The Battle Of Trafalgar fought off the coast of southwest Spain on 21 October 1805 between Britain’s Royal Navy and the combined fleets of Napoleonic France and Spain ranks high in the annals of naval glory and British history.
Britain was outnumbered and outgunned but triumphant. The triumph of Britain’s seamen is recognised as a moment that decided the fate of the United Kingdom.
Napoleon’s Daring Plan
In 1805 Britain was at war with France and had imposed a naval blockade. This made life difficult for Napoleon whose land armies were sweeping before them. Napoleon’s solution was to attack Britain’s Royal Navy and invade the country.
Napoleon’s admirals were not keen to confront the Royal Navy on the open sea. They had healthy respect both for British seamanship and for Horatio Nelson, the British admiral who had achieved fame as the victor at the Battle of the Nile.
Nelson had lost his right arm and the sight in his right eye in naval battles and was keen to face the French and Spanish fleets, even attempting to lure them out of the harbour. When the news finally came that the French and Spanish had set sail on the direct order of Napoleon himself, Nelson seized the opportunity to engage.
The fleets that converged off Cape Trafalgar comprised of 27 British vessels against 33 French and Spanish .
Nelson directed operations from the 100-gun HMS Victory, while his opponents were led by Vice-Admiral Villeneuve, whose several ships far outgunned the best British vessels.
The Nelson Touch: His Battle Of Trafalgar Plan
Now was the time for ‘the Nelson Touch’ to come into play. Nelson’s plan depended on ‘crossing the T’. This meant that instead of lining up his ships in a line parallel to the enemy and slugging it out, with inevitable losses to both sides, the British ships were organised into two columns and attacked at right-angles in a letter T formation that broke the enemy line into three. It wasn’t the first time this unconventional tactic had been employed.
Back in 1797, it resulted in success at the battles of Camperdown and Cape St Vincent – and Villeneuve himself had predicted that Nelson might use the ploy.
The biggest risk in crossing the T was that the lead ships in the two British columns were exposed to devastating fire as they approached the enemy, without being able to return it.
The ships given this unenviable role were the Victory and Vice-Admiral Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign. Nelson gambled that the relatively inexperienced enemy gunners would give him a crucial advantage – and so it proved.
Once the enemy line was breached it was left to individual captains to carry the attack home. To tell their own ships apart from the enemy Nelson had ordered them to be painted in a yellow and black pattern dubbed the ‘Nelson Chequer’.
A Legendary Battle
Several moments during the engagement became legend. These included the signal sent by Nelson to the fleet before the action started: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’.
The word ‘expects’ replaced ‘confides’ as it was easier to spell with the flag system used to communicate with other ships.
Another iconic moment was when Vice-Admiral Collingwood was seen calmly eating an apple as his ship came under heavy fire.
The most famous incident, though, was the death of Nelson himself after he was shot by a French sharpshooter (the sniper was then himself shot by a midshipman called John Pollard).
The stricken admiral was carried below deck and died after being told that victory was his. There has been much debate about his last request, ‘Kiss me, Hardy’, which was addressed to his close friend Captain Thomas Hardy.
There were several witnesses, so he definitely said it, but no evidence that he, in fact, said ‘Kismet, Hardy’, as has been suggested, thereby intimating that it was fate that he should die.
Hardy, it is reported, kissed Nelson twice, on the cheek and forehead.
After the battle, the corpse of the 47 -year-old hero was brought home, preserved in a barrel of brandy. He was entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral in London where his funeral was attended by the captured Admiral Villeneuve.
The lead musket ball that killed Nelson, still attached to gold lace from his uniform, is displayed today at Windsor Castle.
By the end of the action, the French and Spanish had lost 22 vessels. Not a single British ship was sunk. British casualties were 458 dead and 1208 wounded. The French and Spanish casualties were 3000 dead, around 2500 wounded and 8000 captured. Another 3000 died in a storm while trying to sail to safety.
Research has revealed that over half the British sailors involved in the Battle of Trafalagar were in their twenties while one was as young as eight. The oldest sailor was 68 years old.
There was also a woman present, a certain Jane Townshend who was recommended for a medal for performing ‘useful services’. Around a quarter of the British crews were Irish in origin, and there are also records of Americans, Africans and Chinese being present. There were even 58 Frenchmen serving with the British crews.
Memorials To Greatness
Survivors of the battle include the Victory herself, preserved at Portsmouth complete with a plaque marking where Nelson fell. Another British ship, the Temeraire, was immortalized by J.M.W. Turner in his painting The Fighting Temeraire which depicts the ship being towed to the breaker’s yard in 1838.
Commemorations of the Battle Of Trafalgar take place annually on Trafalgar Day. Trafalgar Square in London, the site of Nelson’s Column, is just one of 15 Trafalgar Squares throughout the UK. There are also monuments to Nelson in Edinburgh, Montreal and Bridgetown, Barbados and elsewhere. In reality, there were nine Nelsons in the battle, including one who deserted from the Royal Navy in February 1806.
The Battle of Trafalgar is remembered as one of Britain’s most significant victories and confirms that Britannia once did rule the waves. However, the battle didn’t end the Napoleonic Wars. Arguably, the battle didn’t even prevent a French invasion of England, as Napoleon had already given up on the idea and started to disperse the invasion forces.
Nonetheless, the Emperor was appalled by the defeat and prevented it being reported in Parisian newspapers for over a month. When news finally emerged it was hailed as a French victory.
Indeed, after Trafalgar, Napoleon launched a major shipbuilding programme and, had this not been curtailed following Waterloo, France might have had its chance to rule the waves.