Battle of Trafalgar Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A decisive British naval victory off the southern coast of Spain, the Battle of Trafalgar crushed French and Spanish naval power, thereby ensuring British security during the Napoleonic Wars and making possible British naval dominance throughout the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

After the brief respite provided by the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Napoleonic Wars flared up again in 1805. Napoleon I’s primary objective was an invasion of Great Britain, the sole European power not under his control. The powerful British Royal Navy, however, prevented the French from gaining even temporary control of the English Channel, negating Napoleon’s powerful army. As he could not defeat the Royal Navy, Napoleon conceived a plan to deceive it long enough for his naval forces to gain control of the English Channel. France’s navy alone could not defeat the British, but an alliance with Spain gave Napoleon control of the Spanish fleet as well. Napoleon conceived a plan to confuse and deceive the British, set for March, 1805. Great Britain;Royal Navy Trafalgar, Battle of (1805) Nelson, Lord Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Trafalgar Spain;Battle of Trafalgar Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];naval plans Royal Navy;Battle of Trafalgar [kw]Battle of Trafalgar (Oct. 21, 1805) [kw]Trafalgar, Battle of (Oct. 21, 1805) Great Britain;Royal Navy Trafalgar, Battle of (1805) Nelson, Lord Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Trafalgar Spain;Battle of Trafalgar Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];naval plans Royal Navy;Battle of Trafalgar [g]France;Oct. 21, 1805: Battle of Trafalgar[0300] [g]Great Britain;Oct. 21, 1805: Battle of Trafalgar[0300] [g]British Empire;Oct. 21, 1805: Battle of Trafalgar[0300] [g]Mediterranean;Oct. 21, 1805: Battle of Trafalgar[0300] [g]Spain;Oct. 21, 1805: Battle of Trafalgar[0300] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 21, 1805: Battle of Trafalgar[0300] [c]Military history;Oct. 21, 1805: Battle of Trafalgar[0300] Villeneuve, Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Collingwood, Cuthbert

In the first step of Napoleon’s plan, the combined French and Spanish fleets West Indies;and Napoleon Wars[Napoleon Wars] would slip out of port unnoticed and launch a combined raid on British possessions in the West Indies. This raid, it was hoped, would convince the British that the combined fleet intended to stay in the Caribbean Sea for an extended period, which would lure the Royal Navy across the Atlantic Ocean in its pursuit. Having achieved this deception, the combined fleet would then return across the Atlantic Ocean, leaving the British fruitlessly to search for them in the Caribbean Sea. While the Royal Navy looked for the combined fleet in the Caribbean Sea, the French and Spanish fleet would arrive in the English Channel to escort Napoleon’s 350,000-man army on its invasion of England.

The Battle of Trafalgar

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Napoleon’s plan soon fell apart. The French and Spanish fleets met at the arranged point, but Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, the commander of the combined fleet, could not elude the British blockade at Toulon commanded by the British admiral, Lord Nelson. The combined fleet sailed for the Caribbean Sea, but with Nelson in hot pursuit. Unable to raid British possessions in the Caribbean successfully, Villeneuve decided to return to Europe, specifically the Spanish port of Cádiz. Nearing Cádiz, the combined fleet engaged a British squadron at Cape Finisterre on July 22. Villeneuve lost two ships and retired into Cádiz to replenish his fleet.

Thwarted in his invasion of England, Napoleon ordered Villeneuve to take the combined fleet into the Mediterranean Sea to support his operations against the Austrians. Cowed by his losses at Cape Finisterre, however, Villeneuve remained at Cádiz for the entire summer, under the constant watch of Admiral Nelson and the British battle fleet. Finally, threatened with dismissal, Villeneuve ordered the combined fleet into the Mediterranean. On October 20, 1805, Villeneuve, with thirty-three Weapons;warships ships (eighteen French and fifteen Spanish) mounting 2,640 guns, headed southeast toward the Strait of Gibraltar Gibraltar . Before Villeneuve could reach Gibraltar, however, Nelson’s battle fleet of twenty-seven ships mounting 2,138 guns cut off their advance, forced Villeneuve to turn northward in an attempt to flee back into Cádiz, and prepared to engage the French and Spanish fleet.

Under normal circumstances, Villeneuve would have escaped Nelson and reached Cádiz safely. French ships tended to be faster and more maneuverable than their British counterparts, and traditional linear tactics usually worked in France’s favor. In linear tactics, opposing forces would array their ships in lines opposite each other and battle in a straightforward manner, with each individual ship engaging the enemy ship opposite it. In this type of engagement, the French, with their faster ships, could choose to stay in a fight if they had the upper hand or could disengage and retreat if threatened with defeat.

Two things prevented Villeneuve from escaping in the present confrontation. First, the fast French ships had to stay with their slower Spanish allies, negating their speed advantage. Second, Nelson had no intention of engaging in linear tactics. Nelson wanted to cut the formidable combined fleet into sections, which his superior gunnery could then destroy piecemeal. To accomplish this goal, Nelson split his own force into two squadrons. Nelson, leading the first squadron from his flagship HMS Victory, would form the squadron into a line at right angles to the French and Spanish line and would slam into the middle of them, while Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, leading the other squadron from his flagship HMS Royal Sovereign, would hit the rearward third of the combined fleet, also at a right angle. If the gambit was successful, the foremost one-third of the combined fleet would escape, but Nelson could defeat two-thirds of the French and Spanish fleet.

On October 21, 1805, with Villeneuve retreating northward to Cádiz, Nelson put his plan into action. Nearing the French and Spanish fleet from the west, Nelson ordered his men to battle by sending by flag signal to all ships the message “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Nelson’s unexpected approach surprised Villeneuve, but the tactic entailed a huge risk for the British fleet. By sailing directly toward the combined fleet, the British prevented themselves from firing at the enemy. The French and Spanish, however, could fire full broadsides of cannon at their approaching enemy. For nearly two hours, the English fleet had to endure a steady cannonading while unable to return fire itself. By early afternoon, however, the British columns had reached the combined fleet, smashed into its formation, and turned the tables. Now in the midst of the combined fleet, the English could fire full broadsides into the enemy, and it was the French and Spanish fleet, now immobilized to avoid collisions, that could not return fire.

The battle soon became a melee, with ships firing upon every enemy vessel that came into view. Nelson led Victory directly toward Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure and engaged in a furious gun battle at close range. At the same time, Collingwood directed Royal Sovereign toward the Spanish flagship Santissima Trinidad and soon left the Spanish vessel a flaming wreck that later exploded when the flames reached the powder magazine.

British ships of the line at Trafalgar.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

The battle raged for four hours, as each English ship passed through the French and Spanish line, adding to the carnage inflicted by the earlier Royal Navy ships. The forward one-third of Villeneuve’s ships attempted to turn about to aid their countrymen, but unfavorable winds, English warships, and recognition of defeat led the forward segment to retreat to safety. By late afternoon, Villeneuve struck his flag as a symbol of surrender and the battle ended with the total defeat of the combined fleet. Nelson, however, did not live to savor his victory. In mid-afternoon, while Victory engaged the French vessel Redoubtable, a French rifleman caught sight of Nelson, in full dress uniform with medals and regalia, and shot him through the spine.

Nelson lingered long enough to know that he had achieved a great victory but succumbed to his wound at approximately the time the French and Spanish fleet surrendered. His victory, if Pyrrhic from a personal standpoint, was absolute. While Victory and other British ships sustained considerable damage, no English ship was lost. Of the thirty-three ships of the combined fleet, eleven fled back to Cádiz, two sank, and the other twenty fell into British hands. English casualties totaled fifteen hundred killed and wounded, compared to nearly seven thousand French and Spanish casualties with another seven thousand sailors taken prisoner.

Significance

With the loss of his fleet, Napoleon was unable to invade England, which greatly contributed to his eventual defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Even beyond Napoleon’s empire, French naval power never recovered. Before the Battle of Trafalgar, France was the only real threat to the Royal Navy. Afterward, the French navy lagged behind the British in prestige, numbers, and technology. Without any serious rival, Great Britain established itself as the world’s dominant naval power for the next century, threatened only by the rise of the German navy in the early twentieth century. British dominance of the seas translated into growing economic power and expanding colonial influence, as Great Britain remained the world’s leading nineteenth century superpower.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coleman, Terry. The Nelson Touch: The Life and Legend of Horatio Nelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Well-researched, balanced biography of Nelson, whom the author describes as “a paramount naval genius and a natural born predator.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howarth, David. Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Concentrates on the admiral’s last campaign. Howarth provides specific details; he also covers Nelson’s close relations with the men who served under him. An excellent index and many maps and drawings enhance the scholarly nature of this work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. An outstanding blow-by-blow account of Trafalgar, with a comparison of the battle to other important naval engagements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pocock, Thomas. The Terror Before Trafalgar: Napoleon, Nelson, and the Secret War. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. A discussion of how the battle might have changed the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars if the French had won.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schom, Alan. Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803-1805. New York: Atheneum, 1990. A full discussion of the political and military events that led to the decisive battle in 1805.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Oliver. Nelson’s Battles. New York: Macmillan, 1965. Warner provides detailed information about Nelson’s major engagements; an appendix lists all the ships and captains who served with Nelson at Aboukir Bay, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar. Excellent maps, many portraits, and frequent quotations from Nelson and his contemporaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Victory: The Life of Lord Nelson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958. A well-written, detailed life of Nelson in which considerable emphasis is placed upon personalities as well as major campaigns. Includes an extensive bibliography and a most complete index.

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