This week in history: The British triumph at Trafalgar

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

On Oct. 21, 1805, a British fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson triumphed over a combined French-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. The victory ensured that Napoleon would never attempt a military invasion of the British Isles.

By 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte's France dominated Europe, while Great Britain maintained the mastery of the seas it had enjoyed since the Spanish Armada of 1588. After the 1802-1803 Peace of Amiens, which saw France and Britain enjoy a temporary truce, the two nations found themselves at war once again.

Preparing for a knockout blow, Napoleon assembled a large military force near Boulogne on the English Channel. If the French could control the Channel, even briefly, the army could invade Britain and Napoleon could finally dictate peace. The key was a combined French and Spanish fleet, which Napoleon hoped could defeat Britain's Royal Navy. This was easier said than done, however. The Royal Navy was second to none, consistently besting both the French and the Spanish at sea.

Given its overwhelming size and power, the Royal Navy sought battle with French and Spanish fleets whenever possible. Aware of their own deficiencies, the French and Spanish often spent much time in port, fearing to engage the British. Typical English tactics of the day called for British ships to blockade the Spanish and French ships in port, keeping them bottled up where they could do little harm.

One of Britain's greatest seamen at the time was Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the one-eyed victor of the Nile and Copenhagen. In his book “Napoleon's Wars: An International History,” historian Charles Esdaile describes Nelson as “a leader who radiated aggression and self-confidence, inspired absolute devotion amongst his subordinates, and united tactical genius with a savage hatred of the enemy.”

Nelson broke with tradition. While many other officers typically kept all of their fleet close to the enemy port, just out of reach of land-based artillery, Nelson only kept a few ships near the enemy and positioned the bulk of his fleet out of sight. The hope was that enemy ships would dare to engage and sail out of port. Then, once battle commenced, the bulk of the Royal fleet could descend upon its enemies.

This was Nelson's tactic early in 1805 when he blockaded the French-Spanish fleet at Toulon, under the command of Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. When a storm forced many of the British ships away from the port, Villeneuve saw a chance to escape the Mediterranean and link up with the French fleet at Brest. Successfully eluding Nelson's fleet, Villeneuve feared the Royal Navy may yet catch him, and he sailed for French ports in the Caribbean instead.

Nelson eventually set off after the enemy fleet, and several months of hide-and-seek in the Caribbean ensued before the French-Spanish fleet sailed back to Europe. Aware that Nelson was hot on his tail, Villeneuve sailed his fleet into Cádiz in southern Spain. Nelson soon arrived and resumed the blockade.

In September, Napoleon ordered Villeneuve to take his fleet into the Mediterranean to support troop movements and to engage smaller elements of the British fleet if possible. Villeneuve dithered, though news soon arrived that Napoleon was furious with Villeneuve and was sending a new admiral to take his command. Wishing to prove himself before being forced to relinquish his post, Villeneuve ordered his fleet to sea on Oct. 19 and 20.

In his book “The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte,” historian Robert Asprey wrote: “Early on 21 October this fleet had reached the waters off Cape Trafalgar, Villeneuve having characteristically decided to return to harbor. Two English divisions hoisted attack flags to move on a disorganized line of battle several miles long, Nelson commanding the first division and (Vice Admiral Cuthbert) Collingwood the second.”

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