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The Battle of Trafalgar

Nelson's crushing defeat of the French and Spanish Navies,
 establishing Britain as the dominant world naval power for a century.

The French Ship Redoubtable
The French ship Redoubtable during her magnificent resistance at the Battle of Trafalgar.
It was a musket shot from Redoubtable that mortally wounded Nelson.
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War: Napoleonic

Date: 21st October 1805

Place: At Cape Trafalgar off the South Western coast of Spain, south of Cadiz.

Combatants: The British Royal Navy against the Fleets of France and Spain.

Admirals: Admiral Viscount Lord Nelson and Vice Admiral Collingwood against Admiral Villeneuve of France and Admirals d’Aliva and Cisternas of Spain.

The Beginning of the Battle of Trafalgar

Size of the fleet: 32 British (25 ships of the line, 4 Frigates and smaller craft), 23 French and 15 Spanish (33 ships of the line, 7 Frigates and smaller craft). 4,000 troops including riflemen from the Tyrol were posted in small detachments through the French and Spanish Fleets.

H.M.S. Victory
His Majesty's Ship Victory

Winner: Memorably, the Royal Navy.

British Ships: Nelson's Division: HMS Victory (Flagship), Temeraire, Neptune, Conqueror, Leviathan, Ajax, Orion, Agamemnon, Minotaur, Spartiate, Euryalus, Britannia, Africa, Naiad, Phoebe, Entreprenante, Sirius and Pickle.
Collingwood's Division: HMS Royal Sovereign (Flagship), Belleisle, Mars, Tonnant, Bellerophon, Colossus, Achilles, Polyphemus, Revenge, Swiftsure, Defiance, Thunderer, Prince of Wales, Dreadnought and Defence.  

H.M.S. Britannia
His Majesty's Ship Britannia

French Ships: Bucentaure (Flagship), Formidable (Flagship), Scipion, Intrepide, Cornelie, Duguay Truin, Mont Blanc, Heros, Furet, Hortense, Neptune, Redoubtable, Indomitable, Fougueux, Pluton, Aigle, Swiftsure, Argonaute, Berwick, Hermione, Themis, Achille and Argus.

Spanish Ships: Santa Anna (Flagship), Santissima Trinidad (Flagship), Neptuno, Rayo, Santo Augustino, S. Francisco d’Assisi, S. Leandro, S. Juste, Monarca, Algeciras, Bahama, Montanes, S. Juan Nepomucano, Argonauta and Prince de Asturias.

Map of the Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar

Ships and Armaments:
Sailing warships of the 18th and 19th Century carried their main armaments in broadside batteries along the sides. Ships were classified according to the number of guns carried or the number of decks carrying batteries. Nelson’s main force comprised 8 three decker battleships carrying more than 90 guns each. The enormous Spanish ship Santissima Trinidad carried 120 guns and the Santa Anna 112 guns.

The size of gun on the line of battle ships was up to 24 pounder, firing heavy iron balls or chain and link shot designed to wreck rigging. Trafalgar was a close fleet action. Ships manoeuvred up to the enemy and delivered broadsides at a range of a few yards. To take full advantage of the close range guns were “double shotted” with grape shot on top of ball. It is said that the crews in some French ships were unable to face this appalling ordeal, closing their gun ports and attempting to escape the fire.

Ships manoeuvred to deliver broadsides in the most destructive manner, the greatest effect being achieved by firing into an enemy’s stern, so that the shot travelled the length of the ship wreaking havoc and destruction. The first broadside, loaded before action began, was always the most effective.

Admiral Lord Nelson struck down on the deck of HMS Victory at Trafalgar

Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign fired its first broadside at Trafalgar into the rear of the Spanish ship Santa Anna causing massive damage.

Ships carried a variety of smaller weapons on the top deck and in the rigging, from swivel guns firing grape shot or canister (bags of musket balls) to hand held muskets and pistols. With these weapons each crew sought to annihilate the enemy officers and sailors on deck.

Wounds in Eighteenth Century naval fighting were often terrible. Cannon balls ripped off limbs or, striking wooden decks and bulwarks, drove splinter fragments across the ship causing great injury. Falling masts and rigging inflicted crush injuries. Sailors stationed aloft fell into the sea from collapsing masts and rigging and were drowned. Heavy losses were caused when a ship finally succumbed and sank or blew up.

The discharge of guns at close range easily set fire to an opposing vessel. Fires were difficult to control in battle and several ships were destroyed in this way, notably the French ship Achille.

The ultimate aim in battle was to lock ships together and capture the enemy by boarding. Savage hand to hand fighting took place at Trafalgar on several ships. The crew of the French Redoubtable, living up to the name of their ship, boarded Victory but were annihilated in the brutal struggle on Victory’s top deck.

Ships’ crews of all nations were a tough bunch. The British with continual blockade service against the French and Spanish were particularly well drilled. British gun crews could fire three broadsides or more to every two fired by the French and Spanish. The British officers were hard bitten and experienced.

A young officer joining the Royal Navy in 1789, when the French Wars began, would have served for 16 years of warfare by the time of Trafalgar.

British captains were responsible for recruiting their ship’s crew. Men were taken wherever they could be found, largely by means of the press gang. All nationalities served on British ships including French and Spanish. Loyalty for a crew lay primarily with their ship. Once the heat of battle subsided there was little animosity against the enemy. Great efforts were made by British crews to rescue the sailors of foundering French and Spanish ships at the end of the battle.

Life on a warship, particularly the large ships of the line, was crowded and hard. Discipline was enforced with extreme violence, small infractions punished with public lashings. The food, far from good, deteriorated as ships spent time at sea. Drinking water was in constant short supply and usually brackish. Shortage of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables meant that scurvy easily and quickly set in. The great weight of guns and equipment and the necessity to climb rigging in adverse weather conditions frequently caused serious injury.

Nelson as a Post Captain in 1781
Nelson as a Post Captain in 1781

Above all a life primarily carrying out blockade duty was monotonous in the extreme. The prospect of a decisive battle against the French and Spanish put the British Fleet in a state of high excitement.

In July 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte secretly left Milan and hurried to Boulogne, where his Grande Armée waited in camp to cross the Channel and invade England. Napoleon only needed Admiral Villeneuve to bring the French and Spanish Fleets from South Western Spain into the Channel to enable the invasion to take place.

The First Sea Lord appointed Admiral Lord Nelson Commander in Chief of the British Fleet assembling to attack the French and Spanish ships. Nelson selected His Majesty’s Ship Victory as his flagship and sailed south towards Gibraltar. As the British ships intended for the Fleet were made ready they sailed south to join Nelson.

In October 1805 Villeneuve was still in harbour in Cadiz. He received a stinging rebuke from Napoleon accusing him of cowardice and Villeneuve steeled himself to leave harbour and make for the Channel. He was encouraged in his resolve by the belief that there was no strong British Fleet nearby and that Nelson was still in England. Other than picket frigates watching the harbour Nelson kept his main fleet well out to sea.

The gun deck on H.M.S. Victory
The gun deck on H.M.S. Victory

On 19th October 1805 at 9am HMS Mars relayed the signal received from the frigates that the Franco-Spanish Fleet was leaving Cadiz in line of battle.

At dawn on 21st October 1805, with a light wind from the West, Nelson signalled his fleet to begin the attack. The British captains understood fully what was required of them. Nelson had explained his tactics over the previous weeks until every ship knew her role.

At 6.40am the British Fleet beat to quarters and the ships cleared for action: cooking fires thrown overboard, the movable bulkwarks removed, the decks sanded and ammunition carried to each gun. The gun crews took their positions.

The French and Spanish Fleets were sailing in line ahead in an arc like formation. The British Fleet attacked in two squadrons in line ahead; the Windward Squadron led by Nelson and the Leeward (southern or right squadron) headed by Collingwood in Royal Sovereign; the ships of the Fleet divided between the two squadrons.

Nelson aimed to cut the Franco-Spanish Fleet at a point one third along the line with Collingwood attacking the rear section. In the light wind the van of the Franco-Spanish Fleet would be unable to turn back and take part in the battle until too late to help their comrades.

Scene from the Battle of Trafalgar : Redoutable under attack and dismasted
Scene from the Battle of Trafalgar : Redoutable under attack and dismasted
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Nelson seems to have been entirely confident of success. He told his Flag Captain, Hardy, he expected to take 20 of the enemy’s ships. He was also convinced of his impending death in the battle. Nelson told his friend Blackwood, the captain of the Euryalus, who came on board Victory, “God bless you, Blackwood. I shall never see you again.” He wore dress uniform with his decorations, a conspicuous figure on the deck of the Victory.

In his long and eventful naval career Nelson had lost an arm and an eye. Perhaps, like Wolfe at Quebec, he preferred to die at the moment of supreme victory rather than live on in a disabled state.

The two British squadrons, led by the Flagships, sailed towards the Franco-Spanish line, Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign significantly ahead of Victory. Anxious that the admiral should not be excessively exposed to enemy fire, the captain of Temeraire attempted to overtake Victory, but was ordered back into line by Nelson.

The Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar

The first broadside was fired by the French ship Fougueux into Royal Sovereign as Collingwood burst through the Franco-Spanish line. Royal Sovereign held her fire until she sailed past the stern of the Spanish Flagship, Santa Anna. Royal Sovereign raked Santa Anna with double shotted fire, a broadside that is said to have disabled 400 of her crew and 14 guns.

Royal Sovereign swung round onto Santa Anna’s beam and the two ships exchanged broadsides. The ships following in the Franco-Spanish line joined in attacking Collingwood: Fougueux, San Leandro, San Justo and Indomptable, until driven off by the rest of the Leeward Squadron as they came up. Royal Sovereign forced Santa Anna to surrender when both ships were little more than wrecks.

Fighting Temeraire
The Fighting Temeraire by William Mallord Turner: The Fighting Temeraire
towed to be broken up in 1837: sad remnant of one of Nelson's great ships.
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Victory led the Windward Squadron towards a point in the line between Redoubtable and Bucentaure. The Franco-Spanish Fleet at this point was too crowded for there to be a way through and the Victory simply rammed the Redoubtable, firing one broadside into her and others into the French Flagship Bucentaure and the Spanish Flagship Santissima Trinidad. The British ship Temeraire flanked Redoubtable on the far side and a further French ship linked to Temeraire, all firing broadsides at point blank range.


The following ships of Nelson’s squadron, as they came up, engaged the other ships in the centre of the line. The leading Franco-Spanish squadron continued on its course away from the battle until peremptorily ordered to return by Villeneuve.

During the fight with Redoubtable the soldiers and sailors in the French rigging fired at men exposed on the Victory’s decks. A musket shot hit Nelson, knocking him to the deck and breaking his back. The admiral was carried below to the midshipmen’s berth, where he constantly asked after the progress of the battle. Eventually Hardy was able to tell him before he died that the Fleet had taken 15 of the enemy’s ships. Nelson knew he had won.

Laying a gun at Trafalgar
British Royal Navy : Sailors and officers laying a gun before firing into the enemy

The battle reached its climax in the hour after Nelson’s injury. Neptune, Leviathan and Conqueror, as they came up, battered Villeneuve’s Flagship Bucentaure into submission and took the surrender of the French admiral. Temeraire while fighting the Redoubtable fired a crippling broadside into the Fougueux. Leviathan engaged the San Augustino bringing down her masts and boarding her.

His Majesty's Ship Neptune in action at the Battle of Trafalgar

In the Leeward Squadron Belleisle was stricken into a wreck by Achille and the French Neptune until relieved by the British Swiftsure. Achille was then battered by broadsides until fires reached her magazine and she blew up.

All the French and Spanish ships of that part of the line were destroyed, captured or fled: of the 19 ships, 11 were captured or burnt while 8 fled to leeward. Many of these ships fought hard. Argonauta and Bahama lost 400 of their crews each. San Juan Nepomuceno lost 350. When she blew up Achille had lost all of her officers other than a single midshipman. The resistance of the French ship Redoutable was was quite in keeping with her name.

The Franco-Spanish van commanded by Admiral Dumanoir passed the battle, firing broadsides indiscriminately into comrade and enemy, and returned to Cadiz.

Casualties: British casualties were 1,587. The French and Spanish casualties were never revealed but are thought to have been around 16,000.

Follow-up: Following the battle a storm blew up wrecking many of the ships damaged in the action. Of those captured only 4 survived to be brought into Gibraltar.

The consequences of the battle were far reaching. Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain was thwarted. He broke up the camp at Boulogne and marched to Austria where he won the great victory of Austerlitz against the Austrians and Russians.

Trafalgar ensured that Britain’s dominance at sea remained unchallenged for the rest of the 10 years of war against France and continued worldwide for a further 120 years.

Nelson dying in the cockpit of HMS Victory

Admiral Villeneuve was taken a prisoner to England. On his release he travelled back to France but died violently on the journey to Paris.

Lord Nelson’s body was brought to England and the admiral given a state funeral. His body is entombed in St Paul’s cathedral in London.

His Majesty's Ship Belleisle after the Battle of Trafalgar
His Majesty's Ship Belleisle after the Battle of Trafalgar.

Anecdotes and traditions:

The Battle of Trafalgar by Turner
Turner's magnificent representation of the Battle of Trafalgar

Trafalgar : The end of the battle