1805. Napoleon plans to invade England, which, for twelve years, has stood in the path of the Grand Armée’s complete domination of Europe.

A combined French and Spanish fleet of 2,000 ships and 90,000 men has assembled along the coast of France, but the British blockade of French and Spanish harbors has virtually immobilized this massive force. In desperation, Napoleon orders his main battle fleet at Cadiz to set sail and meet the enemy that awaits them near Cape Trafalgar.

The British fleet takes on provisions before battle.

On October 19, a Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 line-of-battle ships, with 2,568 guns and 30,000 men, set out to engage the 27 English line-of-battle ships with 2,148 guns and 17,000 men.

Unfortunately, the captains of the French and Spanish fleets were burdened with a sense of impending doom before they even encountered the enemy. Demoralized by prolonged inactivity, and with 1,700 sick men aboard their vessels, the French ships sailed out of Cadiz hoping for a miracle.

The Spanish vessels were manned mostly by soldiers or by beggars press-ganged from the slums of Cadiz; many of their gunners had never fired a gun from a rolling ship. Their Spanish captains resented being placed under the French command of Admiral Villeneuve.

Most unnerving of all for the captains of the fleet was the knowledge that they were about to pit themselves against the most skillful sea warrior of all time: Horatio Viscount Nelson.

On the 20th of October, the Franco-Spanish fleet was sighted in a loose formation nine miles long. The waiting British ships sprouted patches of gaudy bunting as each in turn broke out strings of flags passing on the message: “The French and Spanish are out at last, they outnumber us in ships and guns and men: we are on the eve of the greatest sea fight in history.”

On board the flagship, HMS Victory, Lord Nelson received the news with the utmost calm. His battle plans had been laid and communicated to all his captains. Those plans, he was convinced, would bring them victory.

Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, leads the British fleet.

Until the Battle of Trafalgar, it had been the custom for fleets to do battle by sailing past or alongside each other in two parallel lines. Each ship took on a single opponent, firing its guns broadside as they passed. Inevitably, the enemy would change direction, and the battle would thus be vastly prolonged, with the ships either continually charging at or running parallel with each other, until one of the fleets finally retired.

Nelson decided to completely break with this tradition. His plan was to divide his fleet into two groups that would attack the enemy at right angles, breaking through the French and Spanish lines and cutting off their retreat. This aggressive strategy, dubbed “The Nelson Touch” by Nelson himself, would forever change the course of naval warfare.

The battle didn't commence until the next day, by which time the Franco-Spanish fleet was off Cape Trafalgar. Nelson appeared on deck in a freshly laundered uniform, sporting new ribbons on all his medals. He ordered the signal officer to hoist his renowned message: “ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY.”

The English fleet sailed toward the enemy, who fired the first shot at the Royal Sovereign at noon. Because the ships were perpendicular to each other, rather than side-by-side, the English guns could not be brought to bear on the very ships they were sailing toward. For the twenty agonizing minutes it took to reach the enemy lines, the lead ships of the two British attack groups were forced to endure continuous fire in silence. At last, the Royal Sovereign drew astern of the Spanish three-decker Santa Anna, raking her decks with a murderous double-shot volley that killed and wounded 400.

While the Royal Sovereign engaged the enemy, the Victory sailed on, silent and intent despite the unrelenting rain of cannon shot, searching for the French admiral’s ship. Suddenly, right in front of her loomed the huge Spanish four-decker Santissima Trinidad. Correctly surmising that the French admiral’s ship must be nearby, Nelson bore down on the four-decker. As he did, the Bucentaure, Villeneuve´s flagship, and seven or eight other enemy line-of-battle ships, appeared and fired on the Victory. Still she advanced. By the time she had come close enough to rake the Santissima Trinidad with her larboard guns, 50 of the Victory’s men were dead and 30 wounded.

“Victory Breaks the Enemy Line” by Geoff Hunt RSMA, is available as a print.

At that point, the bloodied but unbowed Victory collided with the French Redoubtable. Locked together, wrapped in sheets of flame, the two ships drifted slowly through the battle. Gradually, although the fighting continued unabated, the smoke thinned on the decks of the Victory, enough for French marksmen to see the English officers’ epaulets. A sniper kneeling in the mizzen-top of the Redoubtable aimed his musket at Nelson.

On the Victory’s quarterdeck, Captain Hardy had just turned away from Nelson to give an order when Nelson fell, mortally wounded. Hardy, along with a sergeant of the Marines and two privates, rushed forward to help. They sent for the surgeon and carried Nelson down to the orlop deck.

In the meantime, the Redoubtable’s top marksmen had shot down 40 British officers and men. Seeing the upper deck populated only by the dead and wounded, the French tried to board the Victory--an enterprise that would cost them dearly. Victory’s botswain’s whistle piped the tune signifying “boarders; repel boarders,” and the order immediately summoned swarms of smoke-begrimed blue-jackets to the deck, where they killed every man who had managed to board.

Below decks, Nelson´s life was ebbing away fast. But he lived to see Captain Hardy return from the fighting above to hear the news that fourteen enemy vessels had given in. “That’s well,” Nelson said, “but I had bargained for twenty.”

In the last stage of the battle, the French and English ships had engaged in a general melée, resulting in 25 French vessels out of action or trying to retreat to Cadiz. Nelson’s fleet found itself in two groups, surrounded by shattered hulks of enemy ships. The British losses were heavy: 449 killed and 1,241 wounded. But of the British fleet’s 27 ships, not one was sunk or captured, in stark contrast to the opposing fleet’s fate.

Trafalgar was the decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Command of the seas had always been essential to Napoleon’s master plan for world conquest. With his Allied fleet shattered, that dream was destroyed forever.

This starboard view of H.M.S. VICTORY shows off her massive anchor.

The destruction of the Franco-Spanish fleet gave England uncontested dominion over the world’s oceans for more than 100 years. Because the British won the Battle of Trafalgar, they-- not the French--would eventually rule an empire that included India, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and preside over a world economy in which London was the financial heart of Europe.

A detailed description of the Battle of Trafalgar, including maps, can be found online at

A way-cool animation of the Battle of Trafalgar.





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