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The Battle of Trafalgar

21 October 1805
Engage the Enemy More Closely

British Fleet: 27 ships-of-the-line Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, Commander-in-Chief


Flagship: Victory

Combined Fleet
(French/Spanish): 33 ships-of-the-line Vice-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, Commander-in-Chief
Flagship: Bucentaure

1. Background
The year 1805 opened in crisis for Great Britain. Napoleon Bonaparte had stationed an army of 164,000 men
near the Pas de Calais with plans to invade the British Isles later in the year. By December 1805, Bonaparte planned
to have conquered his most implacable foe, and open the way for unparalleled mastery of Europe. However, in order
to cover his invasion force, Napoleon first had to assemble the elements of his fleet that were scattered throughout the
ports of Europe. Throughout the spring and summer of 1805, Napoleon issued numerous and contradictory sets of
orders which he hoped would allow his fleet to assemble in Calais while simultaneously outwitting the ever watchful
British Navy. Despite the confusion these directives caused, a French squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Pierre
Villeneuve managed to rendezvous with a Spanish squadron under Vice-Admiral Don Frederico Gravina y Napoli,
and together they formed what was known as the Combined Fleet. However, unable to penetrate the British defenses
in the English Channel, the Combined Fleet sailed to the Spanish port of Cadiz. An English naval squadron followed
and the Combined Fleet soon found themselves trapped in Cadiz by the British blockade.

2. Opposing Forces
The raw numbers of the British force and Combined Fleet gave the French and Spanish a slight advantage.
The Combined Fleet had thirty-three ships-of-the-line versus the British twenty-seven. These additional six vessels
gave the French forces an additional 500 cannon.
However, though the Combined Fleet had the advantage in materiel, the Royal Navy benefitted from more
modern and experienced crews. Most of the Combined Fleets gun crews had never fired their cannon in a rolling,
pitching sea, whereas the British gun crews trained consistently. The Royal Navy had switched to faster firing
flintlocks, while the Combined Fleet still used old fashioned slowmatch. French gunners were taught to shoot at the
rigging of their enemys ship while British crews used the more aggressive tactic of aiming for an enemy ships hull.
The Royal Navys greatest superiority over the Combined Fleet was in leadership, for in September, Englands
greatest naval hero, Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, arrived to take command of the British squadron. Even before
Trafalgar, Nelson had already become Englands greatest naval hero, and, at this time period, was the British hero of
the Napoleonic Wars. Nelson was quick-witted, ruthless, and a master tactician who had already bested Napoleons
navies on numerous occasions, and was confident he would do so again.
Nelsons vigor and ability contrasted with the Combined Fleets commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral
Villeneuve. Although a competent seaman, Villeneuve lacked the inspiration and force of will that makes a great
commander. In the previous summer of false invasion starts that had left much of the French Navy dazed and
confused, Villeneuve had even tried to resign his command, stating:
I should like to point out to you that about all one can expect from a career in the
French navy today is shame and confusion . . . under no circumstances do I intend
to become the laughing stock of Europe by being involved in further disasters.

At the time, Napoleon refused Villeneuves resignation. However, in October Napoleon had changed his mind
and dispatched a rider with orders to relieve Villeneuve. This rider appeared at Cadiz just after the Combined Fleet

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had left port. These two fleets, with their respective capabilities, crews, and commanders, would meet that October
day in 1805.

3. Pursuit
By October 1805, Austrian and Russian armies were again on the move and threatening France, causing
Napoleon to cancel his English invasion plans in order to deal with this new menace. Bonaparte ordered the Combined
Fleet away from Cadiz and into the Mediterranean with the objective of covering his southern flank as he moved to
deal with the enemy armies. Although hesitant at first, the fleet finally took to sea on 19 October 1805. The British
were right behind them and took up pursuit through the night, the chase leading south on 20 October toward the Strait
of Gibraltar.
On the morning of the 21st, Admiral Villeneuve gloomily observed his fleet in a state of disorganization as
it neared the Strait of Gibraltar, near Cape Trafalgar. It had yet to form into a proper line, the ships in formless clusters
with gaps between them, though sometimes in double lines that masked each others broadsides. The fleets leading
ship, the Redoubtable, was two miles and fifteen ships ahead of where she was supposed to be, and the Bucentaure
had the wrong ships ahead and astern of her.
Yet, despite his problems, Villeneuve knew that he still had to deal with the pursuing English fleet. The
British ships had set their studding sails,1 indicating that they meant to catch and bring the Combined Fleet to battle.
This English determination severely limited Villeneuves options. First, he could continue on his present course to
the Strait of Gibraltar. By doing this, Villeneuve would allow his van2 to escape into the Mediterranean, but the
British could then descend on his center and rear divisions and destroy them. Or, he could turn his fleet around and
head back to Cadiz. Unfortunately, this option meant performing the more difficult maneuver of steering his ships
into a wind which now blew southeast and was at the Royal Navys back.
Villeneuve ordered the Combined Fleet to turn north to return to Cadiz. As the Combined Fleet turned, the
already ragged formation was thrown into further disarray as warship crews scrambled to avoid collisions with
disorganized allies who were in the wrong position. The fleets line now had so many gaps and double ship formations
in it that the British thought this to be a deliberate plan by the French. This was the state of the Combined Fleet when
the Royal Navy attacked.

4. Plan of Attack
Nelson deviated from standard naval tactics with his Trafalgar battle plans. Typically, fleets fought by
forming two parallel lines and blasting away at each other until one side withdrew. Unfortunately, this technique
provided no way to win an overwhelming victory.
At Trafalgar, Nelson wanted to change this, so he divided his fleet into two squadrons. He would lead the
windward3 squadron in the HMS Victory while his second-in-command, the capable Vice-Admiral Cuthbert
Collingwood would command the lee4 squadron. Nelsons group would drive into Villeneuves center, performing
what is now the classic naval maneuver called crossing the T. This called for his division, moving east-west, to cut
across the French line of battle, which lay north-south. As a result, Nelsons formation would lay atop the French
center squadron like the top of the letter T, separating the Combined Fleets center and rear squadrons from its forward
formation. As Nelson did this, Collingwoods squadron would attack the French rear and center further south. Then,
the more experienced crews of the British ships would destroy this part of the Combined Fleet before the French van
could turn and assist their comrades.

1
An extra sail set outside the square sails of a ship normally during fair weather.

2
The forward division of a fleet.

3
Situated in the direction from which the wind blows. At Trafalgar, with the wind blowing to the southeast,
the windward line would have been the northern squadron.

4
The side sheltered by the wind. At Trafalgar, the lee division was the southern squadron.

2
Just as the fleet was about to go into battle, Nelson used the Victorys telegraph5 to communicate his most
famous exhortation of the battle: England expects that every man will do his duty. Then, just before battle began
around noon on 21 October, Victory sent her last message to the fleet. This message, which would be the overriding
command during the fighting, flew from the Victorys halyards until shot away. It read: Engage the enemy more
closely

5. The Battle
It took six hours for the two British squadrons to travel the nine to twenty-one miles still separating them from
the Combined Fleet. Collingwoods squadron reached the Combined Fleet first. His ships sailed at an angle, like an
elongated crescent, so that each vessel engaged the French rear at approximately the same time.
At 11:50, the battle opened as the French ship Fougueux fired on Collingwoods squadron. The British force
sailed on and began returning fire at 12:00, and once they had slammed into the Combined Fleets formation, they
began to follow Victorys final order. The engagements that followed were not single ship combat, but often two
British ships concentrating their fire on a single enemy vessel before moving on to their next target.
As Collingwoods squadron brought the enemy center and rear to battle, Nelson succeeded in his maneuver
of crossing the T. He crashed through Villeneuves center at a whopping 3 knots (3.45 mph) and as the Victory
passed Villeneuves flagship, her gunners fired a 68-pound cannonball and a keg of 500 musketballs into the
Bucentaures stern. This blew the Bucentaures rear section to pieces, just as a second British warship opened up on
the hapless vessel. So damaged was the Bucentaure that Admiral Villeneuve was soon forced to transfer his flag to
another ship. However, he could find no ship able to send a boat for him, and so stayed on the Bucentaure, which
finally surrendered at 2:00 p.m..
Nelsons plan had worked. Villeneuves center and rear were cut off from the van, but as the British fleet
proceeded to pound the Combined Fleet into submission, the battle turned into a general melee, following no
prescribed plan or action. Fierce fighting took place all over the fleet, sometimes hand-to-hand as crews attempted
to board and capture an enemy vessel.
Three hours after the battle began, at 3:00 p.m., the French van finally managed to turn and head toward their
comrades aid. However, they were coming in too late, for by 2:30, the Combined Fleets rear division had been
effectively destroyed. Admiral Dumanoir, commanding the van, quickly saw no hope of aiding the center by this time
(the center would essentially be defeated by 3:30), and ordered his ships to withdraw.
By 4:30, the question of British victory was no longer in doubt. Those ships still fighting finally struck their
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colors at 5:00 and the British fleet had carried the day.

6. Aftermath
The British won a complete victory at Trafalgar. Nelsons fleet listed their casualties at 449 killed and 1,214
wounded. Though half of their vessels had taken a hard beating and were nearly unseaworthy, the British had not lost
a single vessel. On the other hand, the Combined Fleet estimated 4,000 dead, 8,000 wounded, and 11,000 taken
prisoner,7 with seventeen vessels captured and one blown up. The British captured Admiral Villeneuve,8 and Admiral
Gravina would soon die from battle-wounds.
However, not all had gone well for the British. Nelson had been shot at around 1:25 and this proved to be a
mortal wound, shattering his spine. Crewmen took Nelson below deck where he died around 4:30, having been told

5
This was a system by which signals flags would be raised on a halyard to communicate various messages to
other ships.

6
They had surrendered.

7
The exact number of dead and wounded on the Combined Fleet side has never been firmly established. It
is estimated that another 2,000-3,000 French and Spanish sailors and 200 British sailors would die of their wounds in
the following days after the battle.

8
He would later kill himself by sticking a pin in his heart.

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of the British victory. All England mourned the death of their greatest naval hero, but his death during his greatest
victory sealed Nelsons reputation.
For Napoleon, the battle could not have been more disastrous. Though he had already canceled the invasion
of England, Trafalgar forever ended any thought of a French invasion of the British Isles. Unable to further challenge
Britain on the ocean, Napoleon would wage economic warfare by enacting his Continental System, though this did
as much harm to his own empire as it did the British. Meanwhile, themselves unable to challenge Napoleon on land,
the British used their naval assets to make overseas resources available to them and their allies until they could bring
the war to the European continent. After Trafalgar, no French fleet of any size ever ventured out into the ocean again
and England was confirmed as the master of the seas for the next 140 years.

Sources:

Blake, Nicholas, and Richard Lawrence. The Illustrated Companion To Nelsons Navy. Mechanicsburg, PA:
Stackpole Books, 2000.

Goodwin, Peter. Nelsons Ships: A History of the Vessels In Which He Served 1771-1805. Mechanicsburg, PA:
Stackpole Books, 2002.

King, Dean. A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick OBrian.
New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2000.

Lavery, Brian. Nelsons Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1793-1815. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989.

Mackenzie, Colonel Robert Holden. The Trafalgar Roll: The Ships and the Officers. London: George Allen &
Company, 1913; reprint, London: Chatham Publishing, 2004.

Nicholson, Adam. Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar. New York: HarperCollins Publishers,
2005.

Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815. London: W.W. Norton &
Company, 2004.