The Battle of Trafalgar
21st October 1805
Trafalgar. A term which can conjure multiple images, such as images of HMS Victory or Horatio Nelson. Trafalgar is seen by many as the defining moment within the Napoleonic Wars where the Royal Navy achieved full naval supremacy, never to be challenged on this scale again for the duration of the conflict and marking a genuine turning point in history.
The prelude to the Battle of Trafalgar can be traced to 1804. Britain had just faced an invasion scare, whilst also formally entering war with Spain. It is often incorrectly said that French defeat at traflagar prevented an invasion of Britain. In truth, Napoleon had already abandoned that plan. In March the French Admiral Vileneuve had sailed in an elaborate detour tot he West Indies, hoping to draw away the british fleet, and sail to the English Channel to transport Napoleon's troops to Britain. The plan was thwarted when Vilneauve, on his way to the Channel stumbled across three large ships of the royal navy and assumed they were the scouts of the main British fleet, prompting him to flee towards Cadiz.
Following this failure Napoleon instead set his sights on Austria who had recently entered the war. To support operations in Austria, in what would become the Austerlitz campaign, the order was given to Villeneuve to set sail with his fleet and attack Naples so that Austrian forces would be drawn towards Italy.
The battle took place on the 21st of October 1805 when Nelson and his fleet of twenty-seven engaged Villeneuve’s fleet of thirty-three French/Spanish vessels. Within five hours of the battle starting, it was over, and the combined fleet was decimated, with eighteen French/Spanish ships sunk, burnt or captured.
The battle can be traced back to September when Villeneuve’s fleet was blockaded by the Royal Navy in Cadiz by a British fleet under Nelson. Napoleon had other ideas however, ordering his fleet to escape the blockade and travel to Sardinia so that they could assist in the Mediterranean. On October the 20th Villeneuve adhered to this order and departed with his fleet; however, it became apparent that he would be unable to outrun the British. Realising his potential fate, the fleet was ordered to return to Cadiz where they would be protected. This was never to happen, and Nelson would intercept the force off Cape Trafalgar.
Being outnumbered, it was unlikely Nelson would have achieved victory by following standard naval doctrine of the day, of sailing parallel to the enemy line of ships and engaging until one side gave out. Nelson decided that the British were too approach in two separate columns, approaching the French/Spanish line from a ninety-degree angle. Nelson lead one column, which was tasked with engaging the upper half of the enemy line, whilst Collingwood engaged the lower half of the line. Most of Nelsons initial focus would go onto engaging two flagships, the Bucentaure and Santissima Trinidad.
The tactics employed by Nelson were unorthodox, therefore likely to slow down the time in which the enemy could organise an effective response. However, approaching at the line head on in two separate columns placed the Royal Navy at risk for a period, for they would be open to receiving fire but unable to return any. It is believed the British were sailing under enemy fire for as long as half an hour before moving into suitable positions to engage with their own broadsides. This initial risk was worth it, as intersecting the enemy’s line around the halfway point meant their force would be split into two, with the vessels in the upper half having to turn around and sail against the wind in order to react to the British attack, substantially slowing down their response.
The Battle of Trafalgar. J.M.W Turner (1822)
A factor which certainly gave Nelson an advantage was the lack of gunnery training for French and Spanish crews, whilst being blockaded they had failed to have any real tests, thus leaving them inexperienced. The combined fleet had less experience as well as less modern equipment than their British counterparts. It is generally considered a Royal Navy gunnery crew could fire three shots every five minutes, averaging just under one shot a minute whereas a combined fleet gunnery crew could fire off one shot within the same time frame. This quick firing on the part of the British meant that they were able to more effectively rake the combined fleet with quick successive broadsides where needed, giving battle winning effectiveness. The effectiveness of skilled gunnery can be seen in a direct comparison between HMS Victory (102 guns) and the Santisima Trinidad (136 guns) within a fictional fifteen-minute window. Using the gunnery stats previously provided HMS Victory would be able to fire 918 times compared to the Santisima Trinidad’s 408, thus showing British fire superiority despite having 34 less guns onboard.
As Nelsons column arrived, HMS Royal Sovereign was the first British ship to engage. Half an hour later, HMS Victory finally arrived, placing a devastating broadside into the stern of the Bucantaure and putting her out of action. The sinking of the Bucantaure was tactically significant as this opened a gap in the line, allowing the rest of Nelsons column to break in and begin battle. It was shortly after this that Nelson met his fate. The French Redoubtable came broadside to Victory, with her sailors firing their muskets to suppress the British gunnery crews. It is believed that in this barrage of lead Nelson was struck in the spine, whilst surviving the initial wound the onboard surgeon confirmed he would perish.
After Nelson was taken below deck the Redoubtable continued their musket fire upon the deck of Victory. The crew of the Redoubtable were then given orders to board Victory as the majority her top-deck crew had been killed. However, as the French initiated their boarding, HMS Temerere came alongside the Redoubtable and fired a broadside before the enemy crew could react. Victory, being given a second lease at life also engaged the French ship, which was now being fired on by two ships of the line at near point-blank range.
As the battle progressed, the French and Spanish vessels were either sunk or boarded one by one, clearly giving the day to the Royal Navy. The only threat which remained was the enemy vanguard which had sailed on after the British approach. These ships made a brief attempt to engage, but later escaped to the South. Only eleven French/Spanish ships escaped the engagement, with only five of these being declared seaworthy. Therefore meaning 85% of the enemy force had been rendered useless following the battle.
A British poster commemorating the victory at Trafalgar.
So, what was the outcome of Trafalgar? Was there any long-term impact of this victory or did it just reinforce what everybody felt, that Britain controlled the seas?
Whilst it can certainly be considered a major victory for the British, it failed to provide the overarching victory such as was seen at the Battle of Waterloo. This is because to defeat Napoleon, one would have to overthrow the regime, which from sea power alone was impossible. This is perhaps best seen in the battles at Ulm and Austerlitz which took place later within the same year as Trafalgar, displaying how Napoleon would still have to be uprooted within continental Europe to ensure a complete defeat.
The battle may not have provided the critical victory needed to dispose of Napoleon, but it came at a time of desperation for the Royal Navy. In 1804 the Royal Navy only had 63 ships of the line deemed fit for service outside of home waters, whereas the combined fleet of Spain and France mustered over 100, thus showing it was only a matter of time before the Royal Navy lost naval supremacy. Trafalgar provided the crushing victory the Royal Navy desperately needed, destroying approximately one quarter of the combined fleet. The minimal losses of the Royal Navy meant that supremacy over the seas could be ensured for years to come.
Invasion was now largely off the cards for Britain, as Napoleon would struggle to launch and invasion which was also capable of eliminating the Royal Navy within the channel, this meant he resorted to economic warfare to crush the British. The economic blockade known as the continental system relied on countries ceasing their trade with Britain to damage the British economy, however it can be argued that this strategy caused more damage to the French state in the long-run. This blockade not only negatively affected Britain but would also damage the economies of the nations who were no longer exporting, such as Spain and Portugal. Rebellion in Spain and Portuguese resistance to this blockade meant that Napoleon felt obliged to attack, resulting in a new major chapter opening, the Peninsular Wars. In the long term it would be the Peninsular where Wellington, one of Napoleons greatest adversaries started to make his mark on the conflict.
Trafalgar proved to be a decisive victory in the naval sphere, removing a large degree of combat effectiveness from the enemy navies for the remainder of the wars , however it failed to dramatically change the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars as the French would continue to advance through Europe in the following years.
The French did still pose a worthy threat to British naval power, as can be seen through smaller engagements that took place in following years such as the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809. In oversight, Trafalgar had a wide-ranging array of effects on the strategic situation for both the French and the British for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. For the British it largely removed the threat of invasion, whilst also providing a significant morale boost at home in the name of Admiral Nelson. In addition to this, the Battle of Trafalgar indirectly supported operations that would take part in the latter years of the wars. The landing of British troops near Lisbon in 1808 would have most likely been a more costly and difficult operation if French naval strength had not been reduced. For the French, as previously mentioned the battle forced Napoleon to focus on operations within continental Europe as well as enforcing his continental system. The effects of this change in strategy will never fully be known, but if Trafalgar had resulted in a French victory or if the battle had never ensued then the outcome for all belligerent nations in this period may have resulted far differently.