Some of you may be aware that the 21st of October is Trafalgar Day.
Some of you may now be thinking ‘what the hell is Trafalgar Day, Kate?’.
Some of you may have visited Trafalgar Square (read my post here) and seen Nelson’s column, but may not necessarily be aware of the significance.
I’ve been interested in naval history, specifically that of Britain’s Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and the sea battles of the Napoleonic Wars, since I was about 8. I joined the Sea Cadets at 14 and am still part of the corps, celebrating Trafalgar Day annually.
Even at university, I would drag my friends out for port in honour of the occasion.
On the 21st of October 1805, the British fleet, under Horatio Nelson’s command, met the combined French and Spanish fleets, under French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, for one of the most famous naval battles in history, off Cape Trafalgar, Spain.
Nelson joined his flagship at the time, HMS Victory, on the 14th September at Portsmouth and sailed along with HMS Euryalus for Cadiz, where the Franco-Spanish fleet were moored in preparation for Napoleon’s now abandoned invasion of Britain, with the British fleet less than 50nm away. By being further out to sea, Nelson knew that his fleet would be far less likely to be spotted by enemy scouts or outposts.
When Nelson joined the fleet, he made it his mission, as it were, to dine with his Captains, in order to get to know them and vice versa, as well as discussing his plans for battle. Amongst many discussions, it was agreed that the British fleet would set to work painting the lines of gunports on their ships ‘a la Nelson’ with horizontal stripes of yellow (more likely a slight terracotta as HMS Victory is now painted) whilst the gunports themselves were black, creating the famous chequered effect. Nelson also ordered the lower masts of the entire British fleet to be painted yellow. Not only was this uniform, it would also help to distinguish between ships in battle.
The problem facing Nelson at the time of his arrival was managing to prise Villeneuve and the Franco-Spanish fleet out of Cadiz, but unknown to him, Napoleon had given the orders for Villeneuve to sail to the Mediterranean, taking troops to Naples to support the struggling French army. Villeneuve was more than aware of Nelson’s impending presence.
The sailing of the Franco-Spanish fleet from Cadiz at that time was postponed, partly because Napoleon was losing faith in Villeneuve, and looking to replace him, and partly due to weather. They hoped that predicted storms would break up and drive away the British fleet, giving them fair winds to leave Cadiz and create space. Regardless of the weather, Villeneuve knew he had been dealt a poor hand. He could not leave, whilst British reinforcements were joining the fleet daily.
Around the 10th October, Nelson received word that the enemy were due to depart Cadiz that evening, the fleet was gathering close to the mouth of the harbour and showed signs of preparing to make way. Nelson made plans for a morning battle, to ensure that they would have the best light of the day.
However, once more the weather caused problems, the enemy fleet could not leave Cadiz. Nelson did however use this plan as a template for Trafalgar, allocating ships to each column and giving them a position in the line. This did change a number of times prior and during the Battle of Trafalgar but much remained the same. He wanted to sail at full speed, with his fleet in two lines. One commanded by himself and one by his second-in-command Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, with a small reserve group if required. His intention? To cut through the Franco-Spanish line, in order to isolate the ships at the rear, defeating them before the ships at the front were able to turn and come to their aid.
The Franco-Spanish fleet managed to depart from Cadiz on the morning of 19th October. Villeneuve had received word of British ships in Gibraltar and took this as a sign that Nelson’s fleet would be weakened (little did he know). On the evening of the 20th October 1805, the two fleets were moving towards each other cautiously and a battle was inevitable.
The following morning, Nelson wrote his famous prayer, asking for a ‘great and glorious victory’.
May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory: and may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it: and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet. For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend
Amen. Amen. Amen.
At around 10 o clock in the morning, on 21st October 1805, the signal flew to prepare the British fleet for battle. Nelson walked the decks of the Victory along with Hardy speaking to his crew and promising a ‘more glorious day than the Nile’.
The British were outnumbered 33-27, but this did not necessarily matter as much, due to the lack of a formal line of battle. As well as this the British rate of fire was twice that of the enemy fleet.
Nelson’s plan was for two lines of ships, under himself and Collingwood, to attack the rear and centre of the enemy and he led the attack from the centre, breaking the line, something which was rare, but had been tried and tested at the Saints and Glorious First of June. There was a danger to the head of the attacking line, and so Nelson used his two first-rate ships of the line, Victory (Nelson’s flagship) and Royal Sovereign (Collingwood’s flagship) to lead. Nelson’s Captains suggested he may like to let three ships go ahead of the Victory, but Nelson refused.
At 1115 his most famous signal was hoisted, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ – Originally set to be ‘England confides that…’ yet ‘expects’ was in the signal book and ‘confides’ was not. The first shots were fired by the French at around 1140 and battle was underway. At around 1204 the Victory fired a shot directly in to the stern of the Bucentaure (Villeneuve’s flagship).
Nelson remained ondeck commanding his fleet, in full undress uniform, and so when the Redoubtable came alongside the Victory he was easy to spot, and was shot by a marksman, hitting his left shoulder, travelling to his rupturing the pulmonary artery and travelling to his spine.
Nelson knew he was dying and even told Hardy ‘They have done for me at last, my backbone is shot through’. The battle continued and Nelson was taken to the Orlop Deck of HMS Victory. Hardy came below decks and informed Nelson of his victory a short while later and raised the signal. Shortly after this, Nelson and Hardy spoke and Nelson gave his final words (often debated) to Hardy. There are many variations where Nelson has said both ‘kiss me, Hardy‘ and ‘kismet, Hardy’ but it has been noted that Hardy did in fact kiss Nelson on the cheek and then the forehead. Hardy left, Nelson spoke to Dr Beatty (who remained with him the entire time he was injured’ and whispered ‘thank God I have done my duty’. He passed away at approximately 4pm.
The battle continued for around an hour after Nelson had died. Villeneuve was taken prisoner on the Bucentaure and sent to Britain.
The British did not lose one ship, the Franco-Spanish fleet lost one and 21 were captured.
Around 1500 British casualties were reported and around 13,000 from the enemy fleet.
After the battle.
Nelson’s body was transported back to Britain in a barrel of brandy and news of the death of Nelson and victory at Trafalgar sailed in HMS Pickle, a small schooner. HMS Pickle reached Falmouth on 4th November 1805 and Captain Lapenotière took a chase, changing horses 21 times, eventually reaching London on the 6th November 1805. The route he travelled is now known as the Trafalgar Way and is for another post.
Despite this ‘great and glorious victory‘ at Trafalgar the Napoleonic Wars continued for another 10 years, but the defeat of the French and Spanish fleets meant that they could no longer seriously come up against the British in battle at sea. The day that Villeneuve sailed from Cadiz Napoleon had defeated the Austrians at Ulm and 6-7 weeks later defeated the Austrians and Russians in a definite victory at Austerlitz. For the British, Trafalgar guaranteed economic prosperity, for Napoleon, it had used many of France’s resources. For the Spanish? They lost a number of their fleet, meaning that all hopes of continuing a Spanish empire were gone.
Nelson’s body was disembarked from the Victory upon arrival to Britain, before being taken to Greenwich. His body lay in state in the Painted Hall for three days. His coffin was made from the mast of the French battleship, L’Orient, salvaged after being destroyed by Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile.
His body was taken up the Thames and to the Admiralty. On the 9th of January, a funeral procession took his body from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral and this was ‘consisting of 32 admirals, over a hundred captains, and an escort of 10,000 soldiers’ . Monuments to Nelson were constructed globally, including the most famous, Nelson’s Column, in Trafalgar Square.
Nelson was much loved then, and remains much loved now.
If you want to know more about Nelson you could always join the Nelson Society as well!