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This week in history: The British triumph at Trafalgar

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 3:42 p.m. MDT

The statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Britain's greatest naval hero who died in the battle of Trafalgar on Oct. 21, 1805, which towers on a column over central London's Trafalgar Square, is seen Wednesday July 12, 2006.  (Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press) The statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Britain's greatest naval hero who died in the battle of Trafalgar on Oct. 21, 1805, which towers on a column over central London's Trafalgar Square, is seen Wednesday July 12, 2006. (Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press)

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.”

Nelson had opted for an unorthodox strategy. As Villeneuve's fleet stretched in a line north to south, the British would hit with not one but two lines directly into the French-Spanish line, essentially cutting it into three parts, which could be destroyed in turn. This move was not without considerable risk, however, as Nelson's two lines would be far weaker than a single, solid striking line. There was, however, a greater concern.

In the age of wood and sail, the most important, and potentially deadly, maneuver was to cross the enemy's T. Essentially, as the enemy sailed forward, a ship would want to cut across its path at a right angle. This allowed a ship to fire all of its guns while the enemy was only limited to a few from its bow. When executed correctly, this maneuver gave a ship (or fleet) a considerable advantage in firepower.

Nelson's plan called for the French to be allowed to cross his fleet's T. The Royal fleet would be vulnerable for some time (nearly impossible to calculate as wind conditions could change suddenly) before their own weapons came to bear. The French-Spanish fleet consisted of 33 ships of the line, while the British boasted only 27. As the Royal Navy sailed forward, Nelson signaled his fleet: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Nelson's flagship, the HMS Victory, sailed forward for at least 20 minutes, though probably longer, under heavy fire from the French and Spanish. Finally, crashing into the enemy line, the British were at last able to open up their broadsides and inflict punishing fire. The French and Spanish, not nearly the seamen that the British were, paid a heavy price.

In the historical note for his novel “Sharpe's Trafalgar,” Bernard Cornwell noted Trafalgar was “the most decisive naval battle until Midway.” Cornwell continued:

“The disparity in casualty rates was extraordinary. The British lost 1,500 men, either killed or wounded, while the French and Spanish casualties were about 17,000; testimony to the horrific effectiveness of British gunnery. Several British ships were raked ... but none recorded the high casualties suffered aboard the enemy ships that found themselves bow or stern on to a British broadside. …

"The imbalance of casualties disguises the tenacity with which most of the enemy fought. They were being decimated by superior British gunnery, yet they stubbornly stuck to their guns. Most of the French and Spanish crews were ill-trained, some had no prior experience of fighting at sea, yet they did not lack for courage.”

Britain's greatest casualty, of course, was Nelson himself. During the battle, a French sniper, secured in the rigging of a French ship of the line, succeeded in hitting the admiral, the bullet severing his spine. Officers took Nelson below decks, where he lived long enough to learn of the British victory. Shortly before his death Nelson was reported to have said, “Thank God I have done my duty.”

With the defeat of his fleet at Trafalgar, Napoleon abandoned the prospect of military invasion of the British Isles for good. Instead, he would go on to defeat Austria and Russia at Austerlitz two months later, and the following year he instituted the Continental System, a form of economic warfare against Britain.

Of Trafalgar Cornwell wrote: “The battle was truly decisive. It so shocked the morale of the French and Spanish navies that neither recovered for the remainder of the Napoleonic wars. British sea power was supreme and stayed so until the beginning of the 20th century. Nelson, more than any man, imposed Britain on the 19th-century world.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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