The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) was a sea battle fought between the British Royal Navy and the combined fleets of the French Navy and Spanish Navy, during the War of the Third Coalition (August-December 1805) of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
The battle was the most decisive British victory of the war and was a pivotal naval battle of the 19th century. Twenty-seven British ships of the line led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships of the line under French Admiral Pierre Villeneuve off the south-west coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar.
The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost.
The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the 18th century and was achieved in part due to Nelson's departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy, which involved engaging an enemy fleet in a single line of battle parallel to the enemy to facilitate signalling in battle and disengagement, and to maximize fields of fire and target areas. Nelson instead divided his smaller force into two columns directed perpendicularly against the larger enemy fleet, with decisive results.
Nelson was mortally wounded during the battle, becoming and remaining Britain's greatest naval war hero.
The commander of the joint French and Spanish forces, Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, was captured along with his ship Bucentaure.
Spanish Admiral Federico Gravina escaped with the remnant of the fleet, and succumbed months later to wounds he sustained during the battle.
In 1805, the First French Empire, under Napoleon, was the dominant military land 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 trade and kept the French from fully mobilizing their own naval resources. Despite several successful evasions of the blockade by the French navy, it failed to inflict a major defeat upon the British. The British were able to attack French interests at home and abroad with relative ease. Meanwhile the French built the so-called Continental System which disallowed any trade whatsoever for the British with the European Continent with the net result and effect that the British trade was frozen out of Europe as the French controlled all major European ports except the Prussian ones. Thus Britain was eventually forced to attack Napoleon on land. When the Third Coalition declared war on France after the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon Bonaparte was determined to invade Britain. To do so, he needed to ensure that the Royal Navy would be unable to disrupt the invasion flotilla, which would require control of the English Channel. The main French fleets were at Brest in Brittany and at Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. Other ports on the French Atlantic coast contained smaller squadrons. France and Spain were allied, so the Spanish fleet based in Cádiz and 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 the 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 join forces in the West Indies. They would then return, assist the fleet in Brest to emerge from the blockade, and together clear the English Channel of Royal Navy ships, ensuring a safe passage for the invasion barges. The plan seemed good on paper but as the war wore on, Napoleon's unfamiliarity with naval strategy and ill-advised naval commanders continued to haunt the French.
Early in 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson commanded the British fleet blockading Toulon. Unlike William Cornwallis, who maintained a tight blockade of Brest with the Channel Fleet, Nelson adopted a loose blockade in hopes of luring the French out for a major battle. However, Villeneuve's fleet successfully evaded Nelson's when his forces were blown off station by storms. While Nelson was searching the Mediterranean for him, 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 crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he set off in pursuit.
Villeneuve returned from the West Indies to Europe, 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 abandoned this plan and sailed back to Ferrol. Napoleon's invasion plans for England depended entirely on having a sufficiently large number of ships of the line before Boulogne, France. This would require Villeneuve's force of 32 ships to join Vice-Admiral Ganteaume's force of 21 ships at Brest, along with a squadron of 5 ships under Captain Allemand, which would have given him a combined force of 58 ships of the line. When Villeneuve set sail from Ferrol on 10 August, he was under orders from Napoleon to sail northward toward Brest. Instead, he worried that the British were observing his manoeuvres, so on 11 August he sailed southward towards Cádiz on the southwestern coast of Spain. With no sign of Villeneuve's fleet by 26 August, the three French army corps invasion force near Boulogne broke camp and marched to Germany, where it would become fully engaged. The same month, Nelson returned home to England after two years of duty at sea, for some rest. He remained ashore for 25 days, and was warmly received by his countrymen, who were nervous about a possible French invasion. Word reached England on 2 September about the combined French and Spanish fleet in the harbour of Cádiz. Nelson had to wait until 15 September before his ship HMS Victory was ready to sail. On 15 August, Cornwallis decided to detach 20 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 denuded of ships, with only 11 ships of the line present. However, this detached force formed the nucleus of the British fleet that would fight at Trafalgar. This fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral Calder, reached Cádiz on 15 September. Nelson joined the fleet on 29 September to take command. The British fleet used frigates to keep a constant watch on the harbour, while the 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 "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 (five frigates and two schooners) on 8 October.
At this point, Nelson's fleet badly needed provisioning. On 2 October, five ships of the line, HMS Queen, HMS Canopus, HMS Spencer, HMS Zealous, HMS Tigre, and the frigate HMS Endymion were dispatched to Gibraltar under Rear-Admiral Louis for supplies. These ships were later diverted for convoy duty in the Mediterranean, whereas Nelson had expected them to return. Other British ships continued to arrive, and by 15 October the fleet was up to full strength for the battle. Nelson also lost Calder's flagship, the 98-gun Prince of Wales, which he sent home as Calder had been recalled by the admiralty to face a court martial for his apparent lack of aggression during the engagement off Cape Finisterre on the 22nd of July.
Meanwhile, Villeneuve's fleet in Cádiz was also suffering from a serious supply shortage that could not be readily rectified by the cash-strapped French. The blockades maintained by the British fleet had made it difficult for the allies to obtain stores and their ships were ill fitted. Villeneuve's ships were also more than two thousand men short of the force needed to sail. These were not the only problems faced by the Franco-Spanish fleet. The main French ships of the line had been kept in harbour for years by the British blockades with only brief sorties. The hasty voyage across the Atlantic and back used up vital supplies and was no match for the British fleet's years of experience at sea and training. The French crews contained few experienced sailors, and, as most of the crew had to be taught the elements of seamanship on the few occasions when they got to sea, gunnery was neglected. Villeneuve's supply situation began to improve in October, but news of Nelson's arrival made Villeneuve reluctant to leave port. Indeed, his captains had held a vote on the matter and decided to stay in the harbour.
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On the 16th of September, Napoleon gave orders for the French and Spanish ships at Cádiz to put to sea at the first favourable opportunity, join with seven Spanish ships of the line then at Cartagena, go to Naples, and land the soldiers they carried to reinforce his troops there, and fight with decisive action if they met a British fleet of inferior numbers.
On 21 October Nelson had 27 ships-of-the-line. He commanded the fleet from his flagship, the 100 gun first rate HMS Victory. He had two other 100 gun first rates in his fleet. He also had four 98 gun second rates and twenty third rates. One of the third rates was an 80 gun vessel and sixteen were 74 gun vessels. The remaining three were 64 gun ships, which were being phased out of the Royal Navy at the time of the battle. Nelson also had four frigates of 38 or 36 guns, a 12 gun schooner and a 10 gun cutter.
Against Nelson, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve fielded 33 ships-of-the-line, including some of the largest in the world at the time. The Spanish contributed four first rates to the fleet. Three of these ships, one at 136 guns and two at 112 guns, were much larger than anything possessed by Nelson. The fourth first rate had 100 guns. The fleet had six 80 gun third rates, (four French and two Spanish), and one French 64 gun third rate. The remaining 22 third rates were 74 gun vessels, of which fourteen were French and eight Spanish. In total the Spanish contributed 15 ships of the line and the French 18. The fleet also contained four 40 gun frigates and two 18 gun brigs, all French.
The prevailing tactical orthodoxy at the time involved manoeuvering to approach the enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engaging in parallel lines. Before this time the fleets had usually been involved in a melée with the fleets becoming mixed together. One of the reasons for the development of the line of battle was to help the admiral control the fleet. If all the ships were in line, signalling in battle became possible. The line also had defensive properties, allowing either side to disengage by breaking away in formation. If the attacker chose to continue combat their line would be broken as well. Often this latter tactic led to inconclusive battles or allowed the losing side to reduce its losses. Nelson wished to see a conclusive battle. His solution to the problem was to deliberately cut the opposing line in two. Approaching in two columns sailing directly at the enemy, one near the centre of the opposing line and one near the trailing end, his ships would break the enemy formation in half, surround that half, and force them to fight to the end. Nelson specifically hoped to cut the line just in front of the flagship: the isolated ships in front of the break would not be able to see the flagship's signals, hopefully taking them out of combat while they reformed. The intention of going straight at the enemy echoed the tactics used by Admiral Duncan at the Battle of Camperdown and Admiral Jervis at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, both in 1797. The plan had three principal advantages. Firstly, it would allow the British fleet to close with the French-Spanish fleet as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that it would be able to escape without fighting. Secondly, it would quickly bring on a mêlée and frantic battle by breaking the French-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 had decisive advantages that could not be compensated for by any amount of bravery on the part of their opponents. Thirdly, it would bring a decisive concentration on the rear of the French-Spanish fleet. The ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, an effort which would take a long time. The main drawback of attacking head on was that the Franco-Spanish ships would be able to maintain a raking broadside fire on the bows of the leading British ships as they approached, to which the British ships would be unable to reply. Nelson, however, was well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained, would in all probability be supplemented with soldiers, and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform. After all the Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell, which caused the ships to roll heavily and exacerbated the problem. Nelson's plan was indeed a gamble, but a carefully calculated one. During the period of blockade off the coast of Spain in October, Nelson instructed his captains as to how he meant to fight the approaching battle over two dinners aboard Victory. The governing principles of his instructions were that the order of sailing, in which the fleet was arranged when the enemy was first sighted, was to be the order of ensuing battle, so that no time would be wasted in forming a precise line. The attack was to be made in two bodies, of which one, to be led by the second in command, Collingwood, was to throw itself on the rear of the enemy, while the other, led by Nelson, was to take care of the centre and vanguard. In preparation for the battle, Nelson ordered the ships of his fleet painted in a distinctive yellow and black pattern (later known as the Nelson Chequer) that would make them easy to distinguish from their opponents. Nelson was careful to point out that something had to be left to chance. Nothing is sure in a sea fight beyond all others, and he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." In short, the execution was to be as circumstances dictated, 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 to do nothing to counter an accurate assessment of Nelson's intentions.
On 18 October 1805, 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 (Admiral Louis' squadron) had docked at Gibraltar. Stung by the prospect of being disgraced before the fleet, Villeneuve resolved to go to sea before his successor could reach Cadiz. Following a gale on 18 October, the fleet began a rapid scramble to set sail. The weather, however, suddenly turned calm following a week of gales. This slowed the progress of the fleet departing the harbour, giving the British plenty of warning. Villeneuve had drawn up plans to form a force of four squadrons, each containing both French and Spanish ships. Following their earlier vote to stay put, the captains were reluctant to leave Cádiz and as a result they failed to follow Villeneuve's orders closely (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 it set sail in three columns for the Straits of 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 27 ships of the line and four frigates was spotted in pursuit from the north-west with the wind behind it. 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. The British fleet was sailing, as they would fight, under signal 72 hoisted on Nelson's flagship. At 5:40 a.m., the British were about 21 miles (34 km) to the north-west of Cape Trafalgar, with the Franco-Spanish fleet between the British and the Cape. At 6 a.m. that morning, Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle. At 8 a.m., Villeneuve ordered the fleet to wear together and turn back for Cádiz. This reversed the order of the Allied line, placing the rear division under Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley in the vanguard. The wind became contrary at this point, often shifting direction. The very light wind rendered manoeuvering virtually impossible for all but the most expert crews. The inexperienced 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 ships generally leeward and closer to the shore.
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 Nelson's fleet approached. As the British drew closer, they could see that the enemy was not sailing in a tight order, but rather in irregular groups. Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants. The six British ships dispatched earlier to Gibraltar had not returned, so Nelson would have to fight without them. He was outnumbered and outgunned, 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, and so could more readily combine their fire. There was no way for some of Nelson's ships to avoid being "doubled on" or even "trebled on".
The battle progressed largely according to Nelson's plan. As the battle opened, 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 his 100-gun flagship Victory was Nelson, while Collingwood in the 100-gun Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column. As the two British columns approached from the west at nearly a right angle. Nelson led his line 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.
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". Because the winds were very light during the battle, all the ships were moving extremely slowly, and the foremost British ships were under heavy fire from several of the enemy ships for almost an hour before their own guns could bear. At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal "engage the enemy", and Fougueux fired her first trial shot at Royal Sovereign. Royal Sovereign had all sails out and, having recently had her bottom cleaned, outran the rest of the British fleet. As she approached the allied line, she came under fire from Fougueux, Indomptable, San Justo and San Leandro, before breaking the line just astern of Admiral Alava's flagship Santa Ana, into which she fired a devastating double-shotted raking broadside. The second ship in the British lee column, Belleisle, was engaged by L'Aigle, Achille, Neptune and Fougueux; she was soon completely dismasted, unable to manoeuvre and largely unable to fight, as her sails blinded her batteries, but kept flying her flag for 45 minutes until the following British ships came to her rescue.
For 40 minutes, Victory was under fire from Héros, Santísima Trinidad, Redoutable and Neptune; although many shots went astray others killed and wounded a number of her crew and shot away her wheel, so that she had to be steered from her tiller belowdecks. Victory could not yet respond. At 12:45, Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable. Victory came close to the Bucentaure, firing a devastating raking broadside through her stern which killed and wounded many on her gundecks. 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 Admiral Nelson of Victory engaged the 74 gun Redoutable. Bucentaure was left to be dealt with by the next three ships of the British windward column Temeraire, Conqueror and 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 spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae lodging two inches below his right scapula in the muscles of his back. Nelson exclaimed, "They finally succeeded, I am dead." He was carried below decks.
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 Temeraire, the second ship in the British windward column, approached from the starboard bow of the Redoutable and fired on the exposed French crew with a carronade, causing many casualties. At 13:55, Captain Lucas, of the Redoutable, with 99 fit men out of 643 and severely wounded himself, surrendered. The French Bucentaure was isolated by the Victory and Temeraire, and then engaged by Neptune, Leviathan and Conqueror; similarly, the Santísima Trinidad was isolated and overwhelmed, surrendering after three hours.
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. 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 on the shoals. A few of them were recaptured by the French and Spanish prisoners overcoming the small prize crews or by ships sallying from Cádiz. Scott, who remained by Nelson as he died, recorded his last words as 'God and my country'. Nelson died at half-past four, three hours after being hit by the ball.
Only eleven ships regained Cádiz, and of those only five were considered seaworthy. Under captain Julien Cosmao, they set sail two days later and attempted to re-take some of the British prizes; they succeeded in re-capturing two ships, and forced Collingwood to scuttle a number of his prizes. The four van ships which escaped with Dumanoir were taken on November 4 by Sir Richard Strachan at the Battle of Cape Ortegal. 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. HMS Victory made its way to Gibraltar for repairs carrying on board the body of Admiral Nelson. It put into Rosia Bay, Gibraltar and after emergency repairs were carried out it returned to England. Many of the injured crew were brought ashore at Gibraltar and treated in the Naval Hospital. Those that subsequently died from injuries sustained at the Battle are buried in and near the Trafalgar Cemetery, at the south end of Main Street, Gibraltar. One Royal Marines Officer was killed onboard HMS Victory - Captain Charles Adair. The Battle took place the very day after the Battle of Ulm, and Napoleon did not hear about it for a few weeks - the Grande Armée had left Boulogne to meet Britain's allies before they could muster a huge force. He had tight control over the Paris media and kept the defeat a closely guarded secret. In a propaganda move, the battle was declared a "spectacular victory" by the French and Spanish. Vice-Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner aboard his flagship and taken back to England. After his parole in 1806 and return to France, Villeneuve was found in his inn room during a stop on the way to Paris stabbed six times in the chest with a dining knife. While the verdict was that he had committed suicide, he was very likely murdered on the orders of Napoleon. Villeneuve had fallen from favour with Napoleon before Trafalgar and it was rumoured he was to be relieved of command. Losing the battle resulted in further disfavour with Napoleon. Less than two months later, the War of the Third Coalition ended with a decisive French victory over Russia and Austria, Britain's allies, at the Battle of Austerlitz. Prussia decided not to join the Coalition and, for a while, France was at peace again. However, it could no longer challenge Britain at sea. Napoleon instead established the Continental System in an attempt to deny Britain trade with the continent.
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 and they were never revived. For almost 10 years after Trafalgar the Royal Navy maintained close blockade of French bases and anxiously observed the growth of the French fleet. In the end, Napoleon's Empire was destroyed before the ambitious buildup could be completed.
Nelson became - and remains - Britain's greatest naval war hero, and an inspiration to the Royal Navy. The first monument to be erected in Britain to commemorate Nelson was raised on Glasgow Green in 1806, possibly preceded by a monument at Taynuilt, near Oban dated 1805. In summer this coincides with the one o'clock gun being fired. The Britannia Monument in Great Yarmouth was raised by 1819 London's famous Trafalgar Square was named in honour of his victory, and Nelson's statue on Nelson's Column, finished in 1843, towers triumphantly over it.
The Royal Navy proceeded to dominate the seas for the remaining years of sail.
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