Significance of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Stanfield

Artist’s conception of the situation at noon as Royal Sovereign was breaking into the Franco-Spanish line.

The gloss of the victory was taken off for the British ships with the news of Nelsons death. It is hard now to appreciate the effect of this news on the ships crews and on the nation as a whole, although Nelson is still regarded as a national hero in Britain, in 1805 he was THE national hero, and to lose him at the moment of his greatest victory was a bitter blow.

Nelson himself would have been bitter had he known the treatment his beloved Lady Hamilton and his daughter would get from a grateful nation. They were almost completely ignored. Instead the country decided to make Nelson’s brother, William, an earl, and voted him £99,000 with an annual pension of £5,000 a year. Frances, still formally Nelson’s wife, was granted £2,000 a year. Emma and Horatia got nothing. Without the pension from a grateful nation that Nelson had foreseen for her, and always famous for her extravagance, Emma eventually sank into poverty, even spending some time in prison for debt. After her release she went to live with Horatia in Calais and died there in January 1815.

Of the Combined Fleet, Bucentaure, Algeciras, Swiftsure, Intrepide, Aigle, Berwick, Achille, Redoubtable, Fougueux ( French), Santissima Trinidad, Santa Anna, Argonauta, Bahama, San Augustino, San Ildefonso, San Juan de Nepomuceno, and Monarca ( Spanish) were taken by the British. Redoubtable sank, Achille blew up, San Augustino and Intrepide burned, the British scuttled Santissima Trinidad and Argonauta, and in the gale that followed the battle Monarca, Fougueux, Aigle, and Berwick were wrecked. On the 23rd of October a sortie by French Commodore Julien Cosmao from Cadiz with Pluton, Indomptable, Neptuno, Rayo, and San Francisco de Asis attempted to recapture some of the British prizes. Santa Anna and Algeciras were recovered, but Neptuno, Indomptable, and San Francisco de Asis were wrecked and Rayo was taken by the Donegal and then wrecked.

On the 3rd of November, Admiral Strachan, with Caesar 80, Hero 74, Courageux 74, Namur 74, and four frigates defeated and captured the force of four French ships which had escaped at Trafalgar under Dumanoir: Formidable 80, Duguay-Trouin 74, Mont Blanc 74, and Scipion 74. All four are taken into the Royal Navy, with Formidable renamed Brave, Duguay-Trouin renamed Implacable, and the other two keeping their names. The Victory was towed into Gibraltar her masts and sails shot to pieces. The casualties were high, as might be expected in such a close fought action. The British lost 449 men killed and 1241 wounded (some of whom subsequently died), the French and Spanish fleets lost 4408 men killed and 2545 wounded, ( figures are from Lewis ‘A Social History of the Navy’).The ultimate outcome of the victory was to secure the supremacy of the British navy on the high seas for the next hundred years, and the end to any threat of invasion from France. It lead Napoleon to his Continental strategy, and possibly to his disastrous campaign against the Russians in 1812.


The time was approaching noon on October 21, 1805; the place was an expanse of open sea off Spain’s Atlantic shore between Cadiz and Gibraltar. Two fleets of warships, each sailing under clouds of white canvas, were slowly converging. It was not a mutually agreed-upon convergence: one fleet was desperately trying to escape, the other determinedly intent on overtaking. Weather-and superior seamanship on the part of the latter fleet-decreed that the escape attempt would fail and that two fleets would meet a few miles off a little-known inlet on the Spanish coastline called Trafalgar Bay.

The fleet that was fleeing was a combined Spanish and French force com manded by Admiral Pierre Villeneuve. The ships were part of an intricate plan developed by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to give him naval supremacy in the English Channel for the four days he deemed necessary to transport the 100,000 troops Le Grande Armee from Boulogne to the English shore at Dover and accomplish the conquest of Great Britain. Consequently, Villeneuve was under orders to avoid an engagement with the Royal Navy, instead bringing his command intact into the Channel. Villeneuve did not have to be told twice to avoid a fight, for he had no stomach for facing the murderous, close-range broadsides of the British ships of the line. His crews, he knew all too well, were pitifully trained, poorly motivated, and woefully inexperienced; they would be no match for the veteran officers and ratings of the Royal Navy. Now, as he pressed to the northwest under all possible sail, Villenueve saw that a battle was inevitable. Even before the first gun fired, he knew the battle was lost.

The overtaking fleet was, of course, British, under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the most enigmatic and charismatic officer ever to tread a Royal Navy quarterdeck. He was also the most tactically gifted commander “the Andrew”-as the lower-deck ratings called the Royal Navy-had ever known. For more than two years Nelson had worked to bring about the battle that was just moments away. The whole strength of the Royal Navy, from the Admiralty in London, where the guiding hand of Admiral Sir John Jervis, Earl St. Vincent, positioned the squadrons of the fleet, to the small, swift frigates and sloops that patrolled the waters off the European ports where the components of Bonaparte’s navy took shelter, had been bent toward this day, this hour. The battle that was about to be fought was the very reason for being for the Royal Navy.

The role of the Royal Navy has traditionally been defensive: rarely used as an instrument of colonial expansion, its primary mission was to protect the British Isles, Britain’s overseas possessions, and the sea-lanes that connected them. While France had for centuries been England’s enemy, the two nations had rarely openly threatened each other’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. Now, with the rise of Bonaparte, all that had changed. Determined that all of Europe must accede to his will, Napoleon had introduced the “Continental System,” a primitive form of Common Market, which compelled the nations of Europe that were under French domination, a condition that encompassed most of the Continent, to trade among themselves, at the same time forbid ding any imports without the express permission of the Emperor himself.

The idea behind the Continental System was to drive the economy of Great Britain, which Bonaparte scorned as “a nation of shopkeepers,” into ruin, compelling the British to accept Napoleonic suzerainty. Great Britain resisted with great success, in the process expanding her overseas markets and her overseas possessions, as France’s former colonies, all but cut off by the Royal Navy, fell like plums into London’s lap. Bonaparte decided that the obstinate English could be brought to heel only by force, and so decided on invasion.

But to invade England his army had to cross the English Channel, and to be able to do so required naval supremacy-a preponderance of naval power in the Channel that the Royal Navy could not hope to defeat in time to prevent the Grande Armee from making its crossing. Drawing ships from Holland and Spain, and combining them with the French fleet, Napoleon believed he could accomplish exactly that. Thus Villeneuve’s orders were given to avoid any action with the British until his ships had reached the Channel and rendezvoused with the rest of the gathering French fleet.

They were orders with which Villeneuve was more than prepared to comply: his ships had spent months, sometimes years, tied up at their moorings in French and Spanish harbors, where their crews’ morale decayed, their sailing skills eroded, and their gunnery declined. The French admiral was painfully aware that the Royal Navy’s men-o’-war were, ship for ship, easily the equal of two, three, or even four French or Spanish warships of equal size. Spending endless months at sea-before Nelson had returned to England for what was to be the last time earlier that autumn, he had spent more than a year aboard his flagship, HMS Victory, without setting foot on land-the British crews practiced their gunnery drills relentlessly, while simply keeping station off the French and Spanish coasts had honed their sailing skills to the point of perfection. Knowing that a straightforward fight with Nelson’s fleet was folly, Villeneuve hoped to be able to evade the British, but the winds that morning favored the Royal Navy, and so Victory and her 26 consorts were able to close with the fleeing French and Spanish warships.

Disdaining complex evolutions or a long-range artillery duel, Nelson trusted his seamen’s skill and courage, following his own dictum that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” Setting a course that would take Victory into the very heart of the opposing fleet, cutting it in two and then drawing up alongside the nearest enemy vessel, Nelson was determined to fight the battle muzzle to muzzle, battering the French and Spanish ships into submission, confident that neither their officers nor crews could endure the cannonade of the British broadsides and return them in kind.

In little more than four hours it was over. One by one the British warships followed Victory into the van of the enemy fleet and began remorselessly pounding it to pieces. Often able to rake their enemies-systematically firing a broadside in a foe’s relatively vulnerable bow or stern-before drawing alongside them, the British gun crews were able to get off three, sometimes four, rounds for every one the French or Spanish returned. The sheer volume of fire quickly took its toll, as the cannon balls, some weighing as much as 32 pounds each, smashed bulwarks, upended gun carriages, and tore into decks. Grapeshot, which turned the huge muzzle-loading cannons into titanic shotguns, cut bloody swaths across the gun decks, while up above sharp shooters stationed in the mast tops took careful aim at enemy officers.

Solid shot thudded into hulls, or tore apart railings and gangways, releasing flurries of lethal splinters. Masts creaked, cracked, and toppled, yardarms crashed onto decks below, and rigging coiled and twisted about the wreckage. The great guns kicked and rolled back against their restraining tackle, as the crewmen went through the carefully rehearsed and endlessly drilled routine of sponging out, ramming a fresh charge of powder down the barrel, driving home another round shot, priming the gunlock, and firing it. Many sailors would permanently lose their hearing as a consequence of this day’s action, but they fought on with an almost superhuman endurance. It would prove too much for their French and Spanish foes.

When the smoke had cleared and the thunder rolled away, the British had all but annihilated the French and Spanish fleet. It was the greatest of all of Nelson’s victories, but it came at the price of his life. Struck down earlier by a sharpshooter’s bullet, Nelson died just as the battle was reaching its climax, moments after being told of the extent of his triumph. Of the 33 ships of the line under Villeneuve’s command, 18 had struck their colors and surrendered, a 19th had caught fire and had blown up, while most of the survivors were heavily damaged. Not one British ship had been lost. The cost was high: nearly 1,700 British officers and seamen were casualties, a quarter of them killed; for the French and Spanish it was a horrible toll: nearly 7,000 casualties, 4,000 of them dead, with another 7,000 captured. For all practical purposes, the French and Spanish navies ceased to exist. Villeneuve himself would become a belated casualty of the battle, taking his own life within a matter of months as undeserved charges of cowardice were laid against him.

The threat of invasion was dispersed with thunderous finality: the day before Nelson’s annihilation of Villeneuve’s fleet, the Grande Armee had won an amazing victory over a combined Russian and Austrian army at Aus terlitz. The French had marched from their camp at Boulogne more than a month before the clash at Trafalgar, but the crushing French defeat there meant that even should the Grande Armee return to its Channel encampment, the French would never be able to assemble the numbers of ships required to seize control of the Channel and bring the troops across. The war against Bonaparte would go on, but Great Britain would never again be confronted with the threat of a hostile army barely 20 miles from her shores, waiting to make the leap across the Channel. As Admiral the Earl St. Vincent observed, “I don’t say they can’t come, I only say they can’t come by sea.”

But the war would go on: Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would make it possible to continue the war, but by itself it would not be enough to topple the Emperor. Abdication, Elba, the Hundred Days, and St. Helena all lay nearly ten years in the future. Yet, while before Trafalgar the fall of the First Empire was dimly perceived as inevitable by only a few, after the battle it no longer seemed impossible. The myth of French invincibility had been broken. A decade would pass before the road to Austerlitz would finally lead Bonaparte to Waterloo, but it began on the Spanish shore, at Cape Trafalgar.

More than a century would pass before Great Britain again faced a challenge as grave as that posed by Bonaparte, and again the Royal Navy was called upon to be the instrument of Britain’s salvation.


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