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Forces War Records Blog

ON THIS DAY 209 YEARS AGO, 21ST OCTOBER 1805, THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR TOOK PLACE

It was the culmination of years of dispute between the French and British Navies. For the past two centuries Britain had been the undisputed ruler of the waves, but from the time Napoleon was made Commander of the French Army in Italy in 1796 he had been spoiling to extend France’s territories at the expense of the British Empire. Several spats had broken out, and although there was a brief lull in 1803, by 1804 Napoleon had managed to tempt Spain to form an alliance; together they set out to take on the British, and the fighting began again.

By 1805 Napoleon was aching to make a decisive strike, and called Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, the Commander of his Franco-Spanish fleet, to leave the safe harbour of Cadiz and join him in an attack across the Channel from Boulogne. When Villeneuve emerged into Cape Trafalgar on 19th October 1805, Admiral Nelson was waiting for him.

Traditionally, the plan of attack for naval battles of the time was to pull the ships into a nice straight horizontal line, then travel alongside the enemy line, broadside facing broadside and all guns blazing. However, Nelson was no traditionalist, but a keen pioneer of new ideas and tactics. He decided that the best way to take Villeneuve by surprise would be to charge at his line in two perpendicular columns, carving it into three and taking out the flagship in the first rush, leaving the rest of the line leaderless. It was a bold concept; the bows of the charging ships would not have any guns on them, so although they would be able to make a quick approach they would be defenceless against enemy fire until they were directly on top of the hostile ships, and once through it, finally able to turn broadside and fight back.

The plan was made on HMS Victory, one of Nelson’s two flagships, and on Victory he would go into battle and aim to take out French flagship Bucentaure, so that the second column, led by his second-in-command Admiral Cuthbert, could follow and attack the rest of the now leaderless fleet.

The British and Franco-Spanish fleets finally came within sight of each other on 21st October; in theory the latter had the advantage, having 33 ships to Britain’s 27, but this did not allow for Nelson’s superior bravado, leadership and flair. As the British closed with the superior force, he ordered the famous signal to be sent out, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Nelson certainly did his, leading by example and charging the enemy. Villeneuve was taken aback by the size of the British force facing his fleet, having expected a much greater disparity between the two, and was further unnerved by the gusto of the charge. He ordered his ships to return to Cadiz, then, seeing that they were not going to be able to out-run the British, turned them back to face the enemy; as a result, his line was not as sharp as it might otherwise have been, and formed more of a crescent than anything. The flagships’ flanking ships lagged behind, leaving it unprotected in front. As HMS Victory approached it was desperately fired upon, and was unable to return that fire. Before it even got to the Franco-Spanish line, 50 of the crew were killed or wounded. At 12.35 Victory finally turned, ran right under Bucentaure’s stern and fired a double-shotted broadside at her. Over 200 were killed or wounded, and although another French ship, Redoubtable, rapidly came to the rescue, the ship was already crippled. By 2.15, Villeneuve was forced to surrender her.

Still, HMS Victory was not out of the woods either. Redoubtable, under Captain Lucas, charged upon Victory with a will, firing both her cannons, and once slightly closer throwing grenades and firing at her with muskets. At 1.15, Nelson was hit. A lead ball went through an artery in his lung and lodged in his spine; Nelson fell to the ground, mortally wounded. He was rapidly taken below-deck, while his Flag Captain, Thomas Hardy, took over command of the fleet. The crew of Redoubtable tried to board HMS Victory, but were beaten back. At 1.30, the Captain of Redoubtable also surrendered as other ships came to Victory’s aid. More and more Franco-Spanish ships surrendered, until the fighting died down at around 4.30, despite the Lead Squadron of the enemy trying to come to the aid of the rest somewhat belatedly.

The dying Nelson had been demanding updates on the fighting throughout the afternoon, hoping to capture 20 ships. In the end 19 were actually taken, with not one British ship having been captured. One of Nelson’s last commands was ‘Anchor, Hardy, anchor’, as the weather began to turn. Before the Franco-Spanish fleet surrendered, just short of 4.30, he died, but not before Hardy had kissed him goodbye, and he had had a chance to say, over and over, “Thank God I have done my duty”.

In the end 1,700 British sailors were killed or wounded, to the enemy’s 6,000, and 20,000 prisoners were taken. It was a resounding victory. Many of those lives, and Villeneuve’s flagship, were lost in the storm following the battle.

Word soon reached Britain that the Franco-Spanish fleet had been defeated, and our waters and Britain itself were now safe; however, there was a great out-pouring of grief at the news of Nelson’s death that squashed the joy of victory. He would forever be known as a great hero and innovative leader. Britain’s naval superiority was safe for another century
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