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The Battle That Made Horatio Nelson a Legend

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

When people think about the conflicts of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, it is usually the large-pitched battles that come to mind. No doubt battles like Valmy, Hochenlinden, Austerlitz, Wagram or Leipzig played a great part in shaping these conflicts, but these wars were not just waged on land but also the sea, and these were often just as decisive.

The strongest and most resolute rival of France, Great Britain, was after all primarily a sea power and the formidable Royal Navy was the main reason why Britain, in the end, emerged victorious in 1815.

One of the key naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars was the Battle of Cape Trafalgar in October 1805, where a British fleet led by Admiral Horatio Nelson faced a combined Franco-Spanish fleet led by Admiral Pierre Villeneuve.

To understand why Trafalgar was such an important battle, we need to travel back in time a bit.

The Road to Cape Trafalgar

Following the decisive French victories at the Battles of Marengo and Hohenlinden, Austria, the last remaining continent ally of Britain, was forced to make peace with Napoleon in the early months of 1801. Britain’s other ally Russia had already retired from the Second Coalition in late 1799, and thus Britain was left alone.

Thanks to the formidable Royal Navy, Britain was safe for the time being. Nonetheless, lacking the ground forces of Austria and Russia, Britain was powerless to oppose the French on mainland Europe.

The two warring nations finally made peace in 1802, the Treaty of Amiens, which reestablished peace in Europe after a decade of war and turmoil.

Unfortunately, peace was not to last for long, as the conflict of interest and mutual mistrust between Britain and France led to the reopening of hostilities between them in 1803.

Napoleon assembled an army of 180,000 in Boulogne, at the Channel, and was ready to invade England. Unfortunately, with the British Royal Navy controlling the Channel, he could not transport his troops to England, and thus his invasion force remained encamped at Boulogne during the following two years.

The French were at an impasse, as unless they succeeded to broke British control over the Channel, there was no way to transport the army to Britain. However, with the British navy blockading the French coasts both in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean, there was seemingly little the French could do to alter the status quo at the Channel.

Growing impatient with his admirals, Napoleon stepped in and made a grand plan to solve the conundrum. He ordered admiral Villeneuve, who was in command of the Mediterranean fleet, to evade the blockade of Lord Nelson, sail to the French outposts in the West Indies and unite his fleet with the squadrons there. Villeneuve then was tasked to sail back to Europe, break the British blockade over the port of Brest, unite with the fleet present at Brest, and head towards the Channel. The combined fleet of Villeneuve and the ships from Brest would have given the French superiority of numbers in the Channel to protect the crossing of Napoleon’s army.

It was undoubtedly a grandiose plan, but it was also painfully obvious that it was a plan of a general acting as an admiral. As great as Napoleon was on land, he was a horrible naval strategist. He was either too stubborn or too arrogant to consider how storms, adverse winds and currents made it more or less impossible for a fleet of sailing ships to adhere to a schedule like this.

Pierre Villeneuve, the unfortunate man tasked with executing Napoleon's grandiose plan

Pierre Villeneuve, the unfortunate man tasked with executing Napoleon's grandiose plan

Nelson Chasing Villeneuve

Nonetheless, the first part of Napoleon’s plan went quite well. Lord Nelson, who was in command of the British Mediterranean fleet, decided to adopt a loose blockade of the French coasts, which allowed Villeneuve to evade him and leave the Mediterranean. For a while, Nelson was in the dark about the whereabouts of Villeneuve’s destinations, which gave Villeneuve a few weeks of a headstart.

Nonetheless, once he became aware of Villeneuve’s destination, Nelson set off in pursuit and arrived in the West Indies much quicker than expected, which prompted Villeneuve to head home earlier than he planned to.

With Nelson in hot pursuit, Villeneuve arrived back in Europe in July 1805. Nelson was still not sure where Villeneuve was heading, but luckily for the British, the French fleet was spotted on the Iberian coast, too north to head towards the Mediterranean. The only logical explanation for Villeneuve’s movements remained Brest.

To intercept Villeneuve, the British admiralty dispatched a fleet of 19 ships, including 15 ships of the line, under the command of Robert Calder. The British brought Villeneuve to battle at Cape Finistere. The battle was not decisive by any means. Although the British inflicted more damage than they suffered, Villeneuve successfully retreated to the port of Perol with 25 ships, losing only two in the engagement.

Nonetheless, the Battle of Cape Finistere convinced Villeneuve not to try his luck by sailing north, and he rather headed south to Cadiz.

With Villeneuve abandoning the initial plan, the invasion of Britain was called off, especially after Napoleon received intelligence that the British succeeded in inciting the Austrians and the Russians to attack him. The army of Boulogne was off to Germany to fight the Austrians and the Russians, and Britain, for the moment, was saved.

Nonetheless, Napoleon still had other plans for Villeneuve. He ordered him to sail back to the Mediterranean and transport the soldiers they carried to Naples. Villeneuve also received orders to engage the British fleet if he happened across them if he had superior numbers.

Nelson's Plan

Orders or not, Villeneuve chose to ignore them, as a British fleet was already present at Cadiz and kept a loose blockade of the port. Finally fed up with Villeneuve, Napoleon sent another order in October, announcing the demotion of Villeneuve. Villeneuve chose to ignore the orders once again and decided to depart from Cadiz to the open sea.

Nelson was in command of the British blockading fleet, and as usual, he deployed a loose blockade. He argued that this way, they may draw out the enemy fleet, as with a close blockade, there would be no chance of a battle in the open sea. His line of thinking worked, and the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was allowed to venture far out from the port.

When Villeneuve realised how strong the blockading fleet was, he changed his mind and ordered his fleet to head back to Cadiz, but it was too late; by then, a battle had become inevitable.

The Franco-Spanish fleet had the numerical advantage over the British, as they had 40 ships, including 33 ships of the line, to the 33 British ships, 27 of them ships of the line. The French and Spanish also had some huge ships, which were bigger and had more guns than the British. Nonetheless, their numerical and armament advantage was only apparent.

In reality, the fleet of Nelson was stronger than that of his opponent, as the crews of the Royal Navy were better trained and more battle-hardened. Furthermore, the naval doctrine of the French and British fleets also differed. The French were more defensive, and their gunners primarily aimed to demobilise the British ships. The British were more aggressive and their gunners aimed at the hull of their opponents, wanting to cause as much damage to the hull and the crews as possible.

The British also had a commander, Admiral Nelson, who easily outclassed Villeneuve.

The traditional method of the age to engage was for the two fleets to form a line and engage in an artillery duel until one side prevails and the other either surrenders or flees. Nelson chose to ignore this orthodox strategy and decided to take a riskier approach. He lined up his fleet into two columns and decided to break up the Franco-Spanish line. Nelson took command over the northern column, while his second in command, Vice Admiral Collingwood, took command over the southern column.

The plan was bold and was not without risk either. As most of the guns of the sailing ships were placed on the sides, the British columns would have to endure the cannonade of their opponents until they broke their lines. However, once they arrived there, they would be able to devastate the enemy ships and brake their line completely, leaving the groups of the Franco-Spanish fleet isolated.

This manoeuvre would also negate the numerical advantage of Villeneuve, as the northern section of the Franco-Spanish fleet would have to turn round to help their comrades. Still, with the light wind breezing on October 21, 1805, that manoeuvre would have taken hours.

The Battle and Aftermath

The British attacked as planned, and Collingwood’s column arrived first to break the Franco-Spanish line. Collingwood’s flagship was the first in the column and arrived first to engage the enemy. At first, he was seemingly in trouble, as his fast ship left behind the rest of the column, and for around 15 minutes, he engaged four enemy ships on his own. Still, the rest of the column arrived to reinforce their commander, and the superior English gunnery started to make the difference.

Luckily for the English, their enemies were also formed in two lines, which meant that the second line, thanks to its positioning, could not assist the first, which engaged the English first. The outnumbered and outmatched first line held out for a few hours, but eventually, they were forced to surrender.

On the northern side of the battle, Nelson led the column with his flagship, HMS Victory, and engaged the French flagship, Bucentaure. A similar scenario occurred in the northern section of the battle as it did in the southern, with the French and Spanish resisting heroically but eventually being forced to surrender.

Villeneuve, in desperate need, signalled to the unengaged vanguard to turn around; however, they were unable to arrive in time to save him and decided to sail away to save themselves. By the time the battle was over, the British had captured 22 of the 23 French ships of the line they had engaged, while the one they did not capture blew up spectacularly.

Villeneuve himself was forced to surrender and taken prisoner.

The battle was a decisive British victory; however, it came at some cost, as the British lost 1,700 men killed or wounded, and half their ships were very badly damaged. Their heroic commander Admiral Nelson was also mortally wounded during the battle when a French sharpshooter hit him. Nelson remained alive for a few more hours, living long enough to witness his last and greatest victory.

The two main reasons for the overwhelming British victory were Nelson’s bold strategy and superior British gunnery, including their doctrine, which enabled them to inflict much more damage on their enemies than they received.

Following his defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon gave up on his planned invasion against Britain and shifted strategy, employing economical warfare, his Continental System, in his attempt to break the power of Perfidious Albion.

Source

Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. (2005) Trafalgar 1805: Nelson’s Crowning Victory. Osprey Publishing.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler