Trafalgar 1805: Birth of a Legend (II)


Although the Combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar enjoyed a numerical superiority of 33 ships of the line to the British 26, the Royal Navy enjoyed an overwhelming qualitative superiority in manpower. About the ships I intend to say little here today. Having been brought up on the novels of Alexander Kent, featuring the intrepid Richard Bolitho, I am more than familiar with the almost mystical superiority credited to French warships, and can well remember Bolitho and his brothers in arms almost salivating at the prospect of being given command of a French prize.

This has certainly been greatly exaggerated, and according to N A M Rodger in “The Command of the Ocean” owes its origins to a class-based belief in the superiority of ‘educated’ French scientists and mathematicians over English craftsmen. Reality, according to Rodger, was as follows:
“French ships of all classes were lightly built of inferior timber ... their long hulls were highly stressed in a seaway ... French ships had high building costs, high maintenance costs and short working lives. In close action French ships were a death trap”

British ships, in contrast, “performed best in heavy weather. They were built to stand the strain of prolonged seatime in all season, they were stored for long cruises, and were built to fight. They were also built to last (and) their rig, masts, sails, cordage, blocks, pumps, cables, steering gear and fittings of every kind were greatly superior in design and quality.”

As a footnote, if anything Spanish ships, according to Rodger, made by far the better acquisitions, “big, handsome, very well built and long lasting.” Richard Bolitho would be spinning in his grave.


Much has been written, in both fact and fiction, about the hardships of life at sea, particularly in the Royal Navy, during this period, and a popular image sometimes exists of half-starved, beaten press-ganged sailors commanded by tyrannical aristocratic officers. This is some way from the truth.

Although the Royal Navy had its share of social problems, as exemplified by the Great Mutinies at The Nore and Spithead in 1797 (which were mainly over pay), it is dangerous to fall into the trap of comparing life afloat with our own lives today. Although hard, it was by no means the semi-slavery that Hollywood would sometimes have us believe, and often compares favourably with contemporary life on land. There is no time here to analyse all of the myths but let us at least examine a few.

Firstly, the infamous Press Gang, roaming the streets of British towns to snatch unwary farmboys from the loving arms of their families and sweethearts. Recent analysis of muster roles has shown that only one tenth of the men who served at Trafalgar were recorded as ‘pressed’, or forced into the service. Most were volunteers, although we should remember that pressed men had the opportunity to ‘volunteer’ afterwards for better pay. In addition, the press in the main pursued trained seamen, not unwary landsmen, for the simple reason that they were a better asset for the Royal Navy. Trained seamen of course could include fishermen, merchant sailors and other seafarers, but farm labourers and the like were no great catch.

Secondly, poor food, as exemplified by the ship’s biscuit. (I am indebted to the National Maritime Museum web site for this wonderful example, apparently presented to Midshipman Blackett at Berwick on Tuesday 13 April 1784!) Obviously the problems of keeping food fresh during long periods at sea cannot be underplayed. However, good commanders, of which Nelson was a shining example, went to great lengths to ensure that their ships were adequately supplied. In 1798 he wrote: “As no fleet has more fag (drudgery) than this, nothing but the best food and greatest attention can keep them healthy. At this moment we have not one sick man in the fleet”

Even at the time of Trafalgar, after much of the fleet had made a 6,000 mile pursuit of Villeneuve across the Atlantic and back, only 186 men were listed as sick out of more than 20,000 men present.

Thirdly, corporal punishment – flogging – was still used, although not consistently. Some officers, including Collingwood, prided themselves in never sanctioning it at all. And it should always be remembered that life on shore was also subject to harsh and often violent discipline. This was, as Roy Adkins reminds us in Trafalgar: Biography of a Battle, an age when hanging was the punishment for over two hundred offences.

Life for French and Spanish sailors was very similar, although punishment could at times be even more severe. For example, the practice of keelhauling was still sometimes used in the French Navy.

Sailors enjoyed job security, full board and lodging, and almost unlimited supplies of alcohol and tobacco, all of which were never a certainty on land. They also had the possibility of prize money, which even allowing for the inequities of distribution between officers and men, could still make a working man in 1805 rich beyond his wildest dreams. In 1799 four British frigates seized two Spanish bullion ships, resulting in every seaman receiving £ 182 4s 9 3/4 d – more than ten years pay. So, successful captains tended to be popular captains.

By the time of Trafalgar most British crews had been at sea almost constantly since war began, and most had served in the same ships for at least two years. Long periods of seatime had brought about well-drilled teams of experienced practical seamen. Above all, the British were equipped with better guns, manned by excellent well-trained crews.

British gunnery tactics, too, were more decisive, emphasising the targeting of the hulls of enemy ships to kill men and destroy guns. French and Spanish doctrine, in contrast, emphasised the targeting of rigging and sails, to dismast the enemy and obtain prizes. The relative effects of these tactics will be clearly illustrated later when we look at the casualties at Trafalgar.

Although social standing was starting to become more important as a qualification for officers, the Royal Navy at this time was still a meritocracy to an extent which is often under appreciated by some commentators. Captain Henry Digby of HMS Africa was the son of a Dorset vicar who had first gone to sea as captain’s servant at the age of 13. Rodger reminds us that on Victory’s quarterdeck at Trafalgar “John Quilliam the first lieutenant had been pressed, and John Pascoe the signal lieutenant was the son of a Plymouth dockyard caulker”.

Much has been made of the relationship between Nelson and his Captains, his ‘Band of Brothers’, and most has been exaggerated. Only five of his ships had been under his command in the Mediterranean, and only eight of his captains had ever served with him before. The truth was perhaps more remarkable. The exceptional ability, fighting spirit and sense of tradition which infused the Royal Navy at this time meant that personal familiarity simply did not matter.

Nelson himself confirmed this; when the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, offered him the chance to select his officers before his last campaign, Nelson replied: “Choose yourself my Lord, the same spirit actuates the whole profession, you cannot chose wrong.”

France and Spain both relied on conscription, and were not always too choosy about who they took. The French Revolution had decimated both the officer corps and the specialists like Gunners, and French ships spent most of their time in port, leaving many French crews badly led, badly trained, and inexperienced. Discipline was poor and morale was low.

Spanish officers were sometimes experienced professionals but often owed their positions to their social standing rather than their abilities, which could again lead to poor training and inexperience. Lack of sea time due to the British blockade and shortage of funds had hurt the Spanish Navy as much as the French.

Nelson’s battle plan for Trafalgar was a calculated risk. Conventional tactics of the day encouraged commanders to form a line of battle, parallel to the enemy line, and engage in a drawn out long range gunnery duel. As Fuller points out, “these were generally indecisive because they were slow and prohibited the concentration of strength against weakness”.

Instead of forming a line of battle Nelson’s intention was to attack in two (originally three) columns, sailing directly at the enemy with the intention of breaking their line and raking the French and Spanish ships from stem to stern, before isolating and annihilating the enemy rear. His intention was to “bring forward a pell-mell battle, and that is what I want, as he had explained to Admiral Keats before sailing, “I think it will surprise and confound the enemy. They won’t know what I am about”.

Interestingly, this was not entirely true: Villeneuve had all but anticipated his opponent’s plan but was unable to effectively counter it. In his final instructions to his captains he wrote: “The enemy will not content themselves in forming a line of battle parallel to ours ... they will seek to surround our rearguard... and crush them.”
This was because Nelson’s tactic was not as original as legend would have us believe, he was in fact drawing on years of tactical experiment and there is some evidence that he was originally intending to execute a manoeuvre first used by Lord Howe at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, in 1794 What was new was his ability to consult and share his ideas with his subordinates. THIS was the real ‘Nelson Touch’.

On the morning of 19 October Villeneuve learned that Napoleon’s patience had finally run out, and his successor had been dispatched. With nothing to lose, he sailed, and by the afternoon of the 20th the entire Combined Fleet was at sea, heading for Gibraltar. During the night Villeneuve attempted to form a line of battle, with the Spanish Vice-Admiral Gravina commanding a detached squadron ahead and to windward, ready to engage wherever it might be useful.

On siting the enemy Nelson signaled his fleet to attack as described, which exposed his ships to the full weight of the Combined Fleet’s broadside but promised to bring on the ‘pell mell battle’ which he was convinced he could win. Typically, Nelson in his flagship Victory and Collingwood in Royal Sovereign were at the head of their respective columns, not in the centre as contemporary doctrine demanded.

To close with the enemy as quickly as possible the British went into action under full sail, instead of the more conventional reduced sail, which required less men and exposed less canvas to enemy fire. Nevertheless the wind was light and progress was slow – ultimately it was more than five and a half hours between first sighting and first shot.

On sighting Nelson bearing down on his rear, Villeneuve reversed the course of the entire Combined Fleet and turned back for Cadiz, a catastrophic decision which finally destroyed the already shaky cohesion of his 33 ships of the line. Gravina also took this opportunity to close with the rear of the line, possibly against orders. The Combined Fleet thus took the form of an irregular three mile long crescent, some ships closed up tight, others widely spaced, with a number of large gaps in the line.

As the two British columns closed, Nelson used the Royal Navy’s revolutionary new signal book to make to Collingwood at 11.40am “I intend to pass or go through the enemy’s line to prevent them getting into Cadiz”, and altered course to starboard. Eight minutes later he sent out the celebrated general signal “England expects that every man will do his duty”. Collingwood, meanwhile, was already cutting diagonally into the rear of the Combined Fleet.

The first shots were fired at Royal Sovereign by the French 74 Fougeux at 1145.

Collingwood was able to close first. He signaled his captains to alter course and form a line of bearing, basically instructing each of them to turn to face the enemy and break the Combined Fleet line individually. Ship after ship broke through; first Royal Sovereign, then Belleisle, Mars, Tonnant, Bellerophon, Collossus and Achilles.

Each attempted to close with the first enemy ship they encountered and rake them across their sterns (the most vulnerable point) at point blank range. Collingwood himself went up against the 112 gun Spanish three decker Santa Ana. In the untidy melee which filled the rest of the afternoon, ten of the fifteen enemy ships facing Collingwood were captured and one, the Achille, caught fire.

Nelson went into action twenty five minutes after Collingwood. His column retained its line ahead formation and the leading ships followed HMS Victory through the gap she punched through the enemy line, raking Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure as she did so. Victory, badly battered by fire on the way in, collided with the French ship Redoubtable, and a vicious close range action ensued.

In one of the day’s more unfortunate coincidences Captain Lucas of Redoubtable, one of the more competent French commanders, had recognised the reality of inferior French gunnery and had gone to great lengths to train his crew in the use of small arms.

His sharpshooters succeeded in clearing Victory’s decks and fatally wounding Nelson himself.

A musket ball fired from Redoubtable’s mizzen top struck his left shoulder, penetrated his chest and lodged in his spine. He was heard to gasp to his Flag Captain “They have done for me at last Hardy...my backbone is shot through.”

Only the fortuitous arrival of HMS Temeraire, which massacred the French crew as they gathered at the rails with a volley from her 32-pounder carronades, prevented Victory from being boarded.

As Nelson’s column broke the line, this half of the battle degenerated into another series of close melees, exactly the ‘pell mell battle’ which Nelson had sought. There is little to be gained by outlining each of these in detail, but as a case study let us look briefly at the story of the Belleisle, a former French prize which perhaps had the hardest time of any British ship at Trafalgar.

Belleisle lost around sixty men killed and wounded from the fire of the rear of the enemy line before she managed to close, and it was not until just after noon that she managed to break through the line after exchanging a few shots with the Spanish 74 Monarca.

She poured a full broadside into the three decker Santa Ana then exchanged broadsides with the French Indomptable. Belleisle’s main-top-mast was shot away and her position became critical as the ships from the enemy's rear came up. She was rammed amidships by the Fougeux which appeared out of the smoke and shot away her mizzen mast before dropping astern.

Then Achille stationed herself so she could keep up a steady fire on Belleisle’s larboard quarter and Aigle bombarded her at a distance from the other side. San Juste and San Leandro fired as they passed her bows, shooting down her mainmast which covered her larboard guns. Her foremast and bowsprit were shot away by Neptune. Totally dismasted, Belleisle was finally rescued by three British ships of the line and pulled out of the battle, with her hull, masts and rigging shot to pieces and with 33 men killed and 93 wounded.

Villeneuve’s flagship, Bucentaure, after being raked by Victory as she passed, was later engaged closely by a series of ships including Britannia, Leviathan and Conqueror. At 1405 she struck her colours. Captain Atcherly of HMS Conqueror’s Marine contingent described the scene aboard Bucentaure when he boarded her:“The dead, thrown back as they fell, lay along the middle of the deck in heaps, and the shot passing through these had frightfully mangled the bodies.... more than four hundred had been killed and wounded, of whom an extraordinary proportion had lost their heads.”

In British ships the dead were rapidly disposed of through gunports or over the side during battle, but Catholic religious practice strongly discouraged this behaviour, and consequently the carnage aboard the defeated enemy ships was generally appalling. Villeneuve himself survived and was taken prisoner.

Nelson died at 1630, three hours after being shot. This famous picture by A W Devis depicts his last moments on the orlop deck of HMS Victory, surrounded by his officers and men.

The final act of the battle, a poorly executed counter attack by the ten previously unengaged ships of the French van under the command of Rear Admiral P E Dumanoir le Pelley, petered out.

This left the British fleet, now under the command of Collingwood, in undisputed control of the battlefield by 1700. Nine ships of the Combined Fleet had escaped for Cadiz under the command of Gravina, and four of Dumanoir’s force had escaped to the south, to be subsequently defeated and captured by a British force under Rear-Admiral Strachan.

Of the remaining twenty ships, seventeen had struck their colours and one, Achille, was on fire - ironically this was the result of the activities of the sharpshooters in her own rigging, the reason why Nelson himself discouraged this practice. At sunset Achille dramatically blew up, bringing the battle to a close.

Collingwood found himself in command of 44 badly damaged ships and 10,000 prisoners, many of them wounded. A gale blew up, forcing his ships towards the shore and dispersing them, and all of the prizes except four were ultimately lost or scuttled. The storm provided an opportunity for a few to be recaptured or escape. Ultimately, of the 33 ships of the Combined Fleet, four were captured, sixteen eventually sailed again under French or Spanish colours, and thirteen were sunk.

The casualties at Trafalgar illustrate graphically the relative merits of British and Franco-Spanish gunnery. John Keegan calls it a massacre. 449 British sailors were killed and 1217 were wounded, compared to 4408 French and Spanish dead and 2545 wounded.

News of the battle was brought back to England by the schooner HMS Pickle, and did not finally reach the Admiralty in London until 5 November.

Nelson’s body, transported home on board HMS Victory, returned to England to lie in state in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. On 8 January 1806 it was transported up the river, escorted by hundreds of boats in a dramatic procession which was re-enacted earlier this year. On 9 January he was interred in St Paul’s Cathedral, according to his own stated wish. The procession of dignitaries was so long that the head had reached St Paul’s before the tail had left Whitehall.

Political and Strategic Consequences

In the short term it is important to remember that Trafalgar did not end the Napoleonic Wars. Fundamentally, Trafalgar meant that Napoleon was no longer able to reach beyond continental Europe, either to make war or trade, but the day before the battle, Napoleon had defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm and shortly afterwards he won his greatest victory over the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz.

It took another ten years to defeat Napoleon, and ultimately this had to be achieved by armies on land. But his failure to conquer Britain meant that Britain remained free to blockade his Empire and finance ever more coalitions against him. Napoleon was the first to recognise this, and continued to make increasingly desperate efforts to form naval alliances, notably with Russia in 1807.In 1806 Napoleon tried to impose a counter-blockade on Britain, the ‘Continental System’, a theoretically sound idea which failed because it was not sufficiently well enforced, This eventually turned most Europeans against Napoleon, and provided the armies to defeat him, which Britain lacked the manpower to do itself.

In the long term, Trafalgar confirmed British control of the oceans, something which was not to be seriously challenged again for a hundred years. This total control of the sea allowed the British Empire to expand unchallenged.

For Spain, Trafalgar was catastrophic. Prior to 1805 Spain had been a maritime power with an enormous overseas Empire. Trafalgar finished the Spanish Navy, and as such directly caused the loss of her wealthy South American colonies. It also caused stress fractures to appear in the alliance with France, as Spanish opinion tended to place the blame for the defeat squarely with Villeneuve and the French.

Cultural and Social Consequences

As well as confirming the Royal Navy’s undisputed dominance of the oceans for the next century, Trafalgar enshrined a tradition of offensive thinking in the Royal Navy which continues to this day. The language of Trafalgar permeated naval thinking for two centuries, despite dramatic changes to tactics and technology. At the Battle of the Dogger Bank in 1915 Admiral David Beatty demanded that “what we need now is Nelson’s signal: ‘engage the enemy more closely’, only to discover that it was no longer in the signal book.

Not all of this zeal was for the better. The Navy and the wider population eagerly awaited, indeed demanded, another Trafalgar, and the First World War ultimately serves as an example of the letter rather than the spirit of the Trafalgar legacy being adhered to. After the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, ‘England Expected’ Trafalgar and were bitterly disappointed when they did not get it.

“Great naval disaster! Five British battleships sunk!” proclaimed the London newsboys. This attitude played into the hands of German propagandists who were thus able to present a strategic defeat as a convincing victory based crudely on the numbers of ships sunk.

The impact of Trafalgar on the national consciousness of Great Britain, the victorious power, was immense. A quick search of an online street index produces more than 250 UK streets beginning with Trafalgar. They include of course Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, the national monument finally completed in 1841. If anything, the tragic yet heroic death of Nelson eclipsed the victory; the poet Southey, in his 1813 biography of Nelson, wrote that:“The victory of Trafalgar was celebrated indeed with the usual forms of rejoicing, but they were without joy. ”
Nelson became a personality cult. The first biography, by John Charnock, appeared as early as 1806 and more have continued to appear almost annually since – the British Library catalogue lists 172 titles on the subject of Horatio Nelson, again this is just a cursory search and more methodical efforts could surely produce many more.

Trafalgar became a national obsession. Poets and artists queued up to celebrate or commemorate it, whilst more prosaic interpretations were provided by theatrical and showground re-enactments. There is even some evidence to suggest that the patriarch of the Brontë family actually changed his family name from Brunty as a tribute to Nelson, who had been made Duke of Brontë by the King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies in 1799.

Just this year, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire was voted ‘Britain’s favourite painting’ by listeners to BBC Radio 4. And no overview of the cultural impact of Trafalgar would be complete without a reference to HMS Victory, lovingly preserved for the last two hundred years, a hugely important tourist attraction and a national and international shrine to both the battle and Nelson’s memory.

So was Trafalgar really “the decisive battle of the Napoleonic War”? Certainly it was one of them, although it did not bring about the immediate defeat of Napoleon. But Trafalgar was the apex, the defining moment of the ‘Age of Sail’. It was a perfectly fought naval battle in which Nelson married the ultimate technology of the day to the aggressive tactics which it had previously lacked. Perhaps we should conclude that its long-term consequences were more important than its immediate impact. In securing British domination of the oceans for more than a century, Nelson had unwittingly enabled Great Britain, for better or for worse, to build the greatest Empire the world had ever seen, with all the resultant consequences for the world we live in today.