The sea battle of Trafalgar

Artist's impression of part of the Battle of Trafalgar / britishbattles.com

Artist’s impression of part of the Battle of Trafalgar / britishbattles.com

There is a running fight, not unlike the battle of Trafalgar itself, between Spanish, British and French historians, which has continued without pause since 1805. Friendships which should have been for life have been broken because of this eminently historical conflict on the high seas. I prefer to examine the views of American historians, who should have no axe to grind, as 1805 happened a long time before US influence dominated, or at least tried to dominate the world.

Though the sea battle itself took place within twenty-four hours, it is a long story. We will stick close to brevity and, I hope, the truth.

Trafalgar was fought between fleets from Britain, France and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. The date is 21 October 1805. By March of that year Bonaparte had mustered an army on the coast of northernFrance, preparing for an invasion of The Nation of Shopkeepers or, if you like, ‘Perfidious Albion’.

In order to make sure of mastery of the seas, Napoleon had ordered the French and Spanish fleets (Spain had come in on the side of the Emperor in 1804, for reasons best known to its King) to outwit the British blockade asnd sail to a French possession in the West Indies called Martinique. Once established in the waters of this piratical island, the two fleets would re-stock and combine into a formidable fleet which would return to the Channel and take charge. French troops could then be escorted across the Channel to England.

The French ships commanded by Villeneuve and the Spaniards (leaving from Cádiz under Federico Gravina) got safely to the West Indies.  But a problem had arisen; a large French flotilla at Brest in Brittany was unable to break out of the British blockade in order to join the others in Martinique. The telegraph had not been invented and Villeneuve could not know this;  he had already started out with his combined fleet for the Channel. On the way he learned about Brest, and decided to sail for Cádiz instead.

Meanwhile his boss Napoleon had changed his mind and was resolved to march his Great  Army to the Danubefrom its temporary headquarters in northern France (Boulogne). On September 28 He told Villeneuve he was now commander of the combined Franco/Spanish fleets, and ordered him to enter the Mediterranean Sea, where he would disembark troops at Naples, after which he would sail to Toulon. That was the idea, and it was a good one. But there was a snag:  Admiral Lord Nelson was waiting off Cádiz with the British Navy and Admiral Collingwood.  The latter was almost as great a strategist and  sailor as Horatio Nelson himself.

Nelson ordered his fleet into two columns, line ahead and astern, one under Cuthbert Collingwood and the other commanded by himself. Using the flag-signalling method employed by all navies he ordered the two columns to sail directly into the middle of the Franco/Spanish ships, massed together for security. This was an extremely dangerous move on the board, as it meant using his two flagships in effect as battering rams to break through the great mass of enemy ships ahead. But this was ‘the Nelson Touch’, about which we have heard so much. When the British ‘tars’ (popular term for sailors) heard what was to happen, cheering could be heard from every British vessel. Nalson was popular because he had reduced flogging on board to practically nothing, and ensured that the men got proper clothing and rations. They also knew that the little man from Norfolk was as courageous as all of them put together.

The British ships would receive broadsides from a half-dozen warships, and be unable to return fire until they were actually passing through the line. Miraculously, the manoeuvre worked! The British reached the middle of the pack and began firing three, four or five tiers of heavy cannon from both starboard and port. The damage, wreckage and mayhem was later to be recorded by artists such as Turner, and many of the younger officers kept notes of the battle. Some of these journals survive.

Horatio Nelson was relying on the superiority (as he saw it) of British naval gunnery. Firing practice had been obligatory for months, and the lethal effect of the broadsides on the French and Spanish ships was tremendous. The Spanish leader Gravina was among the wounded, and would die of his wounds shortly after the battle.

The victory was Nelson’s, with nineteen enemy capital ships taken or destroyed. Those ships captured were mostly lost in the great storms which followed Trafalgar, along with their makeshift British crews.  In the frightful melée at the centre of the fighting Nelson himself was shot by a French sniper positioned high in the cross-trees of Redoubtable. It must have been a superb piece of shooting, and it did for Admiral Nelson, who died on deck surrounded by his officers, most of whom were in tears. He had time to breathe a famous phrase to his flag officer Hardy – “Kismet, Hardy,” which means Destiny.

The point of all this carnage and destruction of beautiful warships off Cape  Trafalgar is that it did not end Napoleon’s plan to invade England– that had already been abandoned – but it did give Britain a supremacy at sea which was not lost throughout what remained of the Napoleonic Wars.

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