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Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805

After the short-lived Peace of Amiens, the Third Coalition declared war on France, and Napoleon became determined to invade Britain. To enable this invasion, he needed to gain control of the English Channel to make sure that the Royal Navy could not disrupt the invasion fleet.

French and allied Spanish fleets were bottled up in the Mediterranean and Cadiz subject to British blockades. Napoleon's plan was for these fleets to break through the blockade, join forces in the Caribbean and then return to assist the fleet in Brest to escape the blockade there. This huge combined fleet would then clear the English Channel of British ships, giving the invasion barges a clear passage to the British coast.

Vice-Admiral Villeneuve's fleet successfully evaded Nelson's blockade rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet as planned, and sailed to the Caribbean. During the return from the Caribbean to Europe, with the order to assist breaking the blockade at Brest, Villeneuve lost two ships in the Battle of Cape Finisterre and he abandoned this plan, sailing instead back to Ferrol.

He once again received orders from Napoleon to continue to Brest as originally planned. Napoleon's plans required Villeneuve's fleet of 33 ships to join Vice-Admiral Ganteaume's fleet of 21 ships together with a squadron of 5 ships under Captain Allemand thus ensuring sufficient force to sweep the English Channel of Royal Navy ships.

However, concerned that his manoeuvres were being observed, Villeneuve sailed towards Cadiz instead of Brest. News that the combined French and Spanish fleet were in the harbour of Cadiz reached England on 2nd September. Nelson, who had returned home for some rest after two years of duty at sea, had to wait until 15th September until his ship HMS Victory was ready to sail.

Admiral Cornwallis had detached 20 ships of the line from his fleet guarding the English Channel and had them sail southward to engage the enemy forces in Spain. This fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral Calder, reached Cadiz on 15th September.

The Combined Fleet was at this time in disarray. The blockades had made it difficult for the allies to obtain stores and the ships were ill fitted. Also, as the main French ships of the line had been kept in harbour for years by the blockades, the French crews were very inexperienced. Most of the crew were taught seamanship during only a few brief sorties and therefore gunnery training had been neglected. In addition Villeneuve’s voyage across the Atlantic and back consumed many vital supplies.

On 16th September 1805 Villeneuve was ordered by Napoleon to sail the from Cadiz to Naples at the first favourable opportunity. At first Villeneuve was optimistic about returning to the Mediterranean but then had second thoughts and remained in Cadiz.

On 29th September Nelson joined the British fleet off Cadiz and took command. He initially wanted to lure the combined fleet out to engage in a “pell-mell battle” and used a force of frigates and schooners led by Captain Blackwood to watch the harbour, keeping the main force out of sight to the West.

On 2nd October, Nelson sent 5 ships of the line to Gibraltar for supplies. The ships were, however, diverted for convoy duty and did not return or take part in the battle. In early October Nelson was ordered to send Vice-Admiral Calder home for court-marshal for his apparent lack of engagement during the encounter with Villeneuve off Cape Finisterre. Nelson allowed Calder to return in his own ship and thereby also lost the 98-gun Prince of Wales for the impending battle. Further British ships, however, continued to arrive, and the fleet was up to full strength by 15th October.

Villeneuve's supply situation began to improve in October, but news of Nelson's arrival had unsettled him and made him reluctant to leave port. A war council was held aboard his flagship, Bucentaure, and while some of the French captains wished to obey Napoleon's orders, the Spanish captains and many other French officers, including Villeneuve himself, thought it best to remain in Cadiz.

However, on 18 October 1805, Villeneuve changed his mind and ordered the Combined Fleet to sail immediately even though there were only very light winds.

Villeneuve had received word that Vice-Admiral François Rosily was to take over command of the Combined Fleet and he decided to set sail before his successor could reach Cadiz, thus avoiding disgrace. At the same time, news that the ships Nelson had detached for supplies were now docked at Gibraltar – thereby weakening the British fleet – was received by Villeneuve and he used this as the pretext for his sudden change in plan.

The calm weather slowed the progress of the combined fleet leaving the harbour, and this gave Nelson plenty of warning and time to prepare. Villeneuve’s plan was to deploy four squadrons, containing both French and Spanish ships. However, after the vote to stay in Cadiz, several captains were reluctant to follow Villeneuve’s orders and the fleet sailed from the harbour in an unstructured formation.

To organise the fleet, Villeneuve required most of the day on 20th October, and they finally set sail in three columns towards the southeast late in the day. That evening, Achille sighted 18 British ships of the line in pursuit. During the night, Villeneuve then ordered his ships into a single line.

At 6am on the morning of 21st October, Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle.

At 8am, Villeneuve ordered his fleet to wear together to turn back for Cadiz. The order of the combined fleet line was thereby reversed; the original rear division under Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley became the vanguard.

The light wind made manoeuvering extremely difficult and the inexperienced crews struggled to cope, so it took nearly an hour and a half for the order to be completed. After the manoeuvre, the combined fleet formed a ragged and drawn out curved line heading north.

By 11am Nelson's entire fleet of 27 ships of the line and 4 frigates was visible to Villeneuve. Against the prevailing tactics of the time, which involved approaching the enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engaging in parallel lines, Nelson decided to approach in two parallel columns perpendicular to the enemy line and thereby cut Villeneuve’s line in three. One column was led by Vice-Admiral Collingwood, and was to approach the rear of the combined line. The other column led by Nelson, was to close on the centre and vanguard

Nelson planned specifically to cut the line just in front of Villeneuve’s flagship. This would isolate the ships in front of the break and they would not be able to see the flagship's signals. The idea was that those ships would effectively be taken out of combat while they reformed.

The plan had several advantages, but also inherent dangers.

On the plus side, it would enable the British fleet to close on the combined ships as quickly as possible, thus reducing their chances avoid battle and escape without fighting. Also, it would allow the British ships to engage quickly in ship-to-ship mêlée action, which the British crews were likely to win. Nelson knew his crews were far more experienced and their better seamanship, faster gunnery, and higher morale were an enormous advantage. Additionally, once the enemy line had been broken, their ships would be subject to devastating bow and stern rakes from the British fleet.

The main drawback of approaching head on and perpendicular was that the leading British ships would be open to direct fire on their bows without opportunity to return fire. Nelson ordered his ships make all available sail so as to approach as fast as possible and reduce the time his leading ships would be subject to enemy fire. He was aware that French and Spanish crew were poorly trained and would have difficulty firing accurately as the Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell, which was causing the ships to roll heavily and ensuring that accurate broadsides would require experienced gunners. A risky but calculated tactic.

Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants. He therefore waited for Villeneuve to show his flag, so he would know where to strike. The British fleet was outnumbered and outgunned; the combined fleet had six more ships of the line, and could combine their fire as the British ships closed. Nelson's leading ships would not be able to avoid being "doubled on" or even "trebled on". As the two fleets drew closer, anxiety obviously began to build among officers and sailors.

At 11:45am, Nelson sent his famous flag signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty".

Originally Nelson had requested: “England confides that every man will do his duty”, however, as the word “confides” was not part of the standard signal vocabulary, it would have had to have been spelt out. Signal officer John Pasco suggested using the word “expects” instead as that was in the signal book and would speed up raising the signal. Nelson replied: "That will do, Pasco, make it directly” and the immortal phase was shown on the mizzen mast in 12 “lifts”.

As HMS Victory closed on the combined line at the head of the windward British column, Nelson led his ships into a feint toward the van of the enemy fleet and then abruptly turned toward the actual point of attack between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable.

Due to the light winds, all ships were moving very slowly, and the leading British ships in both columns were under heavy fire for almost an hour before their own guns could be brought to bear.

Collingwood’s ship HMS Royal Sovereign leading the leeward column outran the rest of the British fleet as she was had recently had her hull cleaned. As she closed on the allied line, she came under fire from Fougueux, Indomptable, San Justo and San Leandro simultaneously. She broke line astern of Admiral Alava's flagship Santa Ana, and fired a raking broadside as she passed.

HMS Victory endured fire from Héros, Santísima Trinidad, Redoutable and Neptune for 40 minutes as she closed. Many crew were killed and wounded – including John Scott, Nelson's Public Secretary, who was standing on the quarter deck talking with Captain Thomas Hardy. When her wheel was shot away, her crew were forced to steer Victory from her tiller belowdecks. Nelson and Hardy remained on the starboard side of the quarterdeck. When a splinter hit Hardy's shoe, tearing off the buckle, Nelson observed: “This is too warm work to last for long”.

At 12:45pm, HMS Victory cut the enemy line right under the stern of the flagship Bucentaure. She fired a devastating rake through the stern, which killed and wounded many men (according to some accounts over 200) on her gundecks. Nelson then engaged the 74 gun Redoutable. Bucentaure was left to be dealt with by the next three ships of the British windward column: Temeraire, Conqueror and Neptune. Villeneuve was effectively trapped on a crippled ship, and the combined centre was already in chaos.

The crew of the Redoutable, included a strong infantry corps who attempted to board HMS Victory. As part of this attempt, the captain of Redoutable tried to clear Victory's upper deck with musket fire and hand grenades. A 0.69in-diameter lead musket ball fired from the mizzentop of the Redoutable hit Nelson in the left shoulder, cut an artery in his lung, passed through his spine and lodged in the muscles of his back. It was clearly a mortal wound and Nelson exclaimed, "They finally succeeded, I am dead." Hardy ordered his chief to be carried below decks.

The crew of the Victory fought against and thwarted the boarding attempts, but were forced below decks by French grenades. As the Redoutable crew were then preparing to board Victory, the Temeraire, approached the Redoutable from starboard and fired on the French crew with a carronade, causing many casualties.

At 1:55pm, the captain of the Redoutable Jean Jacques Étienne Lucas surrendered. His crew had been reduced to 99 fit men from a full crew of 643 and he was severely wounded himself.

At 2:15pm Villeneuve surrendered, his flagship Bucentaure was isolated and crippled.

At 2:20pm Hardy could go below to report to Nelson, but he could not stay long, as at this time, the still relatively un-engaged portion of the van under Rear-Admiral Dumanoir Le Pelley made a futile attempt to come to the assistance of the collapsing centre.

Hardy visited Nelson again at 3:30pm to confirm the victory. As he lay dying, Nelson ordered “'Anchor, Hardy, Anchor!” as a storm was predicted. Surgeon William Beatty heard Nelson murmur repeatedly, "Thank God I have done my duty”. Nelson died shortly before 4.30pm, as the battle was finally drawing to a close. His chaplain, Alexander Scott, who remained by Nelson as he died, recorded his last words as “God and my country.”

The British took 22 vessels of the combined fleet and lost none. The cost of victory was high for both sides, though. Some 1,700 British were killed or wounded, with 6,000 enemy casualties and nearly 20,000 prisoners.


by Robert Phillips, Canvey Island, September 2013

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