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Posted on Mar 19, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Battle of Trafalgar

By Nicky Nielsen

In October 1805, Right Hon. Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson, led the British Royal Navy to a sweeping victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar in Southern Spain. The Battle of Trafalgar became Lord Nelson’s crowning victory, but he also paid a dear price – a price that would mean that he himself, would not be able to enjoy the fruits of his hard labour.

The story of the Battle of Trafalgar, possibly the greatest naval engagement in the 18th and 19th century began in 1803. The rather fragile Peace of Amiens between Britain and Revolutionary France finally collapsed in the spring of 1803 when Britain formally re-opened hostilities, thus also opening the Napoleonic Wars, which would sweep Europe until French General and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo in 1814.

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Battle of Trafalgar – the situation as at 17:00 hours

The talented sea-farer Horatio Nelson had, after grand victories at the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801) been promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet immediately before the war with France broke out again in 1803. The primary concern of both Lord Nelson and the British Crown and Admiralty, was the idea of a French invasion of Britain. The French had already proven that they had the capability to launch such an invasion when 1500 French soldiers landed in the South-West of Ireland in 1798 in an attempt to aid Irish rebels during the Rebellion of the United Irishmen against the British Crown. The British fear was confirmed when British spies realized that Napoleon had stationed 70,000 troops near Boulogne in January of 1804. A few months later, the French leader also brought the French Navy to Boulogne. When Spain declared war on Britain towards the end of 1804 and the French and Spanish fleets merged as a result, the situation looked graver than ever for Britain.

The only thing preventing a French invasion of the British Isles, was the power of the Royal Navy who had again and again beaten the navies of France and her allies. While preparations were being undertaken in the North of France, a massive Franco-Spanish fleet was being readied in Toulon under the command of French admiral Villeneuve. The British Admiralty feared rightly that if the powerful Franco-Spanish fleet made it to the British Channel, they would be able to gain control of the Channel waters for long enough to allow the French invasion force to cross to the British Isles. And the last thing Britain desired was the Napoleonic War being brought to their own backyard.

So Lord Nelson was given command of part of the Royal Navy and instructed to use all means necessary to prevent Admiral Villeneuve from reaching the British Channel. Lord Nelson determinately set sail south, toward Toulon.

He quickly learned, however, that the French fleet had slipped away and was headed for Martinique in the Caribbean in an attempt to get Nelson off their tail. Nelson decided to pursue them across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean. Villeneuve had now also been joined by the Spanish admiral Gravina who brought with him, more ships. The situation looked grave. On the 4th of June, 1805, Nelson reached Barbados, not more than two weeks after the Combined Franco-Spanish fleet had reached the very same waters.

But what was destined to become one of the greatest naval engagements of all time, would not take place in the Caribbean; the moment Villeneuve learned that Nelson had arrived, he turned tail and headed back to Europe, hoping to fool Nelson into spending weeks or even months searching the Caribbean for him. But Nelson quickly caught on and was back in pursuit only nine days after Villeneuve’s departure towards Europe.

After the tiring and time-consuming chase across the Atlantic Ocean, both fleets withdrew for a short while to re-supply and prepare themselves to face each other in battle. Nelson headed for Portsmouth and Villeneuve docked at Cadiz in Southern Spain. But Nelson’s rest was short-lived; he ordered the departure of his fleet only a week after arriving in Portsmouth. He set sail south towards Cadiz hoping to draw the engagement he knew would come, as far away from the British Channel as possible.

As he drew closer to Cadiz, the first ships of the Combined ships sailed out to meet him on the 19th of October, 1805. The rest of the Combined Fleet followed the day after. The board was now set for a monumental show of strength.

As the morning of the 21st of October dawned, the two fleets bore down on each other. The Combined Fleet came from the East, the Royal Navy from the West. As the enemies closed on each other Nelson met with his captains and officers on the quarterdeck of the Victory, his flagship. At app. 8.30 in the morning he sat down in his cabin and wrote, as the last entry in his diary: “[…] I commit my life to Him who made me, and may his blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

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