Battle of Trafalgar, 1805

The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) was a naval engagement between the British Royal Navy and the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies during the War of the Third Coalition (August–December 1805) of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).
As part of Napoleon's plans to invade England, the French and Spanish fleets combined to take control of the English Channel and provide the Grande Armée safe passage. The allied fleet, under the command of French Admiral Villeneuve, sailed from the port of Cádiz in the south of Spain on 18 October 1805. They encountered the British fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson, recently assembled to meet this threat, in the Atlantic Ocean along the southwest coast of Spain, off Cape Trafalgar.

Leading up to the battle

When the Third Coalition declared war on France, after the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon renewed his determination to invade Britain. To do so, he needed to ensure that the Royal Navy would be unable to disrupt the invasion flotilla, which would require control of the English Channel.
The main French fleets were at Brest in Brittany and at Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. Other ports on the French Atlantic coast harboured smaller squadrons. France and Spain were allied, so the Spanish fleet based in Cádiz and Ferrol was also available.
The British possessed an experienced and well-trained corps of naval officers.[a] By contrast, some of the best officers in the French navy had either been executed or had left the service during the early part of the French Revolution.
Napoleon's naval plan in 1805 was for the French and Spanish fleets in the Mediterranean and Cádiz to break through the blockade and join forces in the Caribbean. They would then return, assist the fleet in Brest to emerge from the blockade, and together clear the English Channel of Royal Navy ships, ensuring a safe passage for the invasion barges.

The Players...

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Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, and Vice-Admiral of the White. Commander of the British Fleet at Trafalgar and already a veteran of many battles during the War. 

Cuthbert Collingwood, 1st Baron Collingwood and Vice Admiral of the Blue. Collingwood's merits as a naval officer were in many respects of the first order. His political judgement was remarkable and he was consulted on questions of general policy, of regulation, and even of trade. He was opposed to impressment and to flogging and was considered so kind and generous that he was called "father" by the common sailors. Nelson and Collingwood enjoyed a close friendship, from their first acquaintance in early life until Nelson's death at Trafalgar; and they are both entombed in St Paul's Cathedral. 

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Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, Vice-Admiral of the Fleet at Toulon and Commander of the French-Spanish Navy at Trafalgar. Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve had taken command of the French Mediterranean fleet following the death of Latouche Treville. There had been more competent officers, but they had either been employed elsewhere or had fallen from Napoleon's favour. Villeneuve had shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for facing Nelson and the Royal Navy after the French defeat at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

Federico Carlos Gravina y Nápoli, Spanish Admiral. When Napoleon proposed to invade Great Britain, following the orders of the government of Godoy, Gravina was placed under the command of French Admiral Villeneuve, who took the Franco-Spanish fleet into Caribbean waters to confuse the British fleet. The objective was to allow the crossing of the English Channel by 180,000 men that Napoleon had waiting around Boulogne. 

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The Pursuit of Villeneuve

Early in 1805, Vice Admiral Lord Nelson commanded the British fleet blockading Toulon. Unlike William Cornwallis, who maintained a close blockade off Brest with the Channel Fleet, Nelson adopted a loose blockade in the hope of luring the French out for a major battle. However, Villeneuve's fleet successfully evaded Nelson's when the British were blown off station by storms. Nelson commenced a search of the Mediterranean, supposing that the French intended to make for Egypt, but Villeneuve instead took his fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar, rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet, and sailed as planned for the Caribbean. Once Nelson realised that the French had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he set off in pursuit.

The Chase to the West Indies

Villeneuve returned from the Caribbean to Europe, intending to break the blockade at Brest, but after two of his Spanish ships were captured during the Battle of Cape Finisterre by a squadron under Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, Villeneuve abandoned this plan and sailed back to Ferrol in northern Spain. There he received orders from Napoleon to return to Brest according to the main plan.
Napoleon's invasion plans for Britain depended on having a sufficiently large number of ships of the line before Boulogne in France. This would require Villeneuve's force of 33 ships to join Vice-Admiral Ganteaume's force of 21 ships at Brest, along with a squadron of five ships under Captain Allemand, which would have given him a combined force of 59 ships of the line.
When Villeneuve set sail from Ferrol on 10 August, he was under orders from Napoleon to sail northward toward Brest. Instead, he worried that the British were observing his manoeuvres, so on 11 August, he sailed southward towards Cádiz on the southwestern coast of Spain. With no sign of Villeneuve's fleet, on 25 August, the three French army corps' invasion force near Boulogne broke camp and marched into Germany, where it was later engaged. This ended the immediate threat of invasion.
The same month, Admiral Lord Nelson returned home to Britain after two years of duty at sea. He remained ashore for 25 days and was warmly received by his countrymen. Word reached Britain on 2 September about the combined French and Spanish fleet in Cádiz harbour. Nelson had to wait until 15 September before his ship, HMS Victory, was ready to sail.
On 15 August, Cornwallis decided to detach 20 ships of the line from the fleet guarding the English Channel to sail southward to engage the enemy forces in Spain. This left the Channel short of large vessels, with only 11 ships of the line present. This detached force formed the nucleus of the British fleet at Trafalgar. This fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral Calder, reached Cádiz on 15 September. Nelson joined the fleet on 28 September to take command.
The British fleet used frigates (faster, but too fragile for the line of battle), to keep a constant watch on the harbour, while the main force remained out of sight, approximately 50 miles (80 km) west of the shore. Nelson's hope was to lure the combined Franco-Spanish force out and engage it in a decisive battle. The force watching the harbour was led by Captain Blackwood, commanding HMS Euryalus. His squadron of seven ships comprised five frigates, a schooner, and a brig.

Supply Issues

At this point, Nelson's fleet badly needed provisioning. On 2 October, five ships of the line, HMS Queen, Canopus, Spencer, Zealous, Tigre, and the frigate HMS Endymion were dispatched to Gibraltar under Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Louis for supplies.
These ships were later diverted for convoy duty in the Mediterranean, although Nelson had expected them to return. Other British ships continued to arrive, and by 15 October the fleet was up to full strength for the battle. Nelson also lost Calder's flagship, the 98-gun Prince of Wales, which he sent home as Calder had been recalled by the Admiralty to face a court martial for his apparent lack of aggression during the engagement off Cape Finisterre on 22 July.

Meanwhile, Villeneuve's fleet in Cádiz was also suffering from a serious supply shortage that could not be easily rectified by the cash-poor French. The blockade maintained by the British fleet had made it difficult for the Franco-Spanish allies to obtain stores, and their ships were ill-equipped. Villeneuve's ships were also more than two thousand men short of the force needed to sail. These were not the only problems faced by the Franco-Spanish fleet. The main French ships of the line had been kept in harbour for years by the British blockade with only brief sorties. The French crews included few experienced sailors, and, as most of the crew had to be taught the elements of seamanship on the few occasions when they got to sea, gunnery was neglected. The hasty voyage across the Atlantic and back used up vital supplies. Villeneuve's supply situation began to improve in October, but news of Nelson's arrival made Villeneuve reluctant to leave port. Indeed, his captains had held a vote on the matter and decided to stay in harbour.

On 16 September, Napoleon gave orders for the French and Spanish ships at Cádiz to put to sea at the first favourable opportunity, join with seven Spanish ships of the line then at Cartagena, go to Naples and land the soldiers they carried to reinforce his troops there, then fight decisively if they met a numerically inferior British fleet.

The Fleets

British - On 21 October, Admiral Nelson had 27 ships of the line under his command. Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, captained by Thomas Masterman Hardy, was one of three 100-gun first rates in his fleet. He also had four 98-gun second rates and 20 third rates. One of the third rates was an 80-gun vessel, and 16 were 74-gun vessels. The remaining three were 64-gun ships, which were being phased out of the Royal Navy at the time of the battle. Nelson also had four frigates of 38 or 36 guns, a 12-gun schooner and a 10-gun cutter.

Franco-Spanish - Against Nelson, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve, sailing on his flagship Bucentaure, fielded 33 ships of the line, including some of the largest in the world at the time. The Spanish contributed four first-rates to the fleet. Three of these ships, one at 130 guns (Santisima Trinidad) and two at 112 guns (Príncipe de Asturias, Santa Ana), were much larger than anything under Nelson's command. The fourth first-rate carried 100 guns. The fleet had six 80-gun third-rates, (four French and two Spanish), and one Spanish 64-gun third-rate. The remaining 22 third-rates were 74-gun vessels, of which 14 were French and eight Spanish. In total, the Spanish contributed 15 ships of the line and the French 18. The fleet also included five 40-gun frigates and two 18-gun brigs, all French.

The Battle

Nelson's Plan - The prevailing tactical orthodoxy at the time involved manoeuvring to approach the enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engaging broadside in parallel lines. In previous times, fleets had usually engaged in a mixed mêlée of chaotic one-on-one battles. One reason for the development of the line of battle system was to facilitate control of the fleet: if all the ships were in line, signalling in battle became possible. The line also allowed either side to disengage by breaking away in formation; if the attacker chose to continue, their line would be broken as well. This often led to inconclusive battles, or allowed the losing side to minimise its losses; but Nelson wanted a conclusive action, giving his well-trained crews a chance to fight ship to ship.
Nelson's solution to the problem was to cut the opposing line in three. Approaching in two columns, sailing perpendicular to the enemy's line, one towards the centre of the opposing line and one towards the trailing end, his ships would surround the middle third, and force them to fight to the end. Nelson hoped specifically to cut the line just in front of the French flagship, Bucentaure; the isolated ships in front of the break would not be able to see the flagship's signals, which he hoped would take them out of combat while they re-formed. This echoed the tactics used by Admiral Duncan at the Battle of Camperdown and Admiral Jervis at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, both in 1797.

The plan had three principal advantages. First, the British fleet would close with the Franco-Spanish as quickly as possible, preventing their escape. Second, it would quickly bring on a mêlée and frantic battle by breaking the Franco-Spanish line and inducing a series of individual ship-to-ship actions, in which the British knew they were likely to prevail. Nelson knew that the superior seamanship, faster gunnery and better morale of his crews were great advantages. Third, it would bring a decisive concentration on the rear of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, which would take a long time. Additionally, once the Franco-Spanish line had been broken, their ships would be relatively defenceless against powerful broadsides from the British fleet, and it would take them a long time to reposition to return fire.

The main drawback of attacking head-on was that as the leading British ships approached, the Franco-Spanish Combined Fleet would be able to direct raking broadside fire at their bows, to which they would be unable to reply. To lessen the time the fleet was exposed to this danger, Nelson had his ships make all available sail (including stunsails), yet another departure from the norm. He was also well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform. The Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell, causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating the problem. Nelson's plan was indeed a gamble, but a carefully calculated one.

During the period of blockade off the coast of Spain in October, Nelson instructed his captains, over two dinners aboard Victory, on his plan for the approaching battle. The order of sailing, in which the fleet was arranged when the enemy was first sighted, was to be the order of the ensuing action so that no time would be wasted in forming two lines. The first, led by his second-in-command Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, was to sail into the rear of the enemy line, while the other, led by Nelson, was to sail into the centre and vanguard. In preparation for the battle, Nelson ordered the ships of his fleet to be painted in a distinctive yellow and black pattern (later known as the Nelson Chequer) that would make them easy to distinguish from their opponents.

Nelson was careful to point out that something had to be left to chance. Nothing is sure in a sea battle, so he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." In short, circumstances would dictate the execution, subject to the guiding rule that the enemy's rear was to be cut off and superior force concentrated on that part of the enemy's line.

Admiral Villeneuve himself expressed his belief that Nelson would use some sort of unorthodox attack, presciently speculating that Nelson would drive right at his line. But his long game of cat and mouse with Nelson had worn him down, and he was suffering from a loss of nerve. Fearing that his inexperienced officers would be unable to maintain formation in more than one group, he chose to keep the single line that became Nelson's target.

Departure - The Combined Fleet of French and Spanish warships anchored in Cádiz under the leadership of Admiral Villeneuve was in disarray. On 16 September 1805 Villeneuve received orders from Napoleon to sail the Combined Fleet from Cádiz to Naples. At first, Villeneuve was optimistic about returning to the Mediterranean, but soon had second thoughts. A war council was held aboard his flagship, Bucentaure, on 8 October. While some of the French captains wished to obey Napoleon's orders, the Spanish captains and other French officers, including Villeneuve, thought it best to remain in Cádiz. Villeneuve changed his mind yet again on 18 October 1805, ordering the Combined Fleet to sail immediately even though there were only very light winds.

The sudden change was prompted by a letter Villeneuve had received on 18 October, informing him that Vice-Admiral François Rosily had arrived in Madrid with orders to take command of the Combined Fleet. Stung by the prospect of being disgraced before the fleet, Villeneuve resolved to go to sea before his successor could reach Cádiz. At the same time, he received intelligence that a detachment of six British ships (Admiral Louis' squadron), had docked at Gibraltar, thus weakening the British fleet. This was used as the pretext for sudden change.

The weather, however, suddenly turned calm following a week of gales. This slowed the progress of the fleet leaving the harbour, giving the British plenty of warning. Villeneuve had drawn up plans to form a force of four squadrons, each containing both French and Spanish ships. Following their earlier vote on 8 October to stay put, some captains were reluctant to leave Cádiz, and as a result they failed to follow Villeneuve's orders closely and the fleet straggled out of the harbour in no particular formation.

It took most of 20 October for Villeneuve to get his fleet organised; it eventually set sail in three columns for the Straits of Gibraltar to the southeast. That same evening, Achille spotted a force of 18 British ships of the line in pursuit. The fleet began to prepare for battle and during the night, they were ordered into a single line. The following day, Nelson's fleet of 27 ships of the line and four frigates was spotted in pursuit from the northwest with the wind behind it. Villeneuve again ordered his fleet into three columns, but soon changed his mind and restored a single line. The result was a sprawling, uneven formation.

At 5:40 a.m. on 21 October, the British were about 21 miles (34 km) to the northwest of Cape Trafalgar, with the Franco-Spanish fleet between the British and the Cape. About 6 a.m., Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle. At 8 a.m., the British frigate Euryalus, which had been keeping watch on the Combined Fleet overnight, observed the British fleet still "forming the lines" in which it would attack. At 8 a.m., Villeneuve ordered the fleet to wear together (turn about) and return to Cádiz. This reversed the order of the allied line, placing the rear division under Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley in the vanguard. The wind became contrary at this point, often shifting direction. The very light wind rendered manoeuvring virtually impossible for all but the most expert seamen. The inexperienced crews had difficulty with the changing conditions, and it took nearly an hour and a half for Villeneuve's order to be completed. The French and Spanish fleet now formed an uneven, angular crescent, with the slower ships generally to leeward and closer to the shore.

By 11 a.m. Nelson's entire fleet was visible to Villeneuve, drawn up in two parallel columns. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour. Villeneuve was concerned at this point about forming up a line, as his ships were unevenly spaced in an irregular formation drawn out nearly five miles (8 km) long as Nelson's fleet approached.

As the British drew closer, they could see that the enemy was not sailing in a tight order, but in irregular groups. Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants.

Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned, the enemy totalling nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to his 17,000 men and 2,148 guns. The Franco-Spanish fleet also had six more ships of the line, and so could more readily combine their fire. There was no way for some of Nelson's ships to avoid being "doubled on" or even "trebled on".

As the two fleets drew closer, anxiety began to build among officers and sailors; one British sailor described the approach thus: "During this momentous preparation, the human mind had ample time for meditation, for it was evident that the fate of England rested on this battle".

Combat - The battle progressed largely according to Nelson's plan. At 11:45, Nelson sent the flag signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty".

His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, "Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY" and he added "You must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action." I replied, "If your Lordship will permit me to substitute 'expects' for 'confides' the signal will soon be completed, because the word 'expects' is in the vocabulary, and 'confides' must be spelt," His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, "That will do, Pasco, make it directly."

The term "England" was widely used at the time to refer to the United Kingdom; the British fleet included significant contingents from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Unlike the photographic depiction above, this signal would have been shown on the mizzen mast only and would have required 12 lifts.

As the battle opened, the French and Spanish were in a ragged curved line headed north. As planned, the British fleet was approaching the Franco-Spanish line in two columns. Leading the northern, windward column in Victory was Nelson, while Collingwood in the 100-gun Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column. The two British columns approached from the west at nearly a right angle to the allied line. Nelson led his column into a feint toward the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet and then abruptly turned toward the actual point of attack. Collingwood altered the course of his column slightly so that the two lines converged at this line of attack.

 

Artist's conception of HMS Sandwich fighting the French flagship Bucentaure (completely dismasted) at Trafalgar. Bucentaure is also fighting HMS Temeraire (on the left) and being fired into by HMS Victory (behind her). In fact, this is a mistake by Auguste Mayer, the painter; HMS Sandwich never fought at Trafalgar.

Just before his column engaged the allied forces, Collingwood said to his officers: "Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter." Because the winds were very light during the battle, all the ships were moving extremely slowly, and the foremost British ships were under heavy fire from several of the allied ships for almost an hour before their own guns could bear.

At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal "engage the enemy", and Fougueux fired her first trial shot at Royal Sovereign. Royal Sovereign had all sails out and, having recently had her bottom cleaned, outran the rest of the British fleet. As she approached the allied line, she came under fire from Fougueux, Indomptable, San Justo, and San Leandro, before breaking the line just astern of Admiral Alava's flagship Santa Ana, into which she fired a devastating double-shotted raking broadside. On board Victory, Nelson pointed to Royal Sovereign and said, "See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action!" At approximately the same moment, Collingwood remarked to his captain, Edward Rotheram, "What would Nelson give to be here?"

 

Artist's conception of the situation at noon as Royal Sovereign was breaking into the Franco-Spanish line

The second ship in the British lee column, Belleisle, was engaged by L'Aigle, Achille, Neptune, and Fougueux; she was soon completely dismasted, unable to manoeuvre and largely unable to fight, as her sails blinded her batteries, but kept flying her flag for 45 minutes until the following British ships came to her rescue.

For 40 minutes, Victory was under fire from Héros, Santísima Trinidad, Redoutable, and Neptune; although many shots went astray, others killed and wounded a number of her crew and shot her wheel away, so that she had to be steered from her tiller belowdecks, all before she could respond. At 12:45, Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable; she came close to Bucentaure, firing a devastating raking broadside through Bucentaure's stern which killed and wounded many on her gundecks. Villeneuve thought that boarding would take place, and with the Eagle of his ship in hand, told his men, "I will throw it onto the enemy ship and we will take it back there!" However Victory engaged the 74-gun Redoutable; Bucentaure was left to the next three ships of the British windward column: Temeraire, Conqueror, and HMS Neptune.

 

Painter Denis Dighton's imagining of Nelson being shot on the quarterdeck of Victory

A general mêlée ensued. Victory locked masts with the French Redoutable, whose crew, including a strong infantry corps (with three captains and four lieutenants), gathered for an attempt to board and seize Victory. A musket bullet fired from the mizzentop of Redoutable struck Nelson in the left shoulder, passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and lodged two inches below his right scapula in the muscles of his back. Nelson exclaimed, "They finally succeeded, I am dead." He was carried below decks.

Victory's gunners were called on deck to fight boarders, and she ceased firing. The gunners were forced back below decks by French grenades. As the French were preparing to board Victory, Temeraire, the second ship in the British windward column, approached from the starboard bow of Redoutable and fired on the exposed French crew with a carronade, causing many casualties.

At 13:55, the French Captain Lucas of Redoutable, with 99 fit men out of 643 and severely wounded himself, surrendered. The French Bucentaure was isolated by Victory and Temeraire, and then engaged by HMS Neptune, HMS Leviathan, and Conqueror; similarly, Santísima Trinidad was isolated and overwhelmed, surrendering after three hours.

As more and more British ships entered the battle, the ships of the allied centre and rear were gradually overwhelmed. The allied van, after long remaining quiescent, made a futile demonstration and then sailed away. The British took 22 vessels of the Franco-Spanish fleet and lost none. Among the captured French ships were L'Aigle, Algésiras, Berwick, Bucentaure, Fougueux, Intrépide, Redoutable, and Swiftsure. The Spanish ships taken were Argonauta, Bahama, Monarca, Neptuno, San Agustín, San Ildefonso, San Juan Nepomuceno, Santísima Trinidad, and Santa Ana. Of these, Redoutable sank, and Santísima Trinidad and Argonauta were scuttled by the British. Achille exploded, Intrépide and San Augustín burned, and L'Aigle, Berwick, Fougueux, and Monarca were wrecked in a gale following the battle.

As Nelson lay dying, he ordered the fleet to anchor, as a storm was predicted. However, when the storm blew up, many of the severely damaged ships sank or ran aground on the shoals. A few of them were recaptured, some by the French and Spanish prisoners overcoming the small prize crews, others by ships sallying from Cádiz. Surgeon William Beatty heard Nelson murmur, "Thank God I have done my duty"; when he returned, Nelson's voice had faded, and his pulse was very weak. He looked up as Beatty took his pulse, then closed his eyes. Nelson's chaplain, Alexander Scott, who remained by Nelson as he died, recorded his last words as "God and my country." It has been suggested by Nelson historian Craig Cabell that Nelson was actually reciting his own prayer as he fell into his death coma, as the words 'God' and 'my country' are closely linked therein. Nelson died at half-past four, three hours after being hit.

Towards the end of the battle, and with the combined fleet being overwhelmed, the still relatively un-engaged portion of the van under Rear-Admiral Dumanoir Le Pelley tried to come to the assistance of the collapsing centre. After failing to fight his way through, he decided to break off the engagement, and led four French ships, his flagship the 80-gun Formidable, the 74-gun ships Scipion, Duguay Trouin and Mont Blanc away from the fighting. He headed at first for the Straits of Gibraltar, intending to carry out Villeneuve's original orders and make for Toulon. On 22 October he changed his mind, remembering a powerful British squadron under Rear-Admiral Thomas Louis was patrolling the straits, and headed north, hoping to reach one of the French Atlantic ports. With a storm gathering in strength off the Spanish coast, he sailed westwards to clear Cape St Vincent, prior to heading north-west, swinging eastwards across the Bay of Biscay, and aiming to reach the French port at Rochefort. These four ships remained at large until their encounter with and attempt to chase a British frigate brought them in range of a British squadron under Sir Richard Strachan, which captured them all on 4 November 1805 at the Battle of Cape Ortegal.

The Results

HMS Victory made her way to Gibraltar for repairs, carrying Nelson's body. She put into Rosia Bay, Gibraltar and after emergency repairs were carried out, returned to Britain. Many of the injured crew were taken ashore at Gibraltar and treated in the Naval Hospital. Men who subsequently died from injuries sustained at the battle are buried in or near the Trafalgar Cemetery, at the south end of Main Street, Gibraltar.

One Royal Marine officer was killed on board Victory; Captain Charles Adair. Royal Marine Lieutenant Lewis Buckle Reeve was seriously wounded and lay next to Nelson. The battle took place the day after the Battle of Ulm, and Napoleon did not hear about it for weeks—the Grande Armée had left Boulogne to fight Britain's allies before they could combine their armies. He had tight control over the Paris media and kept the defeat a closely guarded secret for over a month, at which point newspapers proclaimed it to have been a tremendous victory. In a counter-propaganda move, a fabricated text declaring the battle a "spectacular victory" for the French and Spanish was published in Herald and attributed to Le Moniteur Universel.

Vice-Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner aboard his flagship and taken back to Britain. After his parole in 1806, he returned to France, where he was found dead in his inn room during a stop on the way to Paris, with six stab wounds in the chest from a dining knife. It was officially recorded that he had committed suicide.

Despite the British victory over the Franco-Spanish navies, Trafalgar had negligible impact on the remainder of the War of the Third Coalition. Less than two months later, Napoleon decisively defeated the Third Coalition at the Battle of Austerlitz, knocking Austria out of the war and forcing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Trafalgar meant France could no longer challenge Britain at sea, Napoleon proceeded to establish the Continental System in an attempt to deny Britain trade with the continent. The Napoleonic Wars continued for another ten years after Trafalgar.

Nelson's body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the trip home to a hero's funeral.

The Consequences

Following the battle, the Royal Navy was never again seriously challenged by the French fleet in a large-scale engagement. Napoleon had already abandoned his plans of invasion before the battle and they were never revived. The battle did not mean, however, that the French naval challenge to Britain was over. First, as the French control over the continent expanded, Britain had to take active steps with the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807 and elsewhere in 1808 to prevent the ships of smaller European navies from falling into French hands. This effort was largely successful, but did not end the French threat as Napoleon instituted a large-scale shipbuilding programme that had produced a fleet of 80 ships of the line at the time of his fall from power in 1814, with more under construction. In comparison, Britain had 99 ships of the line in active commission in 1814, and this was close to the maximum that could be supported. Given a few more years, the French could have realised their plans to commission 150 ships of the line and again challenge the Royal Navy, compensating for the inferiority of their crews with sheer numbers. For almost 10 years after Trafalgar, the Royal Navy maintained a close blockade of French bases and anxiously observed the growth of the French fleet. In the end, Napoleon's Empire was destroyed by land before his ambitious naval buildup could be completed.

The Royal Navy proceeded to dominate the sea until the Second World War. Although the victory at Trafalgar was typically given as the reason at the time, modern historical analyses suggest that relative economic strength was an important underlying cause of British naval mastery.

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