Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805

The Plan
The Fleets
Final Manoeuvres
The Sail into Danger
Battle Joined
Collingwood’s Line
Nelson’s Line
Dumanoir’s Attack
The Death of Nelson
The Storm
The Last Skirmish
The Aftermath
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The Plan

Nelson’s plan was expressed in a secret memorandum written on 9 October. At its heart was the desire to annihilate the French and Spanish fleets. Eighteenth century naval battles had become very formal affairs. The two fleets formed their respective ‘lines of battle’ (thus ‘ship of the line’ for any warship powerful enough to take part in a battle). These two lines then took up position facing each other and blasted away at each other until one side was forced to flee or surrender. These battles tended to be indecisive – it took time to form the two lines, which limited the time left to inflict damage on the enemy, and the resulting duels between pairs of ships tended to leave both sides badly damaged. This ‘linear’ form of battle had been on the wane throughout the revolutionary wars. At Cape St. Vincent, Nelson’s first major battle, the line had never been formed. The Nile and Copenhagen, his first two personal victories, had been fought against enemy fleets at anchor.

The line of battle had the advantage that everyone knew their role in the battle. Years of development had ironed out all uncertainty; every captain in every fleet in Europe knew what was expected at any time in such a battle. Nelson created that certainty in a different way. Regular meetings with his captains at which his plans were discussed meant that Nelson’s captains also understood what was expected of them. Many attempts have been made to turn Nelson’s plan at Trafalgar into a strategic doctrine, but that is to miss the point. What Nelson wanted was a fleet commanded by captains who would all know what to do to take the attack to the enemy. His three battles in command were all different. At the Nile he took advantage of the poor French position. At Copenhagen he relied on the rate of fire and general quality of the British ships to overwhelm the Danes. At Trafalgar, his main aim was to prevent the Spanish and French escaping destruction.

The ‘Nelson touch’, as he himself described his plan, was very simple. The fleet would be divided into three lines. The first, containing the best sailors in the fleet, would stay to the windward of the battle, awaiting the correct moment to join in. The rest of the fleet, split into two lines, would slice into the combined fleet from the side, one line one third of the way down the enemy fleet, the other two thirds down. This would cut the enemy fleet into three parts. Those ships in the enemy van would be prevented by the wind from taking part in the battle, at least for some time. Nelson hoped to break the enemy line, allowing for a general melee, with British ships on both sides of the line. In the event, his fleet was not large enough to allow him to form the first line, but otherwise the general outline of the plan was followed.

Nelson could safely assume that in a general fight, any British ship was the superior of a French or Spanish ship. Every major naval battle of the last fifteen years had provided more evidence for that belief. British gunnery was superior. British sailors were much more experienced than their French or Spanish equivalents, who had spend far too much time blockaded in port. To make things worse, the French had adopted the tactic of firing into the rigging of their enemies. The aim was to cripple their ships, preventing them from manoeuvring. While French fire often did a great deal of damage to the masts and rigging of British ships, Royal Navy ships concentrated their fire on the hulls of their targets. This caused much higher casualties, as well as inflicting damage on the guns. The result of this was that as a battle developed, the British ships might become immobile, but they were still able to fire. The Victory at Trafalgar demonstrates this well. She suffered 57 dead and 102 wounded, the highest number of dead of any British ship during the battle, but of those 159 casualties, only two were on the lower deck. The French in contrast would still have their masts intact, but might be too short of seamen to man them. Most French ships that surrendered were forced to do so by mounting casualties. The only advantage of the French tactic came at the end of battle, where badly damaged French ships were often able to escape from their victorious but dismasted British opponents.

The Fleets

Both of the fleets that fought at Trafalgar were patched together from a series of different squadrons. The combined fleet contained elements of five different squadrons. Eleven had accompanied Villeneuve from Toulon. Of the seven ships that joined him at Cadiz in April 1805, only two made it to Trafalgar. Two from the Rochefort squadron joined him at Martinique in June. Thirteen, the biggest contingent, came from the squadron that had been blockaded in Ferrol, relieved by Villeneuve in August. Finally, six more joined the fleet at Cadiz in October. On the face of it, the fragmented nature of the combined fleet would appear to count against it, but the British fleet was not much better.
Engraving of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, 1748-1810
Engraving of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, 1748-1810

Nelson’s fleet was made up of two main components. First to arrive off Cadiz were eight ships of the flying squadron, commanded by Vice-Admiral Collingwood. Next came Vice-Admiral Calder’s squadron of 18 ships, 12 of which fought at Trafalgar. Nelson arrived with three, and another five joined the fleet in dribs and drabs in the two weeks before the battle.

The allied fleet held the same advantage in number of guns as in number of ships – 2626 guns and 33 ships against 2148 guns and 27 ships, in both cases an advantage of 22%. Where the British did have an advantage was in the bigger ships. Despite the presence of two Spanish giants, the British had four 98s and three 100s against one 130, two 112s and a 100 on the allied fleet. Just under one in five of the allied guns were on the biggest ships, compared to one in three on the British ships.

Final Manoeuvres

Nelson always preferred a distant blockade. Rather than have his ships of the line visible from the enemy port, his main fleet off Cadiz was well over the horizon. Contact with the enemy fleet was maintained by the frigates, who formed a line linking the frigate with a view of the harbour with the blockading fleet. Nelson could count on receiving news of any enemy activity within hours – on this occasion the news took two and a half hours to reach him.

This may seem like a very risky delay, but a fleet of sailing ships could not easily leave port. Villeneuve issued his order to sail on 18 October. The first elements of the fleet began to move on the following morning. At six in the morning they were starting to set sails, and at eight they began to move. The news reached Nelson at nine thirty. He immediately gave orders for the fleet to move to block the straits of Gibraltar. The 19th was a day of light winds – only twelve ships from the combined fleet were able to leave Cadiz on that day. The following day the weather had turned sour. The British fleet spent the day in the straits in stormy weather, with no news of the combined fleet until the afternoon, when the storm cleared and news arrived that the enemy fleet was now entirely out of Cadiz and setting out to sea. Only extremely bad luck would now prevent Nelson and his fleet finally getting the battle that they had been hoping for for so long.

Trafalgar can be described very simply or in detail. Here we will do both. A simple summery of the battle is that Nelson formed his fleet into two columns, organised in the order the fleet had been sailing in. These two columns attacked the Combined Fleet from the side. The light winds favoured Nelson, giving his fleet slightly more headway than the French and Spanish, who having failed to enter the Mediterranean were trying to return to Cadiz. The two British lines hit the combined fleet between twelve and one. The first ten Spanish and French ships were taken out of the battle by Nelson’s plan and the light winds, leaving 23 French and Spanish fleets to face 27 British. As the British ships slowly entered battle in ones and twos, a general melee ensued. Once this had happened, the result of the battle was never in doubt. After approximately two hours of hard fighting, French and Spanish ships began to surrender. By the end of the day, seventeen ships had been captured, and the combined fleet had been destroyed. The only blot on the day was the death of Nelson, fatally wounded very early in the battle (although he survived until most of the fighting was over).

That provides a brief summary of the battle, but of course there is much more that can be said. Before we begin our more detailed account, there are two things that we must remember. First, the battle soon developed into a melee in which the exact details of who did what and when are less important than the overall results. Second, it is impossible to be sure of the exact timing of most events. The various ships logs give different times for every event in the battle, and the gaps between events are not consistent. This is hardly surprising – the logs were being written during the heat of the battle – but makes the historian’s job much harder. Nevertheless, a fairly consistent account of the battle can be produced.

The combined fleet was finally in order by three in the afternoon on 20 October. At first they sailed west, before turning south east towards the straits of Gibraltar, and Nelson. By this time, one of Villeneuve’s frigates had already sighted the British fleet, and this was confirmed at 7.30 by one of his faster ships of the line. To avoid a night time encounter, Villeneuve now turned back to the north west. Soon after, Nelson turned to the south west, to avoid being blown through the straits. For some hours the two fleets were moving apart, but at four in the morning on the 21st, Nelson turned back to sail north by east while Villeneuve turned back towards the straits. The result of this was that at daybreak the two fleets were west of Cape Trafalgar – the combined fleet attempting to sail south to get around the Cape, with the British about ten miles to their west and sailing directly towards them.

The morning of the 21st saw very light winds. On their original course, the ships of the combined fleets were in danger of finding themselves in a closely run chase through the straits of Gibraltar, with Nelson closing from behind and more British ships coming out of Gibraltar. Accordingly, at some time between 7.15 and 8.30, Villeneuve ordered his fleet to turn simultaneously and head back to Cadiz. This was not an attempt to avoid battle – Villeneuve had recognised that battle was inevitable by this point. His aim was to avoid having his fleet split in half, and also to avoid being cut off from Cadiz. He was criticised for this at the time – the commander of what was now the last ship in the Combined Fleet, Commodore Churruca, told his second in command that the fleet was doomed. The manoeuvre took at least two hours to perform, not being completed until ten, and reversed the order of battle. However, the overnight movements of the fleet had largely destroyed any remnants of the original sailing plan, so this was probably not all that important. It may even have reduced the destruction after the battle, when a significant number of survivors were able to limp back into Cadiz.

The Sail into Danger

Whatever else Villeneuve’s move achieved, it had an impact on Nelson and his plans. He was now convinced that the combined fleet was attempting to flee, and was determined to prevent that. Accordingly, several ships in the British fleet was ordered to ‘set all sails possible with safety to the mast’, before this order was then made general. This order was misinterpreted on many ships as meaning that a chase had begun. However, the level of confusion in the British lines has sometimes been overstated – when the battle finally began, it was the Admirals in command of the two lines who entered combat first.

We must not get hung up on the idea of the two columns of the British fleet as neat formations. Once the attack was on, the slower ships began to fall behind, with some of the slowest entering battle at least three hours after the fastest. This includes the Britannia, one of the largest and slowest ships in the fleet, commanded by Rear-Admiral the Earl of Northesk. Nelson is sometimes criticised for a plan that apparently wasted the firepower of some his heaviest ships, but if the entire fleet had sailed at the speed of the Britannia, the combined fleet may well have escaped into Cadiz!

We must also not expect the two columns to form neat lines. Each ship was meant to find it’s own place in the enemy line, implying that the two columns would fan out as they approached the enemy line. The slower ships were also able to observe the battle as they approached, and within limits enter the melee where they were needed. Nelson’s aim was always to smash the enemy fleet. If the way to do that was an impetuous attack, than that is what Nelson did. Waiting for the fleet to form into a neater formation went against everything Nelson stood for in battle. It must also be remembered that during the morning Nelson had been aware that heavier weather was coming. He issued a general order to the fleet to anchor at the end of the battle, in the expectation that there would be a gale by evening, and in this he was correct. Nelson’s plan was to force the combined fleet to fight, so that it could be comprehensively defeated, and this is exactly what he was to do.

The rest of the morning passed in increasing tension. The two columns began to take their final form at the ships settled down into roughly the order of sailing speed. Nelson was aiming at the Bucentaure, Villeneuve’s flagship. Collingwood had originally been aiming to cross in front of the twelfth ship from the enemy rear, but just ahead of this was the Santa Ana, a 112 ship three decker and the flagship of Admiral Alava, so he chose to cross the enemy line to the stern of the Santa Ana. One effect of this was that once battle was entered, only five enemy ships separated the two British lines.

As the fleets closed, Nelson sent out his last few signals. Amongst them was the famous ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. This was changed from ‘England confides..’ on the advice of the signal lieutenant, because ‘expects’ would take less time to signal that ‘confides’. The signal was not universally well greeted. On most ships it was greeted with cheers, but some took offence at the idea that there was any doubt that they would do their duty. Nelson followed the famous signal with one for ‘Close Action’. Finally, he set one final signal, ordering the fleet to anchor at the end of the battle.

Admiral Thomas Hardy (1769-1839)
Admiral Thomas Hardy (1769-1839)

As the two British columns began to close with the allied fleet, the leading ships came under fire. Collingwood appears to have escaped relatively lightly at this stage, his rapid speed meaning that he was only exposed to enemy fire for about the last ten minutes of the approach. Nelson in the Victory was not so lucky. His speed started to fall as he approached the allied fleet, and the Victory was subjected to about forty minutes of increasingly heavy fire before she reached the enemy line. For about the last twenty minutes of the approach some of the Victory’s forward guns were able to direct a limited fire into the enemy line, but it was only when she crossed the enemy line that she was able to hit back properly. Amongst the casualties was Nelson’s secretary Mr Scott, while one cannon ball actually passed between Nelson and Captain Hardy!

Battle joined

The success of Nelson’s plan means that our account of the general melee can be broken down into three parts. First will be Collingwood’s line, which hit the line some time before Nelson’s, and soon engaged the entire enemy rear. Second was Nelson’s line. This hit the combined fleet just ahead of centre, and found itself facing a concentration of some of the strongest French and Spanish ships, including the Santissima Trinidad, then the largest warship in the world. Finally, the first ten ships of the combined fleet had been left isolated by the British attack. The light winds made it very hard for these ships to play any part in the decisive part of the battle. Finally, at about three they were finally able to make an attempt to play a part in the battle, although not an impressive one.

Any attempt to give a minute by minute account of the melee will be frustrated. The ships logs give various times for even the most important events, and more frustratingly, different gaps between them. This account will attempt to follow the actions of the key ships on the British side.

Collingwood’s Line

Royal Sovereign.Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign was the first British ship into battle. She had recently had a new copper bottom, which had increased her sailing speed, so she hit the allied line at noon, at least ten minutes before the next ship. Collingwood had seen that his original target was only a two decker, but just ahead was the Santa-Ana, the flagship of Admiral Alava, and so Collingwood entered the line behind her, and ahead of the Forgueux. The British practise of firing into the hull of their enemies now paid dividends. The first British broadside disabled 400 crew and 14 guns on the Santa Ana, immediately reducing her firepower. This was fortunate for the Royal Sovereign, as she soon found herself being attacked by five ships – a close range duel with the Santa-Ana and more distant battles with Forgueux, San-Leandro, San-Justo and Indomptable. These other ships were slowly drawn into duels with other British ships. The Santa-Ana remained tied in a duel with the Royal Sovereign until at 2.15, with Admiral Alava badly wounded and the crew massively depleted, the Santa-Ana surrendered. The Royal Sovereign was now immobilised and played no further part in the fighting.

Belleisle. Second into the melee was the Belleisle. She entered the line close to the Royal Sovereign, forcing the Indomptable away and engaging the Forgueux. She soon found herself heavily engaged – seven different allied ships attacked her at some point during the fighting. To port, the Forgueux was driven off, only to be replaced by the Achille and later the Aigle. The San-Juan-Nepomuceno held position to starboard. Unsurprisingly, the Belleisle suffered the second heaviest losses on the British side – 126 killed and injured, as well as losing all three masts, leaving her little more than a hulk. Despite this, she took the first surrender of the day – the Spanish Argonauta.

Mars. Third in, the Mars was raked by four separate ships on the way in, before engaging closely with the Pluton. Her captain, George Duff, was killed by cannon fire during the duel with the Pluton, by the end of which the Mars was drifting. Despite suffering 300 casualties, the Pluton was eventually able to escape.

Tonnant. The Tonnant entered the line near the Mars, drawing off two of her enemies. One, the Spanish Monarca, was so badly damaged in the initial broadside that she attempted to surrender, but as no one was able to take the surrender, she started to fight again! Meanwhile, the Tonnant was engaged in a very close duel with the Algesiras, the flag ship of Admiral Magon. The two ships came together, and the French attempted to board the Tonnant, although only one man actually reached her deck. Snippers in the rigging of the Algesiras had caused havoc on the deck of the Tonnant, but their fire was stopped when the ship was dismasted by damage below decks. Now the British boarded the Algesiras. By this point, Admiral Magon was dead and the ship surrendered at about a quarter past two. Meanwhile, on the larboard side the Tonnant was firing into the San-Jaun-Nepomuceno, who also soon surrendered, although to the Dreadnaught rather than the Tonnant, whose one remaining boat had to turn back when it came under fire.

Bellerophon. The Bellerophon, or ‘Billy Ruffian’ as her crew called her, was one of the most heavily engaged ships. She entered the melee at about half past twelve, between the Monarca and the Aigle, who made two attempts to board. She was also attacked at various times by the Montanez, the Swiftsure and the Bahama. A grenade explosion nearly detonated the powder store. Captain Cooke was killed in the fighting. Eventually, the weight of fire forced the Monarca to surrender (at about two o’clock).

Colossus. The Colossus and the Achille crossed the line at about one o’clock. The Colossus took on the Swiftsure and the Bahama, both of whom surrendered at about three o’clock.

Achille. The Achille moved to help the Belleisle. After a couple of glancing encounters, she settled in to a half hour duel with the Berwick, which ended at about four o’clock.

Revenge. Good sailing moved the Revenge up the order of battle. She entered the melee at about half past twelve, where she engaged the San Ildefonso, and then the Achille, two of whose masts she removed. The Revenge then had a serious encounter with Admiral Gravina’s Principe de Asturias. After a series of broadsides hit the Revenge, Gravina attempted to board, but his boarding party was spotted in time, and hit with grapeshot from the carronades, a deadly short range weapon that scattered the boarding party and inflicted heavy looses. The Revenge later played a part in repulsing Dumanoir’s counter attack.

Defiance. The Defiance entered the melee at about a quarter past one, and after a brief pop at Gravina, she became the sixth ship to fight the Aigle. Despite heavy losses, the crew of the Aigle still fought on, even repelling a British boarding party that had held the quarter and poop decks for twenty five minutes. It took another half an hour of bombardment before the Aigle finally surrendered (at four o’clock), having suffered nearly three hundred casualties.

Dreadnaught. Although not a good sailor, the Dreadnaught entered the battle at about half past one. She first engaged Admiral Gravina’s Principe de Asturias, who she was later to attempt to prevent escaping into Cadiz. In the interval, she had a ten minute duel with the San Juan de Nepomunceno which ended with the surrender of the Spaniard. Her attempt to hinder Admiral Gravina’s escape was foiled by her slow sailing speed.

Swiftsure. The ships towards the rear of Collingwood’s line did not enter the battle until after three o’clock. The Swiftsure entered the melee at about half past three, coming to the aid of the Belleisle, by then unable to manoeuvre into a position to fire on the Achille, her opponent at that point.

Polyphemus. The Polyphemus never came to close quarters with any allied ship, but instead engaged in a series of long range duels and chases, suffering the second lowest casualty figures (after the Prince)

Thunderer. One of several ships to engage with the Principe de Austurias, reaching the Spanish flagship at about ten past three. She also engaged the San-Idelfonso, who later surrendered to the Defence

Defence. Another late entrant into the melee, the Defence first found herself facing the Berwick, before moving on to the San Ildefonso, who surrendered to her at about a quarter past four.

Prince. The 98 gun Prince was another poor sailor. She was further handicapped by damage to one of her sails just before the enemy were sighted. She didn’t enter the battle until four o’clock, when she briefly engaged Admiral Gravina’s Principe de Asturias before she moved on to engage the already damaged Achille. She set the Achille on fire with two great broadsides, before rescuing 140 of her crew from the water after they abandoned their fiercely burning ship. At about half past five, the Achille exploded, marking the effective end of the battle. Meanwhile, the Prince had moved on to take the surrender of the Santissima Trinidad, already beaten down by other ships and waiting for a suitable ship to surrender to. The Prince was the only British ship not to suffer any casualties during the battle.

Nelson’s Line

Victory. The battle had been raging for an hour before the Victory became the first ship in Nelson’s line to enter the melee. As the ship at the front of the line, the Victory had suffered a significant amount of damage on the way in, including the loss of her wheel. Her initial target was the Santissima Trinidad. During the hour that elapsed between Collingwood entering combat and Nelson joining him, a significant gap developed in front of the Santissima Trinidad, but by now Nelson had a new target – Admiral Villeneuve in the Bucentaure. Around Villeneuve was a cluster of the most powerful of the allied ships, and Nelson’s decision to attack here was probably due to his desire to annihilate the enemy fleet. If Villeneuve could be taken out of the fight, then that annihilation would be one step closer. Victory’s approach placed her between the Bucentaure and the Redoutable, and facing the broadside of the French Neptune. As she passed behind the Bucentaure, the Victory was able to fire each of her larboard guns in turn into the stern of the hapless Frenchman. This staggered broadside devastated the French flagship, and left her relatively helpless before the rest of the British fleet. In turn, the Victory was unable to avoid a broadside from the Neptune, but once again the French habit of aiming high meant that the Victory’s ability to fight on was relatively unimpaired. She got off a broadside against the Santissima Trinidad and on the other side one against the Redoutable, before running into her.

The Redoutable was probably the best prepared ship in the allied fleet. Her captain, Jean Jacques Etienne Lucas, had a low opinion of the gunnery in the allied fleet, and was well aware that they would have no chance to improve it though practise. Instead, he concentrated on musketry and boarding tactics, hoping to get close enough to his enemy to board her. Now the Victory had sailed into exactly the position he wanted her in. Lucas ordered his lower deck guns to stop firing to free up more men for the assault he hoped to launch. His rigging was full of marksmen, and he had even managed to get some small mortars into the rigging. The fire from the Redoutable almost cleared the top decks of the Victory, and also claimed the battle’s most famous victim. At about twenty five past one, Admiral Nelson was hit by a musket ball fired from the Redoutable’s rigging. The wound was not immediately fatal – indeed Nelson was to survive almost to the end of the battle – but it was clearly mortal. Nelson was taken below deck, where he lingered for some hours. Meanwhile, Lucas decided to make a whole hearted attempt at boarding. Accordingly, he assembled as many men as could be spared on deck, ready to attempt to cross to the Victory. However, the two ships were not perfectly aligned for boarding, and only a small part of five managed to get across. They were cut down by the Victory’s marines. Any further danger of boarding was almost immediately ended. The Temeraire now come into position to fire a broadside at the Redoutable which devastated the boarding party (see below).

The Victory was by now utterly immobilised, both by the heavy damage she had taken, and because she was still firmly attached to the Redoutable. Her active role in the battle was at an end, although she was able to fire a few shots off at Dumanoir’s counterattack. She had effectively knocked the French flagship out of the battle, before engaging the best ship in the allied fleet. Despite this, Nelson is sometimes attacked for ignoring the gap in the allied fleet, and allowing his flagship to be sucked into close quarters fighting. This is perhaps to miss the point of Nelson’s plan at Trafalgar, which was to do exactly that – lay as many of his ships alongside enemy ships as possible, and rely on the superior British gunnery to win the day. This is what his fleet did, and this is exactly what won the battle.

Temeraire. The Temeraire entered the battle just behind the Victory. She too fired into the Santissima Trinidad, before coming to the aid of the Victory. She fired a broadside into the Redoutable that wounded 200 men, including Captain Lucas, and ended any danger that the Victory would be boarded. By now, the Temeraire was largely out of control, and when she drifted into the Redoutable, she too was stuck. The three ship sandwich, soon gained a fourth, the French Fougueux, who had crossed the gap from Collingwood’s battle to give aid to the flagship. Seeing the Temeraire apparently crippled and vulnerable, the Fougueux attempted to move into position to board her, but she could still fire a full broadside, and when the Fougueux was at point-blank range, the Temeraire fired a devastating broadside into the French ship, leaving her so badly damaged that only ten minutes after the two ships came into contact, a boarding party from the Temeraire was able to take control of her. The Fougueux surrendered at ten past two, and the Redoutable ten minutes later. Like the Victory, the Temeraire’s battle was effectively over, although she was also able to fire at Dumanoir’s squadron as it briefly threatened a counterattack.

Neptune. The Neptune was one of the three great three deckers at the head of Nelson’s line. She too fired on the Bucentaure, before moving on to engage the massive Santissima Trinidad. For some time she was able to fire into the Spaniard’s stern without suffering any counter fire. The Santissima Trinidad lost two of her masts before two o’clock, and the third not much later. At this point, she attempted to surrender to the Neptune, but the Neptune was too busy helping to fend off Dumanoir’s counter attack. The Santissima Trinidad resumed the battle for a short time, although she was already almost crippled, before eventually surrendered to the Prince.

Leviathan. The Leviathan was only lightly engaged in the first part of the battle. She played a part in fending off Dumanoir’s counter attack, before engaging with the San-Augustino, who she captured through boarding after twenty minutes.

Conqueror. Another ship that did not engage in a major duel. The Conqueror was one of many ships to fire into the Bucentaure, and at about two o’clock it was Captain James Atcherly of her marines who accepted her surrender, and with her that of Admiral Villenueve. By the time Atcherly had secured his prize, the Conqueror had moved on to hunt for other foes. This time it was the Santissima Trinidad that received her fire, although this time another ship was to take the surrender. Finally, the Conqueror was one of the ships that turned to face Dumanoir’s counterattack, and dissuaded him from coming to the aid of the stricken Santissima Trinidad

Britannia. The Britannia was the oldest ship in the British fleet, three years older than the Victory, and also one of the slowest. She was the flagship of Rear-Admiral the Earl of Northesk, who was determined to at least reach the battle line. Eventually, two hours after the Victory, the Britannia finally reached the enemy line, what was left of it, where she took part in the general melee.

Ajax. Although the Ajax, entered the battle only ten minutes after the Victory, she did not take part in any major duels, and was another ship whose role was to fire into the general melee, although she did play a part in stopping the counter attack of the Intrepide.

Captain Sir Edward Berry, c.1799
Captain Sir Edward Berry, c.1799

Agamennon. The Agamennon had many happy memories for Nelson, who had been her captain from 1793 to 1796. Her captain, Edward Berry, had been Nelson’s flag captain at the battle of the Nile. Despite her impressive record, the Agamennon was one of several ships in Nelson’s line not to find a direct opponent. Like the other ships around her, she did play her part in the general melee.

Orion. The Orion was not engaged until two, an hour after the Victory. Unlike the ships around her, she played a role in two major incidents. Seeing that there was still some fierce fighting in Collingwood’s battle, she had crossed the gap between the two battles, where she fired a devastating broadside into the Swiftsure, who soon after surrendered to the Colossus. Later, having returned to Nelson’s battle, she was in the right place to help stop the counterattack of the Intrepide, one of the ships cut off at the front of the allied fleet, and who had attempted to come to the aid of Admiral Villeneuve. After a fight of about an hour, the Intrepide surrendered to the Orion

Minotaur. The Minotaur never got closely engaged in the main battle, but that meant that she was undamaged when Dumanoir’s counter attack developed (see below).

Spartiate . The Spartiate has a very similar time to the Minotaur, again being undamaged when Dumanoir reappeared. Together, they played an important role in protecting the damaged ships at the centre of the line.

Africa . The Africa had the most unusual battle. She had missed a turn in the night, and when contact was made with the allied fleet she found herself isolated directly in the path of the entire enemy fleet. As a 64 gun ship, she was one of the smallest ships of the line at Trafalgar, but her captain, Henry Digby, was not discouraged. Nelson signalled to him to make all available sail, presumably expecting that Digby would return to the fleet. Instead, he dumped any spare stores, and sailed directly down the line of Spanish and French ships, firing at each of them from the Neptuno at the very front of the line, to the Santisima Trinidad, a ship with twice as many guns as the Africa. The Santisima Trinidad was already in a duel with a British three-decker, the Neptune. At about two, the Santisima Trinidad lost her masts. Digby sent a boat to take her surrender, but Admiral Cisneros in the < i>Santisima Trinidad was not ready to surrender to such a minnow (shortly after refusing to surrender to the Africa, he attempted to surrender to the Neptune, but that ship was too busy to take the surrender, and so it fell to the Prince to take the surrender of the largest ship then afloat, a good hour and a half later). The Africa still had a role to play in repelling Dumanior’s counter attack (see below).

Dumanoir’s Attack

Ten ships – six French and four Spanish – had been cut off by Nelson’s attack. Amongst them was Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, who was ordered to return to battle. However, the wind was against them. Even turning around was difficult, and it was not until about half past two that they were ready to attempt to intervene, by which point seven allied ships had already surrendered. Handled better, Dumanoir’s counter attack could have been very dangerous, especially for the badly damaged ships that had engaged first.

Dumanoir decided to sail down the weather side, looking for a chance to intervene. Four of the other ships followed him. Of the other five, one, the Intrepide, sailed straight into the melee around the Bucentaure, but was cut off by the Africa, before being forced to surrender by the Ajax and the Orion. The other four attempted to sail down the lee side of the battle where they hoped to help Admiral Gravina.

It was Dumanoir’s weather side attack that caused the most concern, coming close to the Victory, Temeraire and Royal Sovereign. Once again, the French tactic of concentrating fire into the rigging was shown to be flawed. Although all three ships had been heavily engaged almost from the start, all three were still capable of a dangerous broadside. The Royal Sovereign was too immobilised to be able to take part, but both the Victory and the Temeraire were able to get in some solid blows.

What really doomed Dumanoir’s attack was that several British ships had been very lightly engaged so far in the main battle. The Spartiate and Minotaur had still not reached the line, and were able to cut across the front of the Dumanoir’s squadron and place themselves in front of the Victory. Abandoning this part of the battle, Dumanoir moved on to see if he could assist Gravina, but Collingwood spotted this move, and he had enough spare ships by this time to form a line of battle six ships strong. At the same time, Admiral Gravina had decided that there was no point fighting on, and could be seen leaving the battle, followed by most of the remaining ships capable of flight. Seeing that all was lost, Dumanoir decided not to sacrifice his ships, and fled to the south.

Not all of his ships were able to escape with him. The Neptuno, had been cut off. While the rest of Dumanoir’s force escaped, she found herself in a close fight with the Spartiate and Minotaur, and by a quarter past five was forced to surrender.

French writers have been very harsh on Dumanoir. While his conduct does not look impressive, there was probably very little he could have done. The four ships that sailed down the lee side made no impact – the wind prevented them making any real contribution. Once Dumanoir’s five ships had made contact with the British fleet, it must have become very clear that the British were not as badly mauled as he might have hoped. His five ships found themselves facing two completely fresh British ships, supported by some of the strongest ships of the line, and then by another line of six ships. For the moment, Dumanoir was able to escape the scene, but as we will see below, his escape was short-lived.


The allied fleet was now in total disarray. Of it’s six admirals, Dumanoir had escaped to the south, and four were in British hands (although two were later rescued). Admiral Gravina, on the Principe de Asturias, finally ordered the remnants of the allied fleet to rally and return to Cadiz. The British victory was complete. Of the original 33 ships, one, the Achille, had blown up. Eight French and nine Spanish ships had been captured. Eleven had limped back into Cadiz and four had escaped to the south. The allies had lost 4,500 dead, 2,400 wounded and 7,000 prisoners. In contrast, the British lost no ships, 449 dead and 1,200 wounded. Only the death of Nelson reduced the joy of victory.

The Death of Nelson

When we left Nelson, he was being taken below after having been shot at close range by a sniper in the rigging of the Redoutable. This occurred at just after half past one, while the fighting was perhaps at it’s fiercest. Nelson was immediately sure that he was mortally wounded, although he had expressed a similar certainty on previous occasions. This time, he was right. The bullet had lodged in his spine, mirroring a wound suffered some months earlier by a member of the crew. Nelson reported a lack of feeling below the wound, that he could feel a gush of blood within him, and that he had difficulty breathing. The ship’s surgeon was forced to agree with Nelson, and pronounced that there was nothing he could do.

Nelson survived for long enough for victory to be certain. He was kept in touch with events as they happened, and was still concerned for the fate of his fleet, despite being convinced that he was dying. Captain Hardy was finally able to come below decks just after half past two for the first of two interviews with his commander. Despite the popular view, Hardy was not present when Nelson died. He was able to make a second visit to the dying Admiral, when he could report that at least twelve of the enemy had surrendered, but events forced him back onto deck while Nelson was still alive.

Nelson’s last words have often been misreported. This is hard to explain – both Dr. Beatty, the surgeon, and the Reverend A. J. Scott, the ships chaplain, report similar words. At about half past four, as Nelson fading fast, he repeated the line ‘Thank God, I have done my duty’ several times. Rev. Scott then reported hearing Nelson whisper ‘God and my country’, before finally dying. His body was preserved in a cask of Brandy and returned to London, where he received a state funeral.

The Storm

Nature provided one last test for the British fleet. The storm that Nelson had predicted before the battle hit that night. Many of the British ships were in a dreadful state, some having lost all of their masts in the battle. Worse, the battle had been fought relatively close to shore, and the wind was blowing towards that shore. Nelson’s last order before the battle had been to anchor once the fighting was over, but for many ships this was no longer possible, as they had lost their anchors in the battle. Other captains decided that they need room to manoeuvre. Whatever decision each captain made, and whatever state their ships were in, the skills of the British sailors shone through again. Not one of the badly damaged British ships was lost in the storm.

The same can not be said for the surviving French and Spanish ships. The badly damaged ships were manned by small prize crews, fifty men where the ship really needed several hundred. Five of the captured ships sank, including the Redoutable and the Bucentaure. On one ship, the Algesiras, the prize crew was forced to release their prisoners, who promptly retook their ship, and were able to reach Cadiz. The prize crew were later released, a gesture that was typical of Spanish treatment of their British prisoners.

The allies made one attempt to retrieve some of the captured ships. On 23 October, Commodore Cosmao, captain of the Pluton, launched a raid from Cadiz with five ships of the line and five frigates. This raid was a disaster. The Santa Ana and with it Admiral Alava, was recaptured, as was the Spanish Neptuno, whose crew managed to retake control of their own ship. However, she was badly damaged, and despite the best efforts of both the Spanish and British sailors the ship ran aground. Of the five ships that took part in the raid, the Indomptable ran ashore with the loss of nearly one thousand men. The San-Francisco-de-Asis was also lost, although most of her crew survived. Finally, the Rayo was captured by the Donegal, one of the British ships that had missed the battle.

Cosmao’s raid had a second woeful result. Convinced that Cosmao had had ten ships of the line, Collingwood decided to scuttle the most vulnerable of the prizes, including the Santissima Trinidad. In the end, only four of the captured prizes survived to reach Gibraltar.

The Last Skirmish

Two weeks later, the last intact fragments of the Combined Fleet met their doom. Dumanoir’s division, saved at Trafalgar by the success of Nelson’s plan, struggled to find safety. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, they had tried to enter the Mediterranean, presumably with Toulon as their object, but the gale had thwarted that plan, and Dumanoir’s four ships of the line turned north towards Rochefort. Unluckily for them, a detachment of the Western Squadron under Sir Richard Strachen was watching Vigo, hoping to intercept the ships left there by Villeneuve after his encounter with Calder. On the night of 2nd/3rd November, Strachen first sighted Dumanoir. Strachen had four ships of the line and four frigates, and unusually it was the frigates who played the pivotal role. Dumanoir was determined to avoid battle, and after a full day’s chase, he was still six miles ahead of Strachen’s ships of the line. However, on 4 November the frigates caught his slowest ship, and rather than abandon it, Dumanoir chose to fight. Once again, the result was a British victory. All four French ships were forced to surrender, while the British suffered very light casualties – only twenty five dead across eight ships. As a reward for his actions, Strachen was awarded the star of the Bath, and a pension of £1,000 a year (Nelson was only awarded £2,000 for his victory at the Nile!).

The Aftermath

News of the great victory reached Gibraltar first. Collingwood had sent dispatches to Britain and to Gibraltar on the 22nd. The Gibraltar Chronicle published the first news of the great victory on Thursday 24th. Tellingly, this first news report, based on the Admiral’s dispatch, contained several mistakes, but the main message was clear. The Royal Navy had won a famous victory. The French threat at sea was gone, but Nelson was dead.

It says a lot about the slow speed of communications in this period that news of Trafalgar only reached England on 5 November, the day after Strachen’s action. The schooner Pickle, commanded by Lapenotiere, an officer of French descent, had been dispatched to carry the news home. She reached Falmouth early on the fifth, and Lapenotiere was able to reach the Admiralty at one in the morning on the following day. This time Lord Barham was woken to hear the news, after which Lapenotiere was promoted to Commander.

The news of Trafalgar was greeted with mixed feelings. The sense of a great naval triumph was tempered first by the death of Nelson, and then even more by news of the Austrian surrender at Ulm two days earlier. News from the continent continued to be bad for some time to come. Napoleon went on to victory at Austerlitz, the Third Coalition collapsed as its continental members were defeated one by one, and Pitt himself was soon dead. Ironically, Nelson’s death probably helped to increase public appreciation of his victory – the hero who had died to save his country from the threat of French invasion.

Purely in terms of fleet sizes, the French eventually recovered from Trafalgar, but their navy never recovered. What little confidence remained after years of blockade and defeat was lost, and the Royal Navy did not have to fight another fleet battle during the rest of the war. Napoleon lost what little faith he had in his navy, at first refusing to believe that the combined fleet had failed to sink or capture a single British ship.

It is often claimed that Trafalgar did not save Britain from invasion, because Napoleon had already abandoned his invasion plans and instead moved his armies into central Europe, where on 20 October he forced the Austrians to surrender at Ulm. The victory at Trafalgar on the following day would thus appear to lose much of its significance. This is surely to miss a key point. While the French and Spanish fleets were intact, Napoleon could just as easily march his armies back to the French coast and renew the invasion threat. It was the destruction of the combined fleets at Trafalgar that lifted the threat of invasion. With his fleets critically weakened, Napoleon no longer had the option to threaten Britain with invasion. For the rest of the war, the British were able to concentrate on offensive operations around the edges of Napoleon’s Empire. With the ability to invade Britain removed, Napoleon was forced to adopt economic warfare – the continental system – designed to destroy British trade and thus her ability to finance the war. Attempts to enforce the continental system against British naval supremacy led to strained relations with both Spain and Russia, and indirectly to the Peninsular War, one of the main contributions to the defeat of France.

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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, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805,

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