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.
2. Before the battle, Nelson sent the famous signal: ‘England expects every man to do his duty’
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.
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.
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.
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.
7. The total firepower of both armies at Waterloo amounted to 7.3% of the firepower at Trafalgar
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!’”
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.
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.
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.
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.