French And Spanish Admirals – Trafalgar Campaign


Spanish Admiral Federico Gravina at Trafalgar.

French and Spanish admirals who held key appointments during the Trafalgar campaign. Barham’s ‘opposite number’ was the much younger Denis Decrès. Born of a noble family in 1761, he joined the French Navy at the relatively late age of 18. As a junior officer he gained distinction at the battle of The Saints. Five years later he attained the rank of commander in which he served in both the East and West Indies. Returning to France at the height of the Reign of Terror, he received the belated news of his promotion to post-captain, accompanied by a more recent decision to dismiss him from the Service because of his aristocratic birth. This indignity was followed by the ignominy of arrest and removal to Paris for trial in the shadow of the guillotine. He was, however, more fortunate than many another high-born Frenchman: after a brief imprisonment he was released and allowed to retire to his country estate.

Less than a year elapsed before the Convention realized that their navy needed experienced officers now that they were at war with Britain. In 1795 Decrès was reinstated and appointed to command the 80-gun Formidable at Toulon, whence he eluded Lord Hood’s blockade to reach the safety of Brest. In December 1796 he took part in Admiral de Galles’s mismanaged attempt to land troops in Bantry Bay. Sixteen months later he garnered the fruits of his adherence to the Republican cause: he was promoted to rear-admiral at 37, two years younger than Nelson when he had gained his flag in the previous year, and appointed in command of Vice-Admiral Brueys’s frigates. With his flag in the 40-gun Diane, he helped to escort Bonaparte’s Armée d’ Orient to Malta, and on to Alexandria. In Aboukir Bay, on the night of 1 August 1798, his ship was so much damaged by gunfire from Nelson’s fleet that Decrès tried to shift his flag. But, after finding two 74s in a worse state, he returned to the Diane and succeeded in escaping, together with the frigate Justice, and the only two French ships-of-the-line which survived the battle.

All four reached Malta, where for the next 18 months they were confined by the British blockade. Thence, under the cover of darkness, on the night of 28 March 1800, Decrès took the 80-gun Guillaume Tell out of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, in compliance with an order recalling him to Paris and the need to reduce the number of mouths to be fed from the food remaining in the fortress. She was brought to action and compelled to surrender to HMS Foudroyant. Wounded and taken prisoner, Decrès spent a short time at Mahon before being released in an agreed exchange, to be appointed in command of the port of Lorient.

From there Bonaparte chose him to be his Minister of Marine in the autumn of 1801. Since he was to hold this office for much longer than the Trafalgar campaign it is clear that Decrès satisfied his demanding master. Moreover, the zeal with which he set about rectifying the French navy’s serious deficiencies stands to his credit. Like Barham he was a first-class administrator — but no more. From his experience at The Saints, Bantry Bay, the Nile, and in the Guillaume Tell, he was at heart a defeatist: he did not believe that the French navy could seriously challenge the British. More importantly, although he was, in modern American parlance, a good head of a navy Department, he was not Chief of Naval Operations. Napoleon arrogated that position to himself: it was he who conceived, planned and directed his Navy’s major activities, more especially those which were designed to gain command of the Channel so that the Grande Armée might safely cross it.

Decrès pleaded the importance of attacking Britain’s maritime trade, but seldom with much success. He lacked the personality to be better than clay in the hands of an Emperor who had no understanding of war at sea. Faced with complicated plans, which paid scant regard for wind and weather, and treated the British Fleet as an obstacle with which action could be avoided, he did no more than write: ‘It is grievous to me to know the naval profession, since this knowledge wins no confidence, nor produces any results in Your Majesty’s combinations.’


Cornwallis’s opponent was born Count Honoré Joseph Antoine Ganteaume in 1755. His seagoing career began at the age of 14 when his father took him onboard his own merchantship. During the War of American Independence he fought as a temporary junior officer under Admiral d’Estaing in American waters, and under Admiral de Suffren in the Indian Ocean. Thereafter he reverted to the merchant service until his country was again involved in war with Britain, when he joined the Convention’s navy as a lieutenant. In the next year, having reached the age of 39 with 25 years’ sea experience, he was, not surprisingly for a Service which was so short of officers, promoted to post-captain and appointed in command of the 74-gun Trente-et-Un-Mai.

Although not in company with Rear-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse during his initial engagements with Lord Howe at the end of May 1794 (for which he has been much criticized by his biographers), Ganteaume joined the French Brest fleet in time to take part in the battle of the Glorious First of June, when he was thrice wounded. In December his ship was one of the squadron which slipped out of Brest and into the Mediterranean to reinforce the Toulon fleet. Renamed the Républicain, she was present at the battle of Hyères on 13 July 1795 before being ordered to return to Brest, when Ganteaume again successfully eluded the British blockade. He was next appointed first captain to Vice-Admiral Brueys for Bonaparte’s Egyptian venture, so that he was fortunate to escape with his life when the 120-gun Orient blew up during the battle of the Nile. Promoted shortly afterwards to rear-admiral he was given command of the small French naval force which remained in the Levant to support the Armée d’Orient.

When Bonaparte decided to return to France in the summer of 1799, Ganteaume was entrusted with the task of slipping him past the watching British cruisers on board the frigate Muiron. He received his reward six weeks after the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire: Bonaparte appointed him a Counsellor of State, and chose him to command the squadron of seven ships-of-the-line which slipped out of Brest in January 1801 with orders to convoy reinforcements and supplies to Egypt. Five months and two unsuccessful sorties from Toulon elapsed before he eluded Rear-Admiral Warren’s watching squadron and headed for Alexandria. But Lord Keith’s fleet not only prevented him from reaching this Egyptian port, but also aborted his subsequent attempt to land troops at Benghasi. His only satisfaction, whilst returning to Toulon, was an action with the British 74-gun Swiftsure in which he compelled Captain Benjamin Hallowell to strike his colours.

From the Treaty of Amiens until 1804, Ganteaume was in charge of the port of Toulon. He was then promoted to vice-admiral and given command of the Brest fleet, with the unenviable task of trying to comply with Napoleon’s often unreasonable orders. It is, indeed, arguable that no commander who was forbidden to engage anything but a much inferior enemy force, could have done more than he did. But if it be clear that he owed his post to the chance that brought him into close contact with Napoleon in 1798, the Emperor is not to be faulted for choosing an admiral of no greater distinction for command of the fleet which he planned should gain control of the Channel, for the simple reason that there was none better.


Nelson’s principal opponent was born Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre de Villeneuve in 1763. Joining the French Navy at 15, he first fought against Britain in the War of American Independence, when he became a close friend of Decrès. Having declared his loyalty to the Convention, he was promoted post-captain in 1793; and after only three years in command of ships-of-the-line achieved flag rank, a reflection of Revolutionary France’s shortage of senior officers. Near the end of 1796, he was ordered to take a squadron out of Toulon to accompany Admiral Langara’s Spanish fleet round to Brest. Helped by a gale he managed to elude Admiral Jervis’s fleet, which had recently withdrawn from the Mediterranean to watch Cadiz and the Straits. But Lord Bridport’s ships, watching Brest, obliged him to put into Lorient, so that he was too late to be included in the fleet with which Admiral de Galles attempted to land General Hoche’s army in Bantry Bay.

By the spring of the next year Villeneuve was back at Toulon, with his flag in the 80-gun Guillaume Tell, in the fleet with which Vice-Admiral Brueys escorted Bonaparte’s Armée d’Orient to Malta and Alexandria. For remaining at anchor in Aboukir Bay instead of weighing and bringing his squadron up from their leeward berths to support Brueys’s van against Nelson’s attack, he was subjected to much criticism after the battle of the Nile. Fortunately, Bonaparte was more concerned to congratulate him on his escape with the remnant of Brueys’s fleet to Malta, where he remained until September 1800 when, with General Vaubois, he signed the surrender of the French garrison.

His career during the next four years is veiled in obscurity, until he was promoted to vice-admiral on 30 May 1804 only a few weeks after Ganteaume reached the same high rank. Less than three months later came Vice-Admiral Latouche-Tréville’s sudden death at Toulon. Napoleon’s two ablest flag officers already held vital commands, Bruix of the invasion flotillas, Ganteaume of the Brest fleet. Enough has been said of Villeneuve’s career to show that he was scarcely fitted to succeed Latouche, but his rival, Francois Rosily had a record which was no more impressive. And for once the Emperor listened to his Minister of Marine: Villeneuve’s long-standing friendship with Decrès tipped the scales and, with misgivings, Napoleon agreed to his appointment to the Toulon fleet.


Nelson’s other opponent was the commander of the Spanish ships which joined with Villeneuve’s. Frederico Carlos Gravina was born in Sicily of a noble Spanish family in 1756. Enlisting in his country’s navy at the age of 19, he served in an expedition to South America before, following the outbreak of the War of American Independence, participating in the blockade of Gibraltar. By 1783 he held command of the frigate Juno in an unsuccessful punitive expedition against Algeria. Having attained the rank of post-captain early in 1789, he was appointed to command the Paula, in the Marquis del Socorro’s squadron, and was in charge of the naval force which, in 1791, made an abortive attempt to prevent the Moors occupying Oran.

By the time Spain joined Britain against Revolutionary France, Gravina was a rear-admiral in Langara’s fleet which was with Lord Hood during his occupation of Toulon. There, to quote a Spanish authority, he ‘served valiantly … from the taking of the fortifications until their evacuation. He sustained a serious leg wound. His bravery gained him promotion to vice-admiral.’ He then further distinguished himself in attempts to save several besieged Spanish fortresses, even though all were in the end obliged to capitulate. By 1797 he was a vice-admiral, and second-in-command under Admiral Massaredo, initially in Cadiz during Lord St Vincent’s blockade, subsequently at Cartagena — whence he took part in the sortie to join the fleet which Vice-Admiral Bruix brought into the Mediterranean, and returned with it to Brest.

After the Peace of Amiens, Gravina was for a time unemployed, so that he might revisit his Sicilian birthplace. In June 1804 he was chosen to be Spanish ambassador in Paris, where he exercised considerable influence on his country’s decision to declare war on Britain in December. He was then recalled and, early in 1805, assumed command of Spain’s principal fleet based on Cadiz.


Decrès, Ganteaume, Villeneuve, Gravina and, of course, Napoleon: these were Britain’s chief opponents in the Trafalgar campaign. Enough has been said of their careers to show that they were no match for Barham, Cornwallis, Nelson and Collingwood — only for Calder. Nearly a hundred years after Trafalgar, the German Vice-Admiral Livonius, wrote of the Napoleonic Wars: ‘It was the genius of her captains and admirals which produced Britain’s glorious victories.’ This is an exaggeration: only Nelson was a genius; the others were worthy descendants of a long line of sea kings, with the advantage of highly trained and disciplined crews who were enthusiastic for a common cause and inspired by the will to win. Their enemies were of several nationalities, each jealous of the others and animated by diverse motives, some monarchical, some republican. They were, moreover, not only inexperienced and ill-trained, especially the Spaniards, but depressed in spirit by a century of defeats by the Royal Navy.