It was on this day in 1805 that England’s “Wooden Walls,” the venerable Royal Navy, under the command of arguably the greatest naval commander of all time, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, utterly defeated Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleet off of Cape Trafalgar, Spain. It was during the run-up to this fight that Nelson sent his famous signal to his fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” And so they did. Though the Napoleonic Fleet had an almost 2-to-1 superiority in manpower, and was about 20 percent larger, including some of the largest warships then afloat, the superiority of British naval training and technology carried the day as they overwhelmingly bested the Franco-Spanish fleet. The Napoleonic fleet lost 22 capital ships, the British none.
One clear reason for such an astonishingly lopsided victory was that Nelson had abandoned the standard naval tactics which the “playbook” of every European navy called for. Since the advent of shipboard artillery, fighting fleets had met in great parallel lines, permitting ship-to-ship engagement abroadside (and allowing relatively safe and easy retreat if needed.) Nelson abandoned this cautions approach because he wanted a decisive victory, and long experience had show that line-of-battle formations rarely achieved anything decisive (which is why the naval hierarchies across Europe favored the tactic; it made for few clear victories, but it also made for few disasters. Then as now, naval brass are reluctant to risk losing capital ships.)
Nelson explained to his fleet captains over a dinner which featured English roast beef and Portuguese port, that he intended to drive his fleet through the French line of battle with a perpendicular arrangement of his fleet. Instead of meeting side-by-side, Nelson intended that his fleet sever the French formation and isolate it into two halves. This would render line communications useless for the French and Spanish, and would allow the British ships to bring their full gunnery broadsides to the bows of the French and Spanish ships. Of course, it correspondingly meant that as the British fleet approached the Franco-Spanish line, the British ships would be exposed to the same potentially devastating risk from the French. But Nelson knew that the French and Spanish gunners were no match for his tars. The Spanish and French fleets had been bottled up in their ports for several years, and the crews were inexperienced. The French also suffered from a lack of long-term naval experience, as most of the officers of the Royal French Navy had been exiled or beheaded during the French Revolution. Nelson counted on the greater experience of his officers and the better training of his gunners to more than offset the risk of his unorthodox strategy.
As events proved, Nelson was right to be so confident. Had he lost the battle, though, it is certain that he would have been subject court martial, and quite possibly execution. It is no surprise that his daring and successful tactics were rarely used again in the time that remained of The Age Of Sail. Yet through his daring, Nelson became and remains the greatest naval hero in British history. Monuments were immediately erected to his memory, and a great square in London was christened “Trafalgar Square.”
The Battle of Trafalgar completely removed any threat of a French invasion of England, and left Britain with an overwhelming command of the seas for the next century. Not before nor since in the history of Naval warfare has there been a battle that was so thoroughly one-sided and so strategically decisive. Nelson did not live to see the results of his victory, however. He died as the battle neared its end having been “shot clean through the backbone” by a French sniper. After the battle, his body was preserved for return home in a barrel of brandy mixed with myrrh. A passing Russian squadron paused to salute Nelson as his flagship, HMS Victory, carrying his body, sailed to England. Nelson was given a state funeral with interment in Saint Paul’s, as befits a national hero.
Trafalgar Square is dominated by Nelson’s Column to honor this victory and its author. It has been said that if Alexander The Great is first among the great generals, others (Caesar, Napoleon, Hannibal, and Lee) stand right at hand; Nelson has no equals among the great admirals.
(Of course, it is hard to imagine Nelson being so successful in today’s world where no celebrated figure escapes deep, personal scrutiny. Nelson shamelessly carried on a long-running and flagrant affair with a married woman, an ambassador’s wife, no less!)
Flower Mound, Texas
We have lost more than we have gained.
— King George III, on receipt of the news of the victory at Trafalgar and Nelson’s death