12 Facts About the Battle of Trafalgar

Image credit: Nicholas Pocock / Commons.

On 21 October 1805, under the command of Admiral Nelson, a British fleet inflicted heavy losses on a combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, just off the coast of Spain.

The victory halted Napoleon’s grand ambitions of conquering Britain, and ensured that a French fleet could never establish control over the seas. Britain became the dominant naval power for most of the rest of the 19th century.

1. The British fleet was outnumbered

While the British had 27 ships, the French and Spanish had a combined total of 33 ships.

The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory. Credit: J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806–1808) / Commons.

2. Before the battle, Nelson sent the famous signal: ‘England expects every man to do his duty’

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3. Nelson famously sailed in the face of naval doctrine

Normally opposing fleets would form two lines and engage in a clash of broadsides until one fleet withdrew.

Instead, Nelson split his fleet in two, placing half of it under the command of his deputy, Admiral Collingwood, and sailed straight at the French and Spanish lines, aiming to cleave them in half, and avoid engaging the numerically superior fleet in a battle of attrition.

Tactical map showing Nelson’s strategy to split the French and Spanish lines. Credit: Oladelmar / Commons.

4. Nelson’s flagship was HMS Victory

It had 104 guns, and was constructed from 6,000 oaks and elms. It required 26 miles of rope and rigging for the three masts, and was crewed by 821 men.

The HMS Victory in Portsmouth in 1900, where it remains to this day. Credit: Library of Congress / Commons.

5. The first British ship to engage the enemy was Admiral Collingwood’s flagship, the Royal Sovereign

As the ship engaged the Spanish Santa Anna, Collingwood supposedly remained composed, eating an apple and pacing about. This was despite suffering severe bruising in the leg from a flying splinter of wood as well as being hurt in the back by a cannonball.

Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood (26 September 1748 – 7 March 1810) was an admiral of the Royal Navy, notable as a partner with Horatio Nelson in several of the British victories of the Napoleonic Wars, and frequently as Nelson’s second in commands. Credit: Henry Howard / Commons.

6. Nelson was fatally wounded as his ship was engaged with the French ship the Redoutable

He was standing on deck, as was the tradition for officers in this age of naval combat, and was hit in the spine by a French sharpshooter. He realised he would die quickly, and was taken below deck so as not to demotivate the men. Nelson’s final words, according to contemporary accounts, were:

“Take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy, take care of poor Lady Hamilton. He paused then said very faintly, “Kiss me, Hardy.” This, Hardy did, on the cheek. Nelson then said, “Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.”

Painter Denis Dighton’s imagining of Nelson being shot on the quarterdeck of Victory. Credit: National Maritime Museum / Commons.

7. The total firepower of both armies at Waterloo amounted to 7.3% of the firepower at Trafalgar

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8. The Spanish expressed their sorrow when they heard of Nelson’s death

This was reported from an exchange of prisoners:

“The English Officers, who have returned from Cadiz, state that the account of Lord Nelson’s death was received there with extreme sorrow and regret by the Spaniards, and that some of them were even observed to shed tears on the occasion.

They said, ‘though he had been the ruin of their Navy, yet they could not help lamenting his fall, as being the most generous Enemy, and the greatest Commander of the age!’”

Artist’s conception of HMS Sandwich fighting the French flagship Bucentaure (completely dismasted) at Trafalgar. Bucentaure is also fighting HMS Temeraire (on the left) and being fired into by HMS Victory (behind her). In fact, this is a mistake by Auguste Mayer, the painter; HMS Sandwich never fought at Trafalgar. Credit: Auguste Mayer / Commons.

9. After Trafalgar, many of the men were not allowed to either go home or spend much time on shore

This was because the British had to maintain a blockade of Cadiz and other ports. Admiral Collingwood was continuously on board his ship for nearly five years as he commanded a fleet involved in the blockade.

The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Stanfield. Credit: Clarkson Stanfield / Commons.

10. Collingwood’s only consolation was his pet dog, Bounce, who was ailing, much like Collingwood himself

Collingwood wrote to his children that he had written a song for his dog:

Tell the children that Bounce is very well and very fat, yet he seems not to be content, and sighs so piteously these long evenings, that I am obliged to sing him to sleep, and have sent them the song:

Sigh no more, Bouncey, sigh no more,
Dogs were deceivers never;
Though ne’er you put one foot on shore,
True to your master ever.
Then sigh not so, but let us go,
Where dinner’s daily ready,
Converting all the sounds of woe
To heigh phiddy diddy.

Bounce fell overboard and drowned in August 1809, and Collingwood became seriously ill around this time. He wrote to the Admiralty for permission to return home, which was finally granted, but as he was on his way to England, he died at sea in March 1810.

He was sixty-two, and he hadn’t seen his wife or his children since before Trafalgar.

Collingwood Monument at Tynemouth, Tyne and Wear in the United Kingdom. Collingwood was born in Newcastle in 1748. Credit: dposte46 / Commons.

11. Originally, Trafalgar Square was the site of the Royal Stables

When it was rebuilt in the the 1830s, Trafalgar Square was supposed to be named after William IV, but the architect George Ledwell Taylor proposed naming it for Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Nelson’s column was erected in 1843.

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. It was built between 1840 and 1843 to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Credit: Elliott Brown / Commons.

12. Sir Edwin Landseer was supplied with a dead lion from the London Zoo as a model for the lions at its base

Some of its corpse had begun to rot, which is said to be why its paws resemble those of a cat.

Lion at Nelson’s Column by Sir Edwin Landseer, Trafalgar Square, London, UK. Credit: Jose L. Marin / Commons.