Lieutenant Pasco, Nelson’s signal officer on the Victory, looked annoyed. The fleet, 27 ships-of-the-line, had the French and Spanish fleet, 33 of the line, bottled up in Cadiz harbour. Another round, it seemed, of the long, tedious, thankless business of blockade.
It had gone on, more or less, for two years. For most of this time, the Royal Navy had been blockading the enemy in their harbours to prevent Napoleon assembling a fleet to escort his army across the Channel for the invasion of England.
The only real excitement had been a chase across the Atlantic and back, when Admiral Pierre Villeneuve had broken away for the West Indies, and Nelson had pursued him there. But even this had been forlorn: the opportunity to fight the great battle to destroy the enemy fleet for which Nelson longed had never come. And now it was back to offshore blockade.
The tedium was excruciating. Many men had not set foot on land for two years. They lived out their lives inside wooden hulks around 200 feet in length and 50 in beam, up to 800 men crammed inside, most of them with no proper living space and nothing to do.
There was no living space because a fighting ship in the age of sail was essentially a floating gun-platform. Every yard of available space was filled with cannon, to maximise the firepower of a broadside; every yard of every deck was prioritised not for living but for that single day of battle that never seemed to come. Meantime, mess-tables, hammocks, and crowded fugs of men were fitted in around the guns.
And most had nothing to do, again because of the guns. Only one in ten of the men aboard a man-o’-war was actually needed to work the ship; everyone else was a gunner. So the Navy created work that everyone knew was pointless and only added to the sense of futility. No wonder there was drunkenness and fighting. No wonder shore leave was banned for fear half the crew would disappear. No wonder there was much flogging and hanging.
It was a bit better for the officers. At least they had cabins, albeit it tiny and shared, and better food, much better in fact than the weevil-infested rations the men were often served. But the officers shared the tedium, the sense of isolation, the hankering for home, especially those with families.
Nelson’s art of command
‘What is the matter?’, Nelson asked Lieutenant Pasco. ‘Nothing that need trouble your Lordship,’ came the reply. But Nelson persisted, and Pasco explained that his letter to his wife had been forgotten and the mailboat was already under sail for England.
Letters could take months to reach home, and replies could take months more to come back. This was the single tenuous lifeline by which married men remained connected with wives, children, homes, gardens.
‘Hoist a signal and bring her back,’ Nelson said. The mailboat came about and was met by a rowing-boat carrying a single letter: that of Lieutenant Pasco to his wife.
The value of this gesture was golden. News of it spread across the fleet, told and retold on the lower gun-decks, until perhaps most of the 18,000 men of Nelson’s fleet had heard it. There were many others like it. And it is as good an explanation of why the British won a decisive victory at Trafalgar as any other.
It was, in fact, a victory won before the first broadside was fired. It was the ultimate consummation of a system of war created by a succession of brilliant admirals – Hawke, Rodney, and Howe among the most illustrious (see MHM August/September 2020 and February/March 2021) – together with a cadre of superb professional officers and dedicated teams of confident, motivated, highly trained sailors and gunners.
By 1805, a combination of doctrine, morale, and unstinting hard work had created a war machine honed to perfection. Nelson, like all great captains, stood at the head of a military elite: the Royal Navy had become the best in the world, and all that remained was to show the world that this was so.
The meaning of Trafalgar
Trafalgar was not even of great strategic significance, at least in a short-range view. When it was fought – though the men who fought it did not know this – Napoleon had already abandoned his plans for the invasion of England and was marching his army into the heart of Europe, to his greatest triumph at the Battle of Austerlitz. So Trafalgar did not ‘save’ England from invasion.
But in a longer view, it was world-changing, for it inaugurated more than a century of British maritime supremacy, enabling the British to build the greatest of the European empires, and driving forward Britain’s development as the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution and ‘the workshop of the world’.
And considered in the framework of military history, it was one of those rare things – rare on land, rarer still at sea – a true battle of annihilation, where the enemy did not so much break and run as face literal physical destruction at the site of combat. No fewer than 18 of the French and Spanish ships engaged at Trafalgar – more than half – had struck their colours and been taken as prizes by the end of the fighting on 21 October 1805.
That this was so is due to the fact that Nelson’s fleet was as near perfect an instrument of war as it is possible to imagine; and because in Nelson it had a commander whose ability to inspire affection and devotion in his men has rarely been matched. ‘Men adored him,’ one sailor wrote, ‘and in fighting under him, every man thought himself sure of success.’ When the news spread after the battle that Nelson was dead, his spine smashed by a sniper’s bullet, gnarled sea-salts in every ship were reduced to tears. This, too, is part of the explanation of Trafalgar.
A band of brothers
At the centre of the network of social relationships that bound the British fleet together was that between Nelson and his captains, his ‘band of brothers’. On the day after he rejoined his flagship after a short visit to England, he summoned half his captains to dine with him, and the other half the day after.
All pomp and pretension were set aside. He was relaxed, genial, welcoming, a perfect host. And each time, he brought them fully into his confidence, setting out his plan for the battle he hoped they would soon get a chance to fight.
‘When I came to explain to them the “Nelson touch”, it was like an electric shock,’ he explained to his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton. ‘Some shed tears, all approved – “It was new – it’s singular – it was simple!” – and, from admiral downwards, it was repeated – “It must succeed, if ever they allow us to get at them! You are, my Lord, surrounded by friends whom you inspire with confidence.”’
The plan was an attempt to ‘break the line’ in the boldest way possible; to turn what had been done in a cautious, perhaps even accidental, way by Rodney at the Saintes in 1782 and Howe on the Glorious First of June in 1794, into the tactical mechanism for inflicting an utterly shattering defeat on the enemy fleet.
In the event, the detail was modified – Nelson had planned to attack in three columns, but this was reduced to two – but the principle was unchanged. At Trafalgar, two columns of British ships sailed line astern directly towards the enemy fleet’s line of battle, cutting it in two places. This had multiple consequences of huge advantage to the British.
Breaking the line
First, it left the Franco-Spanish van sailing away from the action and required to come around to join it, a slow and awkward manoeuvre in the age of sail, dependent as ship’s captains were on visual signals, on wind direction, on the skill and speed of crews. Part of Nelson’s intention was that the centre and rear of the enemy fleet should be overwhelmed before this could be done.
Second, it meant that each British ship, as it broke the line, would discharge its broadsides into the sterns and bows of the opposing ships at point-blank range, its shot causing maximum damage by travelling the length of the target, and in circumstances where few of the enemy’s guns could be brought to bear.
Third, the plan gave rise to what Nelson called a ‘pell-mell battle’, where each British captain engaged an enemy vessel at the closest possible range, or, very often, where two British ships engaged one enemy, and thereby gained maximum advantage from the superiority of British broadsides, which were delivered at two or three times the speed of enemy broadsides, due to the intensive training of British gun-crews.
Nothing quite like Trafalgar had ever happened before. Ships became locked together. Some were rammed in accidental collisions. Others were held fast by collapsing masts, sails, and rigging. They might be so close that either guns could not actually be run out of portholes or, when fired, the crew were instantly hit by back-blast from the impact on the enemy hull.
Once the fighting started, in a battle of this nature, the commander-in-chief had little to do. Long before, Nelson had penned a memorandum to this effect: ‘The business of an English commander-in-chief being first to bring an enemy’s fleet to battle on the most advantageous terms to himself – I mean that of laying his ships close on-board the enemy as expeditiously as possible – and secondly to continue them there, without separating, until the business is decided.’
So it was as the fleets closed at Trafalgar. The wind was slight, and though it was astern of the British ships and aided by a sea-swell, it took six hours between the sighting of the enemy and the first firing of the guns.
Shortly before, Nelson had hoisted his last signal: ‘Engage the enemy more closely.’ This then remained aloft until shot away. ‘Now I can do no more,’ he said to one of his frigate captains. ‘We must trust to the Great Disposer of all events, and to the justice of our cause.’
Thereafter he did little but pace the quarterdeck with Captain Hardy until he was hit by a French musketeer on the Redoubtable and carried below. His work was done: the victory-in-the-making had been engineered to perfection, the engine had been fired up, and now it could simply be left to run its course.
A fleet at war with itself
The condition of the French and Spanish fleet could not have been more different. It was, in David Howarth’s words, ‘a fleet at war with itself’. The Emperor’s grand design for an invasion of England, requiring a moment of maritime supremacy in the Channel, had placed an impossible burden on a instrument of naval warfare inferior in all respects to Britain’s Royal Navy.
Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, a career professional inherited from the old navy by the revolution, was desperate to save his ships and men from a hopeless battle. Some of his officers shared his caution, others considered him a coward; the Spanish officers, moreover, were unwilling allies of the French. Here was no ‘band of brothers’.
The crews, especially on the Spanish ships, were often sullen victims of the press gang; many were landlubbers, and even among the seamen, training was poor, both in sailing and gunnery. ‘Nelson’s captains felt their fleet was master of the sea: Villeneuve’s felt theirs was beaten by it’ (Howarth). Beaten by the sea; and also certain they would be beaten by superior gunnery.
Villeneuve’s studied purpose for two years had been to avoid a full-scale fleet action, in which he was certain his fleet would be destroyed. A man weighed down with such anxiety – a man ever in flight from disaster – could never inspire confidence, loyalty, or affection.
It was a great relief, then, to receive an instruction in late September to make a run for the Mediterranean instead of the Channel. The invasion was off. The mission now was to manage a simple troop transport, landing French troops in Naples, then returning to Toulon. Even so, Villeneuve’s desperate hope remained to avoid a clash with Nelson’s fleet.
This was a forlorn hope. The French and Spanish ships left Cadiz harbour in ragged succession during 20 October, and no sooner were they out than Nelson’s scouts – a line of frigates in signalling distance of each other – relayed the enemy activity back to the fleet, posted beyond the horizon in the hope of luring them forth.
What followed was ‘a masterpiece of observation, signalling, seamanship, and anticipation’ (Howarth again), largely managed by Captain Blackwood of the fast frigate Euryalus, one of four forming a miniature reconnaissance flotilla under his command. Awakened on the morning of 21 October, with the enemy fleet in view, he knew that he had played his own decisive role in what was to come: ‘The last 24 hours have been the most anxious work for me,’ he wrote to his wife immediately before the battle. ‘But we have kept sight of them, and at this moment bearing up to come into action…’.
Villeneuve had no such intelligence system. The first he knew that he had been caught was sight of the enemy to starboard that morning, still distant, but shaking out into two messy columns; messy because manoeuvre was difficult in so slight a wind, yet haste was essential lest the French and Spanish make their escape before the British could close.
Villeneuve had been sailing south-east for the Straits of Gibraltar. Now he came about, turning to the north-west, back towards Cadiz; not, almost certainly, in an effort to run back to harbour, for the wind was against him, but to protect his rear, keep his fleet compact, accept battle in full force.
But his officers and men lacked the skill to accomplish the change smoothly, and his line was still somewhat unhinged as the British columns completed their approach.
Just before midday, at a range of around 1,000 yards, the first broadsides burst from the two nearest French and Spanish vessels, directed at Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign, leading the starboard column. Soon afterwards, three enemy ships opened fire on Nelson’s Victory, leading the port column.
Now was the time of great danger, of calculated risk. The ships were moving at barely a mile an hour, so that for more than 30 minutes the leading British ships received broadside after broadside without being able to reply. The fire, moreover, was concentrated at the flagships at the head of each column.
Accuracy was poor. The swell was causing the enemy ships to roll, and whereas British gunners were trained to fire with the roll, French and Spanish crews gave poor service in heavy seas. Their practice, anyway, was to aim for masts, sails, and rigging: the intention was to disable enemy vessels rather than smash them. Even so, the sheer volume of shot inflicted substantial damage, and 50 men were down before the Victory’s guns could reply.
Then she nudged her way through the narrow gap between Bucentaure, Villeneuve’s flagship, and Redoubtable, commanded by the fiery Captain Lucas. As she passed, Victory fired two full broadsides into Bucentaure’s stern. The first was sufficient to disable 200 men and smash 20 cannon.
The Bucentaure never recovered. Though she drifted slowly away to the north-west, she continued to receive broadside after broadside from Victory’s port-side guns. She was soon isolated from the rest of the Franco-Spanish fleet, save for the giant Spanish vessel Santísima Trinidad, with which she collided. She was then assailed by a succession of other British ships breaking the line – Neptune, Leviathan, Conqueror – until all her masts were down and the wreckage was masking such guns as remained operational. At 1.45pm, she struck her colours.
A battle of duels
The Victory, meantime, remained locked in a death-grip with the Redoubtable, soon to be joined by HMS Temeraire, at which point the French ship began receiving a succession of point-blank broadsides into both beams. Collapsed spars and ropes pinned the ships together in their lethal embrace, until the Redoubtable was a hulk of shattered timber and mangled bodies: 300 men dead, 220 wounded, only 120 of the crew unhurt.
The whole battle was like this. It broke up into a series of separate duels, the lack of wind reducing movement to slow-motion drifting, dense clouds of smoke shrouding the seascape, giving men a sense of isolation inside their own private battle, with no awareness of what was happening elsewhere.
The British were trained for this: every captain knew what to do; the gunners – most isolated of all in the dark, cramped spaces of the gun-decks – simply firing and firing as long as they had sight of an enemy hull through the porthole. But the French and Spanish were not so trained: they were supposed to obey the Admiral’s signals, and there were none, or none that could be seen in the murk and chaos of such close-quarters fighting.
By the time the Franco-Spanish van had come about to enter the fight, around 2.45pm, it was too late. The rest of the fleet was broken, either captured or in flight, and few captains with still-intact ships had any desire to renew what now seemed a quite hopeless struggle.
At around 4.15pm, all firing ceased; but no sooner had the battle of men ended than a battle against nature commenced. War at sea is rarely as heartless as war on land can often be. Men who fight at sea are sailors first and warriors second, and there is a solidarity among all men who work at sea.
As soon as an enemy ship struck her colours, Frenchmen and Spaniards who moments before had been bitter enemies became fellow seafarers in desperate need of assistance – to tend their wounds, to be saved from drowning, to be rescued from ships in danger of destruction.
Then came a ferocious storm that raged for a full week, dispersing ships, throwing some on to the rocks, causing many valuable prizes taken in tow to be deliberately scuttled. Redoubtable sank in the storm. Bucentaure broke up on the rocks. In all, of some 19 prizes taken, 18 in the battle, another soon after, only four were successfully conveyed to Gibraltar, the British fleet’s nearest port of haven.
Nonetheless, Trafalgar had been one of the most decisive naval battles ever fought, a battle of unflinching aggression and annihilation, establishing a British global maritime supremacy that would last until the Second World War. •
Possibly the best short, single-volume account of Trafalgar is David Howarth’s Trafalgar: the Nelson touch, first published in 1969.