Trafalgar, Battle of
TRAFALGAR, BATTLE OF
Fought on 21 October 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar, in which a British fleet under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet, was the culmination of a yearlong campaign of deception and maneuver supporting Emperor Napoleon I's project for the invasion of England. With the major elements of his French and Spanish navies blockaded in Continental ports, Napoleon initially proposed to slip his invasion flotilla of small craft past the Royal Navy forces on watch in the English Channel. As the folly of that notion became obvious, Napoleon proposed instead to unite the main Spanish fleet with the French squadrons from Toulon and Brest, gaining control of the Channel long enough for his invasion force to cross.
His plan took sophisticated account of the relative dispersion of British forces. The Toulon squadron, under its new commander Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve, would evade its blockaders, pick up a Spanish squadron at Cádiz, and sail for Martinique in the West Indies. There it would join another French squadron sortieing from Rochefort. The combined force would return to France, while the Brest squadron broke its blockade and joined the ships from Martinique in a sweep of the Channel that would clear the way for the conquest of England.
Napoleon expected the British to mount vain pursuits in all directions as the Franco-Spanish squadrons combined and recombined. In fact, apart from the predictable uncertainties of weather and wind, the quality of the French and Spanish navies was far below that required by the proposed display of maritime virtuosity. Both had spent too much time in port under British guns to have developed the seamanship and self-confidence to execute Napoleon's grand design smoothly. The French fleet in particular had never recovered from the losses of experienced officers and petty officers caused by the Revolution.
The Brest squadron never made it out of port in the face of a dogged close blockade. Villeneuve had better fortune—and a temporarily obliging enemy in the person of Nelson. Commanding in the Mediterranean, Nelson had maintained a long-range blockade of Toulon in the hope of luring the French out to battle. When Villeneuve slipped out of Toulon in late March 1805, Nelson thought he was making for Egypt. Instead the French admiral, after a brief stopover at Cádiz, made for the West Indies, getting a three-week head start before Nelson turned in pursuit.
Villeneuve arrived at Martinique to find no one else there; the ships from Rochefort had come and gone. On learning of Nelson's arrival in the Caribbean, Villeneuve set his sails for Europe as well. His revised orders were to break the blockades of El Ferrol and Brest, pick up the Spanish and French ships there, and take the entire fleet into the Channel. But he had little confidence in his own fleet, whose efficiency had improved little during its time at sea. After an inconclusive engagement with a British squadron under Vice Admiral Robert Calder, Villeneuve made for Cádiz. Temporarily at least, he was safely out of range of major British forces. He had also sacrificed any chance he might have of executing Napoleon's grand design.
Nelson, frustrated by his failure to catch up with Villeneuve, returned to England and a brief shore leave. On 14 September he put to sea again, assigned as commander of the blockading force at Cádiz. He had spent three weeks working on the
problem of putting paid to Villeneuve once and for all. His intention was to let the allied fleet sortie, then attack it not in an orthodox line of battle formation but in two columns, splitting his enemy and bringing about a no-holds-barred melee. Conventional wisdom argued such an action could not be controlled. Nelson was confident in the quality of his crews and captains—and not least in an improved signal system facilitating transmission of orders even in close action.
Under orders from Napoleon to engage, Villeneuve set sail on 19 October. Fearing to frighten his opponent back to port, Nelson stalked him until the morning of the twenty-first. The subsequent jockeying for position only highlighted Franco-Spanish navigational shortcomings. Nothing was wrong with their courage—but as the British came to close quarters the Royal Navy's gunnery and ship-handling created a debacle. Twenty-two allied ships out of thirty-three were lost when the final tally was taken. No British ship was sunk, though most were badly battered. Nelson fell to a musket shot, his place among the great admirals assured for all time.
Trafalgar was the most important naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. It put an end to Napoleon's hopes of invading England, and decided as well an Anglo-French struggle for naval mastery dating back to the mid-seventeenth century. Nelson's victory secured a British mastery of the high seas that endured for more than a century.
Howarth, David. Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch. London, 1969. Reprint, London, 2003.
Lambert, Andrew. Nelson: Britannia's God of War. London, 2004. Excellent alike on Nelson's history and mythology.
Schom, Alan. Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803–1805. New York, 1990.
Trafalgar, battle of
Trafalgar was the quintessence of the implicit abandonment, in progress during the previous half-century, of opposing fleets engaging in formal parallel lines, but it was Nelson's personal genius which conferred on the battle a resonance which transcended innovation. Following his death at the battle's close, when some 500 British and at least 2,000 Spaniards and French had died (followed by many more drowned in the ensuing week-long gale), there was no active pursuit of Nelson's ideas, a retrograde conservatism being deemed the better part of audacity.
David Denis Aldridge
Trafalgar, Battle of
Trafalgar, Battle of
Trafalgar Day 21 October, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Trafalgar Square a square in central London, planned by John Nash and built between the 1820s and 1840s. It is dominated by Nelson's Column, a memorial to Lord Nelson.