The Battle of Trafalgar was never going to be remembered as one of those ‘textbook’ battles which followed standard naval tactics or conduct. It was a battle of annihilation.
Lord Admiral Nelson – a national hero who had won three major battles and 50 others: more than any other Admiral in the history of the Royal Navy – wanted, what he called, a “pell-mell” battle. Nelson didn’t want to simply win this battle against the French: he wanted to completely obliterate them. Before the Battle of Trafalgar, he told his crew: “It is annihilation that the country wants, not merely a splendid victory.” He took the command system of Admiral Sir John Jervis (who played a key role in the Battle of Cape St Vincent against the Spanish in 1797), and melded it with the strategies he developed under Admiral Lord Hood (who was involved in the initiation battle of the Napoleonic Wars, at Toulon in 1793).
Nelson was the first distinguished modern celebrity – all Britons knew of his bravery in great battles – and there were pictures and celebrations for him nationwide. His scandalous love affair with Emma Hamilton was immensely publicised, and this simply added to his aura of fame. He gave Britain hope and courage throughout the Napoleonic Wars and possessed every quality of a national idol.
Britain and France were involved in the Napoleonic Wars from 1873; the only time of temporary peace being after the Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802: this achieved peace in Europe for 14 months, before the agreement began to collapse in 1803. Britain were on the defensive, waiting for the French Navy to make the first move. Napoleon was looking for an opportunity to strike at Britain, without having to fight Nelson and the Royal Navy. This was made possible in late 1804, when Spain joined the war on the side of the French; the Spanish supplied Napoleon with the ships he needed to build up a a satisfactory fleet to attack Britain.
In September 1805, the opportunity for battle emanated. Vice-Admiral Villeneuve (France) broke out into the Atlantic. Nelson gave chase, until Villeneuve found safe haven at Cadiz: an ideal position to attack Britain and her navy. Villeneuve had to be eradicated.
Villeneuve believed that Nelson’s fleet was weaker than his own: he had 33 ships of the line (the largest warships) and 2568 guns; Nelson had 27 ships of the line and 2148 guns. Thus, on 19th October, Villeneueve set out to sea again.
Nelson, being the tactical genius he is, anticipated the Frenchman’s every move. The fleets came into contact on 21 October. Nelson split his fleet into 2 columns (one being him on the HMS Victory, another being Collingwood on the Royal Sovereign), ready for a ferocious head-on attack: the British were like a pack of Velociraptors, determined to annihilate the liable young who were under the control of a tyrannous Tyrannosaurus Rex (Napoleon).
Nelson led his first column into the attack with his close friend, and the captain of the Victory, Thomas Hardy. They destroyed the opponent’s flagship (the ship which carries the commanding admiral), leaving the enemy leaderless and no longer in ‘shipshape’ command. However, the Victory was yet to fire. Nelson raised the signal: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” All the men on board cheered. Now it was a waiting game – waiting for Villeneuve to show his own flag.
The Royal Sovereign reached the line first. Collingwood casually ate an apple on the quarterdeck (the most dangerous point on the ship, but it was a point of honour for officers to command from there) and gave the signal to fire.
As HMS Victory bore down the enemy line, looking for an opening, she had to withstand tremendous fire from the enemy for 40 minutes. Luckily, the French had poor aim and the damage was not as bad as it could’ve been. Nelson and Hardy paced up and down on the quarterdeck, still looking for the perfect opening. Splinters flew everywhere – one ripped the buckle off Hardy’s shoe and left a bruise. The two were anxious, though Nelson turned to him and smiled: “This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long.”
Victory’s steering wheel was smashed, and her rigging and sails were cut to pieces. However, at 12:35pm there was a gap to Villeneuve’s flagship: the Bucentaure. She opened fire and put 200 Frenchman out of action. Villeneuve was the only man standing on the quarterdeck, trapped on a ship in critical condition. To make matters worse, the Victory then became entangled with the Redoutable; despite this, the French were unable to board her due to the sheer amount of carronade fire the British inflicted upon the enemy. The Franco-Spanish center was reduced to chaos due to the loss of leadership.
More ships came to aid the Victory and overwhelmed the enemy. Fortunately, the British had much better aim than the French: they used Flintlock matches, rather than the Linstock matches that caused a delay. In spite of the horrific conditions on board – the resounding noise and smoke from the guns & the constant slipping on comrades’ blood – Nelson and Hardy continued to pace up and down. The captain of the Redoutable continued to use musket fire and hand grenades to target the nonchalant officers.
At 1:15pm, this walk was interrupted: Nelson was hit by a lead ball which cut an artery in his lung before lodging into his spine. It was obvious that this wound was deadly. He was rushed below deck, as the battle with the Redoutable reached a crescendo.
At 1:30pm, the Redoutable surrendered.
At 2:15pm, Villeneuve surrendered.
By 2:30pm, Hardy went below to inform Nelson that 12 or 14 enemy ships were taken and none of the British had surrendered. He then visited again at 3:30pm to confirm British victory.
Nelson was moribund at this point, with one fin in the grave (Nelson only had one arm – his right one was lost in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. He was then branded for joking about his amputated arm: in the Baltic, 1801, he threw back his cloak and said: “I am Lord Nelson, and here is my fin!”.)
Nelson struggled to breathe, but managed to choke out: “Thank God I have done my duty.” Hardy was distraught. He knelt and kissed his leader, before returning back to the upper deck to continue the fighting.
Nelson was dead at 4:30pm.
In the end, Britain had taken 18 of the enemies’ ships: 11 made it back to Britain, and only 5 were considered seaworthy. No British ships were lost.
The cost of victory was high.
This battle of annihilation led to 459 British deaths. On the other hand, the enemy had a much larger mortality rate: 2218 Frenchmen and 1025 Spaniards died. Britain also managed to capture 8000 French and Spanish prisoners.
The British sent Villeneuve to England, but he was set free in late 1805 and returned to France. On 22 April 1806, he was found dead at a hotel (after eating a chicken and asparagus dinner – the small details, right?) with six stab wounds in his left lung and one in the heart. The verdict was suicide. This was great news for the British media, who used this to mock the French and further increase British pride. Suspicions also arose about the nature of his death: did Napoleon secretly order his murder? Napoleon was still a bit agitated that Villeneuve set out into the Antarctic – and of course, lost – so this situation is completely plausible.
Though the reasons as to why there was a British victory are nothing complicated; in fact, a British victory was inevitable.
The Royal Navy had much better gunnery because of the Flintlock matches they used, enabling them to fire 2 or 3 times as quickly as the enemy, and with much better precision.
British morale was high, thanks to the great command of Nelson. Even the future king, George IV, thought highly of him:“Nelson and Victory were one and the same to us, and it carried dismay and terror to the hearts of our enemy.” The enemy knew of Nelson’s naval prowess and never really believed that they could win this battle. This made it easy for them to lose morale, and the loss of their flagship early on in battle simply sunk any hope they had left sailing for them.
Although the Battle of Trafalgar had no big impact on the War of Third Coalition (an alliance between Britain, Austria and Russia to prevent French invasion), the Royal Navy achieved an aura of indestructibility and was not seriously challenged by the French navy for the remainder of the French Wars. The next time the British fought on this scale was during World War 1. This shows that with a terrific victory, there is always some tragedy. Britain gained international strength, at the cost of a hero.
The Battle of Trafalgar truly was a terrific tragedy.
I just wanted to note some exceptional articles I came across whilst researching the Battle of Trafalgar.
This article gave a great overview of the events which happened at the Battle, and was enjoyable to read.
This article gave a more in-depth analysis of the events, and more detail about the ships involved and the tactics used.