Battle Of Trafalgar 21 October 1805 marks the Battle of Trafalgar in the 3rd Coalition War when Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s 27 British ships-of-the-line, 4 frigates & 20,000 men crushed Admiral Pierre Villeneuve’s 18 French ships-of-the-line & 5 frigates & Admiral Federico Gravina’s 15 Spanish ships-of-the-line, & 35,000 men.
Villeneuve sailed to support Napoleon’s planned British invasion. Nelson chased him. Nelson had experienced, well trained officers & crews. Many French naval officers were executed in the Revolution. Villeneuve himself was indecisive and timid. British blockades stopped the French from training their crews in deep sea operations & gunnery. They had 2,000 men less than needed. Supplies were short.
Learning he’d be replaced, Villeneuve gave orders to sail on 18 October to avoid giving up command. Light winds & disagreement among captains slowed departure & compromised formation. On 20 October, the fleet left Cadiz for Gibraltar. That evening, they saw Nelson pursuing them. Villeneuve ordered the 3 lines to form a line-of-battle. He changed his mind the next day, ordering them back into columns, then back into line, resulting in a sprawling, uneven formation.
At 08:00, he gave orders to return to Cadiz, reversing his line, further disordering it. Light winds made maneuver impossible. After 90 minutes his ships formed a ragged crescent.
At 06:00, Nelson prepared for battle.
Nearing Villeneuve at 11:00, he saw the French crescent was not in tight order but in clustered groups. Knowing his numerical disadvantage, he didn’t form line. Instead, he formed 2 columns, intending to pierce Villeneuve’s line, rake his ships, come about on his other side & finish him. The danger was that while Nelson’s ships were closing in, the French could fire on his bows for 30-40 minutes before he could fire back. If he failed to break through, his ships could be “doubled” or even “trebled” by the enemy. To reassure his men, at 11:45 he sent the flag signal, “England expects that every man will do his D-U-T-Y.”
Villeneuve was headed north, while Nelson’s 2 columns sailed east. Nelson’s 100-gun HMS Victory led the north column, briefly feinting to Villeneuve’s van before turning to his center. Admiral Collingwood’s 100-gun HMS Royal Sovereign led the south column, also aiming for Villeneuve’s center. He said to his officers, “Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter.”
A sailor remarked afterwards, “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.”
Light wind greatly slowed the ships, with the van under fire for 1 hour before returning fire. At 12:00, Villeneuve signaled “engage the enemy.”
Royal Sovereign, her hull recently scrapped, outran the column. 4 ships fired on her before she broke Villeneuve’s line. Nelson said “See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action!” 4 ships fired on the 2nd ship, 74-gun HMS Belleisle. She lost all 3 masts, helpless for 45 minutes until rescued. 5 ships fired on Victory for 40 minutes.
Many shots missed the small target her bow made. Her wheel was shot away, so she was steered by the tiller belowdecks. At 12:45, she broke the line between Villeneuve’s 80-gun Bucentaure & Lucas’ 74-gun Redoubtable. Believing he’d be boarded, Villeneuve seized his ship’s eagle, saying “I will throw it onto the enemy ship & we will take it back there!” Victory locked masts with Redoubtable, leaving Bucentaure to 3 following ships.
A general melee ensued.
Redoubtable’s crew, including a strong infantry corps, prepared to board Victory. A sniper in the mizzentop shot Nelson through the spine. He said, “They finally succeeded. I am dead.”
Victory’s gunners came up to fight the boarders. French grenades forced them below. As the French prepared to board, 98-gun HMS Temeraire appeared, shredding them with a carronade.
At 13:55 a severely wounded Lucas, with 99 fit men out of 643, surrendered. 5 ships engaged Bucentaure. Furthermore, Rear Admiral Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros’ 136-gun Santísima Trinidad, isolated, surrendered after 3 hours. Nelson’s other ships came up, overwhelming Villeneuve’s center & rear. His van, stopped by winds from helping, could only watch before sailing away.
Nelson lost 458 dead, 1,208 wounded. He died at 16:30, murmuring “Thank God I have done my duty.”
Villeneuve lost 4,395 dead, 2,541 wounded, 7-8,000 captive including him, 1 ship-of-the-line destroyed, 21 captive. A dying Gravina led 11 ships back to Cadiz.
A severe storm forced Collingwood to jettison or destroy most prizes. He wrote, “The condition of our own ships was such that it was very doubtful what would be their fate. Many a timeI would have given the whole group of our capture, to ensure our own… I can only say that in my life I never saw such efforts as were made to save these [prize] ships, and would rather fight another battle than pass through such a week as followed it.” Only 4 prizes reached Britain.
Villeneuve’s replacement, Vice-Admiral François Rosily, reached Cadiz to find 5 French ships instead of 18. They remained bottled in Cadiz until Spain seized them in the Peninsular War.
Media control kept the defeat secret for a month. Villeneuve, paroled in 1806, was found dead in an inn with 6 chest wounds from a dining knife, it was deemed a suicide.
Lastly, sailors placed Nelson’s body in a brandy barrel to preserve it for a hero’s funeral.
Though France would soon replace her losses, this was the last great naval battle between her and Britain. Two months later, victory at Austerlitz ended the 3rd Coalition War.