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Forces War Records Blog

ON THIS DAY, 21 OCTOBER 1805: BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR

On this day, 208 years ago in 1805, one of the most famous battles in the Royal Navy’s history was taking place — the Battle of Trafalgar. The battle was a significant moment in British history putting an end to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans to invade Britain, while also witnessing the death of one of Britain’s greatest leaders: Admiral Lord Nelson. Earlier today, a ceremony was held onboard Lord Nelson's flagship: HMS Victory to commemorate the 208th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship was at the battle all those years ago, and is still a commissioned ship in the Royal Navy and is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.

Fought during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic wars, this naval engagement between the Royal Navy and combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies was the most decisive naval victory of the war. Twenty-seven British ships of the line led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships of the line under French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve just west of Cape Trafalgar, off the southwest coast of Spain. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. This British victory guaranteed the country’s control of the oceans, which was the basis of her global power for over a century. Before the battle A temporary armed truce (the Peace of Amiens) between Britain and France in 1803 broke down and the British strategy rested on the defensive – until the French navy made a move. Toward the end of 1804 Spain joined the war as an ally of France, which gave Napoleon the ships he needed to challenge Britain. In 1805, the First French Empire, under Napoleon Bonaparte, was the dominant military land power on the European continent, while the Royal Navy controlled the seas. During the course of the war, the British imposed a naval blockade on France, which affected trade and kept the French from fully mobilising their own naval resources. When the Third Coalition declared war on France, after the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon, victorious all over Europe, wanted to defeat his biggest opponent – Great Britain so he developed a ruthless plan.  This involved crossing the channel in southern England with an invasion flotilla with an aim to bombard the British defenders, overwhelming them in the opening of Channel. This did not go to plan though, and the Royal Navy reacted skilfully and swiftly. The British possessed an experienced and well-trained corps of naval officers unlike the French navy whose best officers had either been executed or dismissed from the service during the early part of the French Revolution. Napoleon’s original invasion plans had to be abandoned and the combined French and Spanish fleets had to take shelter in Cadiz. Napoleon then ordered the fleet to sail into the Mediterranean to support his new campaign in Austria. By this time the British had prepared a great force outside Cadiz, commanded by Vice Admiral Heratio Lord Nelson – one of the Navy’s best commanders at the time. Nelson’s plan was to bring a strong force on one part of the enemy line to crush it quickly and to do this he planned to attack in two divisions. The battle The British attacked in two lines as planned, aiming at right angles to the allied (French and Spanish) line. One British division under Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood took over the allied rear, attacking it with superior gunfire. Nelson led one of the British lines in his flagship, HMS Victory and smashed through the allied centre, cutting it in two. This prevented the unengaged half of their fleet from helping their comrades. Of the 33 allied battleships that began the battle 18 were either captured or destroyed. The British didn't go unscathed though, and HMS Victory endured a hail of shot and became entangled with a smaller French battleship, the Redoutable, commanded by Captain Jean Lucas. A bullet was fired from the French vessel and it struck Nelson at about who was at the time pacing the quarterdeck with Captain Thomas Hardy. He was carried to the cockpit and held on to his life just long enough to learn that he had won a decisive victory. Apparently Nelson's last words were: "Thank God I have done my duty". Sources: Wiki, RMG ITV & BBC Forces War Records have a wealth of records from the early 19th century – if you are researching your ancestors from this war period then have a look at our site and let us help you fill in the missing pieces.
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