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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 Villeneuve.jpg (14685 bytes)
Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve (1763-1806)

Admiral Pierre 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 Pierre Villeneuve.jpg (14685 bytes)
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 day.

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 world.

For more information, explore these informative sites:

The crew 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.

Virtual 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.

UPDATE 11/26/00

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.

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