When the fragile Peace of Amiens collapsed after just fourteen months in May of 1803, triggering the War of the Third Coalition, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was determined to invade England. His goal was to remove once and for all the British interference with his plans for the conquest of Europe. In 1803, England was a part of that ultimately unsuccessful Third Coalition (Austria, Russia, England, Sweden, the Holy Roman Empire, Napoli and Sicily) opposing France and Napoleon’s alliance which included Spain, Württemberg, and Bavaria.
The main obstacle to those invasion plans, as had been so often in the past (and would be in the future) was the Royal Navy. Britain had stood, alone, against revolutionary Republican France, and against Napoleon, at various times between 1789 and 1803. In the autumn of 1805, a combined French and Spanish fleet under French Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, operating in the western approaches of the Mediterranean, were to combine with other squadrons at Brest and elsewhere to challenge the Royal Navy’s sea power in the English Channel.
Lord Nelson, after less than a month ashore from two years at sea, was ordered to take command of approximately 30 vessels, which included 27 ships of the line, and sail to meet the combined French/Spanish fleet gathered at Cadiz. Aboard HMS Victory, Nelson eschewed the more conservative tactic of engaging the enemy in line-ahead, trading broadsides while alongside the parallel column of the enemy. Nelson instead planned to maneuver perpendicular to the enemy line of battle, with his fleet in two columns. Nelson in Victory would lead the larger, northern (windward) column, while Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign, would lead the southern (leeward) column.
The goal was to divide the French/Spanish fleet into smaller pieces and leverage local superiority to destroy the fleet in detail before the remainder could be brought to bear. (The risk, of course, was the possibility that the allied broadsides would rake and destroy the British columns upon their approach before they could bring their own broadsides into action.) It was a tactic used by Admiral Sir John Jervis at the battle of St. Vincent some eight years before, a British victory in which Commodore Nelson had served under the future Earl St. Vincent.
The French/Spanish fleet was larger, with 40 ships to Nelson’s 33, and counted more ships of the line, 33 to the Royal Navy’s 27. Several of the French and Spanish ships were far larger than even Nelson’s Victory, carrying considerably more cannon. But the Royal Navy held two important advantages.
Firstly, the Officers of the RN were far more experienced than their French and Spanish counterparts, and of significantly higher quality. The bloodbath of the French Revolution, predictive of the Soviet purges of the 20th Century, saw the execution or cashiering of the cream of the French Officer Corps. Also, the British crews, particularly the gunners, were far better trained and disciplined than those on the allied ships. In the coming battle, both fleet maneuver and ship handling would be critical to the outcome.
Just after noon on 21 October, Nelson observed the French/Spanish fleet struggling with light and variable winds, in loose formation off Cape Trafalgar, wallowing in a rolling sea. Nelson and Collingwood led their respective columns toward the enemy, enduring broadsides without the ability to respond, and suffering considerable casualties. However, allied gunnery was not accurate and the rate of fire was subpar, allowing the British warships to close.
As the two British columns sliced through the allied line, the battle degenerated into individual battles between ships, and sometimes two and three against one. Casualties on both sides soared, as cannon and musket fire raked gun decks and topside. Nelson’s flagship Victory herself was almost boarded, by the French Redoubtable, saved at the last minute by HMS Temeraire, whose timely broadside slaughtered the French crews preparing to board.
At quarter past 1pm, as Nelson walked topside with Victory’s Captain, Thomas Hardy, he collapsed to the deck, struck in the left shoulder with a musket ball. The ball had torn through his chest and severed his spine. Nelson knew he had been mortally wounded. Carried belowdecks, he lingered for about three hours, weakening, but still inquiring about the course of the battle. His last words, according to physician William Beatty, who was an eyewitness, were, “Thank God I have done my duty.”
Slowly, the superior British gunnery and seamanship began to tell. Ships in the allied column, many a bloody shambles of broken masts, shredded sails, and dead crewmen, began to surrender. By 4pm, the action came to a merciful end. The result of the battle was a serious defeat of the French/Spanish fleet. The van of the allied line never were able to circle back and engage either of the two British columns. Twenty-two allied ships were captured, one French vessel sunk. The French and Spanish suffered almost 14,000 casualties, with more than 8,000 seamen and Officers captured, including Admiral Villeneuve. The Royal Navy had lost no ships, despite the dismasting of two frigates. Casualties numbered 1,666, with 458 dead, including Britain’s greatest Naval hero.
It was Nelson himself who was, of course, the greatest advantage the Royal Navy possessed. Nelson’s skill and aggressive command style, his ability to motivate men and engender something very close to complete devotion in his junior commanders, and his willingness to issue orders and refrain from meddling, all were part of the famous “Nelson touch”. His tawdry personal life, his open affair with Lady Hamilton, a lawsuit against Earl St. Vincent over prize money from the Battle of Copenhagen, all this was overlooked, and in some cases added to the legend and celebrity of Horatio Nelson. His likeness, replete with empty sleeve (from a grievous wound received at Santa Cruz) adorns a 143-foot column in Trafalgar Square. Lord Nelson’s name is synonymous with the Royal Navy. The guidance he gave to his ships’ captains echoes down through the centuries. “No captain can do very wrong should he lay his ship alongside that of the enemy”**.
Ironically, the great victory at Trafalgar came one day after the annihilation of an Austrian army at Ulm, another in an unbroken string of successes for Napoleon’s armies on the European mainland. The Third Coalition, like the two previous would suffer defeat at Napoleon’s hand. As would the Fourth Coalition. It would not be until 1815 that Napoleon would be defeated for good, this time, on land, by Wellington at Waterloo.
Of course, Nelson hadn’t any knowledge of the Battle of Ulm, or even the campaign. But he likely did know that his defeat of the combined French and Spanish naval forces off Cape Trafalgar had once and for all eliminated the threat of invasion of the British Isles.
**A fascinating look at the evolution from Nelson’s entreaty of the duty of a Royal Navy captain to the risk-averse and centralized sclerosis of command that plagued the Royal Navy in the First World War is provided in a masterpiece by Andrew Gordon called The Rules of the Game (USNI Press). Worth every second of the read, as both a historical work and as a cautionary tale.