Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizzen
Looking towards where the Battle of Trafalgar would have taken place, about 20 miles further out to sea.
Gibraltar Napoleonic Defences
One of the Napoleonic era cannon pointing from the tunnels towards the Spanish border.
Gibraltar Napoleonic Defences
One of the many miles of tunnels in the Rock of Gibraltar, dating from pre-Napoleonic times to modern day
Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar
Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar
Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar
Battle of Trafalgar
The build up to the Battle of Trafalgar began more than two years previously.
On 16 May 1803 the experimental peace of the Treaty of Amiens failed, and England again declared war on France.
He called the English Channel - "the ditch which will be crossed when anyone has the audacity to attempt it."
During 1803 and 1804 both sides jockeyed for position.
The strategy of the British was to blockade the French fleet - principally in the ports of Brest and Toulon and in the Texel and Rochefort.
Nelson's crushing defeat of the French and Spanish Navies,
Date: 21st October 1805
Place: At Cape Trafalgar off the South Western coast of Spain, south of Cadiz.
Combatants: The British Royal Navy against the Fleets of France and Spain.
Admirals: Admiral Viscount Lord Nelson and Vice Admiral Collingwood against Admiral Villeneuve of France and Admirals d’Aliva and Cisternas of Spain.
Size of the fleet: 32 British (25 ships of the line, 4 Frigates and smaller craft), 23 French and 15 Spanish (33 ships of the line, 7 Frigates and smaller craft). 4,000 troops including riflemen from the Tyrol were posted in small detachments through the French and Spanish Fleets.
Winner: Memorably, the Royal Navy.
British Ships: Nelson's Division: HMS Victory (Flagship), Temeraire, Neptune, Conqueror, Leviathan, Ajax, Orion, Agamemnon, Minotaur, Spartiate, Euryalus, Britannia, Africa, Naiad, Phoebe, Entreprenante, Sirius and Pickle.
French Ships: Bucentaure (Flagship), Formidable (Flagship), Scipion, Intrepide, Cornelie, Duguay Truin, Mont Blanc, Heros, Furet, Hortense, Neptune, Redoubtable, Indomitable, Fougueux, Pluton, Aigle, Swiftsure, Argonaute, Berwick, Hermione, Themis, Achille and Argus.
Spanish Ships: Santa Anna (Flagship), Santissima Trinidad (Flagship), Neptuno, Rayo, Santo Augustino, S. Francisco d’Assisi, S. Leandro, S. Juste, Monarca, Algeciras, Bahama, Montanes, S. Juan Nepomucano, Argonauta and Prince de Asturias.
Ships and Armaments:
The size of gun on the line of battle ships was up to 24 pounder, firing heavy iron balls or chain and link shot designed to wreck rigging. Trafalgar was a close fleet action. Ships manoeuvred up to the enemy and delivered broadsides at a range of a few yards. To take full advantage of the close range guns were “double shotted” with grape shot on top of ball. It is said that the crews in some French ships were unable to face this appalling ordeal, closing their gun ports and attempting to escape the fire.
Ships manoeuvred to deliver broadsides in the most destructive manner, the greatest effect being achieved by firing into an enemy’s stern, so that the shot travelled the length of the ship wreaking havoc and destruction. The first broadside, loaded before action began, was always the most effective.
Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign fired its first broadside at Trafalgar into the rear of the Spanish ship Santa Anna causing massive damage.
Ships carried a variety of smaller weapons on the top deck and in the rigging, from swivel guns firing grape shot or canister (bags of musket balls) to hand held muskets and pistols. With these weapons each crew sought to annihilate the enemy officers and sailors on deck.
Wounds in Eighteenth Century naval fighting were often terrible. Cannon balls ripped off limbs or, striking wooden decks and bulwarks, drove splinter fragments across the ship causing great injury. Falling masts and rigging inflicted crush injuries. Sailors stationed aloft fell into the sea from collapsing masts and rigging and were drowned. Heavy losses were caused when a ship finally succumbed and sank or blew up.
The discharge of guns at close range easily set fire to an opposing vessel. Fires were difficult to control in battle and several ships were destroyed in this way, notably the French ship Achille.
The ultimate aim in battle was to lock ships together and capture the enemy by boarding. Savage hand to hand fighting took place at Trafalgar on several ships. The crew of the French Redoubtable, living up to the name of their ship, boarded Victory but were annihilated in the brutal struggle on Victory’s top deck.
Ships’ crews of all nations were a tough bunch. The British with continual blockade service against the French and Spanish were particularly well drilled. British gun crews could fire three broadsides or more to every two fired by the French and Spanish. The British officers were hard bitten and experienced.
A young officer joining the Royal Navy in 1789, when the French Wars began, would have served for 16 years of warfare by the time of Trafalgar.
British captains were responsible for recruiting their ship’s crew. Men were taken wherever they could be found, largely by means of the press gang. All nationalities served on British ships including French and Spanish. Loyalty for a crew lay primarily with their ship. Once the heat of battle subsided there was little animosity against the enemy. Great efforts were made by British crews to rescue the sailors of foundering French and Spanish ships at the end of the battle.
Life on a warship, particularly the large ships of the line, was crowded and hard. Discipline was enforced with extreme violence, small infractions punished with public lashings. The food, far from good, deteriorated as ships spent time at sea. Drinking water was in constant short supply and usually brackish. Shortage of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables meant that scurvy easily and quickly set in. The great weight of guns and equipment and the necessity to climb rigging in adverse weather conditions frequently caused serious injury.
Above all a life primarily carrying out blockade duty was monotonous in the extreme. The prospect of a decisive battle against the French and Spanish put the British Fleet in a state of high excitement.
The First Sea Lord appointed Admiral Lord Nelson Commander in Chief of the British Fleet assembling to attack the French and Spanish ships. Nelson selected His Majesty’s Ship Victory as his flagship and sailed south towards Gibraltar. As the British ships intended for the Fleet were made ready they sailed south to join Nelson.
In October 1805 Villeneuve was still in harbour in Cadiz. He received a stinging rebuke from Napoleon accusing him of cowardice and Villeneuve steeled himself to leave harbour and make for the Channel. He was encouraged in his resolve by the belief that there was no strong British Fleet nearby and that Nelson was still in England. Other than picket frigates watching the harbour Nelson kept his main fleet well out to sea.
On 19th October 1805 at 9am HMS Mars relayed the signal received from the frigates that the Franco-Spanish Fleet was leaving Cadiz in line of battle.
At dawn on 21st October 1805, with a light wind from the West, Nelson signalled his fleet to begin the attack. The British captains understood fully what was required of them. Nelson had explained his tactics over the previous weeks until every ship knew her role.
At 6.40am the British Fleet beat to quarters and the ships cleared for action: cooking fires thrown overboard, the movable bulkwarks removed, the decks sanded and ammunition carried to each gun. The gun crews took their positions.
The French and Spanish Fleets were sailing in line ahead in an arc like formation. The British Fleet attacked in two squadrons in line ahead; the Windward Squadron led by Nelson and the Leeward (southern or right squadron) headed by Collingwood in Royal Sovereign; the ships of the Fleet divided between the two squadrons.
Nelson aimed to cut the Franco-Spanish Fleet at a point one third along the line with Collingwood attacking the rear section. In the light wind the van of the Franco-Spanish Fleet would be unable to turn back and take part in the battle until too late to help their comrades.
Nelson seems to have been entirely confident of success. He told his Flag Captain, Hardy, he expected to take 20 of the enemy’s ships. He was also convinced of his impending death in the battle. Nelson told his friend Blackwood, the captain of the Euryalus, who came on board Victory, “God bless you, Blackwood. I shall never see you again.” He wore dress uniform with his decorations, a conspicuous figure on the deck of the Victory.
In his long and eventful naval career Nelson had lost an arm and an eye. Perhaps, like Wolfe at Quebec, he preferred to die at the moment of supreme victory rather than live on in a disabled state.
The two British squadrons, led by the Flagships, sailed towards the Franco-Spanish line, Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign significantly ahead of Victory. Anxious that the admiral should not be excessively exposed to enemy fire, the captain of Temeraire attempted to overtake Victory, but was ordered back into line by Nelson.
The first broadside was fired by the French ship Fougueux into Royal Sovereign as Collingwood burst through the Franco-Spanish line. Royal Sovereign held her fire until she sailed past the stern of the Spanish Flagship, Santa Anna. Royal Sovereign raked Santa Anna with double shotted fire, a broadside that is said to have disabled 400 of her crew and 14 guns.
Royal Sovereign swung round onto Santa Anna’s beam and the two ships exchanged broadsides. The ships following in the Franco-Spanish line joined in attacking Collingwood: Fougueux, San Leandro, San Justo and Indomptable, until driven off by the rest of the Leeward Squadron as they came up. Royal Sovereign forced Santa Anna to surrender when both ships were little more than wrecks.
Victory led the Windward Squadron towards a point in the line between Redoubtable and Bucentaure. The Franco-Spanish Fleet at this point was too crowded for there to be a way through and the Victory simply rammed the Redoubtable, firing one broadside into her and others into the French Flagship Bucentaure and the Spanish Flagship Santissima Trinidad. The British ship Temeraire flanked Redoubtable on the far side and a further French ship linked to Temeraire, all firing broadsides at point blank range.
The following ships of Nelson’s squadron, as they came up, engaged the other ships in the centre of the line. The leading Franco-Spanish squadron continued on its course away from the battle until peremptorily ordered to return by Villeneuve.
During the fight with Redoubtable the soldiers and sailors in the French rigging fired at men exposed on the Victory’s decks. A musket shot hit Nelson, knocking him to the deck and breaking his back. The admiral was carried below to the midshipmen’s berth, where he constantly asked after the progress of the battle. Eventually Hardy was able to tell him before he died that the Fleet had taken 15 of the enemy’s ships. Nelson knew he had won.
The battle reached its climax in the hour after Nelson’s injury. Neptune, Leviathan and Conqueror, as they came up, battered Villeneuve’s Flagship Bucentaure into submission and took the surrender of the French admiral. Temeraire while fighting the Redoubtable fired a crippling broadside into the Fougueux. Leviathan engaged the San Augustino bringing down her masts and boarding her.
In the Leeward Squadron Belleisle was stricken into a wreck by Achille and the French Neptune until relieved by the British Swiftsure. Achille was then battered by broadsides until fires reached her magazine and she blew up.
All the French and Spanish ships of that part of the line were destroyed, captured or fled: of the 19 ships, 11 were captured or burnt while 8 fled to leeward. Many of these ships fought hard. Argonauta and Bahama lost 400 of their crews each. San Juan Nepomuceno lost 350. When she blew up Achille had lost all of her officers other than a single midshipman. The resistance of the French ship Redoutable was was quite in keeping with her name.
The Franco-Spanish van commanded by Admiral Dumanoir passed the battle, firing broadsides indiscriminately into comrade and enemy, and returned to Cadiz.
Casualties: British casualties were 1,587. The French and Spanish casualties were never revealed but are thought to have been around 16,000.
Follow-up: Following the battle a storm blew up wrecking many of the ships damaged in the action. Of those captured only 4 survived to be brought into Gibraltar.
The consequences of the battle were far reaching. Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain was thwarted. He broke up the camp at Boulogne and marched to Austria where he won the great victory of Austerlitz against the Austrians and Russians.
Trafalgar ensured that Britain’s dominance at sea remained unchallenged for the rest of the 10 years of war against France and continued worldwide for a further 120 years.
Admiral Villeneuve was taken a prisoner to England. On his release he travelled back to France but died violently on the journey to Paris.
Lord Nelson’s body was brought to England and the admiral given a state funeral. His body is entombed in St Paul’s cathedral in London.
Anecdotes and traditions:
With her rigging wreathed in clouds of smoke and her vast hull reverberating with the thunder of gunfire, HMS Victory seemed doomed.
A sharp-shooter’s bullet had left Admiral Lord Nelson dying on her lower decks and now his beloved flagship was about to be seized by the Redoutable, the French man o’ war from which the fatal shot had been fired.
All that remained was for Capitaine Jean-Jacques Lucas’s crew to throw a bridge across to the Victory and assault her with muskets, axes, boarding-pikes and bayonets.
Death of a hero: The Daniel Maclise's painting of the fall of Lord Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar
But, seconds away from their onslaught, the British warship HMS Temeraire sailed across the Redoutable’s stern and delivered a broadside which ripped the heart out of the best-trained ship in the French navy.
It is hard to imagine the carnage caused by that fusillade, perhaps the most destructive in naval history. Close to one-third of the Redoutable’s crew were slaughtered by the cannonballs and 68-pounder carronades which, like giant shotguns, ripped into the men crowded on her upper deck. By the time Lucas surrendered his ship, perhaps an hour later, only 156 of her crew of 643 men were left alive.
The Temeraire lost only 47 dead out of 755 men, a measure of British naval superiority at Trafalgar.
For the past two centuries our view of this celebrated victory has been shaped by the memoirs of officers who were present. But this month — as Trafalgar Day was celebrated — a refreshing new account emerged in the form of a letter acquired by the National Maritime Museum.
Portrait: Lord Horatio Nelson in his pomp
It was donated by the descendants of Robert Hope, a 28-year-old sail-maker from Kent who was aboard the Temeraire that memorable day. Writing to his brother John on November 4, 1805, two weeks after the battle, he is clearly immensely proud of the Royal Navy’s success.
‘What do you think of us Lads of the Sea now?’ he asks, before dismissing the enemy. ‘I think they won’t send their fleets out again in a hurry.’
Such first-hand accounts by rank-and-file sailors are extremely rare, as I found out ten years ago while researching my novel Sharpe’s Trafalgar, and this letter makes particularly fascinating reading.
Other testimonies make much of Lord Nelson’s death, and rightly so, for this brilliant and much-loved leader was the greatest Admiral who ever lived. But his demise is not referred to at all in Hope’s letter.
This is not surprising. For sailors like Hope, their own ship and the comrades immediately around them were their whole world, and a dangerous world it was, even when they were not engaged in battle.
Only about 10 per cent of injuries and deaths aboard British warships during this period could be blamed on enemy action. Most were down to sickness and accident, and there was considerable scope for both aboard a warship.
While the Temeraire’s senior officers had spacious and luxurious quarters, resplendent with expensive furniture, most of the crew were crammed into the dark and permanently damp decks below. They included the midshipmen, the lowest rank of officer, whose cabins were barely bigger than dog kennels. But even these were spacious compared with the accommodation afforded the lower ranks.
They worked watches of four hours on and four hours off, snatching sleep in hammocks only 18 inches wide. Although uncomfortable, this was at least relatively safe, unlike the conditions up on deck.
The risks were particularly high for the topmen who climbed the rigging with gale-force winds shrieking in their ears. Many were blown to their deaths. But the worst duty was on the bowsprit, a long spar projecting from the front of the ship and known as the ‘widow-maker’, because any man who fell from it would be sucked under the hull and drowned.
Victorious: HMS Victory displaying Lord Nelson's 'England expects..' signal to the English fleet at Trafalgar
Nowadays, of course, the little Hitlers of the Health and Safety industry would forbid such work, and we would all be speaking French instead of English.
Those who survived such hazardous work faced other dangers, including poor diet. Every week, alongside 2lb of peas, each man was allowed 4lb of beef and 2lb of pork, but this was heavily salted and reportedly tasted as tough and stringy as leather.
Their weekly 12oz ration of cheese was often infested with red worms and even their ‘hard tacks’, as biscuits were known, were not safe. In a letter home, one midshipman described biting into a weevil — it tasted, he said, like blancmange.
Each day the men looked forward to their allocated half a pint of rum, diluted with three parts of water to make grog. If spirits weren’t available, they had to make do with a pint of beer instead.
By the time Robert Hope joined the crew of the Temeraire, this was supplemented by lemon juice to provide the vitamin C newly proven to prevent scurvy. But other diseases, such as dysentery, still flourished as huge crews were crammed into wooden ships stinking of unwashed bodies, tobacco, tar, sewage and rot.
Nobody would have been more aware of the high mortality rates than sail-makers such as Robert Hope, whose job included helping to dispose of the dead.
Nelson was the most predatory Commander since Francis Drake. He had long dreamed of annihilating Britain's enemies at sea
Each officer slept in a wooden cot which became a coffin in the event of his death, a piece of sail-cloth placed over the top as an impromptu lid. The bodies of ordinary sailors were simply sewn into their hammocks.
And, as a final check for all ranks, the sail-maker placed the shroud’s last stitch through the corpse’s nose. If there was no reaction, as was invariably the case, he was buried at sea.
In the run-up to the Battle of Trafalgar, life was all the harder for Nelson’s men. Amid fears that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte planned an invasion of England with the help of his Spanish allies, the British mounted blockades on the major French ports.
As planned, this prevented the French fleet, under the command of Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, from heading for the English Channel. But it meant that the average Jack Tar spent many months out at sea, with only the prostitutes often smuggled on board for light relief.
This did, however, give the British a great advantage. While it was impossible for the French to train their gunners in port, for fear of firing on their own ships, Nelson’s men spent many hours practising their drills on the open seas.
Consequently, they could discharge and reload their guns at a rate of one round every two minutes, twice or even three times as fast as their swiftest French counterparts. They were also the only navy equipped with deadly carronades, lightweight guns nicknamed ‘smashers’ because of the destruction they caused at close range.
Under fire: 'The Battle of Trafalgar' -painting by Clarkson Stanfield
Nelson was the most predatory Navy commander since Francis Drake. He had long dreamed of annihilating Britain’s enemies at sea and his chance came closer in March 1805 when the French took advantage of bad weather conditions to escape their captors and rendezvous with their Spanish allies. It was not a good idea.
After a long chase, lasting several months, the opposing sides finally faced each other off Cape Trafalgar in Southern Spain, and preparations for battle began. These would have been much the same on Nelson’s 27 ships and Villeneuve’s 33, with the surgeons setting up their temporary operating theatres on the orlop decks below the waterline. Here, in theory at least, they were safe from enemy fire.
Ropes were coiled on the floor to serve as makeshift mattresses for those waiting their turn on the operating table, and it was said that on some ships the orlop walls were painted red so that the blood spattered over them did not show.
There would certainly have been plenty of gore to hide, good doctors priding themselves on removing a man’s leg in under a minute, an unbearably painful process for patients whose only anaesthetic was a swig of rum.
Nelson did not want to defeat the enemy, he wanted to obliterate them. His plan was to carve through the Franco-Spanish fleet like a spear
Sand was scattered on the gun decks just above the orlop, to give the gunners’ bare feet a better grip, but also to absorb the blood which would inevitably flow once the fighting began. And with all that done, it was time for the men to write their wills and goodbye letters to their loved ones.
Those who could not read or write relied on comrades like Robert Hope to undertake these final tasks for them before they took their places at their guns.
Stripped to the waist in the infernal heat below decks, their backs sometimes bearing the scars of floggings for previous misdemeanours, the men wrapped scarves around their heads to protect their ears from the pounding of the cannons. Not surprisingly, most went prematurely deaf.
Tradition dictated that ships should fight each other side-on, broadside to broadside, but Nelson did not want to defeat the enemy, he wanted to obliterate them. His plan was to carve through the Franco-Spanish fleet like a spear slashing through a shield wall. Only then, by firing his ships’ massive broadsides lengthwise down the enemy vessels, could he inflict the maximum damage.
Since their guns were ranged along their sides, this meant that Nelson’s ships would be unable to return fire until they had breached the enemy line — but he had supreme faith in his men’s fighting abilities.
To cause maximum confusion he had divided the British fleet into two columns; one squadron of 15 ships led by Admiral Charles Collingwood attacked the rear of the enemy line, while the remaining 12, headed by Nelson on HMS Victory, made for the front.
Cannon fodder: Cannon balls from the French ships made a holey mess of Lord Nelson's flagship HMS Victory
The day of the battle, October 21, was one of little wind and low swell, and the two British columns sailed with agonising slowness towards the enemy, who opened fire at least 20 minutes before the British were able to return the compliment.
On the Victory, leading the northerly British column, the men were ordered to lie down to limit casualties. Bands played on foredecks as the enemy shots screamed and slapped and shattered and splashed.
And the closer the British ships drew to the enemy, the more intense the fire. Men were dying, and still the Royal Navy could not retaliate.
Shortly after 1pm, Victory finally pierced the enemy line. Her first victim was the French flagship, the Bucentaure, which lost close to a quarter of her crew under the impact of the Victory’s opening broadside.
It was an impressive start, but then Capitaine Lucas, who had drilled his men in close-quarter fighting and whose dream was to board and capture Nelson’s flagship, saw his chance and laid the Redoutable alongside the Victory.
It was more than possible that his ferociously well-trained crew could have captured her, but Lucas never saw the Temeraire approach. Her broadside turned his hopes to blood, splintered bones and screams.
Laying herself alongside Lucas’s shattered ship, the Temeraire was assailed by a second French vessel, the Fougeux.
There were now four ships lashed together, firing into each other — the Victory, Redoutable, Temeraire and Fougeux.
Renovation: Restoration work goes on HMS Victory at the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth
They kept a very hot fire for some time,’ Robert Hope wrote to his brother, ‘but we soon cooled them in the height of the smoke. Our men from the upper decks boarded them both at the same time and soon carried the day.’
The Redoutable and the Fougeux both surrendered to the Temeraire and, by nightfall, 17 of the enemy ships had struck their colours, while one other had been destroyed by fire. Nelson had secured British maritime dominance for the next century, though for men like Robert Hope all that mattered was the miracle of coming through unscathed.
‘This is with my love to you,’ he wrote to his brother. ‘Hoping it will find you in good health as I bless God I am at present.’
So far, we know little else about Hope, whether he was married, or whether he lived to see J. M. W. Turner’s famous work The Fighting Temeraire, completed in 1839 and still regularly voted one of the nation’s favourite artworks.
As anyone who has seen that picture will know, it depicts the ship as an ethereal, ghostlike beauty being towed by a squat, dark smoky steam-tug on her final voyage to the breaker’s yard.
Now, as politicians destroy the Royal Navy with economic cuts, it is good to rediscover Robert Hope’s letter, a reminder of the Temeraire’s glory days — and a time when Whitehall understood that Britain is an island, and an island needs a navy.