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The Battle of Trafalgar 1805


Trafalgar is the most famous naval battle in European history, and was contested by British, Spanish and French forces. The British won, but their charismatic Admiral Nelson was killed.

Background: The Napoleonic Wars

By 1805, Europe had returned to war in a third coalition. At first the struggle had been between Revolutionary France and nations who wished to restore the monarchy (and take French land), but one man had risen to command the French: former general, now Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. While he would eventually lose the wars named after him, Napoleon was in the ascendant in 1805. But while he was confident of victory in land, his navy was threatened by the British and leading Admiral Nelson.

For years, France and Napoleon had been threatening an invasion of England, though this was little more than a bluff. The French navy wasn’t strong enough to support such a move, and Britain spent years using its navy to blockade, harass and destroy French shipping. Napoleon then formed a plan: send his fleet to the West Indies to either harass the British there or pull British ships away, return ahead of the British as a unified force, and then dominate the Channel for a crossing until the British returned. But it was a half-hearted idea, and not carried through with vigor: there may have been no real intent to invade. The French sailed, linked up with Spanish forces, eluded the waiting British and sailed for the Indies. Nelson and the British followed, getting there ahead of the slower French. The latter could have threatened the vital West Indies trade routes, but decided to avoid combat and return for the Channel and Nelson followed. However, the French and Spanish could not get a sufficient advantage and the channel was safe.

The French and Spanish at Cadiz

While the invasion, such as it was, had been abandoned by September 1805, a combined fleet of Spanish and French ships were docked at Cadiz awaiting orders. Nelson, now back home, argued this force must be destroyed and secured a command to do so. His presence electrified the fleets. When the French orders came - to take troops to Naples to reinforce the French armies - the fleet delayed at first, until their commander, Admiral Villeneuve, was goaded into action by insults from Napoleon. The fleet sailed on October 19/20th, but while they hoped to sneak out unnoticed, the British ships which were shadowing them realised and followed.

The Battle of Trafalgar

The British caught the enemy fleet just west of Cape Trafalgar on October 21st. They had twenty seven ships – more than the French thought – and the allied enemy thirty three divided between eighteen French and fifteen Spanish, and they were commanded by Nelson and Villeneuve respectively. The latter ordered his ships to form a line bearing north, and Nelson broke with current naval practice to order his fleet into two squadrons, which were to attack Villeneuve’s line by sailing into it from the west: at right angles. This was the climax of Nelson’s evolution as a naval commander, and had been explained to his officers in such as way as to get across the concept simply, so they could apply it in the heat of battle, so as to earn their trust, and to invigorate them. Such a mixture of innovation and teaching became known as the ‘Nelson Touch’. His own ship would lead the attack.

At 11:50 AM, Nelson signalled to his fleet that “England expects that every man will do his duty.” He had to be talked into substituting Nelson with England. The battle proved greatly successful for the British, who broke through the line and then neutralised ship after ship. The British equipment and training was superior to the French and Spanish, and in a straight firefight gave great advantages: better quality British cannon could fire faster with far less risk of heating up and exploding. Six of Villeneuve’s ships were ignored in the first part of the attack because they were at the front, they and wheeled round to aid their fellows, but this failed. By 17:00 the British had destroyed the enemy fleet, which lost either nineteen or twenty ships and suffered the capture of their commander. 14,000 men were also prisoners. The British lost no ships, and about 1,500 casualties, France 6000. However, Nelson had been shot by a sniper in rigging, and he died at 16:30 knowing his fleet had won.


The power of the French navy was shattered, and Napoleon’s hopes of using a substantial naval force ended. The victory is usually credited with starting a century of British naval dominance. Villeneuve, broken by his failure, killed himself.
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