204 years since Trafalgar

The Death of Nelson, Benjamin West

'The Death of Nelson', Benjamin West

204 years ago today the Royal Navy, under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet, in a monumental sea battle off the coast of South West Spain.

The Royal Navy had been blockading the enemy fleet in port for several years. After the peace of Amiens collapsed in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte hatched a plan to invade England. This would require the French fleet, with the support of their Spanish allies, to gain control of the English Channel, to allow the French Army to invade Southern England. To do this, the French attempted to lure the British fleet to the Carribean.

The plan almost worked. The British were lured to the Carribean, but hurriedly returned and prevented the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching the Channel. The British then kept them bottled up in Cadiz harbour. Meanwhile, Napoleon had tired of his naval commander, Admiral Villeneuve’s failures, and replaced him.

Before his replacement arrived, however, Villeneuve – with nothing to lose – put to sea, intent on fighting the Royal Navy.

The sides were not exactly evenly matched. Although the French and Spanish outnumbered the British by 33 to 27, the British sailors were far better trained, could produce a far greater rate of fire, and were far better seamen. This countered the enemies superiority in terms of the size of its ships. The Spanish in particular boasted the biggest ship in the world, the 136 gun, four-deck Santissima Trinidad. But the French and Spanish had spent many years cooped up in harbour, and had many inexperienced men onboard.

After briefing his Captains, his famous Band of Brothers, Nelson hoisted his famous ‘England Expects’ signal. The battle plan was ingenious. Dividing his fleet into two squadrons, they sailed parallel towards the enemy line. After suffering heavy damage as they approached the French and Spanish, once they broke the line they inflicted heavy losses. By the end of the battle the British had captured 22 ships, although many of these were sunk in a heavy storm after the battle.

The Death of Nelson, however, cast a sombre mood over the victory. Although he certainly had his faults – his adultery and treatment of his wife, and his excessive vanity – he was the nearest that England has ever come to a secular saint. Nelson and Trafalgar would shape the Royal Navy, and British culture, for centuries to come.

Despite the fact that it confirmed British superiority of the worlds oceans for over 100 years, the battle was perhaps not so important in the overall scheme of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had already given up the invasion of Britain, and had marched east to the battle of Austerlitz. Although it would be 10 years before Bonaparte was finally defeated at Waterloo, Trafalgar did however mean that no matter how succesful Napoleon was in Europe, Britain would always be free to fight back.

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Filed under maritime history, Napoleonic War, Navy

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