All it took was 33 ships. On October 21st 1805, those Royal Navy ships, under the command of the legendary Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, smashed a larger French-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar on the Atlantic coast of Spain.
It scuppered Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain, and it was the start of the chain of events that led to his eventual defeat.
More than 600 of the sailors who fought in the battle were Welsh, or 3.5% of the total in the Royal Navy force - roughly what one would expect in terms of the population of Wales at the time.
As might be expected, the coastal Welsh counties with the strongest maritime traditions provided the lion’s share of the sailors:
From Pembrokeshire - 116 seamen
From Glamorgan - 86 seamen
From Caernarfonshire, Carmarthenshire and Anglesey - over 50 seamen from each
Some 31 Welshmen served on Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. The most prominent of these was Lewis Roteley of Swansea, Second Lieutenant of the Marines. Hard as nails and brave to the point of recklessness, Lewis took command of the Marines at the height of the battle. His superior officer had been shot dead by a French sniper at the same time as Nelson received his fatal wound. Despite being wounded himself, Lewis led the Marines to the upper deck to fire back at the snipers in the rigging of the French ship Redoubtable. In 15 minutes they had cleared the marksmen.
Lewis describes his experiences during the battle in vivid terms - striving to put into words that it was like to be on the middle deck of a three-decker battleship in the heat of the battle, the enemy so close that the Victory’s cannon were actually touching the Redoubtable’s sides.
‘There was the fire from the above, the fire from below, the guns recoiling with violence, reports louder than thunder, the decks heaving and the sides straining. I fancied myself in the infernal regions where every man appeared a devil.’
Many years on, when Lewis Roteley had retired from his military exploits as a Major, he became a well-known figure in Swansea society, renowned for his connection with Trafalgar. Remarkably, in the hours after the battle he had obtained Nelson’s blood-stained stockings. Dinner guests at his home in Swansea would be entertained by being shown these and other relics of the battle. The Major was furious in 1848 when his tailor clandestinely measured the stockings and made a duplicate pair, which were exhibited around South Wales as the genuine relic of Nelson. Lewis Roteley’s prized possession is now on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Lewis’ local newspaper, The Cambrian, contains various accounts throughout the years of the Swansea man’s bravery, right up until his death in 1861. His obituary shows the high regard in which he was held because of his connection with Trafalgar. However, it’s not an easy task to find obituaries of other Welsh veterans of the battle. The majority died without having their passing noted in the newspapers, which were dominated at the time by the interests of the upper classes.
However, when they can be found, the obituaries demonstrate how Trafalgar veterans were well-known and respected in their home communities. This is clear in the obituary of Griffith Owen, published in the newspaper Baner ac Amserau Cymru in July 1860: Griffith Owen, Conwy: the deceased was well-known to many strangers who visited Conwy. He used to sell fruits, etc, near the railway station, and he was certain of attracting a visitor’s attention because he had on his cabin a notice that he had served under the immortal Lord Nelson, in the war that claimed the hero’s life.
Owen’s connection with Trafalgar is also commemorated on his gravestone at St Mary’s Church, Conwy, which names his ship as the Conqueror. Other reminders of the battle can be seen around Wales, such as the gravestone of David Lewis in Aberystwyth, which commemorates the deceased’s involvement at Trafalgar. There are also numerous examples of Welshmen who claimed to be at Trafalgar but whose names do not appear on the ship’s muster lists. When James Morgan, the former landlord of the ‘Nelson’s Victory’ pub in Pontypool, died in June 1863, the local paper added that his mother had travelled to Portsmouth to see her hero-son return from Trafalgar in the Victory.
But whatever stories Morgan had spun over the years, his name does not appear on the muster-roll of Victory nor any other ships involved in the battle, nor did any James Morgan receive the Trafalgar medal for his part in the triumph.
Similarly the Cardiganshire port David Williams boasted to anyone who would listen of how he was ‘Nelson’s friend’, and had stood side by side with his pal when the fatal shot was fired. Although this claim was nonsense, Williams was a veteran of Nelson’s victory against the French in the Battle of the Nile (1798).
However, it wasn;t all about the glory. The records show that many Welsh survivors of the battle had to cope with horrific wounds, men such as James Davis of Pembrokeshire and Thomas Davies of Aberystwyth, both of whom lost legs at Trafalgar and had to beg for disability pensions. A petition from James Davis claimed for money as he was incapable of earning his keep. He had served in HMS Belleisle, which was the Royal Navy ship that suffered most during the battle, losing all three masts and having her hull shot to pieces, and yet she refused to surrender. Of her crew, 34 were killed and 94 wounded, including Davis, who lost his right leg below the knee. Davis was a 24-year old, who had joined the Navy in July 1805, being paid a bounty of £1 and 10 shillings.
The fact that Davis was paid a bounty means that he signed up as a volunteer, but the entity might hide the real truth. Both James Davis and a Pembroke man named John Owens had joined the Royal Navy from a Milford Haven - based vessel called the James, which was manned by the local press gang.
It’s possible that Davis and Owens were taken to sea against their will, and then chose to register as volunteers in order to receive the bounty. The Royal Navy was always chronically short of manpower and it was only by forcibly taking men (by use of the press gang) that the ships had enough sailors to put to sea.
The Admiralty tried to compensate the sailors who were incapacitated in the battle. In 1806 James Davis was awarded a life pension of £6-13s-4d per annum. Other Welsh recipients of compensation included Ebenezer Jones of Carmarthen (right shoulder shattered), James Merrick of Cardigan (lost his right arm above the elbow) and George Morris of Carmarthen (left hand disabled).
Dozens more of the Welsh at Trafalgar were seriously wounded and around 25 were killed at the battle or died of their wounds before reaching home, including three who served on the Victory.
The survivors, and the next-of-kin of the deceased , received prize money from a grateful Government. The ordinary sailors received £6 10s; the officers received more: Lieutenant Roteley received more than £150. All in all, it was a very small price to pay for the gains that would come from the victory.
In the short term the Battle of Trafalgar ensured that Britain would be safe from invasion by the French, and that the Royal Navy could strike at Napoleon’s European empire and support the Army’s endeavours. In the long term, the victory ensured that British naval supremacy would remain unchallenged for well over a century, making possible the expansion of the British Empire all over the globe.
Everyone knows of the famous signal sent up before the battle: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. But hundreds of men also did their duty for Wales.