Battle of Trafalgar (1805)

Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson's Winning Plan

Prior to the Battle

Nelson was appointed commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and given the first-rate HMS Victory as his flagship. He joined her at Portsmouth, where he received orders to sail to Malta and take command of a squadron there before joining the blockade of Toulon. Nelson arrived off Toulon in July 1803 and spent the next year and a half enforcing the blockade. He was promoted to Vice Admiral of the White while still at sea, on 23 April 1804. In January 1805 the French fleet, under Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, escaped Toulon when the British were blown off station by storms and eluded the blockading British. Nelson commenced a search of the Mediterranean, erroneously supposing that the French intended to make for Egypt. However, Villeneuve took his fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar, rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet, and sailed as planned for the Caribbean. Once Nelson realised that the French had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he set off in pursuit, but after arriving in the Caribbean, spent June in a fruitless search for the fleet. 

Villeneuve had briefly cruised around the islands before heading back to Europe, in contravention of Napoleon's orders. The returning French fleet was intercepted by a British fleet under Sir Robert Calder and engaged in the Battle of Cape Finisterre, but managed to reach Ferrol with only minor losses. Nelson returned to Gibraltar at the end of July, and travelled from there to England, dismayed at his failure to bring the French to battle and expecting to be censured. To his surprise he was given a rapturous reception from crowds who had gathered to view his arrival, while senior British officials congratulated him for sustaining the close pursuit and credited him with saving the West Indies from a French invasion. Nelson stayed briefly in London, where he was cheered wherever he went, before visiting Merton to see Emma, arriving in late August. He entertained a number of his friends and relations there over the coming month, and began plans for a grand engagement with the enemy fleet, one that would surprise his foes by forcing a pell-mell battle on them.

Captain Henry Blackwood arrived at Merton early on 2 September, bringing news that the French and Spanish fleets had combined and were currently at anchor in Cádiz. Nelson hurried to London where he met cabinet ministers and was given command of the fleet blockading Cádiz. It was while attending one of these meetings on 12 September, with Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, that Nelson and Major General Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, met briefly in a waiting room. Wellington was waiting to be debriefed on his Indian operations, and Nelson on his chase and future plans. Wellington later recalled, "He (Nelson) entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side and all about himself and, in reality, a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me." However, after a few minutes Nelson left the room and having been told who his companion was, returned and entered into an earnest and intelligent discussion with the young Wellesley which lasted for a quarter of an hour, on the war, the state of the colonies and the geopolitical situation, that left a marked impression upon Wellesley. This was the only meeting between the two men.

Nelson returned briefly to Merton to set his affairs in order and bid farewell to Emma, before travelling back to London and then on to Portsmouth, arriving there early in the morning of 14 September. He breakfasted at the George Inn with his friends George Rose, the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, and George Canning, the Treasurer of the Navy. During the breakfast word spread of Nelson's presence at the inn and a large crowd of well-wishers gathered. They accompanied Nelson to his barge and cheered him off, which Nelson acknowledged by raising his hat. Nelson was recorded as having turned to his colleague and stated, "I had their huzzas before: I have their hearts now". Robert Southey reported that of the onlookers for Nelson's walk to the dock, "Many were in tears and many knelt down before him and blessed him as he passed". 

HMS Victory joined the British fleet off Cádiz on 27 September, Nelson taking over from Rear Admiral Collingwood. The British fleet used frigates (faster, but too fragile for the line of battle), to keep a constant watch on the harbour, while the main force remained out of sight, approximately 50 miles (80 km) west of the shore. Nelson's hope was to lure the combined Franco-Spanish force out and engage it in a decisive battle. The force watching the harbour was led by Captain Blackwood, commanding HMS Euryalus. His squadron of seven ships comprised five frigates, a schooner, and a brig.

He spent the following weeks preparing and refining his tactics for the anticipated battle and dining with his captains to ensure they understood his intentions. Nelson had devised a plan of attack that anticipated the allied fleet would form up in a traditional line of battle. Nelson's idea 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 break the enemy formation into three, surround one 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, hopefully taking them out of combat while they re-formed. The intention of going straight at the enemy echoed the tactics used by Admiral Duncan at the Battle of Camperdown and Admiral Jervis at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, both in 1797. Using this tactic, the British ships could overwhelm and destroy parts of their opponents' formation, before the unengaged enemy ships could come to their aid.

The order of sailing was to be the order of the ensuing action so that no time would be wasted in forming a precise line. The attack was to be made in two lines. One, led by his second-in-command Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, was to sail into the rear of the enemy line, while the other, led by Nelson, was to sail into the centre and vanguard. The intention was to split the enemy line and engage in close quarter action, a form of combat in which Nelson believed, the British fleet would have the advantage. In preparation for the battle, Nelson ordered the ships of his fleet to be painted in a distinctive yellow and black pattern (later known as the Nelson Chequer) that would make them easy to distinguish from their opponents.

Nelson was careful to point out that something had to be left to chance. Nothing is sure in a sea battle, so he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” In short, circumstances would dictate the execution, subject to the guiding rule that the enemy's rear was to be cut off and superior force concentrated on that part of the enemy's line.

Admiral Villeneuve himself expressed his belief that Nelson would use some sort of unorthodox attack, stating specifically that he believed—accurately—that Nelson would drive right at his line. But his long game of cat and mouse with Nelson had worn him down, and he was suffering from a loss of nerve. Arguing that the inexperience of his officers meant he would not be able to maintain formation in more than one group, he chose not to act on his assessment.

Preparation

The combined French and Spanish fleet under Villeneuve's command numbered 33 ships of the line. Napoleon Bonaparte had intended for Villeneuve to sail into the English Channel and cover the planned invasion of Britain, but the entry of Austria and Russia into the war forced Napoleon to call off the planned invasion and transfer troops to Germany. Villeneuve had been reluctant to risk an engagement with the British, and this reluctance led Napoleon to order Vice Admiral François Rosily to go to Cádiz and take command of the fleet, sail it into the Mediterranean to land troops at Naples, before making port at Toulon. Villeneuve decided to sail the fleet out before his successor arrived. On 20 October 1805, the fleet was sighted making its way out of harbour by patrolling British frigates, and Nelson was informed that they appeared to be heading to the west.

At 5:40 a.m. on 21 October, the British were about 21 miles (34 km) to the northwest of Cape Trafalgar, with the Franco-Spanish fleet between the British and the Cape. At circa 6 a.m., Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle. At 8 am the British frigate Euryalus, which had been keeping watch on the Combined Fleet overnight, observed the British fleet still "forming the lines" in which it would attack.

By 11 a.m. Nelson's entire fleet was visible to Villeneuve, drawn up in two parallel columns. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour. Villeneuve was concerned at this point about forming up a line, as his ships were unevenly spaced and in an irregular formation. The Franco-Spanish fleet was drawn out nearly five miles (8 km) long as Nelson's fleet approached. Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants. As the two fleets drew closer, anxiety began to build among officers and sailors; one British sailor described the time before thus: "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".


Nelson signalled the rest of his force to battle stations. He then went below on HMS Victory and made his will, before returning to the quarterdeck to carry out an inspection. Despite having 27 ships to Villeneuve's 33, Nelson was confident of success, declaring that he would not be satisfied with taking fewer than 20 prizes. He returned briefly to his cabin to write a final prayer. At 11:45 Nelson joined HMS Victory’s signal lieutenant, John Pasco and said

Mr Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet "England confides that every man will do his duty". You must be quick, for I have one more signal to make, which is for close action.

Pasco replied, "If your Lordship will permit me to substitute 'expects' for 'confides' the signal will soon be completed, because the word 'expects' is in the Signal Book and could be signalled by the use of a single code (using three flags), whereas confides would have to be spelt out letter by letter". Nelson replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, "That will do, Pasco, make it directly."

Death of Nelson - Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle

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.

At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal "engage the enemy", and Fougueux fired her first trial shot at Royal Sovereign. Royal Sovereign 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.

As the fleets converged, HMS Victory’s captain, Thomas Hardy, suggested that Nelson remove the decorations on his coat, so that he would not be so easily identified by enemy sharpshooters. Nelson replied that it was too late "to be shifting a coat", adding that they were "military orders and he did not fear to show them to the enemy". Captain Henry Blackwood, of the frigate HMS Euryalus, suggested Nelson come aboard his ship to better observe the battle. Nelson refused, and also turned down Hardy's suggestion to let Eliab Harvey's HMS Temeraire come ahead of Victory and lead the line into battle.


HMS Victory came under fire, initially passing wide, but then with greater accuracy as the distances decreased. A cannonball struck and killed Nelson's secretary, John Scott, nearly cutting him in two. Hardy's clerk took over, but he too was almost immediately killed. HMS Victory’s wheel was shot away, and another cannonball cut down eight marines. Hardy, standing next to Nelson on the quarterdeck, had his shoe buckle dented by a splinter. Nelson observed, "This is too warm work to last long." HMS Victory had by now reached the enemy line, and Hardy asked Nelson which ship to engage first. Nelson told him to take his pick.

At 12:45, HMS Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable; she came close to Bucentaure, firing a devastating raking broadside through her stern which killed and wounded many on her gun decks. 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 be dealt with by the next three ships of the British windward column: Temeraire, Conqueror, and HMS Neptune.

A general mêlée ensued and, during that fight, Victory locked masts with the French Redoutable. The crew of Redoutable, (which included 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 mizzen top 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. As sharpshooters from the enemy ships fired onto Victory’s deck from their rigging, Nelson and Hardy continued to walk about, directing and giving orders.

Wounding and Death

Shortly after 1:00, Hardy realized that Nelson was not by his side. He turned to see Nelson kneeling on the deck, supporting himself with his hand, before falling onto his side. Hardy rushed to him, at which point Nelson smiled:

"Hardy, I do believe they have done it at last ... my backbone is shot through."

Nelson had been hit by a marksman from the Redoutable, firing at a range of 50 feet (15 m). The bullet had entered his left shoulder, passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and lodged two inches (5 cm) below his right shoulder blade in the muscles of his back. Nelson was carried below by sergeant-major of marines Robert Adair and two seamen. As he was being carried down, he asked them to pause while he gave some advice to a midshipman on the handling of the tiller. He then draped a handkerchief over his face to avoid causing alarm amongst the crew. He was taken to the surgeon William Beatty, telling him:

“You can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live. My back is shot through”

Nelson was made comfortable, fanned and brought lemonade and watered wine to drink after he complained of feeling hot and thirsty. He asked several times to see Hardy, who was on deck supervising the battle, and asked Beatty to remember him to Emma, his daughter and his friends. Hardy came below decks to see Nelson just after half-past two, and informed him that a number of enemy ships had surrendered. Nelson told him that he was sure to die, and begged him to pass his possessions to Emma. With Nelson at this point were the chaplain Alexander Scott, the purser Walter Burke, Nelson's steward, Chevalier, and Beatty. Nelson, fearing that a gale was blowing up, instructed Hardy to be sure to anchor. 

After reminding him to "take care of poor Lady Hamilton", Nelson said "Kiss me, Hardy". Beatty recorded that Hardy knelt and kissed Nelson on the cheek. He then stood for a minute or two before kissing him on the forehead. Nelson asked, "Who is that?", and on hearing that it was Hardy, he replied "God bless you, Hardy." By now very weak, Nelson continued to murmur instructions to Burke and Scott, "fan, fan ... rub, rub ... drink, drink." 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, and 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." It has been suggested by Nelson historian Craig Cabell that Nelson was actually reciting his own prayer as he fell into his death coma, as the words 'God' and 'my country' are closely linked therein. Nelson died at half-past four, three hours after being hit.

End of the Battle

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 a