The Trafalgar Campaign

The Peace of Amiens
Napoleon’s First Plan
The British Response
Nelson in the Mediterranean
Napoleon’s Grand Plan
The Atlantic and the West Indies
Return to European Waters
Final build-up to Battle
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The Peace of Amiens

The battle of Trafalgar is probably the most famous naval battle of all time (at least in Britain). It was certainly Britain’s most decisive victory at sea. A combined French and Spanish fleet of thirty three ships of the line was destroyed by a smaller British fleet of twenty seven, without the loss of a single British ship. For the remaining ten years of the Napoleonic Wars the French never again threatened British control of the sea. Its place in the public imagination was cemented by the death of Admiral Horatio Nelson, already one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes, at the moment of his triumph. Whatever its impact on the overall course of the war, Trafalgar effectively ended the naval war. It was the greatest naval battle of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and also the last.

The events that led to the battle of Trafalgar mark the half way point in the great series of wars that rocked Europe between the French revolution of 1793 and the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. This period also saw a distinct change in the nature of those wars. The Revolutionary Wars are normally taken as having ending with the Peace of Amiens in 1802, with the Napoleonic wars beginning when hostilities resumed on 18 May 1803. This does reflect the changing nature of power in France. On his return from the disastrous Egyptian campaign in 1799, Napoleon had found the French government in turmoil and on 9-10 November 1799 had seized power. Initially, he had himself declared First Consul, as part of a triumvirate (shades of Julius Caesar!), although he soon become the sole Consul. During the peace of Amiens, Napoleon promoted himself to First Consul for life. One year after the end of the peace, on 18 May 1804, Napoleon was appointed Emperor of the French, restoring a hereditary monarchy under a different name (In a blatantly rigged referendum 3.5 million voted for his coronation, only 3,000 against. Since then, well over 3,000 ‘no’ votes have been discovered still intact around France).

The collapse of the Peace of Amiens is still controversial. Amongst many ironies of the peace is that many of the liberal supporters of the revolution who took the chance to visit Paris came back disillusioned with Napoleon, a view reinforced by the reintroduction of slavery into French territories. Napoleon spent much of the peace expanding in Italy, where several districts were annexed or occupied, including Piedmont, which became officially part of France. These were not exactly breaches of the treaty, having already been secretly agreed with the involved parties in advance, but they worried the British. The British government under Addington decided to apply more pressure on France, hoping to gain concessions.

The trigger for the collapse of the peace was Malta. The island had been seized from the Knights of St. John by Napoleon on his way to Egypt, before being occupied by the British, and was seen as an important naval base. Under the conditions of the treaty of Amiens, the island was to be returned to the Knights of St. John, and her independence guaranteed by Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Spain and Prussia. However, none of the guarantees materialised, the Knights turned out to be too impoverished to run the island, and French gains in Italy started to make Malta look more important. The British were unwilling to evacuate until the guarantees of independence appeared, while Napoleon was unwilling to wait. After a series of negotiations apparently foiled by Napoleon’s intransigence, the British ambassador was withdraw, and on 18 May 1803, Britain declared war on France.

This declaration has allowed Napoleon’s supporters to place the blame for the renewal of the war entirely on the British. However, that is unjustified. While there were voices calling for war in Britain throughout the peace, Napoleon has to take some of the blame. The style of diplomacy that had served him well in wartime was not suited peace. It was too bold, and too one sided – he expected forceful diplomacy to result in dramatic successes and was not willing to balance success with concessions.

Napoleon’s First Plan

The British were faced by a massive invasion force. The ‘Army of England’ mustered some 160,000 men, newly equipped and armed, but by no means inexperienced – many of the same men had spent the year before the peace of Amiens on the same coast preparing to invade Britain. This army was soon to become famous as the ‘La Grande Armée’ as it won victory after victory across Europe. For the moment, it was arrayed along the channel coast, with well over 110,000 men directly preparing for the invasion. To support them, Napoleon ordered the construction of a fleet of invasion barges. This fleet was eventually capable of carrying the entire invasion army and at first this was Napoleon’s plan. The entire army would embark and sail across the channel taking advance of some suitable weather – either fog or the aftermath of a storm would do. In ten uninterrupted hours, the flotilla of barges would carry the Army of England to England, where it could capture London before the Royal Navy could react.

Admiral Lord Keith
Admiral Lord Keith

This plan soon collapsed. It entirely ignored the huge numbers of British sloops, frigates, bomb vessels and other small warships based on the south coast. This British flotilla launched almost daily assaults on the French invasion fleets. To back it up there was a small battle squadron commanded by Lord Keith based on the Downs, with bases at Great Yarmouth and the Nore.

Napoleon also had his unrealistic view of the channel weather changed in a most dramatic way. On 20 July 1804, he had decided to hold a review of the Boulogne flotilla. When his admirals warned him that a storm was coming, he dismissed the commander at Boulogne (one could draw a parallel with the behaviour of a later dictator faced with bad military news). The review went ahead, and so did the gale, driving twenty sloops onto the shore, drowning 2,000 men as Napoleon watched. Faced with this evidence, he slowly formed a more realistic view of how long it would take to transfer his army across the channel until eventually he acknowledged that it could take weeks. There was no way this could be achieved without winning a naval victory that would prevent the Royal Navy from reeking havoc amongst the invasion barges.

This was where Napoleon ran into his greatest problem. The French fleet was widely scattered in a series of ports around the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Each of these mini-fleets was blockaded by a British squadron. To Napoleon, this meant that his fleets were resting while the British were being worn down by the weather. What actually happened was that the French fleets decayed in port. Inexperienced sailors never had the chance to gain any experience at sea. There must have been many men on the French ships whose first sea voyage as a sailor ended in a battle.

The British Response

Engraving of Admiral Lord James de Saumarez (1757-1836)
Engraving of Admiral Lord James de Saumarez (1757-1836)
The British fleet facing them was already battle hardened by 1803. The core of the British defensive plan was also well established. The most important fleet was the western squadron, commanded by Admiral Cornwallis. The bulk of this fleet was concentrated on the blockade of Brest, with squadrons detached to blockade other French ports such as Rochefort. In the case of a French breakout, this fleet’s duty was to block the western end of the Channel. A small cruiser squadron commanded by Saumarez was based at the Channel Islands, helping to link Cornwallis to Lord Keith.

The second main British fleet was the Mediterranean squadron, commanded by Nelson. At first, his command extended west as far as Cape Finisterre at the tip of Portugal, but once Spain entered the war in 1804 a third squadron under Sir John Orde was created, with responsibly for the area between Ferrol and Gibraltar. This annoyed Nelson, as it took from him the part of his command most likely to produce valuable prizes, but in reality Nelson already had more than enough to deal with in the Mediterranean. While his main job was to blockade the main French fleet at Toulon, his responsibilities spread east to Turkey and Egypt, covered Sicily and Italy and still reached west as far as Gibraltar. The problems of protecting such a large area soon became apparent.

Facing this blockage were three main French squadrons. Nelson was faced by Admiral Villeneuve at Toulon, Cornwallis by Missiessy at Rochefort and Ganteaume at Brest. Nelson and Cornwallis had very different approaches to blockade. Cornwallis engaged in a close blockade, hoping to pin the French in their ports. Nelson preferred a looser blockade, hoping to encourage Villeneuve to take to sea, allowing Nelson to defeat the French fleet in battle. This is not to criticise Cornwallis. Nelson only had one French fleet to worry about – that at Toulon – while Cornwallis had to make sure that the squadrons at Brest, Rochefort and a variety of other Atlantic and channel ports were unable to join together.

Nelson in the Mediterranean

The danger of this approach was that there was always a risk that Villeneuve could escape Nelson’s watch, and early in 1805 this was exactly what happened. After a series of minor disappointments during the summer of 1804, Napoleon decided on a new plan. Ganteaume was to take the Brest fleet and one army corps to Ireland. Villeneuve from Toulon and Missiessy from Rochefort were to break out and sail to the West Indies, where they were to do as much damage as possible, before returning to France via Ferrol. While this was going on, the army of England stood down from invasion readiness (how much of this was due to the winter weather and not a change of plan is hard to say).

The attack on Ireland never even got under way. Missiessy was able to escape from Rochefort on 11 January 1805, while the blockading squadron was away picking up water. He was able to reach the West Indies, arriving at Martinique on 20 February, but once there he did little of value and only stayed for six weeks, narrowly missing a later order to remain. Villeneuve’s own foray was even less successful, but receives attention because of Nelson’s reaction.

The Toulon fleet left harbour on 17 January, taking advantage of a strong north-westerly wind that Villeneuve judged would give his fleet a good chance of escaping Nelson’s watch although not the ideal wind for escaping the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, by the 20th that wind had turned into a gale, which the French fleet was unable to cope with. Twenty months stuck in harbour had reduced the seaworthiness of the French ships and seen the sailor’s skills atrophy. The situation was made worse by the presence of a large number of sea-sick sailors on board, and Villeneuve felt that he had no choice other than to return to port. On 21 January any observer would have found the French fleet back in Toulon.

Sadly for Nelson, he had no such observer. His frigates had observed the French leaving Toulon and had followed them throughout the 18th. Nelson was taking on provisions at the Madalena Islands, between Sardinia and Corsica when news of the French move reached him on the 19th. His main duty was to protect Sicily, Naples and with them Italy. After that, he was to protect Greece and Egypt and prevent the French repeating their success of 1798. Nelson had firm intelligence that Villeneuve had 7,000 soldiers on board, double the real figure, and so was convinced that the expedition had a significant objective in mind. With this in mind, Nelson sailed down the east coast of Sardinia, ready to block any French move east. The same gales that forced the French back on the 20th, now trapped Nelson in place until the 26th.

Once the weather abated, Nelson was faced with a difficult decision to make. He had no idea where the French were, or where they were going. He had no way to know that they had already returned to Toulon. His eventual decision was to sail east. His logic was sound. There was no way the French fleet could have sailed west – the winds had prevented that. If they had returned to Toulon, then they were already back in port. However, if they had remained at sea, then they must have swept past Nelson’s fleet. Accordingly, Nelson decided to head east. On 30th January he reached Messina, and could be sure that Sicily and Naples were safe. 2 February saw him off the Greek coast, and the 7th saw him off Alexandria, each time with no sign of any French fleet. Wherever the French were, they were not in the eastern Mediterranean, and Nelson now decided to return west. The same winds that had prevented the French from heading west now made Nelson’s journey difficult – it was not until the 19th of February that he reached Malta and discovered that the French had been back in Toulon for nearly a month.

Villeneuve’s foray was insignificant, but Nelson’s response to it was scrutinised in great detail at the time. The location of the French fleet had been unknown for nearly a month, and Nelson had disappeared east on a wild goose chase. However, the contemporary judgement was that Nelson had done the right thing. Until the gales of the 20th, the French had been closely watched. If the weather had been better, the French would have sailed straight into Nelson’s fleet off the south coast of Sardinia, where the poor seamanship they had already demonstrated would almost certainly have handed Nelson another famous victory.

Napoleon’s Grand Plan

Napoleon now moved on to his grand design. The aim of this plan was to bring about a concentration of the scattered French and Spanish fleets at Martinique. This combined fleet would then return to Europe, overwhelm Cornwallis’s channel fleet and allow the Grand Army to cross over into England. The key actors in this drama were to be Villeneuve and Ganteaume. Ganteaume was to break out of Brest without a battle, sail to Ferrol, drive off the blockading squadron to free a French fleet trapped there and then sail to Martinique, where he was to wait for 30 days for Villeneuve. Meanwhile, Villeneuve was to escape from Toulon, drive off the squadron blockading Cadiz and with the Spanish fleet join Ganteaume. This combined fleet was then to return to Europe, defeat the British fleet off Ushant, sail to Boulogne, and from there they were to force their way up the channel.

The problem with this plan was that Napoleon never grasped the realities of warfare at sea under sail. His plan depended on his blockaded fleets being able to escape from port without a fight, so that they could overwhelm the British fleet. This effectively trapped Ganteaume at Brest, who had some opportunities to force his way out past temporarily weakened blockading forces, but his orders did not allow him to make the attempt.

Napoleon also totally ignored the possibility of any British countermoves. Quite how the British fleets off Toulon and Brest would be prevented from interfering at Ferrol and Cadiz was never explained. Napoleon had himself evaded the Royal Navy on his way to and from Egypt, perhaps causing him to overestimate the ease with which his fleets could repeat the feat. However, he may not have been aware of how close he had been to disaster on the way to Egypt, apparently coming within earshot of Nelson’s fleet at night, while his journey back was in a single fast ship, never an easy target before the invention of radar.

Of the three French squadrons involved in this plan, two can be quickly dismissed. Despite repeated prodding and some opportunities, Ganteaume never left Brest. Missiessy was already in the West Indies, but took the first opportunity to return to French, narrowly missing orders to remain there until Villeneuve or Ganteaume appeared. He arrived back in France at the same time that Villeneuve was reaching the West Indies.

It was Villeneuve who once again was able to escape from Toulon, and once again this was because Nelson wanted him to do so. Still convinced that the French target was Egypt, Nelson decided to make an appearance near Barcelona, to encourage Villeneuve to come out, while actually basing his fleet at the southern end of Sardinia, ready to ambush the French on their way east.

If the French objective had been Egypt then this would have been a good plan, but the true French objective was to the west. Villeneuve was successfully fooled into believing that Nelson was indeed off the Spanish coast, and it was only very firm orders to sail from Napoleon that forced him out of harbour, very pessimistic about his chances of reaching Gibraltar unmolested. Worse, Nelson was waiting for a move in the wrong direction.

Villeneuve left Toulon for the last time on the 29th of March 1805. His plan was to sail south of the Balearic Islands, to avoid Nelson’s fictional fleet off Barcelona. This would have brought him dangerously close to Nelson’s real position, and if Nelson’s frigates had been able to stick with the French fleet then an early battle might have resulted. However, Villeneuve was able to evade the frigate Active overnight on the 31st. Nelson was temporarily blind. Worse was to come. On the next day, Villeneuve encountered a neutral merchant who had just seen Nelson’s fleet. Now Villeneuve knew that the Spanish coast was clear, and he immediately changed course to sail north of the Balearics. There were two advantages of this. First, it was a quicker, shorter route, allowing him to pull away from Nelson. Second, it meant that Nelson lost all contact with the French fleet. For two weeks Nelson was operating blind, and it did not take long memories to recall his eventually pointless trip to Egypt earlier that year.

For these two weeks, Nelson based his actions on his responsibilities. His first responsibility was to protect Sardinia, Sicily and Naples. After that came the east – Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Of all the possible French actions Nelson had to guard against, their leaving the Mediterranean worried Nelson least. Accordingly, he placed himself between Sardinian and North Africa, determined to make sure that the French did not pass him, or if they did that he would have definite news of them before he headed east again. He was also prepared to admit that the French might assume that he would head to Egypt again, and that they might have slowed their own movements to take that into account.

To add to Nelson’s worries, on 11 April he learnt that a British expedition was to head into the Mediterranean. This force, under Sir James Craig, left Portsmouth on 19th April, heading for Malta. This force of 4,000 men was insignificant in numbers, and was ridiculed by Napoleon, but it’s true purpose was to encourage Russia to join the war, and in this it succeeded. However, for the moment all it did was add to Nelson’s worries. He now began to suspect that the French were heading west, and if so Craig’s expedition was in great danger.

On 16th April, Nelson learnt that a French fleet had been seen sailing west off Cape de Gate. If this was Villeneuve’s fleet, then he was almost certainly heading into the Atlantic. Nelson now decided to return to Toulon to see if Villeneuve had retired to his home port again, having already made sure that he was not heading east. Finally, on 18th April he learnt from a neutral that the French had been seen sailing through the straits of Gibraltar on 8th April. Nelson’s only option was to follow them. Now the weather took a hand, and contrary winds slowed him down so much that it took him until the 6th of May to reach Gibraltar.

While Nelson was frozen in the Mediterranean, Villeneuve was making good progress west, but all the time haunted by the threat of Nelson. He had been a captain at the Nile, commanding one of the very few French ships to escape, largely because he had not been engaged. This fear of Nelson had a negative influence on his actions over the next few months, starting at Cartagena. He arrived at the Spanish port on 6 March, where he found six Spanish ships of the line. They needed a few more days to take on powder, but Villeneuve was in too much of a hurry to wait, and on 8 March he sailed on.

His lack of nerve showed again on 8 April. His fleet sailed though the straits of Gibraltar and found a small British squadron under Orde taking on provisions in the Bay of Cadiz. Five British ships of the line found themselves facing a French fleet of eleven ships of the line and six frigates. Any British admiral faced with a similar situation would have leapt to the attack, and almost certainly inflicted a crushing defeat on the smaller force, but Villeneuve made no effort to interrupt Orde as he slowly sailed from the bay.

Orde was probably in the best position to understand the French plan at this moment. He knew that Missiessy had already escaped port, and that Ganteaume had made an attempt to copy him. Now Villeneuve was also heading into the Atlantic, and Orde came to the correct assumption. His conclusion was that the French were hoping to meet up in the West Indies and then attempt to overwhelm the British fleets guarding the western approaches to the channel. His only mistake at this point was that he didn’t realise what a hurry Villeneuve was in. He reached Cadiz at eight in the evening on 8th April. Two hours later the Spanish began to sail out of Cadiz. Astoundingly, Villeneuve was so worried about Nelson that he didn’t even give his allies time to join the fleet, and at two in the morning he set sail, leaving the Spanish to catch up as best they could. Orde reported his conclusion to the admiralty, and then made his way to join the fleet guarding the channel.

Nelson now faced the same decision. He knew that Villeneuve had left the Mediterranean, and a central principle of British naval strategy over the last century was that if the enemy fleet left the Mediterranean, the British commander of the fleet there, in this case Nelson, should either follow in person or send enough ships to make sure that the enemy fleet would not win tactical supremacy wherever it sailed. Nelson’s problem was that he did not know where Villeneuve was heading.

Despite Nelson’s uncertainty, the Royal Navy was never in any real danger of falling for Napoleon’s plan. The central plank of the British strategy was to defend the western approaches to the channel. With the French fleets at sea, the new First lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham (Appointed after the fall of Melville, and in office from 30 April) ordered as many ships as possible to rally off Ushant to protect the channel.

Nelson was well aware of this. For several weeks no news of Nelson reached England, causing serious concern in London. Finally, on 19 May a despatch sent by Nelson in mid April reached London, in which Nelson announced his intention to make his way to Scilly or join the fleet off Ushant. Although this plan was not in the end followed, it caused great relief in London. Meanwhile, Nelson had finally received news of Villeneuve. His source was Rear-Admiral Donald Campbell, then serving in the Portuguese navy. On 9th May, Campbell came aboard Nelson’s flagship in conditions of great secrecy, and confirmed that the combined fleet was heading to the West Indies. This was the news that Nelson needed, and enabled him to finally decide on his next course of action. Campbell was to suffer for his actions. The French discovered what he had done, and were able to force the Portuguese to dismiss him. Campbell was not rewarded in England, where he died in poverty.

Nelson was now able to plan for his Atlantic voyage. At Lagos bay he found Ordes’ supply ships, and took on supplies that should last for five months. Finally, on 11 May Craig’s expedition reached Lagos. Nelson detached one of his slowest ships to guard the expedition, and then at 6.50 on the evening of 11 May Nelson’s fleet set sail. The great chase had begun.

The Atlantic and the West Indies.

Villeneuve had a massive head start. He had left Cadiz on 9 April, and reached Martinique on 13 May, only two days after Nelson left Lagos bay. While Villeneuve had taken 34 days to reach the West Indies, Nelson only took 24, arriving on 4 June. Villeneuve had not used his time well. His main objective was to combine with Ganteaume, but Ganteaume had been unable to escape from Brest, and Villeneuve waited in vain. While he was waiting, he was unwilling to risk his fleet, and the only significant action his fleet carried out was the recapture of Diamond Rock, a small island off the south west tip of Martinique. Diamond Rock had been captured by a small British landing party in January 1804, and resisted all French attempts to recapture it until finally Villeneuve sent a fleet of sixteen ships, including one ship of the line. This fleet pummelled the small British garrison into submission, forcing their surrender on 3 June.

On 8 June, Villeneuve managed to intercept a largely unguarded sugar convoy. This apparent success effectively ended his time in the West Indies – his prisoners told him that Nelson had reached the West Indies, and two days later he sailed east. The spectre of the Nile was still haunting him, but he was not helped by the poor condition of his fleets. Napoleon was still convinced that his fleets should have been in much better condition than the British, having spent so much time in harbour, but once they got to sea the French and Spanish fleets proved themselves unequal to the task. Their lack of practical experience, both in general seamanship and in battle, was their undoing.

Nelson’s time in the West Indies was no more fruitful than Villeneuve’s, but at least he was active. While the French were at Martinique, Nelson reached Barbados. There, he received news from a reliable source that a French fleet had been seen to the south, heading for Trinidad and Tobago. Accordingly, Nelson sailed south, away from the French. There, a series of misfortunes beset him, including a remarkable clash of signals on 6 June, in which Nelson’s agreed signal for the presence of the French at Trinidad was the same signal agreed on at Trinidad to indicate the arrival of a British fleet! The next day, an accident at a British fort caused an explosion visible from the fleet. Nelson was now convinced that he was about to get his battle, but when they sailed into the Gulf of Paria at Trinidad they were faced with an empty ocean.

Things got no better. News came in of French plans to attack a variety of islands, including Grenada, Dominica, Antigua and St. Kitts. On 12 June, Nelson was at Montserrat, where he received very little information, but he was starting to believe that Villeneuve had already left the West Indies. Despite all of the false information he had received, Nelson was confident enough to begin the return voyage on the following day, only three days after Villeneuve.

Return to European Waters

The combined fleet now began the next stage of Napoleon’s plan. Villeneuve set course for Ferrol, where he could attempt to relieve the British blockade and produce the combination of fleets that Napoleon had ordered. The chances of this plan succeeding were small – as we have already seen, the British strategy placed their strongest fleet guarding the channel, but its chances were reduced even further when the Curieux, a brig that Nelson had sent back to England with his despatches, sighted the combined fleet. This was on 19 June, and confirmed the direction the French and Spanish were taking. This news reached Plymouth on 7 July, and was at the Admiralty two days later. Barham was able to plan his counter moves before Villeneuve’s slower moving fleet had returned to European waters.

A casual glance at the numbers would suggest that the French and Spanish had quite an advantage at this point. Villeneuve had twenty ships of the line. At Ferrol he should gain another fourteen. Facing him, the western squadron under Cornwallis would number thirty three. In Brest was a French fleet twenty-one strong. Napoleon seems to have assumed that this fleet would be able to combine with Villeneuves, overwhelming the Royal Navy. There were two flaws with this idea. First, Nelson with another fourteen ships of the line would be rapidly approaching from Cadiz. Unless Villeneuve was to find an unexpected turn of speed, the combined fleet of fifty five would face a Royal Navy fleet of forty seven, odds that Nelson and any other British admiral would relish (Trafalgar saw thirty three against twenty seven, a very similar ratio).

A second, and even more serious flaw with the French plan was that it was almost impossible for the twenty one ships blockaded in Brest to play any part in their own rescue. The first reason for this was that there was very little chance of their discovering that any such rescue was underway in time to take part in it. The bulk of the blockading squadron would always be invisible over the horizon, with only the smaller ships maintaining a watch visible from port. Any battle between the relieving fleet and the blockaders would probably be underway well before the blockaded fleet got new of it. Once they did get news of a battle, it could take a fleet of warships under sail quite some time to leave harbour. The combined fleets took two days to leave Cadiz before Trafalgar, and few of the blockaded crews would have had any significant recent experience of sailing their ships. As the crisis of the campaign approached, the British were able to use their blockading fleets to search for Villeneuve, secure in the knowledge that the French would probably not discover they had gone until it was too late. Even if the blockaded fleet was ready and willing to sail, their progress would be at best slow. In all but the most unusual of circumstances, the winds would be against them. Any wind that could carry Villeneuve to Brest would help pin Ganteaume in harbour. The French admirals knew all of this, but Napoleon did not, and persistently failed to learn the realities of naval warfare under sail.

While Villeneuve and Nelson were returned across the Atlantic, Barham took precautions. The squadron guarding Rochefort left on 12 July to join Calder. No better demonstration of the time needed for a blockaded fleet to move could be provided – it took five days for Commodore Allemand, newly appointed to command at Rochefort, to leave harbour, but his squadron was never to join with Villeneuve, despite a series of lucky escapes from the increasing number of British fleets in the area. The 12th also saw Cornwallis leave Brest to search for Villeneuve on the approaches to that port. He was away until 24 July, but despite this the Brest fleet did not move. The home fleets were all in place. All that was left was for Villeneuve and Nelson to reach Europe.

The superior seamanship of Nelson’s fleet once again resulted in a faster crossing. Unfortunately, he was heading too far south, lacking the intelligence provided by the Curieux. Nelson still had the Mediterranean in mind, and headed south towards the Straits of Gibraltar. As he got closer to the Mediterranean, he despatched his frigates ahead in an attempt to gain news of Villeneuve (who at this point was much further north and several days behind). On 17 July Nelson reached sight of land. He had reached the North African coast without gaining any news of Villeneuve. On 20 July, Nelson’s fleet reached Gibraltar. Here Nelson went ashore for the first time in two years – he had not left the Victory since taking command off Toulon!

Villeneuve’s return to Europe was not so straightforward. On 22 July he encountered Sir Robert Calder’s fleet, blockading Ferrol. Calder had fifteen ships of the line to Villeneuve’s twenty, but despite this, Calder had no doubts about attacking. The battle began late, after five, and was fought in poor visibility, effectively as a series of long range gun battles. Calder captured two Spanish ships and knocked one French and three more Spanish ships out of the rest of the campaign, but over the new few days he failed to take the chance to inflict more damage on the French and Spanish, something for which he was eventually to be reprimanded (admittedly at a court-martial of his own requesting.) Although Calder’s action was not appreciated in Britain, it had a significant impact on Villeneuve. Having initially claimed a victory, Villeneuve now found himself unable to reach Ferrol and had to put into Vigo, a most unsuitable harbour. It was not until 1 August that Villeneuve was finally able to limp into Ferrol, and then he only reached harbour safely because a gale had driven Calder’s fleet off station. This time, Calder’s thirteen would have faced Villeneuve’s 15 ships of the line. Only the weather protected Villeneuve from an early defeat.

At Gibraltar it become clear to Nelson that the combined fleet had gone further north. Nelson began to plan to join the squadrons off Ushant and Ferrol. Final confirmation came on 25 July, via an unexpected source – a Portuguese newspaper report on the arrival of the Curieux in Britain and the news it had carried. Nelson immediately set sail to join the key western squadrons, by now coming together off Ushant. Calder joined Cornwallis on 14 August. Nelson arrived on the following day, and was immediately given permission to return to England. The great chase was over, and at least temporarily Nelson was removed from the centre of affairs.

Final build-up to Battle

Nelson set foot in England for the final time on 19th August. He was to have only twenty five days before duty called him back to sea, and he spent most of that time at his house at Merton. Surprisingly to our eyes, he was uncertain of his reception, having missed Villeneuve repeatedly during the chase. Lord Barham, at the Admiralty, examined Nelson’s logs and supported his every move. The public had no doubts at all, greeting him as a victorious hero.
Engraving of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, 1748-1810
Engraving of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, 1748-1810

Merton was well placed on the road between London and Portsmouth. On 2nd September Captain Blackwood of the frigate Euryalus was making that journey to report that Villeneuve had managed to struggle into Ferrol, from where he made one last attempt to sail north in obedience to Napoleon’s orders, before finally giving up and returning to Cadiz. Nelson was in no doubt that he would be asked to command the fleet that would be sent to blockade Cadiz, and he, along with Emma Hamilton, followed Blackwood to London. His instincts were correct, and on the following day he received his orders. Once again the Victory was to be his flagship – she had already been prepared to sail to join Collingwood off Cadiz. Nelson had only ten more days with his family, before leaving them for the last time on the evening of the 13th of September. On the following morning, he re-embarked on the Victory, and set sail for Cadiz. On the 28th he reached the fleet off Cadiz. All he needed now was the opportunity to fight.

Trafalgar was fought because after months of desperately avoiding battle, Villeneuve finally sailed his fleet into mortal danger. To find the cause of this change of attitude we must move the focus of our attention to Napoleon. At the start of August, he was still intent on his invasion of England, although perhaps his interest was starting to wane. His activities in Italy had started to worry the Austrians, who still saw northern Italy as a legitimate area of interest, and Napoleon’s attention appears to have been moving east, before news of what he saw as a final failure on the part of the navy reached him. Villeneuve had been ordered to make one more attempt to reach the channel, but contrary winds forced him to remain in Corunna bay for the first half of August. When the winds relented on 11 August, he made one last attempt to break for the north, but the poor state of the fleet and the ever present British frigates made progress impossible. On the night of 15-16 August, Villeneuve was forced to turn south for Cadiz.

Meanwhile, the news that the fleet had spent two weeks in Corunna Bay reached Napoleon on 13 August. Showing his typical lack of understanding of all naval matters, he took this as a deliberate failure to obey his orders. As we have seen, Villeneuve was to make one more attempt to obey his orders, but it was too late to satisfy Napoleon. Finally, news of Villeneuve’s final move to Cadiz reached Napoleon on 22 August. This was the last straw. By 25 August, the invasion had been called off. The army of England was given new marching orders on the 26th, and the invasion camps began to break up on the 28th. The Army of England had become the Grand Army, and after three years of training on the French coast, it was about to march off to glory.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was sending out a series of orders that would send the combined fleet to its doom. On 14 August, he sent out orders to Villeneuve to sail into the Mediterranean, where he was to move against the kingdom of Naples. On the following day (the day Nelson left Portsmouth) he finally lost faith in Villeneuve, and decided to replace him with Vice-Admiral Rosily. It was the combination of these two orders that finally prodded Villeneuve to move out of Cadiz and into Nelson’s hands. The order to sail arrived well before Rosily could arrive with his own orders. The orders to sail arrived on 28 September, the same day that Nelson reached the fleet off Cadiz. Rosily moved much slower, reaching Madrid on 12 October. There he was delayed while an escort to take him on to Cadiz was organised. News of his arrival at Madrid soon reached Villeneuve, who realised that this could only mean that he was being replaced, and almost certainly disgraced. We do not know exactly when the news reached Cadiz, although we can guess that it was at some point between 16 and 18 October.

This news reached Villeneuve at what looked like a particularly positive time. The weather appeared to be favouring him – fine easterly winds, ideal for a fleet that wanted to leave Cadiz. More significantly, six ships of the line under Admiral Louis from the fleet off Cadiz had been sighted escorting a convoy. Nelson was short six ships and a trusted commander. Villeneuve would never have a better chance to escape from Cadiz, and from disgrace. Accordingly, on 18 October, Villeneuve issued the order to sail.

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Terraine, John, Trafalgar, Woodsworth, 1998, 224 pages. A superb book that puts Trafalgar firmly in context, giving a good account of the events of the previous two years that eventually led to Nelson's dramatic victory at Trafalgar. Also includes a good selection of eyewitness accounts of the battle.
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The Line upon a Wind, Noel Mostert. This is an excellent account of the greatest naval war of the age of sail. Mostert covers a wider range of topics than most books on this subject, while always remaining readable. There is a good section on the rise of American naval power and the War of 1812 [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J, The Trafalgar Campaign,

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