The Battle of Trafalgar
Nelson's crushing defeat of the French
and Spanish Navies,
establishing Britain as the dominant world naval power for a
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign fired its first broadside at
Trafalgar into the rear of the Spanish ship Santa Anna causing
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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
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
His Majesty's Ship Belleisle after the Battle of Trafalgar.
Anecdotes and traditions:
- As the British Fleet bore down on the Franco-Spanish line Nelson
directed Lieutenant Pascoe, the signal officer of Victory, to send
the signal to the Fleet “Nelson confides every man will do his
duty.” Captain Hardy and Pascoe suggested this be changed to
“England expects every man will do his duty”. Nelson agreed. As the
signal ran up Victory’s halyard the Fleet burst into cheers. Nelson
followed this with his standard battle signal “Engage the enemy more
- Nelson was a remarkable man. He combined a gentleness of character
with an extreme ruthless aggression in action. This combined with
his technical brilliance at sea made him an invincible enemy.
Nelson’s tactic at Trafalgar was simple but devastatingly effective.
Nelson was widely feared. If Villeneuve had known that the British
admiral was present outside Cadiz harbour it seems unlikely that
even the scathing messages from Napoleon would have enticed him to
sea. An American captain sailing into Cadiz assured the French
admiral that Nelson was still in London.
- Nelson default instruction to his officers was “No captain can do
wrong if he puts his ship alongside the nearest enemy”.
- HMS Victory, Nelson’s Flagship, lies in Portsmouth Harbour
preserved as it was at the time of the battle.
- In his final letter Nelson asked that the Nation look after his
mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, and their daughter, Horatia. Nelson’s
brother was ennobled and his wife awarded a pension. Nothing was
done for Lady Hamilton. She died in reduced circumstances in Calais
- The naming of the warships: Many of the Spanish ships carried
religious titles: Santa Anna, Santissima Trinidad, Santo Juan
Nepomuceno. Classical labels were popular with the British and
French: Mars, Ajax, Agamemnon, Minotaur (British); Scipion, Pluton,
Hermione, Argus, Neptune (French). There were Swiftsures and
Achilles in the British and French Fleets. The French had an
Argonaute and the Spanish an Argonauta. Three British ships held
French names: Belleisle, Tonnant and Bellerophon, marking that these
ships or their predecessors had been captured from France. The
French took names from heroic characteristics: Redoutable,
Indomitable, Intrepide. Two British names reflected great size:
- All three navies had a ship named after the classical god
You can trace any member of the British Fleet by searching
on this web site:
Turner's magnificent representation of the Battle of Trafalgar
Trafalgar : The end of the battle