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The Battle of Trafalgar – the (British) Empire strikes back

The British describe Trafalgar as the most important naval battle in the history of mankind. There is certainly some exaggeration in this, but it must be admitted that this battle has affected the later fate of almost the whole of Europe. It was there that Napoleon’s naval power was devastated, and the brilliant manoeuvre of Admiral Nelson, who died in the battle, secured the United Kingdom’s reign on the seas for over 100 years.

In 1805 Europe had been in war for 10 years. After the victorious campaigns on the continent, Emperor Napoleon turned his eyes to his next enemy, Great Britain. On the way to the invasion of the Isles, there was the English Channel and British Navy, whose task it was to stop and destroy the endangering Empire connected by a French-Spanish fleet. In October 1805, the United Kingdom closed the blockade of the enemy fleet, which took refuge in a Spanish port in Cadiz. The British knew that Napoleon was unbeatable on land – but it was they who dominated the seas, and they had to confirm it at all costs.

British Admiral Horatio Nelson
Lemuel Francis Abbott via Wikimedia Commons

The person on whose shoulders this responsibility was incumbent was the most famous naval commander in the history of the British fleet, known for his indecent character, charisma and command skills – Admiral Horatio Nelson. Respected by his men, he was a great strategist, and a brave and experienced soldier – he took part in sea expeditions to India, the wars with France and Denmark against which he won three great victories: at Abukir, near Copenhagen and under Trafalgar. During his service he lost sight in the right eye and right arm.

At that time, sea battles had rather a fixed pattern: hostile fleets were aligned in line lines parallel to each other and started a cross-arming side fire. Such clashes could have lasted even a few days and sometimes ended without a clear decision. Neither Nelson nor British politicians were totally interested in such a solution. Everything had to be put on one card – the French fleet had to be destroyed, thereby averting the threat of invasion of Britain and confirming the uniquely reign of the Empire on the seas.

Nelson’s flagship ship from Trafalgar, HMS Victory. It is now used as a ship – a museum in Portsmouth.
David Hewitt via Wikimedia Commons

Starting from this assumption, Nelson prepared an attack plan that was risky and gave hope for the elimination of Napoleon’s ships from subsequent warfare. The British Admiral intended to form two columns that were supposed to flow perpendicularly to the combined fleet and brutally wander into the middle of the enemy formation and destroy the them fighting at a close distance. The goal was to allow British artillerists to destroy the ship after the ship, taking advantage of the their of fire power and excellent training. However, this plan had a weak point – before reaching the French, the fleet of the Empire had to withstand almost an hour of shooting of enemy ships.

Nelson knew that the combined Spanish-French fleet had a numerical advantage over the British forces. The French Commander, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, had 33 ships of the line and 5 frigates (including the heaviest ships on the world at the time, Spanish Santisima Trinidad with 130 guns and Príncipe de Asturias, Santa Ana with 122 guns each) , while Nelson had, respectively: 27 ships of the line, the heaviest of which each had 100 guns and the smaller ones with 67 guns, as well as 4 frigates. Apart from the difference in the number of ships, there were also large differences in their structure and properties, which had to be taken into account at that time.

French ships, which were found under Trafalgar, were characterized by great hydrodynamics and solid construction. Additionally, they were quite quick. The Spanish ships, built mainly as protection of convoys sailing to Europe from South America, were equally dangerous. They were a good combination of combat capability, strength and high speeds they could achieve.

The beginning of the Battle. Two British columns are breaking the combined fleet’s formation.
Nicholas Pocock via Wikimedia Commons

We should also mention a very important fact which could have decided on the outcome of the battle, which is the training of the crews. British sailors have had a lot of combat experience and a few months at sea. They could freely practice their combat, shooting, and manoeuvres in the open water. The French and Spanish, who were confined in Cadiz, did not have such an opportunity. They spent this time mainly on land, and their ships stood in the port – so there was no question of shooting from the guns. This lack of training, laziness was later to have a catastrophic effect on the later combat capacity of the combined fleet. In addition, the French fleet was only a shadow of its pre-French Revolutionary power, during which officers lost their lives or left the navy and ships were roaring in ports. The lack of training and experience was tragic for the French people during the battle that was about to come, and this is where the British Admiral saw his chances, who decided on such a bold and unconventional attack.

On 21st October Villeneuve brought his ships to the sea. Set in a line formation, Napoleon’s combined fleet occupied the whole horizon. Around noon, when the French and Spanish were at the level of Cape Trafalgar, their British forces were catching up, attacking them with two columns across Napoleon’s linear string. The first column was led personally by Nelson on the flagship Victory, and the second one by Count Cuthbert Collingwood on the Royal Sovereign. Because of the weak wind, the British people were shot for as long as an hour from the French cannons before reaching the enemy lines, unable to respond with fire.

The Battle’s scheme
Alexander Keith Johnston via Wikimedia Commons

About 12:45 Victory crossed the enemy’s lines beginning the battle at close distance in the form of duels between ships. Leading past the French flag vessel Bucentaure and the ship Redoutable, British flagship left a devastating side line on the Bucentaure, which killed or injured a large part of the ship’s crew. The British people who had a tactical and fire advantage were devastating amongst the rest of Villeneuve’s fleet and the battle of victories quickly started to bend on their side, but then Nelson himself was in a deadly danger. French 74-vessel Redoutable, the only ship of the French fleet that was able to fight and defeat the British flagship, came to Victory.

Captain  of Redoutable, Jean Jacques Lucas, during his forced stay in Cadiz, predicted how the lack of training and training would affect the subsequent battle with the British. That’s why his crew in sweat of his forehead practiced what was standing up while mooring in the port, that is shooting, abordaining and close combat. They deadly surprised the crew of Victory under the Trafalgar, first by firearms killing the majority of people on the upper deck and then carrying out further abordaining attempts.

Nelson never thought to hide from the crutches, and all the time he walked peacefully on board, contemptuously contempting the danger and wanting to motivate his soldiers to fight. Dressed differently from the rest, he was a great target for the French shooters. After 13:00 a. m. one of them managed to shoot and hit Nelson in the spine. The deadly wounded commander ordered immediately to lift him under the deck, not wanting that the sight of his own dying ship would have a negative impact on the morale of seamen.

The moment Nelson was shot by a French shooter.
Denis Dighton

The battle was still going on; soon afterwards, a British ship Temeraire came from the other side of Redoutable and with a few murderous salvos forced the French crew to give up. Just a short while earlier captain Lucas had only 99 out of 643 people and he was not thinking of stopping the attacks on Victory.

The rest of the French fleet was overwhelmed. Great Britain did not lose a single ship, while France and Spain lost as much as 21 seized ships (plus one damaged), more than 3,200 deaths, almost 2,500 injured and 4,000 captured people.

Admiral Horatio Nelson died at 4:30 p. m., being aware of the great victory he managed to achieve. His bold and risky plan allowed the French fleet to be destroyed, but it cost the lives of one of the best naval commanders that history has seen. The last words of admiral were “God and my country”. He was heard earlier in the sentence “Thank God I have done my duty”.

HMS Sandwich and HMS Temeraire fighting Bucentaure
Auguste Mayer

French Vice Admiral Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve was taken prisoner and after several months in custody in the British Isles was allowed to return to France. On April 22,1806, he was found dead in his house in Rennes, having several puncture wounds in his breast. The French police found suicide, but it is possible that he was murdered by Napoleon’s order, who could not forgive the vice admiral command under Trafalgar. At the time of his death, Villeneuve was the last living of the three remaining commanders of Trafalgar (Spanish Admiral Federico Carlos Gravina and Nápoli died on 9th March because of wounds received in the battle).

The trafalgarian victory not only gave up the spectre of a possible invasion of Napoleon’s troops on the British Isles, but above all, it strengthened the maritime hegemony of British fleets and enabled them to thrive in the colonial empire.

Source Britannica British Battles Royal Navy

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