Trafalgar 1805: Birth of a Legend (I)


By Nick Hewitt           
National Maritime Museum

One of the many reasons why I was delighted to be invited to speak to you all today on the subject of the Battle of Trafalgar was that, earlier in this bicentennial year, I was presented with a remarkable new interpretation which encouraged me entirely to re-evaluate my understanding of the battle.

At the International Festival of the Sea at Portsmouth in July, I discovered that the Battle of Trafalgar was in fact fought between a ‘Red Fleet’ and a ‘Blue Fleet’. Nobody won and nobody lost and nobody was hurt, in fact it was all rather jolly. At the end of the battle the blue sailors and the red sailors had a big party with some fireworks and they all agreed that it had been such fun, they would do it again in 200 years time. And that concludes my presentation....

Perhaps unfortunately, this was not in fact the case. The Battle of Trafalgar was a defining moment in the history of three nations, in the history of Europe, and, arguably, in the history of the world. It was a brutal encounter involving great loss of life. According to H W Wilson, quoted in J F C Fuller’s “Decisive Battles of the Western World in 1954, “Trafalgar was the really decisive battle of the Napoleonic War”. Whether or not this statement can be justified is one of the issues I hope to have addressed by the end of this presentation.

Although the road to Trafalgar could be said to have begun with the French Revolution in 1789, Britain did not become directly involved in war with France until 1793, following the execution of King Louis XVI of France and the commitment by the revolutionary National Convention to provide aid to ‘all peoples striving for liberty’, which was taken to be a veiled declaration of war against all the monarchies of Europe.

The conflict which was to follow was to last for 22 years, and was of unprecedented complexity, with an endless and bewildering pattern of shifting alliances and campaigns which lie outside the scope of this paper.

The war was interrupted briefly by an uneasy peace following the Treaty of Amiens, which was signed on 27 March 1802. Peace provided the opportunity for Napoleon Bonaparte to have himself declared First Consul for life, making himself the effective dictator of France, and marks the end of the Revolutionary Wars and the start of the Napoleonic period.

The Peace of Amiens – in reality never more than an inadequately observed truce - ended on 17 May 1803, ostensibly due to French failure to guarantee Dutch independence and British failure to evacuate Malta, both of which had been key requirements of the Treaty of Amiens.

However both Britain and France were trading powers. British domination of the oceans and French control of continental Europe made trading opportunities limited for both powers, and consequently made renewed conflict almost inevitable.

Napoleon immediately began to mass an immense army, the ‘Army of England’, around Boulogne, and ordered the construction of invasion craft. The ‘Army of England‘ was eventually to number some 150,000 men and around 2000 vessels. However, any successful invasion was dependent on the creation of a window of opportunity, to be provided by local superiority over the Royal Navy in the English Channel.

Although fear of invasion sparked a massive expansion of militia and other volunteer forces in Britain, and the construction of permanent defences like the famous ‘Martello Towers’, the first line of defence was, as it had always been, the Royal Navy, divided into two powerful fleets in the Channel and the Mediterranean.

Napoleon’s Navy was far smaller and began hostilities widely dispersed and largely blockaded in port by constantly patrolling British warships, the “far distant, storm beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, (but which) stood between it and the dominion of the world” according to the great naval historian and theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Blockade duty was hard on ships and men. In November 1804 Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, soon to be Nelson’s deputy at Trafalgar, was on blockade duty off Rochefort, and described himself in a letter to his father in law as “almost worn out with incessant fatigue and anxiety of mind”. But it gave the Royal Navy priceless experience of sailing and fighting their ships in all weathers, whilst their opponents languished in port. Good commanders, of which there were many, drilled their men incessantly, particularly in gunnery. We shall return to this subject later as it was to prove vital at Trafalgar.

Napoleon relied on construction, alliance and conquest to achieve parity in numbers of the most important naval asset of the day, the line of battle ship, carrying anything from 64 to 130 guns and the yardstick by which the strength of a navy was measured.

The French Navy numbered thirty-five ships of the line. Thanks to his contentious occupation he already controlled the small Dutch Fleet, although much of this was unseaworthy. In January 1805 he concluded a naval treaty with Spain putting a further twenty-five at his disposal.

Against this the Royal Navy could in theory field 111 ships of the line, but Britain had responsibility for the security of a global Empire, and many of her ships were away from home waters. In the key theatres of the Mediterranean and Channel in 1805 only around sixty ships of the line were available.

Both sides were widely dispersed. The French and Spanish ships were bottled up in six principle ports: Toulon, Cartagena, Cadiz, Ferrol, Rochefort and Brest, each of which required an equivalent British blockading squadron. Napoleon’s strategy was simple: he wanted to concentrate his force, a military principle which has been applicable in almost all situations since the beginning of warfare, and at the same time lure a substantial part of the British fleet away from home waters.

Consequently he ordered the French Mediterranean fleet of eleven ships of the line under Vice-Admiral Villeneuve to break out of Toulon and sail for the West Indies, releasing on the way smaller French forces bottled up in Rochefort and Ferrol and the Spanish squadron under Vice-Admiral Don Federico Gravina y Napoli at Cadiz.

In theory the British Mediterranean Fleet under Nelson would follow him across the Atlantic. Villeneuve was then to evade Nelson, return across the Atlantic and join with the French Atlantic Fleet under Vice Admiral Ganteaume at Brest, forming a Combined Fleet of more than forty sail of the line, more than enough to defeat the reduced British Channel Fleet.
On 30 March 1805 Villeneuve escaped Toulon in bad weather and broke out into the Atlantic, followed by Nelson as planned. However, not only did Nelson discover Villeneuve’s intention soon after arriving in the West Indies and warn the Admiralty by sending a fast ship back to Britain ahead of the French, he also followed Villeneuve back across the Atlantic at a quite remarkable pace. Mistakenly believing that Villeneuve was heading back into the Mediterranean Nelson arrived at Gibraltar ahead of Villeneuve.

In the meantime Villeneuve, making for Brest, had fallen in with a British squadron from the Channel Fleet commanded by Sir Robert Calder off Cape Finisterre. Calder fought an inconclusive action in terrible conditions of thick fog and very light winds. Only two enemy ships were taken, and Calder was heavily criticized and later reprimanded by the Admiralty, but the strategic impact of his brief action was almost incalculable. Villeneuve, blocked from the Channel, turned back to the south leaving Napoleon’s plans for invasion in disarray.

A month later, learning that the Austrians had mobilised their army, the ‘Army of England’ left Boulogne and began the long march to the east. This is a vital point: whatever else Trafalgar achieved, it did not save Britain from invasion in 1805. The Austrian army was responsible for this.

Calder has been badly treated by historians, but Nelson understood the implications of his success. He later wrote to his friend Captain Thomas Fremantle, saying:
“It most sincerely grieves me that in any of the papers it should be insinuated that Lord Nelson could have done better. I have fought the enemy; so did my friend Calder; but who can say that he will be more successful than another?”

Villeneuve retired, first to Vigo, then to Corunna and Ferrol and then finally, after a brief abortive sortie back into the Atlantic, slipping into Cadiz on 15 August, to the surprise of the small British blockading force under Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood.

“I must tell you ” (Collingwood wrote to his wife) “what a squeeze we had like to have go yesterday. While we were cruising off the town down came the Combined Fleet of 36 sail of men of war. We were only three poor things with a frigate and a bomb, and drew off towards the Straits.”

Villeneuve was to remain in Cadiz, his ships and men ossifying, for the next two months whilst a steady flow of new arrivals made the force outside stronger. Nelson himself arrived in HMS Victory, with HM ships Thunderer and Ajax in company, on 29 September, and by the eve of battle he had 26 ships of the line assembled outside Cadiz.

Now would seem to be an appropriate time to pause and examine the two fleets which were poised to join battle on 21 October 1805, and the men who commanded them.

Horatio Nelson was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, on 29 September 1758. His uncle was a Captain in the Royal Navy, and when he was given an overseas command in 1770 he took Nelson to sea as one of his midshipmen, at the age of thirteen. In 1777 he was promoted to Lieutenant in HMS Lowestoft, and thenceforth he rose quickly through the ranks.

By the age of twenty-one he was a captain, and at 25 he took command of the frigate HMS Boreas in the West Indies, when he married. The outbreak of the French revolution saw him appointed to command the small 64 gun ship of the line HMS Agamemnon, and he went on to distinguish himself in the Mediterranean. In July 1794 he lost the sight of his right eye at the siege of Calvi, in Corsica, and in 1797 he was knighted and promoted to Rear Admiral for his role at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Later in the same year he lost his right arm after he was wounded in action at Tenerife. In 1798 he commanded the squadron sent to protect Naples from revolution and French invasion, where he famously met Emma Hamilton.

Later in the same year he won an outstanding victory at the Battle of the Nile, and in 1801 he scored another notable success at the Battle of Copenhagen. By the time he was given command of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1803 he was already Vice-Admiral Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe.

Nelson’s true strength as a commander lay in his having the moral courage to match his undoubted physical courage, giving him an unflinching ability to use his initiative and take advantage of the unexpected, something he had already proved at the Nile and Copenhagen. Moreover, he encouraged and even required such behaviour from his subordinates. According to the author Roger Knight:
“Nelson had developed a consensual style of leadership which according to one of his subordinates, Saumarez, ‘had never greater existed in any other squadron’. His control was instinctive, based on informality, frankness and above all, discussion.”

Nelson famously dined with his commanders shortly before the battle, and outlined his proposed strategy in detail. Not always the most modest of individuals, he described the result of this consensual approach to leadership in a letter to Emma Hamilton:
“When I came to explain to them the Nelson Touch’, it was like an electric shock. Some shed tears, all approved – ‘it was new – it was singular – it was simple ’.... ’you are, my Lord, surrounded by friends whom you inspire with confidence”

Nelson’s encouragement of individual initiative, the explanation of course for much of his own success, is also graphically illustrated by his celebrated dictum: ”No captain can do wrong by putting his ship alongside that of an enemy’.

Nelson’s opponent at Trafalgar, Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, could not have been more different. Villeneuve was a former Royalist officer who had managed to survive the turmoil of the Revolution and the years that followed with both career and neck intact.

However, successfully negotiating the minefields of the revolution, the Terror of 1793-1794, the Directory years, and finally the reign of the mercurial Napoleon, had left a legacy of defeatism, insecurity and caution. Fuller describes him bluntly as “unfitted for command”.

Villeneuve had risen to the top almost by default. His most significant claim to fame was extracting his own and one other ship from the Battle of the Nile, hardly the mark of an aggressive commander. This experience also left him, according to Fuller, “haunted by the spectre of Nelson”, possibly an exaggeration but if true hardly ideal under the circumstances.

Villeneuve arguably only achieved senior command because of the unexpected death of the most talented and independent minded officer in the French Navy, Vice-Admiral Latouche-Treville, in August 1804.
Whether nor not he was ‘haunted’ by Nelson, Villeneuve was certainly haunted by his master, Napoleon Bonaparte, and it is certainly no coincidence that the National Maritime Museum chose to title its current exhibition “Nelson and Napoleon”, not “Nelson and Villeneuve”.

Like Adolf Hitler one hundred and fifty years later, Napoleon neither understood the sea nor trusted sailors. The grandiose plan which brought the two fleets together off Cadiz was the seventh such attempt to achieve naval superiority in the Channel which he had dreamed up since hostilities had resumed.

Each involved complex movements of multiple groups of ships in an age when communications were slow and poor. Napoleon believed that the movements of fleets were as flexible and could be changed as quickly as those of an army. Obsessed with maintaining close central control over his forces, he frequently countermanded his own orders, sending out despatch vessels like riders on land, oblivious to the chaotic effects of their being lost or delayed. Each scheme was unrealistically dependent on good weather, favourable tides and a complete absence of interference from the British. Each failed, increasing Napoleon’s mistrust of his admirals, and particularly Villeneuve, who he felt had failed him at every turn.

It is hard to avoid sympathy for Villeneuve. Incapable of making Napoleon’s impossible ventures succeed, he essentially put to sea on 20 October because he had heard that his relief, Vice-Admiral Rosily, had been despatched from Paris. Villeneuve had been fired, and only at sea, beyond the reach of Napoleon, did he stand any chance of redeeming himself.


To be followed