Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood is a classic example of the sort of sailor who repeated foiled France and Napoleon’s naval plans during Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. While not as famous as his friend Horatio Nelson, Collingwood was present at three major fleet battles, was second in command at the battle of Trafalgar, and served as commander in chief in the Mediterranean from 1805 until his death in 1810.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1748, Collingwood joined the navy aged only 12. To get accepted onto a ship as a potential officer, one needed some sort of influence. Collingwood was sponsored by two relatives, Richard Braithwaite and Robert Roddam, both of whom who were to become Admirals. Despite this, he lacked real influence, which slowed down his advancement early in his career. The speed with which an officer advanced to captain was crucial for his eventual rank, as promotion after that was strictly by seniority – the longest serving captain was said to be at the top of the captain’s list, and had to be the first to be created admiral when there was a vacancy. On occasion several admirals would be created at once in order to allow the promotion of a particularly talented captain who was not yet at the top of the list.
To compare anyone with Nelson is perhaps unfair, but in this case is still informative. Ten years older than Nelson, Collingwood was promoted to Lieutenant in 1775, only two years before Nelson. Collingwood then spend five years as a Lieutenant, making it to Post Captain at 32 in 1780. By that time, Nelson had been a Captain for two years, having been promoted in 1779. Despite this, the two men became close friends, and served together on many occasions before Trafalgar.
The Seven Years War was coming to its end when Collingwood entered the navy. Thus his first taste of potential conflict came in 1770, when there was a threat of war with Spain over the Falkland Islands. Collingwood served on HMS Liverpool, sailing just the Spanish coast near Cadiz, just in case war broke out.
Collingwood’s early career was dominated by the American War of Independence. He arrived in American waters in 1774, under Admiral Graves. 17 June 1775 was a memorable day for Collingwood – on the same day he took part in the battle of Bunker Hill and was promoted to Lieutenant.
The following year he transferred to the West Indies under Admiral Peter Parker. Here he first met Nelson, and the two men became close friends. Nelson and Collingwood served together on a futile expedition to Nicaragua in early 1780. By this point, the war had become a world war, France and Spain having entered the war, hoping to gain some revenge for their defeat in the Seven Years War. It was decided to attack the Spanish by seizing the Fort of San Juan, with the aim of splitting Spanish America in half. The expedition succeeded in capturing the fort, but was otherwise a disaster. Collingwood was Nelson’s Lieutenant on the frigate HMS Hinchinbroke, before replacing him as Captain on 22 Mary 1780, when Nelson was moved to a larger ship.
The expedition had been sent out at the worst time of year. Disease took a terrible toll, killing 180 of the 200 crew of Collingwood’s ship. Nelson eventually succumbed to the fever, and had to return to England to recover. Collingwood remained in the West Indies, as captain of HMS Pelican. In August of 1781, Collingwood suffered the trauma of losing his ship when the Pelican sank in a hurricane.
Despite this, Collingwood’s value as a captain was clearly recognised. He was quickly appointed to the Sampson, a 64 gun ship of the line, and then to the Mediator. He was one of the relatively small number of captains to retain a ship after the end of the American War of Independence, when the navy was dramatically reduced in number. Like Nelson, Collingwood was sent to the West Indies, with orders to prevent trade between the British islands and the newly independent United States of America. This was a frustrating duty. Collingwood and Nelson suffered from local opposition at all levels, even including their own naval superiors in the area. Finally, in 1786, Collingwood was paid off, and returned to England on half pay where, apart from a short gap in 1790 during a brief scare with Spain, he remained until 1793.
This peaceful interlude ended with the outbreak of the Revolutionary Wars in 1793. Collingwood was on active duty almost continuously from 1793 until his death in 1810, with a short break during the Peace of Amiens. At the outbreak of war, Collingwood was sent to the Channel fleet. There he was involved in the first major sea battle of the war, the Glorious First of June, 1794.
The British fleet on the First of June was commanded by the sixty seven year old Admiral Richard Howe, whose naval career stretched back before the Seven Years War. In his fleet were six other Admirals, as well as a series of captains who were to make their name over the next twenty years. The battle actually lasted for three days, from 28 May, but the key fighting came on 1 June, when six British ships were able to break the French line. Collingwood was serving as the flag captain for Admiral Bowyer on HMS Barfleur. Bowyer was seriously wounded, leaving Collingwood in active command for most of the battle. The battle ended in a major British victory. One French ship of the line was sunk and six more captured. Unfortunately, the massive grain convoy that the French fleet was guarding managed to escape, while the even more dramatic scale of the sea battles later in the war make the Glorious First look less impressive than it actually was.
Collingwood was soon transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet, commanded by Sir John Jervis, where once again he was to serve alongside Nelson. This fleet was engaged in the blockade of Toulon, before being forced to evacuate the Mediterranean at the end of 1796, after Spain switched sides and joined with the French.
Early in 1797, Collingwood took part in his second major fleet battle, the battle of Cape St. Vincent (14 February 1797) as captain of HMS Excellent. The most famous incident of the battle was Nelson’s decision to leave the line of battle without orders to attack the front (van) of the Spanish fleet, which was threatening to slip behind the British fleet. Soon after Nelson’s move, Jervis gave the order that would have allowed Nelson’s action, ‘..ships to take suitable station for their mutual support..’. Collingwood copied Nelson’s manoeuvre, coming to his friend’s aid. After some fierce fighting, Collingwood took the surrender of the El Salvador del Mondo, and briefly that of the Santissima Trinidad, the largest warship then in existence, although she later escaped.
Between Cape St. Vincent and the Peace of Amiens, Collingwood served with both the Mediterranean and Channel fleets, blockading Cadiz, Toulon and Brest. This period saw him promoted to rear admiral (14 February 1799). He was eventually to reach the rank of vice admiral (23 April 1804), and finally vice admiral of the red (9 November 1805), the highest rank before full admiral.
As a rear admiral, he still served as part of a larger fleet, first off Toulon and then off Brest. After the peace of Amiens collapsed in 1803 he returned to the Channel fleet under Lord Cornwallis. Even after he was promoted to vice admiral, it took a year before he had an independent command – the Royal Navy had far more admirals than fleets (in 1814 there were over 180 vice, rear and full admirals).
In the spring of 1805 Collingwood was sent to command the fleet watching Cadiz. He arrived at Cadiz after Villeneuve had passed by on his way to the West Indies, so the port was relatively empty – Villeneuve had already collected the Spanish fleet present in the port. This placed Collingwood in the right place to take part in the final stages of the Trafalgar campaign. On 20 July 1805, Nelson returned from the West Indies. He passed Collingwood on his way back to England, where he waited for news of the combined French and Spanish fleets.
Collingwood did not have to wait. Villeneuve had eventually limped into Ferrol, and having failed in one last attempt to reach Brest, returned to Cadiz (20 August). Collingwood’s three ships of the line could do nothing but watch as a fleet that Collingwood estimated at thirty-six ships of the line formed in Cadiz. At this point, Collingwood’s hope was that he would be reinforced, and get the chance to take command in a major fleet battle himself.
At first, this looked possible when a detachment from Cornwallis arrived under Sir Robert Calder, but in London it had already been decided that Nelson was the right man for the post. He arrived off Cadiz on 28 September. The arrival of any other senior admiral might have annoyed Collingwood, but Nelson was different. The two men were close friends, who held each other in a great deal of professional respect. Collingwood was well aware that Nelson was by far the greater men when it came to fleet battles (although Nelson would probably have admitted that Collingwood was better at conducting blockades!).
Although he lost his chance at command, Collingwood was still second in command, and at Trafalgar that give him a great deal of responsibility (in theory he could be considered to have been in command after Nelson was fatally wounded, but in fact he did not learn the news until the battle was almost over). Nelson’s plan was for his fleet to split into two squadrons, each of which would fight independently once the battle was joined. Collingwood was to command the right hand (lee) column, with Nelson commanding the left hand (weather column).
The two fleets came together on 21 October 1805. Collingwood was flying his flag in HMS Royal Sovereign. This ship had recently returned from being refitted in Britain, and was now one of the fastest ships in the fleet. In addition, Collingwood appreciated the importance of rapid accurate broadsides. His target was three broadsides in five minutes – on his previous ship he had managed to achieve three in three and a half minutes. This was about to become crucial, as the Royal Sovereign began to pull away from the rest of his line.
Collingwood’s ship was the first British ship to enter battle at Trafalgar. She reached the allied line at about noon. Collingwood aimed at the Santa Ana, the flagship of Admiral Alava, and one of the more massive Spanish ships, with 120 guns. The two ships soon became intertwined. A brutal duel lasted until half past two when the Santa Ana surrendered. The Royal Sovereign was herself so badly damaged that she had to be taken into tow by a frigate, the Euryalus.
Just before nightfall, Collingwood finally learn of Nelson’s death. He then transferred to the Euryalus and took command of the fleet. His first task was to get the fleet through the storm that hit on the night after the battle, and denied the British many of their prizes. That done, he then turned to the task of writing and dispatching his reports of the battle, a duty that must have been made bitter by the death of his friend Nelson.
In the aftermath of the battle, Collingwood finally succeeded to a major independent command, replacing Nelson as commander in chief in the Mediterranean. This was an exhausting role. He found himself in charge of a massive fleet, with duties that spread from the Spanish coast to Turkey and Egypt. The peace of Tilsit in 1807, which saw Russia out of the war again, left the British position in the Mediterranean even more stretched. Despite these pressures, Collingwood performed creditably. The French and Spanish fleets remained blockaded, their trade restricted, British trade was protected, Sicily and Malta successfully defended and the Ionian Islands seized. Collingwood also played an important part in the Spanish insurrection that slowly drained Napoleon’s resources, providing supplies and support in the early days of the rebellion.
The strains of so many years at sea eventually took their toll. Finally, in 1810, he was given permission to return home to recuperate, but on 7 March 1810, only four days after resigning his command and departing from Port Mahon, he died at sea. Like Nelson, he laid in state at Greenwich, before being buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He will always be overshadowed by his friend, but without men like Collingwood, who knew the sea and their job equally well, the Royal Navy would not have been able to win the series of great victories that culminated at Trafalgar.