How Horatio Nelson’s Victory at Trafalgar Ensured Britannia Ruled the Waves

On 21 October 1805 Horatio Nelson’s British fleet crushed a Franco-Spanish force at Trafalgar in one of the most famous naval battles in history. With the heroic death of Nelson on the deck of his flagship Victory, 21 October is remembered in British history as a day of tragedy as well as triumph.

The rise of Napoleon

Trafalgar came at a crucial point in Britain’s long wars against France. The two nations had been almost continuously at war since the French Revolution – as the European powers had desperately tried to restore the monarchy in France. At first France had been fighting a war of survival against invading armies but the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte on the scene had changed everything.

Making his name with aggressive campaigns in Italy and Egypt, the young Corsican General then returned to France in 1799, where he became effective dictator – or “First Consul” after a military coup. After decisively defeating the Austrian Empire in 1800, Napoleon turned his attentions to Britain – a country that had so far escaped his military genius.

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Cat and mouse

After a fragile peace with the British broke down in 1803 Napoleon prepared a huge invasion force in Boulogne. In order to get his troops across the Channel, however, there was one obstacle that had to be cleared: the Royal Navy. Napoleon’s plan for a huge fleet to link up in the Caribbean and then descend on the English Channel appeared to have worked, when after linking up the French fleet gave Nelson the slip and joined the Spanish near Cadiz.

Nelson however returned to Europe just behind them and met with the British fleets in home waters. Though the channel was left bare, they sailed south to meet their enemy.

Villeneuve had the numbers, Nelson had the confidence

When the Spanish declared war on Britain in December 1804 the British lost their numerical advantage at sea. As a result, success in battle depended considerably on the strengths of British officers and men. Luckily, morale was high, and Nelson was pleased with the 27 ships of the line that he commanded, which included the giant first-rates Victory and Royal Sovereign. 

The main fleet was stationed about 40 miles off Cadiz, and in that distance smaller ships were patrolling and sending signals concerning the enemy’s movements. On 19 October they suddenly had some exciting news to report to Nelson – the enemy fleet had left Cadiz. Villeneuve’s combined fleet numbered 33 ships of the line – 15 Spanish and 18 French – and included the massive 140-gun Santissima Trinidad. 

Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, now anchored at Portsmouth

Despite their numerical superiority of 30,000 against 17,000 the sailors and marines were suffering from seasickness and low morale. Villeneuve and Spanish commander Gravina knew that they were facing a formidable enemy. The allied fleet initially sailed towards Gibraltar, but soon realised that Nelson was on their tail and began to prepare for battle.

At 6.15 AM on the 21st Nelson finally spotted the enemy he’d been chasing for months, and ordered his ships to deploy into 27 divisions. His plan was to aggressively drive these divisions into the enemy line – therefore prizing their fleet apart and creating chaos. This plan was not without risk, for his ships would have to sail right into the enemy under heavy fire before they could respond with broadsides of their own.

It was an extremely confident plan – typical of Nelson’s bold and charismatic style. As the victor at the battles of the Nile and Cape St Vincent, he had cause to be confident, and had complete trust in his men to remain steady under fire and respond in kind with brutal efficiency when the time was right. At 11.40 he sent the famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

The Battle of Trafalgar

The fighting began soon afterwards. At 11.56 Admiral Collingwood, who was at the head of the First Division, reached the enemy line while Nelson’s Second Division made straight for its heart. Once these divisions had broken the line, the French and Spanish ships were “raked” or shot through from behind as their defensive line began to disintegrate.

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The ships at the head of the British Divisions were subject to the worst punishment as the lack of wind meant that they approached the French at a snail’s pace, unable to fire back as they were sailing right into the enemy. Once they were finally able to take their revenge, it was sweet as the better-trained British gunners poured shot into the enemy ships from almost point-blank range.

Larger ships like the Victory were quickly surrounded and sucked into a melee with many smaller foes. One such French vessel, the Redoutable, moved to engage with the British flagship and the two ships got so close that their rigging became entangled and snipers could pour shot down onto the decks.

The fighting between the two ships at such close range was intense and for a time it seemed as though the Victory’s crew might be overwhelmed. Amidst this chaos, Nelson – who was highly conspicuous in his decorated Admiral’s uniform – stood on the deck issuing orders. He must have been a magnet for every French sniper, and at 1.15 PM the inevitable happened and he was hit by a sniper’s bullet. Mortally wounded, he was carried down below decks.

Around him the battle continued to rage, but it became more and more clear that the superior training and morale of the British crews was winning the day as the French and Spanish ships began to sink, burn or surrender. The Redoutable was preparing a boarding party to overwhelm the Victory, when another British ship – the Temeraire – raked her and caused massive casualties. Shortly afterwards, she surrendered. With the Santissima Trinidad also forced to surrender, and the cut-off vanguard of the Allied fleet slinking away, the battle seemed to be over.

“Thank God I have done my duty”

By 4 PM, as Nelson lay dying, the battle was won. It must have given the Admiral some comfort that his stunning victory was confirmed to him before he died. The victor of Trafalgar was given a state funeral – extraordinary for a commoner – and his death was marked with an unprecedented amount of public mourning.

Nelson’s of course was not the only death that day. The extent of his victory can be seen in the lopsided casualty figures – with 1,600 British compared with 13,000 Franco-Spanish. The allied fleet also lost 22 of its 33 ships – meaning that both countries were effectively destroyed as naval powers.

The Death of Nelson by Arthur Devis.

Britannia rules the waves

The consequences of this were pivotal for the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars. Though Napoleon had actually already shelved his plans for invading England, the British naval domination after Trafalgar meant that he could never contemplate such a move again. As a result, no matter how many times he defeated his Continental enemies, he could never rest easy knowing that his most implacable foe remained untouched.

Control of the seas meant that Britain could not only supply Napoleon’s enemies but also land troops to support them, as they did in Spain and Portugal in 1807 and 1809. As a result of this support, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain was never completed, and dragged on exacting a huge cost in men and resources. Eventually, in 1814, British forces landed in Spain and were able to invade France from across the Pyrenees.

Dan talks to Adam Zamoyski, a historian who has recently written a new biography of Napoleon.Listen Now

Another consequence of Trafalgar was that Napoleon attempted to force his allies to break off trade with Britain – in a system known as the Continental Blockade. This alienated many countries and lead to Napoleon’s worst mistake – the invasion of Russia in 1812. As a consequence of these Spanish and Russian disasters, the French Emperor was conclusively defeated in 1814, and his return a year later proved to be short-lived.

Finally, Trafalgar had consequences which went beyond Napoleon. British naval power was to boss the world for the next hundred years, resulting in a vast ocean-going empire which would shape our modern world.

In conclusion, Trafalgar should be remembered  not only for its patriotism and its romance – but also as one of the most important dates in history.

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