Memorable Battles in World History
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Battle of Trafalgar

Title: Battle of Trafalgar
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The Battle of Trafalgar was one of history's most important naval engagements. On May 16, 1803, after a scant 14 months of peace, fighting resumed between Britain and France. First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte  of France collected along the northern French coast a large number of small craft and a sizable number of men in what he called the Army of England for an invasion attempt. How serious he was is by no means clear, but in early October 1804 British captain Sidney Smith led a raid of fire ships against the mouth of the Rhine, destroying a number of vessels in the purported invasion fleet. British naval units also kept French warships from concentrating elsewhere for any cross-Channel attempt.

In 1805 Napoleon, now emperor, ordered another invasion effort. This was based on a deception he hoped would cause the British to leave the Channel unprotected. Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve's fleet at Toulon and allied Spanish ships under Admiral Federico Carlos de Gravina were to sail to the West Indies. At the same time, Admiral Honoré Ganteaume and his 21 ships were to break out from Brest and release Spanish ships at El Ferrol in northwest Spain. French hopes rested on British warships pursuing west. The French fleets would unite at Martinique under Ganteaume, elude their pursuers, and make for the Channel. Napoleon assumed he would then have available 60–70 ships of the line and at least a dozen frigates to provide a brief period of naval mastery sufficient to convoy a host of small vessels ferrying an invading army across the Channel to England.

British vice admiral Horatio Nelson had been carrying out a loose blockade of Toulon in the hope of enticing out his opponent. On March 30 Villeneuve indeed escaped Toulon and sailed west into the Atlantic, where he reached Cádiz and linked up with Admiral de Gravina. Their combined 20 ships of the line, 8 frigates, and some smaller vessels then sailed for the West Indies with Nelson's 10 ships in pursuit. Napoleon's orders were for Villeneuve to wait at Martinique no longer than 35 days. If Ganteaume was unable to break free of Brest, Villeneuve was to proceed to El Ferrol and then on to Brest to release Spanish and French ships for the invasion attempt.

After inconclusive maneuvering, on June 8 Villeneuve panicked on the news that Nelson was in pursuit and departed Martinique for Europe. Nelson followed and returned to Gibraltar on July 20. Two days later Admiral Sir Robert Calder, with 15 ships of the line and 2 frigates, clashed with Villeneuve's combined fleet off Cape Finisterre. The Spanish ships bore the brunt of the attack, and the British took 2 of them as prizes, along with 1,200 seamen as prisoners. Poor visibility allowed the remainder of the combined fleet to escape, but 5 other Spanish vessels, including a frigate, were so badly damaged that they had to go into dry dock for repairs. Three British ships lost masts. Calder had won a nominal victory, but it was by no means decisive.

Villeneuve, meanwhile, proceeded to El Ferrol and then, on August 13, sailed south to Cádiz, where he was reinforced with Spanish ships. The British soon had this combined naval force under blockade. British prime minister William Pitt insisted that Nelson, then in England, take over command from Vice Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood.

Arriving on station, Nelson rejected Collingwood's cautious close blockade in favor of a loose arrangement that kept his fleet out of sight of Cádiz. He used a line of frigates to signal the main body of the fleet over the horizon, some 50 miles out. Nelson hoped this would entice out the French and Spanish. A loose blockade was risky because his enemies might get away. Nelson, however, preferred it to no action at all.

Nelson had no way of getting the French and Spanish to oblige him, however. Napoleon arranged that. In mid-September he ordered the combined fleet to the Mediterranean to support French operations in southern Italy, a recipe for disaster. Villeneuve was well aware that his ships were not ready to do battle. Many of the Spanish crews were untrained, a large number of his own men were sick, and he could not be certain what British force was lurking offshore. His Spanish colleagues also urged him not to sail on grounds of approaching bad weather.

On the plus side, the wind was to the south and Villeneuve was aware that Nelson had recently detached some of his ships to escort a convoy through the Straits. Nelson also had committed the serious error of allowing Calder to sail home to a board of inquiry over Cape Finisterre in a ship of the line rather than a smaller vessel. Yet Villeneuve risked everything in the final analysis because he was stung by Napoleon's charges of cowardice and the news that he was about to be replaced as commander of the combined fleet. Indeed, Napoleon had dispatched Vice Admiral François Étienne Rosily-Mesros to Cádiz to succeed him, whereupon Villeneuve was to return to Paris to explain his conduct.

On October 19 the French and Spanish ships began exiting Cádiz; in all 33 allied ships of the line (18 French and 15 Spanish) straggled out over that day and the next. His lookout frigates soon informed Nelson, off Cape Spartel. Nelson called his captains to a council of war and explained his daring plan. Outnumbered by his opponents, who also boasted the two largest ships, Nelson intended to attack in two or three columns to cut off some 20 or so ships in the allied van from the remainder. With the French and Spanish ships running before the wind, the others would find it difficult to tack back and rejoin the action. By the time they could come up, Nelson hoped to have the battle decided. This extraordinarily bold plan promised either great success or disaster.

When Nelson's ships appeared and approached the Franco-Spanish fleet, Villeneuve realized the size of his opponent's force and ordered the combined fleet to turn back toward Cádiz, a decision that astonished his flag captain. The five-mile-long, irregular allied line became even more ragged; in places ships of the line bunched up and even came abreast. Nelson's 27 ships, in two divisions, did not hesitate but drove directly into the center of the opposing line, cutting it in two.

In numbers of guns the British had only 2,148 to 2,568 for the allies. The French and Spanish also had some 30,000 men to slightly more than 17,000 for the British. But Nelson's ships were far superior in terms of gunnery training and seamanship. These factors and superior leadership more than compensated for any deficiencies in numbers.

In the resulting five-hour battle on October 21, 1805, the British took 19 allied ships. Another, the Achille, blew up. No English ship was lost, but human casualties were heavy, and Nelson was among them. His flag in the Victory had been easily visible to ships in the van of the combined fleet, and the flagship became a principal target for Spanish-French gun crews and sharpshooters. Pacing the deck in full uniform, early in the battle Nelson fell mortally wounded from a musket ball fired by a sharpshooter in the Rédoutable. Carried below, he learned of the great victory before he died.

The British seamen did not have long to mourn their beloved leader or to savor their victory. A great storm came up and, despite valiant efforts, most of the prizes were lost in the fierce tempest. Crewmen who had just fought each other now fought just as desperately to save their ships and themselves. Only four of the prizes were saved—a cruel disappointment to seamen who had hoped to profit from hard-earned prize money.

Not one British ship was lost; but of the original 19 prizes, excluding the four taken to Gibraltar, Collingwood ordered four scuttled, including the giant Spanish ship of the line Santísima Trinidad. Two others escaped to Cádiz. The remainder either sank in the storm or were dashed on the rocks with heavy personnel losses. Although 13 ships of the combined fleet made it back to Cádiz, three of these soon broke up on the rocks. As a consequence of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy had thus reduced its opponents by 23 capital ships.

Napoleon, who had just won a great victory over a Habsburg army at Ulm, dismissed the Battle of Trafalgar in one sentence: "Some ships have been lost in a gale following an unwisely undertaken engagement." In truth the Battle of Trafalgar shattered the French Navy for decades to come. Trafalgar also marked the completion of the shift from the "formalist" school of fleet tactics to the "melée" school. Nelson's tactics, combined with a new signaling system, saw sailing ship warfare at its peak. Trafalgar was quite possibly the most important naval victory in British history and it raised Nelson to the status of the greatest of Britain's military heroes. It also established Britain as mistress of the seas, not seriously challenged until the end of the 19th century.

More immediately, the battle confined Napoleon to the land. To get at the British thereafter, Napoleon resorted to a war against their trade from the land side by denying British goods entry into all parts of Europe. This led to the Continental System, which alienated many Europeans, and to the over-extension of French military commitments.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Howarth, David. Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch. New York: Atheneum, 1969; Pope, Dudley. Decision at Trafalgar. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1960; Schom, Alan. Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803–1805. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990; Tunstall, Brian. Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: The Evolution of Fighting Tactics, 1650–1815. Ed. Nicholas Tracy. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1990.
 

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