The Battle of Trafalgar was one of the most important British victories of the 19th century: it cemented Britain’s reputation as the foremost naval power in Europe, if not the world, and showcased the skills of one of Britain’s foremost naval heroes, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Napoleon was keen to take control of the English Channel in preparation for his planned invasion of England and sent a combined Franco-Spanish fleet under the command of French Admiral Villeneuve from Cadiz northwards, round the coast and up towards the channel.
En route, off the coast of Cape Trafalgar in southwest Spain, they met the British fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson.
British forces were greatly outnumbered. As a result, standard naval tactics did not seem like they would work. Faced with a large invasion force, Nelson decided to sail directly at the flank of the Franco-Spanish fleet’s battle line, aiming to break it up.
The plan worked perfectly: the Franco-Spanish fleet split into three, allowing the British to gain a degree of superiority and make use of their fleet and fire power. A victory was far from secure however, and the tactic left the leading ships in the British fleet in the line of the most intense fire.
The fierce battle saw 22 French and Spanish ships sunk, but not a single British ship. Heavy fire saw Nelson seriously wounded by a French musketeer and he died shortly before the end of the battle, not living to see his renowned victory.
Nelson’s second-in-command, Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, assumed his position as commander-in-chief after Nelson’s death and ensured British ships arrived home unscathed. He was richly rewarded with a generous pension, a Naval Gold Medal, a peerage and the thanks of both Houses of Parliament on his return.
French Admiral Villeneuve was captured along with his flagship, La Bucentaure, and the senior Spanish officer Federico Gravina escaped with what was left of the Franco-Spanish fleet: around 1/3 of the original number. He died from his wounds several months later.
Around 7,500 French and Spanish soldiers were captured by the British. Those who were officers could have expected to be kept in relative comfort, with a certain degree of freedom. Some officers even chose to stay in Britain after their time was up. Ordinary sailors and soldiers had a much less enjoyable time: at the mercy of their overseers, they were confined to cramped living quarters with rations that were often inadequate.