The Battle of Trafalgar (1805)
In order to understand the importance of the battle of Trafalgar, we
must first understand the grand strategy of Napoleon. With the onset of the War of the
Third Coalition (1805-1807), it was the new French emperor's goal to unite the French
fleets located at Toulon and Brest with Spanish ships from Cartagena and C�diz. Once this fleet was created in the Atlantic,
Bonaparte would possess enough ships to seriously consider an invasion of England. In early 1805, Napoleon initiated this plan by
ordering the French and Spanish fleets to break the British blockade and sail for the West
Indies. The primary goal here was to ravage
British colonial holdings, disrupt trade, and confuse the English of Napoleon's true
intentions. After reaching this goal, the
fleet would return to the Atlantic, crush the British fleet near Ushant (an island off the
coast of Brittany), and then escort an invasion force of 350,000 men.
|Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve (1763-1806)
de Villeneuve, escaping the English blockade at Toulon led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, achieved the first stage of
this plan on March 30th by joining Admiral Gravina and the Spanish fleet from
Cadiz, and with this new fleet of 20 ships, sailed for Martinique. Meanwhile, Admiral Nelson erroneously set a course
for the south-east, believing that the French were heading towards Egypt. Once he realized his error, Nelson and his 10
ships altered their course and raced towards the Atlantic.
With Nelson's pursuit, the coalition fleet of Villeneuve could not
ravage the West Indies as planned. Therefore,
they returned to Europe. En route, the
Franco-Spanish fleet on July 22nd clashed with a British squadron of 18 ships
off Cape Finisterre in an
indecisive battle. However, Villeneuve had
lost two ships and was forced to sail to Cadiz and procure reinforcements.
The events of the summer had discouraged Napoleon from executing the final phase of his
invasion of England, and thus turned his focus towards Austria. In order to protect his new strategy, the emperor
ordered Villeneuve to sail back into the Mediterranean and unite with other French ships
at Cartagena. However, Villeneuve was aware
that the British fleet had increased to 29
ships of the line, and if the Franco-Spanish fleet was to engage them, it would be a very
costly affair. Nevertheless, on October 19th
Villeneuve, under the threat of removal from his command for cowardice, signaled the
command to set sail for the Mediterranean.
Due to poor winds, Villeneuve's fleet could not exit the port of
Cadiz in a uniform manner. In fact, only
three frigates and seven ships-of-the-line made it out of port --a hopeless endeavor if
the British happened to engage them. Therefore,
the coalition fleet was ordered back into port to attempt their run to the South-East the
following day. Nelson had received news of
Villeneuve's activities and ordered the fleet to sail for Gibraltar. With a full day's advance, the English had
effectively closed off the entry of the Franco-Spanish fleet into the Mediterranean and
now could force them to do battle.
|Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)
By the 20th, Villeneuve had slipped out of Cadiz, but was
caught by Nelson off the coast of Trafalgar on the 21st. He ordered the coalition fleet to form a single,
irregular line, sailing to the north in the hopes that his 33 to 29 advantage in warships
would win the day. However, against all naval
conventions, Admiral Nelson (in a prearranged plan) divided his fleet into two squadrons
and attacked the center of the Franco-Spanish line at right angles. This meant exposing the English ships to the
massive broadsides of the enemy. At
11:50 AM, Nelson, on board the H.M.S. Victory, signaled his famous message: "England
expects that every man will do his duty." Then, after his southern squadron, led by
Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign,
had engaged the Franco-Spanish line, Nelson began to return fire against Villeneuve's
ship, the Bucentaure. From here, the English
ships broke through and offered numerous broadsides of their own. By 5:00 PM, the battle was over and the
Franco-Spanish fleet was shattered. Villeneuve
himself was captured, and his fleet surrendered some 20 ships to the English fleet. In addition, 14,000 men were lost, half of whom
were prisoners of war, while 1,500 British seamen were killed or wounded. Only 11 ships reached Cadiz while no English ship
was destroyed. But the English did not escape
unscathed. At 1:15 PM, while the H.M.S. Victory was engaging the Redoubtable, Nelson was struck in the spine by a
sniper and was carried below to die. However,
when he did succumb to his injury at 4:30 PM, he was certain that the English had won the
The battle of Trafalgar can be considered the most decisive naval
battle, both tactically and strategically, in history.
It not only eliminated Napoleon's plans to invade England, but had also
destroyed French naval power and ensured the dominance of the British navy throughout the
For more information, explore these informative sites:
of the H.M.S. Victory at the Battle of
Trafalgar - View the demographics of the H.M.S. Victory.
The Battle of
Trafalgar - A good description of this great battle including an historical
background, links, illustrations, and maps.
Tour of the H.M.S. Victory - Take a tour around the actual which happens to be the
only remaining 18th century ship of the line anywhere in the world.
Broadside - This site
discusses the Royal Navy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An excellent description of the battle of
Trafalgar including an eyewitness account.
Since this article was published, I have received several
comments from concerned readers stating that they believe that the U.S.S. Constitution is
the oldest commissioned warship in the world. The fact of the matter is that both the
U.S.S. Constitution and H.M.S. Victory sites do make a claim to be the oldest commissioned
warship in the world. If you were to look at strictly dates, the H.M.S. Victory was
launched on May 7, 1765 while the U.S.S. Constitution was launched on October 21, 1797.
Conversely, the Victory is the oldest ship-of-the-line extant while the Constitution is
the oldest frigate in existence. (I think that this is where the confusion comes from.)
Whichever way you look at it, both vessels are an enduring monument to the military
legacies of both nations and a testament to the will of the people.