s fleet retired to the Spanish port of Cadiz near the Cape of Trafalgar. Nelson, whose fleet had been blockading the port, ordered his fleet to fall back towards Portugal and observe the Franco-Spanish fleet from afar. When Nelson sent six of his ships away to get supplies, Villeneuve saw this as the opportunity he needed to destroy the British fleet. Fortunately for Nelson, the ships managed to return in time, and five of them managed to get back into formation before the battle started. The sixth ship, HMS Africa, was delayed and out of formation but still took part in the Battle of Trafalgar.
The Battle of Trafalgar
On October 21, at 6:00 am, the Franco-Spanish fleet was sighted off Cape Trafalgar. At 6:40 am, Nelson gave the order to engage the enemy. The French were sailing in a line facing north, while Nelson split his fleet into two lines and sailed eastward at the enemy line at a 90-degree angle. He planned to weather the incoming cannon fire and intersect the Franco-Spanish line at two points. By doing so, each British ship that passed through the line could fire all starboard and port guns at the enemy’s aft and stern.
Once through the line, the Franco-Spanish fleet would be cut into three sections. The British fleet could then focus on the middle and the rear section, while the Franco-Spanish vanguard would be cut off and unable to fire at anything. It would be forced to swing around–by which time, the British would have dealt with the other two sections by outnumbering them, having the initiative, and with superior gunner drill.
The first line would be headed by Lord Admiral Nelson on the flagship HMS Victory, while the second line would be headed by Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood on board the HMS Royal Sovereign.
At 11:45 am, Nelson flew a signal from his flagship, which read, “England expects every man to do his duty.” The signal was met with widespread cheering across the fleet. The French admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve flew the signal to engage the enemy. At 11:50 am, the French opened fire. The Battle of Trafalgar had begun.
According to the plan, Nelson and Collingwood headed their lines directly towards the Franco-Spanish line, which had assembled in ragged formation and was moving slowly as the winds were very light. The British ships came under heavy fire without being able to respond. In Collingwood’s column, the HMS Belleisle was engaged by four French ships and sustained crippling damage. She was dismasted, and her sails blocked her gunnery ports. Nevertheless, the ship kept her flag flying for 45 minutes until the rest of the ships in Collingwood’s line could come to her assistance.
In Nelson’s line, the HMS Victory sustained significant damage, and many of her crew were killed. Her wheel was shot away, and she had to be steered via the tiller below decks. The HMS Victory, however, survived the onslaught, and at 12:45 pm, she cut the French line between Villeneuve’s flagship, the Bucentaure, and the Redoutable.
Now the advantage was with the British as they passed through the Franco-Spanish line. British ships could hit targets on both sides of their ships. The HMS Victory fired a devastating broadside against the Bucentaure and then turned to engage the Redoutable. The two ships drew against each other, and bitter fighting ensued as the crew fought each other. With a strong infantry presence, the French ship attempted to board and seize the HMS Victory. The HMS Victory’s gunners were called above decks to fend off the French boarders but were dispersed by French grenades.
Just when it looked as if the HMS Victory would be captured, the HMS Temeraire pulled up to the starboard bow of the Redoutable and opened fire, causing many casualties. Eventually, the Redoutable surrendered, but the melée was not without a great loss for the British. A musket shot fired from the Redoutable’s mizzentop struck Admiral Nelson between the shoulder and the neck. “They finally got me. I am dead!” he exclaimed before being carried below decks to be tended to by the ship’s physicians.
As the northern third of the Franco-Spanish fleet could not engage the British, the rest of the fleet found itself outnumbered and outgunned. Each ship put up ineffective resistance until being completely overwhelmed. One by one, the French and Spanish ships surrendered, completely helpless without the aid of the rest of the fleet. All the Franco-Spanish ships north of Nelson’s line realized there was no point in trying to change the course of the battle. After a brief but ineffective show, they sailed away from Trafalgar and towards Gibraltar.
The battle was quick and decisive. The British captured 22 vessels and lost none. But below decks on the HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson was taking his last breaths. “Thank God, I have done my duty!” Surgeon William Beatty heard the Admiral whisper. Nelson’s chaplain, Alexander Scott, took to his captain’s side and stayed with him till the end. Three hours after the musket ball had ripped through his torso, Admiral Nelson perished.
His body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the trip home. Of course, Nelson wasn’t the only soldier to perish at the Battle of Trafalgar. Four hundred fifty-eight British sailors lost their lives, and 1,208 were wounded. The French and Spanish, however, had 4,395 killed and 2,541 wounded.
The Battle of Trafalgar: The Aftermath
On their return home, raging storms racked the seas, and French ships threatened the slow British fleet towing its captured vessels. The British were forced to abandon their prizes in order to avoid battle. Nevertheless, the damage to Napoleon’s plans had been done, and he gave up on his plan to invade Britain. Although the French fleet regained much of its fighting power, the Battle of Trafalgar forced the French to never again challenge the British in a serious naval engagement. Nevertheless, the wars continued on the continent for another ten years as Napoleon’s land armies wrought havoc.
In London, Admiral Nelson was given a hero’s funeral. In the center of London, Trafalgar Square was named after the battle, and a column with a statue of Nelson was erected at the center of the square.