The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) was a naval engagement fought by the British Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies during the War of the Third Coalition (August–December 1805) of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). It has been described as Britain's greatest naval battle.
As part of an overall French plan to combine all French and allied fleets to take control of the English Channel and thus enable Napoleon's Grande Armée to invade England, French and Spanish fleets under French Admiral Villeneuve sailed from the port of Cádiz in the south of Spain on 18 October 1805.
They encountered the British fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson, recently assembled to meet this threat, in the Atlantic Ocean along the southwest coast of Spain, off Cape Trafalgar, near the town of Los Caños de Meca.
In a particularly fierce battle, 27 British ships of the line fought 33 French and Spanish ships of the line. The lead ships of the British columns were heavily battered, with Nelson's flagship HMS Victory nearly disabled, but the greater experience and training of the Royal Navy overcame greater numbers.
The Franco-Spanish fleet lost 22 ships while the British lost none. Nelson himself was shot by a French musketeer, and died shortly before the battle ended. Villeneuve was captured along with his flagship Bucentaure. He attended Nelson's funeral while a captive on parole in Britain.
The victory confirmed the naval supremacy Britain had established during the course of the eighteenth century, and was achieved in part through Nelson's departure from prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy.
Conventional battle practice at the time was for opposing fleets to engage each other in single parallel lines, in order to facilitate signalling and disengagement and to maximise fields of fire and target areas. Nelson instead arranged his ships into columns sailing directly towards and into the enemy fleets’ line.
In 1805, the First French Empire, under Napoleon Bonaparte, was the dominant military land power on the European continent, while the British Royal Navy controlled the seas. During the course of the war, the British imposed a naval blockade on France, which affected trade and kept the French from fully mobilising their naval resources.
Despite several successful evasions of the blockade by the French navy, it failed to inflict a major defeat upon the British, who were able to attack French interests at home and abroad with relative ease.
When the Third Coalition declared war on France, after the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon renewed his determination to invade Britain. To do so, he needed to ensure that the Royal Navy would be unable to disrupt the invasion flotilla, which would require control of the English Channel.
The main French fleets were at Brest in Brittany and at Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. Other ports on the French Atlantic coast harboured smaller squadrons. France and Spain were allied, so the Spanish fleet based in Cádiz and Ferrol was also available.
The British possessed an experienced and well-trained corps of naval officers. By contrast, some of the best officers in the French navy had either been executed or had left the service during the early part of the French Revolution.
Napoleon's naval plan in 1805 was for the French and Spanish fleets in the Mediterranean and Cádiz to break through the blockade and join forces in the Caribbean. They would then return, assist the fleet in Brest to emerge from the blockade, and together clear the English Channel of Royal Navy ships, ensuring a safe passage for the invasion barges.
On 21 October, Admiral Nelson had 27 ships of the line under his command. Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, captained by Thomas Masterman Hardy, was one of three 100-gun first rates in his fleet.
Against Nelson, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve, sailing on his flagship Bucentaure, fielded 33 ships of the line, including some of the largest in the world at the time. The Spanish contributed four first-rates to the fleet.
Three of these ships, one at 130 guns (Santisima Trinidad) and two at 112 guns (Príncipe de Asturias, Santa Ana), were much larger than anything under Nelson's command. The fourth first-rate carried 100 guns.
The prevailing tactical orthodoxy at the time involved manoeuvring to approach the enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engaging broadside in parallel lines. One reason for the development of the line of battle system was to facilitate control of the fleet: if all the ships were in line, signalling in battle became possible.
This often led to inconclusive battles, or allowed the losing side to minimise its losses; but Nelson wanted a conclusive action, giving his well-trained crews a chance to fight ship to ship.
Nelson's solution to the problem was to cut the opposing line in three. Approaching in two columns, sailing perpendicular to the enemy's line, one towards the centre of the opposing line and one towards the trailing end, his ships would surround the middle third, and force them to fight to the end.
Nelson hoped specifically to cut the line just in front of the French flagship, Bucentaure; the isolated ships in front of the break would not be able to see the flagship's signals, which he hoped would take them out of combat while they re-formed.
The plan had three principal advantages. First, the British fleet would close with the Franco-Spanish as quickly as possible, preventing their escape.
Second, it would quickly bring on a mêlée and frantic battle by breaking the Franco-Spanish line and inducing a series of individual ship-to-ship actions, in which the British knew they were likely to prevail. Nelson knew that the superior seamanship, faster gunnery and better morale of his crews were great advantages.
Third, it would bring a decisive concentration on the rear of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, which would take a long time.
Additionally, once the Franco-Spanish line had been broken, their ships would be relatively defenceless against powerful broadsides from the British fleet, and it would take them a long time to reposition to return fire.
The main drawback of attacking head-on was that as the leading British ships approached, the Franco-Spanish Combined Fleet would be able to direct raking broadside fire at their bows, to which they would be unable to reply.
He was also well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform. The Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell, causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating the problem. Nelson's plan was indeed a gamble, but a carefully calculated one.
The battle progressed largely according to Nelson's plan. At 11:45, Nelson sent the famous flag signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty".
As the battle opened, the French and Spanish were in a ragged curved line headed north. As planned, the British fleet was approaching the Franco-Spanish line in two columns. Leading the northern, windward column in Victory was Nelson, while Collingwood in the 100-gun Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column.
The two British columns approached from the west at nearly a right angle to the allied line. Nelson led his column into a feint toward the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet and then abruptly turned toward the actual point of attack. Collingwood altered the course of his column slightly so that the two lines converged at this line of attack.
Because the winds were very light during the battle, all the ships were moving extremely slowly, and the foremost British ships were under heavy fire from several of the allied ships for almost an hour before their own guns could bear.
At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal "engage the enemy", and Fougueux fired her first trial shot at Royal Sovereign, which had all sails out and, having recently had her bottom cleaned, outran the rest of the British fleet.
As she approached the allied line, she came under fire from Fougueux, Indomptable, San Justo, and San Leandro, before breaking the line just astern of Admiral Alava's flagship Santa Ana, into which she fired a devastating double-shotted raking broadside.
For 40 minutes, Victory was under fire from Héros, Santísima Trinidad, Redoutable, and Neptune; although many shots went astray, others killed and wounded a number of her crew and shot her wheel away, so that she had to be steered from her tiller belowdecks, all before she could respond.
At 12:45, Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable; she came close to Bucentaure, firing a devastating raking broadside through Bucentaure's stern which killed and wounded many on her gundecks.
Villeneuve thought that boarding would take place, and with the Eagle of his ship in hand, told his men, "I will throw it onto the enemy ship and we will take it back there!" However Victory engaged the 74-gun Redoutable; Bucentaure was left to the next three ships of the British windward column: Temeraire, Conqueror, and HMS Neptune.
A general mêlée ensued. Victory locked masts with the French Redoutable, whose crew, including a strong infantry corps (with three captains and four lieutenants), gathered for an attempt to board and seize Victory.
A musket bullet fired from the mizzentop of Redoutable struck Nelson in the left shoulder, passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and lodged two inches below his right scapula in the muscles of his back. Nelson exclaimed, "They finally succeeded, I am dead." He was carried below decks.
Victory's gunners were called on deck to fight boarders, and she ceased firing. The gunners were forced back below decks by French grenades. As the French were preparing to board Victory, Temeraire, the second ship in the British windward column, approached from the starboard bow of Redoutable and fired on the exposed French crew with a carronade, causing many casualties.
At 13:55, the French Captain Lucas of Redoutable, with 99 fit men out of 643 and severely wounded himself, surrendered. The French Bucentaure was isolated by Victory and Temeraire, and then engaged by HMS Neptune, HMS Leviathan, and Conqueror; similarly, Santísima Trinidad was isolated and overwhelmed, surrendering after three hours.
As more and more British ships entered the battle, the ships of the allied centre and rear were gradually overwhelmed. The allied van, after long remaining quiescent, made a futile demonstration and then sailed away.
As Nelson lay dying, he ordered the fleet to anchor, as a storm was predicted. Surgeon William Beatty heard Nelson murmur, "Thank God I have done my duty"; when he returned, Nelson's voice had faded, and his pulse was very weak.
He looked up as Beatty took his pulse, then closed his eyes. Nelson's chaplain, Alexander Scott, who remained by Nelson as he died, recorded his last words as "God and my country." Nelson died at half-past four, three hours after being hit.
The British took 22 vessels of the Franco-Spanish fleet and lost none. The disparity in losses has been attributed by some historians less to Nelson's daring tactics than to the difference in fighting readiness of the two fleets.
Nelson's fleet was made up of ships of the line which had spent a considerable amount of sea time during the months of blockades of French ports, whilst the French fleet had generally been at anchor in port.
However, Villeneuve's fleet had just spent months at sea crossing the Atlantic twice, which supports the proposition that the main difference between the two fleets' combat effectiveness was the morale of the leaders. The daring tactics employed by Nelson were to ensure a strategically decisive result. The results vindicated his naval judgement.
HMS Victory made her way to Gibraltar for repairs, carrying Nelson's body. She put into Rosia Bay, Gibraltar and after emergency repairs were carried out, returned to Britain. Many of the injured crew were taken ashore at Gibraltar and treated in the Naval Hospital.
Men who subsequently died from injuries sustained at the battle are buried in or near the Trafalgar Cemetery, at the south end of Main Street, Gibraltar.
The battle took place the day after the Battle of Ulm, and Napoleon did not hear about it for weeks—the Grande Armée had left Boulogne to fight Britain's allies before they could combine their armies.
He had tight control over the Paris media and kept the defeat a closely guarded secret for over a month, at which point newspapers proclaimed it to have been a tremendous victory.
Vice-Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner aboard his flagship and taken back to Britain. After his parole in 1806, he returned to France, where he was found dead in his inn room during a stop on the way to Paris, with six stab wounds in the chest from a dining knife. It was officially recorded that he had committed suicide.
Despite the British victory over the Franco-Spanish navies, Trafalgar had negligible impact on the remainder of the War of the Third Coalition. Less than two months later, Napoleon decisively defeated the Third Coalition at the Battle of Austerlitz, knocking Austria out of the war and forcing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.
Although Trafalgar meant France could no longer challenge Britain at sea, Napoleon proceeded to establish the Continental System in an attempt to deny Britain trade with the continent. The Napoleonic Wars continued for another ten years after Trafalgar.
Nelson's body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the trip home to a hero's funeral.
Following the battle, the Royal Navy was never again seriously challenged by the French fleet in a large-scale engagement. Napoleon had already abandoned his plans of invasion before the battle and they were never revived.
The battle did not mean, however, that the French naval challenge to Britain was over. First, as the French control over the continent expanded, Britain had to take active steps with the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807 and elsewhere in 1808 to prevent the ships of smaller European navies from falling into French hands.
This effort was largely successful, but did not end the French threat as Napoleon instituted a large-scale shipbuilding programme that had produced a fleet of 80 ships of the line at the time of his fall from power in 1814, with more under construction.
In comparison, Britain had 99 ships of the line in active commission in 1814, and this was close to the maximum that could be supported. Given a few more years, the French could have realised their plans to commission 150 ships of the line and again challenge the Royal Navy, compensating for the inferiority of their crews with sheer numbers.
For almost 10 years after Trafalgar, the Royal Navy maintained a close blockade of French bases and anxiously observed the growth of the French fleet. In the end, Napoleon's Empire was destroyed by land before his ambitious naval buildup could be completed.
The Royal Navy proceeded to dominate the sea until the Second World War. Although the victory at Trafalgar was typically given as the reason at the time, modern historical analyses suggest that relative economic strength was an important underlying cause of British naval mastery.
The Battle of Trafalgar has been described by many historians as Britain's greatest naval battle. Nelson became – and remains – Britain's greatest naval war hero, and an inspiration to the Royal Navy, London's Trafalgar Square was named in honour of Nelson's victory; at the centre of the square there is the 45.1 m (148 ft) Nelson's Column, with a 5.5 m (18 ft) statue of Nelson on top. It was finished in 1843.