The Battle of Trafalgar and the Deafening Thunder of English Cannons
There have been crucial periods in the modern history of Europe that shaped its future and dictated the destinies of many nations. Sadly, these periods were often marked by wars and conflicts in which the proud nations of Europe battled for dominance and wealth, setting into motion events that were unimaginably powerful. One such period is known as the Napoleonic Wars – a series of conflicts that shattered the nations of Europe, defining the world as we know it today. These wars entailed larger-than-life battles that became permanently etched in the pages of history. The subject of our latest tale is the Battle of Trafalgar, a defining clash of the Napoleonic Wars that dictated the tides of the unfolding conflict and drastically changed the future of Europe.
Napoleon’s Aims and the Prelude to the Battle of Trafalgar
In the history of Europe’s many wars, the navies of powerful nations often played a critical role –dictating the final outcomes of such conflicts. Nations that gained naval dominance controlled much of the unfolding conflict – imposing blockades, blocking routes, and efficiently managing supplies. But any nation confined to an island found itself in quite a vulnerable position, being constantly exposed to naval attack.
This was the exact idea Napoleon Bonaparte had during the War of the Third Coalition. Lasting from 1803 to 1806, this war was a key part of the wider Napoleonic Wars. During its relatively short course, the First French Empire under Napoleon faced the Third Coalition – an alliance between Britain, Austria, Russia, and their allies. As a part of his expansionist goals, Napoleon planned to invade the British Isles and conquer them, thereby vanquishing one of his chief enemies – Britain. To do this, Napoleon would firstly have to rely on his navy and combine the entire French fleet with those of his allies, decisively gaining control of the English Channel in one fell swoop and leaving the British Isles vulnerable and open to invasion. At least, that was the theory.
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Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1802 (Public Domain)
Part of Napoleon’s plan in 1805 to win in the English Channel, was to have the majority of his navy sail to the Caribbean. They were to join up with the French ships stationed there, and once sufficiently restocked, they were to sail back to Europe in full force. At that time, the commander of the French Mediterranean fleet was the Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. He was one of the more obedient commanders at Napoleon’s side, albeit not the most competent one.
The English, however, boasted a highly skilled commander of their Mediterranean Fleet – the legendary Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. In 1805, Lord Nelson was blockading the French forces at Toulon. His naval blockade was loose, not applying too much pressure, in the hopes of enticing the French into battle. Another part of the English fleet, under the command of Lord Cornwallis, was blockading Brest. With these obstacles in place, Napoleon’s plan for his fleet to regroup in the Caribbean was not possible.
Preparing for the Inevitable
When a fierce storm hit Nelson’s ranks and set his ships off course, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve managed to break through with his own fleet, and successfully completed his mission. He rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet –allies of Napoleon – and promptly set sail across the ocean towards the Caribbean. Upon his return to Europe some months later, Villeneuve showed his lack of tactical experience by making a move that would later prove to be a big mistake. Napoleon had given Villeneuve the orders to return to the port at Brest, where the entire French fleet would assemble and as such prove a big challenge for Nelson. Fearing that the English knew his moves, Villeneuve unexpectedly changed his course and sailed towards the Spanish port of Cadiz.
Detail of the restored HMS Victory, Portsmouth, England (Shelli Jensen / Adobe Stock)
At this time, Lord Admiral Nelson was in Britain. On 2 September 1805, he received news of a large combined French and Spanish fleet stationed at Cadiz. Knowing the worth of such information, Nelson acted. His flagship – one of England’s finest vessels – the HMS Victory, was prepared on 15 th September. Meanwhile, commander Cornwallis had received the same information. Shrewdly, he decided to detach a major portion of his fleet – 20 line ships – and have them sail towards the south, with the same goal as Nelson. These ships approached Cadiz on 15 th of September and had to wait for Nelsons fleet until the 28 th. Villeneuve’s fleet was once more in a bad position.
Tooth and Nail – Could Experience Outclass Numbers in the Battle of Trafalgar?
At his disposal Lord Admiral Nelson had 27 ships of the line. These were standard warships of the period, albeit classed in several variants. Of those 27, only 3 ships were of the first rate – his flagship HMS Victory included. These three ships were the largest, finest, and most powerful, each bearing 100 guns. Another 4 ships were the ‘second rates’. These bore 98 guns each and were equally formidable. Of the remaining 20 vessels, only one bore 80 guns, while 16 ships bore 74 guns. The weakest 3 at his disposal were 64-gun vessels.
The combined Franco-Spanish fleet clearly outnumbered the English. Villeneuve had 33 ships at his command, compared to 27 of Nelson’s. The Spaniards fielded 4 first rate vessels, which were some of the most powerful in the world at the time. Of those 4, two bore 112 guns, one had a 100, and one had an amazing 130 guns – 30 more guns than the HMS Victory. Of the remainder, most were ships with 74 guns, with several bearing 80. Thus, in theory, Villeneuve had the advantage with more guns and larger vessels at his command, but what he clearly lacked was the resolve and tactical advantage, both of which belonged to Nelson.
Another factor in the result of the engagement to come was the expertise of the crews. The English seamen were experienced and tough. Many of them veterans, they were used to the harsh conditions on board a warship. Compared to them, the Franco-Spanish men clearly lacked the capability. As they spent most of their time under blockades and without any serious engagements, these sailors were not thoroughly prepared, and many of them had to receive training ‘on the go’.
English sailors operating a cannon (ca. 1800) (Juulijs / Adobe Stock)
An additional disadvantage was the cannons of Napoleon’s fleet. Most of, if not all the Franco-Spanish cannons were fired by using the slow burning fuse. This, combined with the lack of experience of the sailors, placed the effective rate of fire for the French and Spanish cannons somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes per shot. On the other hand, the English seamen relied on a flintlock firing mechanism. Combined with their expertise and constant practice, their rate of fire was at only 90 seconds per shot – a clear advantage over their enemies.
The Day of Reckoning – Nelson Engages
Napoleon’s orders for Villeneuve were clear: Sail the combined fleet from Cadiz down to Naples . Indecisive, Villeneuve changed his mind on what to do several times over the next few days, until finally he gave in to pressure and ordered the fleet to depart from the port of Cadiz on the 18 th of October 1805. His first problem was the lack of favorable weather. The winds were light and weather calm – failing to give them swift passage. The fleet’s progress was slow and because of it, the British knew of their movements.
At first, as his fleet reached open waters, Villeneuve ordered a 3-line formation. Around 20 th of October, his ships spotted the British ships pursuing them in the distance. They prepared for battle, with Villeneuve ordering a single line formation. In the morning, the English were fully visible, pursuing in formation with the wind at their back.
On the 21 st of October, the day of the battle, the English fleet was about 21 miles (34 kilometers) northwest of Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast with the Franco-Spanish fleet positioned between them. Nelson ordered battle preparations at around 6 AM, and Villeneuve’s fleet was able to observe their formations about 2 hours later. Villeneuve then decided to turn his entire fleet back and return to Cadiz. This order wasn’t carried out effectively – lack of favorable winds meant that the ships took a long time to turn. When they finally did so, the resulting formation was an uneven, stretched line that went on for roughly 5 miles (8 kilometers). Nelson pressed his formations continuously, and by 11 in the morning, his ships were fully visible to the French and Spanish.
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A probable reproduction of Nelson’s message (Naval Marine Archives)
For his attack, Nelson chose a parallel line formation, cutting straight into the middle of the stretched line of his enemy. With Villeneuve’s ships in loose formation, Nelson had difficulty identifying the flagship. Still, he took the risk, despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Around 11:45, the battle was about to begin. It was at that moment that Lord Admiral Nelson issued his famous order to be flown from the mizzen mast of his ship, a naval coded flag signal that spelled: “ England expects that every man will do his duty”. This message will remain as an iconic moment of the battle.
The Swift and Brutal Battle of Trafalgar
At around noon, the battle commenced. The two British columns cut into the enemy’s line of ships and devastating exchanges of cannon fire ensued. As ships maneuvered and sought the proper angles for firing their guns, some found themselves in favorable positions, and some not so much. The British HMS Royal Sovereign, bearing 100 guns, managed to deliver a devastating salvo at the Spanish ship Santa Ana. On the other hand, the British ship HMS Belleisle found itself attacked by four enemy ships at once. Her masts were destroyed almost at once and she was effectively put out of action. What ensued amongst the other vessels was a close quarter, devastating battle – hundreds of cannons firing at once, cloaking the scene with the smoke of gunpowder as the solid iron cannonballs ripped through wood and canvas and flesh.
An engraved illustration image of Nelson boarding the San Josef at the Battle of St Vincent from a vintage Victorian book dated 1886 (Tony Baggett / Adobe Stock)
Soon after, a melee formed. Ships locked together and troops attempted boarding. Even so, the English managed to maintain the upper hand. The rear of their lines continually entered the fray and placed unrelenting pressure on lone ships of the scattered French and Spanish vessels. Several enemy ships were sunk, while one after another, the rest surrendered. One major French vessel exploded, and 21 ships – both French and Spanish – were captured by the British. As the battle drew to a close, it became clear that the English fleet had gained a victory.
It was a bitter win. During the battle, an enemy sharpshooter fired a musket at Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. The bullet struck him at the shoulder, piercing his lung and stopping in the spine. He was quickly taken below deck. It is documented that Nelson first asked for the outcome of the battle, to which his closest man – Thomas Hardy – answered that the day was won. Some state that afterwards Nelson uttered his final words. First, he said to Hardy: “Not over the side”, indicating that he did not want a sea burial. Then it is said that he muttered: “Thank God I have done my duty” or “God and my country”. His final words were uttered in the lower deck of his own flagship, the HMS Victory.
The Victory of Trafalgar - A Thunder to Last Eternity
Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson achieved a stunning naval conquest. Much of it can be contributed to his own experience, and that of his men, as well as the decisive decision making throughout his campaign. By overwhelming and gradually defeating the combined fleet of the French and Spanish, he thoroughly changed the course of the Napoleonic Wars, and guaranteed the naval dominance of the English for the next century.
Death of Nelson bronze plaque, Trafalgar Square, England (BasPhoto / Adobe Stock)
Even so, Nelson paid for his victory with the ultimate price – his own life. But death took him only in flesh – his name, his deeds, and his memory will live on eternally.
Top image: The Battle of Trafalgar, oil on canvas by John Christian Schetky, c. 1841. Source: Yale Center for British Art / Public Domain
Bennet, G. 2004. The Battle of Trafalgar. Pen and Sword.
McGrigor, M. 2004. Defiant and Dismasted at Trafalgar: The Life and Times of Admiral Sir William Hargood. Pen and Sword.
Warner, O. 2003. Nelson’s Battles. Pen and Sword