by Nitin K. Shankar
The sea battle of Trafalgar fought in 1805 is strongly linked to memories of my
school history lessons in 1951, a visit to the HMS Victory in
Portsmouth in 1957 and a day spent in Cadiz in 1987.
My school history book described the victor of the battle, Horatio Nelson, as a
'weak and sickly child' who distinguished himself through great personal
courage and went on to become the Royal Navy's greatest admirals. It was the
combination of Nelson's puny appearance and daring that inspired me to read
more about him.
Born in 1758, Nelson entered the Royal Navy at the age of 12. He passed his
lieutenant's exam more than a year under the official age in 1777 and was made
post-captain at the age of 21. His youthfulness stood out and even the Prince
of Wales, who was then a young midshipman on board Admiral Samuel Hood's
flagship, the Barfleur , noticed Nelson. The future King William IV
described Nelson as 'the merest boy of a captain I ever beheld.'
This boy captain always led his men by example and from the front. In the
Battle of St. Vincent in February 1797, although a commodore, he led a boarding
party across first one enemy ship, and then proceeded to use that as a bridge
to capture yet another. Nelson also trusted his own judgement. At the Battle of
Copenhagen in 1801, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, on his flagship, thought that the
British were losing and hoisted the signal 'Disengage action '. From
his ship, Nelson purposefully put his telescope to his blind eye and exclaimed,
'I really do not see the signal!' He fought on until the Danish surrendered.
This single act, if things had gone wrong, would have meant a court martial but
Nelson was proven right.
I have always associated the HMS Victory with Nelson and it was,
therefore, natural that I would visit this ship during a stay with my uncle, a
naval officer, who was then doing a training course in Portsmouth.
Built in 1759-1765 as a 100-gun ship, the HMS Victory was already an
old ship when the Battle of Trafalgar took place. Yet, when I walked on her
immaculate gun decks in 1957, she still looked in mint condition. A Royal
Marine corporal took us around the ship and his description allowed me to
imagine now just how terrible the battle conditions must have been for her
crew, sweating over their belching guns, with the decks slippery with the blood
of their dead or wounded comrades.
The living conditions below were no better. Many of the crew were young men
forcibly recruited by press gangs scouring English sea towns. They were
literally whipped into shape by the iron discipline of autocratic captains for
whom the lash was the answer for almost every infringement of the ship's rules.
The monotonous diet of bully beef and biscuits cause many sailors to suffer
from scurvy but the daily tot of rum seemed to work wonders for their fighting
morale. It was a ship that captured my imagination and, before leaving, I
purchased a wooden ashtray made from the ship's original hull for the princely
sum of 10 shillings.
I like to think that it was this piece of wood that made the journey to
Trafalgar where Nelson's greatest and last sea battle took place.
My pilgrimage to Trafalgar took place in the form of a visit to Cadiz, a
Spanish coastal town on the Atlantic sea.
The Battle of Trafalgar took place where it did because the coast between Cadiz
and Tarifa, the town situated precisely where the Mediterranean and the
Atlantic Ocean meet, notionally defined the region where French and English
interests clashed. However, one needs to go back to the summer of 1805 to
understand what was taking place.
At this time, Napoleon had 90,000 men assembled along France's northwest coast
awaiting orders to board 2,000 ships and cross the Channel. Their purpose was
to invade England. The moment had arrived for Napoleon to deal with the
principal enemy standing in his way of making all Europe subservient to France.
"Let us be masters of la Manche for just six hours", Napoleon said, "and we are
masters of the world."
Although Napoleon ordered his navy to clear the channel of British naval ships,
it was an order that his captains found impossible to obey, as the British
blockade of the French and Spanish harbours had virtually immobilised his
gigantic naval force.
The largest force, Admiral Villeneuve's Combined French-Spanish Fleet, lay
anchored at Cadiz. After first locating and then losing each other between the
West Indies and Europe, Villeneuve had managed successfully to outrun Nelson
and reach safe haven at Spain's fortified port nearest the Mediterranean. With
the French at anchor, having effectively trapped themselves, the English were
patrolling free, indeed threatening blockade everywhere. Napoleon knew, if he
were to stand any chance of delivering his army onto British soil, that he
would first have to gain control of the open sea. Yet, Villeneuve was fearful
of leaving the safety of Cadiz and facing an outright confrontation with
Nelson, who was the most venerated naval officer of his time.
Driving into Cadiz, I found that the old city stands on a peninsula jutting out
into a bay and is entirely surrounded by water. I thought about Villeneuve and
his fleet of Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships anchored in this bay. Some of the
city's 18th century walls still stand, such as the Landward Gate, and I could
imagine that the cannons served to discourage any British naval ships from
venturing into the bay. The old city, quite Moorish in appearance, is
intriguing with narrow cobbled streets opening onto small squares and has not
changed much since Villeneuve's time. There could have been no better place for
Villeneuve to sit out the war.
Yet, Napoleon had other plans. Although he had given up his plans to invade
England, he now ordered Villeneuve's fleet at Cadiz to sail out for Naples to
support a landing there.
It is in response to Napoleon's order that Villeneuve's Franco-Spanish fleet of
33, with 2,640 guns, would set out from Cadiz.
The Nelson Touch
After assuring the blockade of his opponent in Cadiz, Nelson had returned to be
with the love of his life, Lady Hamilton and their daughter, Horatia, in
Merton. Attached as he was to the comforts of their home, it is typical of the
man that he decided to depart for Portsmouth to rejoin HMS Victory when
hearing rumours that Villeneuve might leave his safe haven.
As the British Fleet waited for the Combined Fleet to sail from Cadiz, Nelson
asked his captains to come on board the Victory and explained his plan
Until the Battle of Trafalgar, the problem of how a fleet could gain an
annihilating victory over the enemy was one that had never really been solved,
and for want of a better tactic, it had been the custom for the fleets to sail
into action in two parallel lines, with each ship taking on a single opponent,
firing its guns broadside as it passed.
Inevitably, the enemy would take an opposite tack, and the battle would then
become a vastly prolonged affair, with the ships continually sailing on
opposite tacks, or engaging on the same tack, until one of the fleets
Nelson decided to break completely with this tradition. His plan was to divide
his fleet into two columns, both attacking sections of the enemy line at right
angles and then breaking through their lines to cut off the retreat of the
This aggressive piece of strategy, which was later referred to as the "Nelson
Touch", was to change the whole course of naval warfare.
After several false starts, the Combined Fleet finally set sail on 20th October
and was sighted by the British frigate Sirius, which made the signal 370: 'Enemy's
ships are coming out of port' .
This signal was repeated along the chain of ships until it reached the main
fleet. Nelson then signaled the fleet for 'General chase south-east' ,
his plan was to steer for the Straits of Gibraltar and prevent the Combined
Fleet from sailing into the Mediterranean.
The battle did not begin until the following day, by which time the enemy fleet
was well in sight, off Cape Trafalgar.
Shortly after, Nelson called for his signal officer, Lieutenant Pasco and asked
him to make the signal to bear down on the enemy in two lines.
Afterwards, Nelson ordered Pasco to make the signal: "Nelson confides that
every man will do his duty," but Pasco suggested replacing Nelson's name by
that of England as well as substituting the word 'expects' for 'confides' as
that was in the telegraphic vocabulary whereas confides would have to be spelt
with a long string of flags. Nelson agreed and the famous signal was run up on
the Victory 's halyards: 'England expects that every man will do his
One final signal was run up on the flagship, the telegraphic flag and then
numbers one and six: 'Engage the enemy more closely' .
The Combined Fleet was sailing to the south-east when, shortly after dawn, the
French frigate Hermione spotted the British fleet in the west.
Villeneuve, instead of sailing for Gibraltar, decided to try and return to
Cadiz. At 8 a.m. he ordered the fleet to reform the line of battle and now sail
in the opposite direction. The variable quality of the Combined Fleets crews
now began to show, the ships finding it difficult in the light wind to find
their position in the line of battle. Soon the French and Spanish captains
could clearly see the British ships advancing on the centre of their line in
two columns, and some realised the danger. By now Villenueve had guessed what
form Nelsons attack would take but failed to specify any defence to his
The first stage of the battle started, with the Victory leading one
column while the second group under Admiral Collingwood also attacked at right
angles to break through the lines of the enemy ships, and thus cut off their
retreat – a tactic in complete variance with the accepted rules of naval
This raking manoeuvre was employed with great success by the British ships.
When attacking the enemy line, a British vessel would steer for a gap between
enemy vessels. After gaining an advantageous position, the British ship would
fire a broadside at one enemy vessel before sailing in front of it to unleash
yet another broadside into the stern of the next ship in the line. Yet another
broadside was then delivered to that crippled vessel from the other side.
In the meantime, Nelson's ship was moving on, silent and intent, searching for
the French admiral's ship. Eventually, right in front of her, lay the huge
Spanish four-decker, Santissima Trinidad and Nelson bore down on her.
As he did so, Villenuve's ship, the Bucentaure, and seven or eight
other enemy ships, opened fire on the Victory . Still she advanced
without firing. By the time she had come close enough to rake the Santissima
Trinidad , with her larboard guns, 50 of her men were dead and 30
As the Victory closed on the enemy line, Captain Hardy decided to take
his ship past the rear of the Bucentaure. On the fo'c'sle, the Victory's
larboard 68 pounder carronade, loaded with a round shot and a keg of 500 musket
balls, fired into the Bucentaure, raking the French ship from end to
end and mowing down the sailors manning their guns. As the Victory continued
to sail past, her lower deck guns also opened fire as one by one.
After the Victory cleared the Bucentaure, she came within
range of the Neptune which fired her broadside into the Victory
damaging the foremast and bowsprit. Hardy ordered the helm to bring Victory
alongside the Redoubtable and she fired her broadside into the French
The Victory and the Redoubtable crashed together and their
yards locked. Redoubtable shut most of her gunports to prevent
boarding and the French marines in the rigging fired down onto the deck of the Victory
. At about 1:15 p.m. as Nelson and Hardy walked on the quarter deck, a musket
ball fired by one of the Redoubtable's snipers struck Nelson in the
top of the shoulder and smashed into his spine. He knew straight away that the
wound would be fatal, and as he was carried down to the lower deck he covered
his face with a handkerchief.
Fighting continued on the decks above and as Redoubtable was bombarded
by Victory's guns the Temeraire closed on her starboard side
and fired into her. The three ships locked together and the Redoubtable
was slowly pounded into submission.
Below decks, Nelson's life was now ebbing away fast.
As he lay dying Nelson had specifically asked Captain Hardy not to throw him
overboard – as was the habit in such circumstances – and special preparations
were taken in hand to transport his body back to England in a cask called a
leaguer filled with brandy.
This method of preserving Nelson's body gave rise to several myths. Many
sailors thought wrongly that the body had been preserved in rum, and as a
consequence navy-issue rum was nicknamed as "Nelson's Blood".
Slowly the British ships gained the upper hand as one by one the ships of the
Combined Fleet struck their colours or sailed away from the battle. Captain
Hardy reported to Nelson that the battle was won, 'Thank God I have done my
duty' , were his last words, and he died at 4:30 p.m.
The casualties were high, as might be expected in such a close fought action.
The British lost 449 men killed and 1241 wounded (some of whom subsequently
died), the French and Spanish fleets lost 4408 men killed and 2545 wounded.
While the British losses were high, none of the 27 ships of the British fleet
had been sunk or captured.
Perhaps it is appropriate to quote no less than the French admiral himself, who
was in a position to grasp its full impact. "To any other nation the loss of a
Nelson would have been irreparable," Villeneuve wrote, "but in the British
Fleet off Cadiz, every Captain was a Nelson."
Trafalgar, moreover, established England's supremacy at sea for nearly a
century and a half but every great success has the seeds of failure sown into
it. Although there were other naval victories, a 'battleship mentality'
persisted in the nation's senior service until the December 1941 Japanese
attack on Pearl Habor ushered the dawn of naval air power.
However, the wooden ashtray on my table reminds me of a naval era when the
ships were of wood and the men of iron.
- - -
Copyright © 2005 Nitin K. Shankar
Written by Nitin K. Shankar. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Nitin K. Shankar at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:
Nitin Shankar is a retired engineer, living in Switzerland, and a student of
military history. As a freelance writer, he has written articles on military
encounters published in Coastguard Magazine and other publications.
Published online: 07/06/2005.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.