The first 20 days of October 1805 were indeed fruitful one for Napoleon, newly crowned Emperor of France, whose land army was busily smashing the Third Coalition — Britain, Sweden, Austria, Russia and some German states — after it had so laboriously coalesced in order to smash him. Comprising long-service veterans and brilliantly led by the emperor and his Marshals, Napoleon’s Grande Armée was surely at its grand peak. So successful had he been in 1805, in fact, that Britain’s Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, hardly an alarmist, wrote, ‘Never was the probability of universal monarchy more nearly being realized than in the person of the Corsican.’
Napoleon was not without a coalition of his own. Following Spain’s lead, Bavaria, Würtemberg and other German states had signed alliances with France. Now, in October, the emperor moved against his most dangerous continental enemies, Austria and Russia. He surrounded the main Austrian army and accepted its capitulation at Ulm on October 20. In the weeks following that success, a large Russian army would withdraw rather than fight and Napoleon would seize Vienna. Next, when a joint Austro-Russian host met him at Austerlitz on December 2, Napoleon would win his most crushing Victory of the epoch.
Before all that, however, even as the quartermasters of the seemingly invincible Grande Armée were tallying the booty gained at Ulm, distant events had been set in motion, both by visions of grand strategy and by more personal concern for threatened ambition. Off the coast of Spain, a fleet under Admiral Nelson was flying cat and mouse with a power-laden Franco-Spanish armada.
At that time, it may be recalled, the wars of the French Revolution had evolved into the global Napoleonic Wars, an evolution marked by the destruction of a European generation, while a stunned Britain reposed behind the oaken walls of her great fleet, her first and her final refuge. For all of Napoleon’s great success on land, the Royal Navy in 1805 was a wonder of the world in itself. Its rigid backbone was the ship of the line, the capital ship of the epoch that came in three ‘rates,’ or classes, depending on the number of cannons carried. Britain could then boast 10 first-rates (100-120 guns), 18 second-rates (90-98) and 147 third-rates (64-84). Their actual firepower was often greater, for most of the warships carried two to 12 monstrous, short-range carronades, never counted in the gun totals. Ironically, perhaps a quarter of the Royal Navy’s first three rates had been taken from the enemy in battle and pressed into its service by the lumber-starved English. Britain could also turn to another 250 ships carrying 20 to 60 guns apiece, as fourth, fifth and sixth-rates, or frigates. Not only was Britain’s navy larger than any other nation’s in 1805, but roughly three-quarters of its warships were operational at any given moment, a radio double that of any other’s.
The French and Spanish navies were similar in most respects to the British, but imposed a discipline so ferocious that volunteer recruits were always scarce. Most vessels sailed short-handed and even then had to rely on involuntary impressments for about half of their crews, compared to perhaps 20 percent of British crews impressed.
The British, through constant drill, had by far the fastest, most accurate gunnery, but the French, and specially the Spanish, tended to build larger, broader, deeper-draft ships of the line. They not only carried more guns, but provided more stable gun platforms and could absorb a fearful amount of enemy fire without structural damage. In fact, except for a fire causing an explosion in their powder magazines, such ships were virtually unsinkable in battle. The hulking Santissima Trinidad, on a run from Manila to Acapulco in 1762, was taken by Commodore George Anson’s squadron in a running fight after 1,080 cannon balls had struck it. The British prize crew, astonished to find the ship still seaworthy after such punishment, managed to sail it half way around the world to England — it arrived with several hundred cannon balls still embedded in its sides. Santissima Trinidad‘s succeeding namesake in 1805 was the world’s largest warship and the only one with four gun decks, mounting 140 cannons and several carronades.
By 1805, the French and their Spanish allies found their combined naval assets still unable to best the Royal Navy, and therefore determined that only their superior land forces would defeat the British. Since the British neither could nor would invade the Continent, Napoleon first prepared to invade England. For him to do so, the allied Franco-Spanish navies would have to protect his proposed Channel crossing with a major fleet drawn from half a dozen ports, from Toulouse to Madrid and beyond. Yet most of those ports were under at least sporadic British blockade. Further, elaborate plans to draw off the British fleet at first looked successful, but then went awry. Finally, Napoleon felt constrained to deal with those powers of the Third Coalition gathering in Central Europe. The British invasion was called off in August 1805 and the emperor marched off to his Victory at Ulm.
Napoleon still had an allied fleet at his disposal, nominally commanded by French Vice Adm. Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre de Villeneuve, with Spanish Vice Adm. Frederico Carlos Gravina as his second-in-command. Villeneuve bore the sobriquet ‘Lucky’ for having survived so many encounters with the Royal Navy, which was not to say that his luck applied to their outcomes. For example, he had been one of the few survivors of the French debacle at Nelson’s hands at Aboukir Bay, also known as the Battle of the Nile, in 1798.
As of mid-September 1805, the allied fleet was assembling at Cadiz to sally into the Mediterranean Sea and raid British convoys supplying Malta. In the midst of his preparations, though, Villeneuve heard disquieting news. Through friends rather than official sources, he understood that Napoleon planned to replace him with an old service rival, Admiral Franois Etienne Rosily. Rather than submit to such humiliation, the stung Villeneuve frantically speeded up the work of readying his fleet for sea — he would slip 0out of port before Rosily arrived to relieve him of command. Villeneuve’s goal was not Napoleon’s, but a personal quest that might win him glory in France. He would seek out Nelson’s fleet, which he knew to be nearby, and destroy it, while ignoring Malta and its convoys.
On October 19 and 20, then, 18 French and 15 Spanish ships of the line slipped anchor and left Cadiz, accompanied by four frigates. In the Spanish squadron were four of the world’s most powerful warships: the mighty Santissima Trinidad (140 guns), Principe de Asturias (112), Santa Ana (112) and Rayo (100). The rest of the Allied ships were third-rates carrying 74 to 80 guns, the smallest, San Leandro, armed with 64.
Confined in various ports for many months by British blockading squadron, the allied vessels were hardly in peak condition — Villeneuve’s haste to leave port had led to jury-rigged repairs, cursory maintenance and insufficient provisioning. Further, not one of the allied ships was fully manned — the last-minute impressments of hundreds of Spanish peasants detracted seriously from morale while adding nothing to efficiency. Nor, it turned out, was there to be much opportunity to train the reluctant newcomers, for the allied fleet had been spotted as it left Cadiz and the British fleet that Villeneuve hoped to meet weeks in the future was already alerted and making for him.
Admiral Nelson, Britain’s hero of half a dozen naval victories, was both ready and able to meet Villeneuve. The crews of his 27 ships of the line and five frigates had been at sea for months and were in fighting trim, especially the gunners, who, unique among the navies of the epoch, had spent a great deal of their time live-firing their guns at sea.
Nelson’s goal was to put his fleet between Villeneuve and the Mediterranean, forcing his foe to fight or retreat. While using his fast frigates to shadow the Franco-Spanish men or war, he kept his own capital ships on the far horizon, awaiting Villeneuve’s commitment. The British admiral had made his plans long before and shared them with his captains. Rather than fight the enemy in the traditional manner — pounding away at one another in long parallel lines — Nelson had split his own fleet into two divisions. He would lead one from his 100-gun flagship Victory, while the other was under the command of his old friend, Vice Adm. Cuthbert Collingwood, on the 100-gun Royal Sovereign. Collingwood and Nelson would take their divisions and, in parallel lines to one another, approach the enemy head on, breaking his line in two places and dividing it into three segments. Then, with the wind pushing the enemy’s van away from the fight, the 27 British ships could deal with their 20 or so allied opponents before the isolated van could laboriously tack around and rejoin the battle. By the time the van could arrive on the scene, Nelson calculated, he could capture or destroy the bulk of the Spanish and French ships. His original battle orders, written on October 9, were discovered by this writer in 1985, in the Manuscript Division of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, Calif. They specifically refer to Collingwood’s independence in action: ‘The second in command will have the entire direction of his line.’ Further, Collingwood would attempt to break the enemy’s line (if possible) at the 12th ship from the rear, while Nelson would penetrate eight or nine ships farther forward. Collingwood would thus be given the enemy rear, while ‘the remainder of the Enemy’s fleet….are to be left to the management of the Commander in chief.’
Villeneuve, by now aware of Nelson’s close presence and less than confident of his ships and men, did what the British admiral feared he might. During the night of October 20-21, he reversed course, intending to run for the safety of the massive Cadiz fortifications. Alerted, Nelson put on full sail to intercept, and as HMS Neptune‘s signal officer recorded, ‘At daylight discovered the Enemy’s Fleet on the lee beam keeping their wind on the larboard tack consisting of 33 sail of the line, four frigates and two brigs.’ Thus, the two naval forces would meet off the Cape of Trafalgar on Spain’s southwestern coast.
At 6:30 a.m., as crews of all ships frantically prepared their ships for battle — jettisoning empty casks and other combustible material, arranging powder charges and balls near the guns, hanging up thick nets to discourage boarders and spreading sand on the decks to provide traction amid the expected blood — Nelson ran up the signal ‘bear for the Enemy,’ then some five miles away.
While Nelson and Collingwood led their parallel divisions into a contrary and slowing breeze, they studied the allied line, an impressive, even a beautiful sight, stretching from their left to right some seven miles. Clearly visible through Nelson’s glass was the mammoth Santissima Trinidad near the center, as well as the French Bucentaure, flying Villeneuve’s command flag, the giant Santa Ana and the bright yellow Rayo, leading the van under the command of Commodore Enrique Macdonnel — Henry MacDonald, an English-hating Irishman.
As the early morning minutes turned to hours, the tension became palpable. Nelson was going to permit the enemy to ‘cross his T,’ bringing the broadside batteries of many allied ships to bear against only the few guns on his leading vessels’ forecastles. He realized that such a maneuver was as risky as it was unconventional. While he knew that the sloping prows of an oncoming warship would deflect most, if not all, incoming rounds, Nelson was concerned that enemy fire, if accurate, might rake his ships at deck level from stem to stern, decimating his crewmen, or carry away so much rigging as to leave his ships unable to maneuver. Effective range for such disabling fire was from about 2,000 yards down to 300 — closer than that would require the allied guns to be laboriously elevated. British vulnerability, then, would be limited to a distance of about a mile and to a time frame of some 15 to 20 minutes. If he could maneuver most of his ships into the allied line, Nelson knew that in the wild general melee to follow he would outnumber the enemy — and he could rely on his superb gunners to fire at least two rounds to the allies’ one. If!
As the antagonists closed, beer and rum rations were issued, and prayers were said on the quarterdecks. In the words of one British officer, ‘Finding we should not be in action for an hour or more, we piped to dinner, thinking that Englishmen would fight all the better for having a comfortable meal.’
Due to the wind pattern, Collingwood, at the lead of his division, would be the first to hit the allied line. According to a midshipman on nearby HMS Belleisle, ‘the silence on board was almost dreadful.’
At 11:40 a.m., cheers erupted from all British ships as the men saw Nelson’s signal flags hauled up Victory‘s mast to spell out their famous message: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ Then, at 11:55, the terse message: ‘Engage the Enemy quite close.’
One minute later, the allied Santa Ana, Fougueux, Indomitable and perhaps Pluton and Neptuno, loosed their first broadsides at Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign, the balls and rough chunks of anti-sail iron skipping harmlessly into the ocean. That first salvo had fallen short, but as the range decreased, the irregular pieces of iron shot began to sheer away rigging, gouge huge holds in the tails and ran down on the exposed deck. Collingwood, supremely at his ease, strolled the upper gun deck, munching apples, refusing to seek shelter or return fire. Each of his heavy 32 and 24-pounders were double-shotted, his carronades were filled with ball and sacks or baskets of nails and musket balls. His first broadsides would be devastating, but only at close range.
With the allied ships obscured by dense banks of smoke from their own broadsides, Royal Sovereign came ponderously on, followed by Belleisle, Tonnant, Mars and the rear of the British division. As Collingwood closed on the allied line, aiming for a spot between Santa Ana‘s stern and Fougueux‘s bow, his ship began to take punishment — spars, rigging and sails crashed to the deck. Master William Chalmers fell dying, two lieutenants went down on the open deck and lethal splinters killed a lieutenant and several privates of the ship’s Royal Marine contingent.
Finally, Royal Sovereign was in the allied line, some 200 yards from Santa Ana‘s almost gunless stern and only slightly farther from Fougueux‘s gunless bow. At precisely that moment, Collingwood’s gunner unleashed a double broadside. It was 12:05 p.m.
The results were frightful, especially to Santa Ana. The balls from 50 British cannons and two carronades sheared through the Spaniard’s thin-skinned stern and wrought havoc on the gun deck and beyond. Splinters and glass, ball and shot, whined into the cannons and their crews, dismembering, maiming and killing more than 100 men and knocking 14 guns out of action. After the one broadside, Santa Ana‘s decks ran red with blood.
Collingwood, however, was in a vulnerable position, for Fougueux was soon upon him, swinging its own batteries into play with Indomitable, San Leandro, San Justo and other allied vessels close behind. An officer on HMS Neptune in Nelson’s division noted at 12:08 that ‘on the smoke clearing away saw the Royal Sovereign closely engaged with the Santa Ana and several of the Enemy’s ships firing into her.’ The British Tonnant, swinging past Belleisle, was also in action by then.
‘Closely engaged’ was no figure of peach, for Royal Sovereign‘s yardarms had become entangled with Santa Ana‘s, and the two ships were immobilized, locked in a sinister embrace, all but invisible in the thick, greasy smoke of their cannon fire.
Firing methodical, rapid, double-shotted broadsides into Santa Ana at a range of 20 yards or so, the British ship had all but gutted its opponent, blowing massive chinks out of its died, slaughtering the gun crews on its lower decks. At ranges so close that ‘blow back’ of splinters form the Spaniard decimated some of his own gun crews, Collingwood continued to hammer his reeling foe, which was soon replying with a mere handful of guns.
Royal Sovereign was itself hardly immune. Blue-collared, red-coated Spanish marines, high in what was left of Santa Ana‘s rigging, poured musket fire and hand grenades onto Collingwood’s gunners, while at least five passing allied ships threw broadsiides into his ship before they became otherwise engaged. The admiral, himself wounded by a shell splinter, saw that most of his marines were down, as well as a high percentage of his deck officers. Had not the friendly Tonnant, Belleisle and Mars come up rapidly, Royal Sovereign would have been a charnel house.
Tonnant, which would soon batter Algesiras and San Iledonso into surrender, broke the allied line between the former and Monarca, ‘under whose stern we passed in breaking the line and poured in a most dreadful broadside which silenced her for a long time,’ one of Tonnant‘s officers said. Most of Monarca‘s 360 casualties were casued by that one broadside — after that, the Spaniard did little more than survive.
The first ship to surrender in what had become Collingwood’s melee was the unlucky Santa Ana, which had been described earlier by an admiring Briton as ‘a superb warship’ painted a ‘magnificent black.’ It was thoroughly wrecked, most of its guns were dismounted, hundreds of its crew was dead or wounded. Vice Admiral Don Ignacio d’Alava ordered his captain to strike the colors just before 1:30. Royal Sovereign was in hardly better shape. It was dismasted, though structurally sound, and counted 47 of its crew dead and anther 94 wounded. Unable to maneuver and hence out of the fight, the game Collingwood was forced to signal for a frigate to take his ship in tow.
Victory, leading Nelson’s division, underwent even rougher treatment. This was hardly surprising, for he took his flagship through the allied line between the immense Santissima Trinidad — whose top gun deck toward above Victory — and Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure, a splendidly handled vessel. Victory was thoroughly raked on its approach and had taken scores of casualties before 12:10, when it belted out its own broadside into Bucentaure‘s bow and Santissima Trinidad‘s mountainous stern. Victory‘s carronades were shotted with large kegs, holding 500 musket rounds each, atop a 68-pound ball, impelled by 20 pounds of powder. Their effect on the Spanish was hellish.
As its gunner worked like automatons Victory, dismasted and largely out of control, ran its bowsprit into the rigging of the oncoming 74-gun French warship Redoubtable. Clasped together, the two ships pounded away at one another from a scant few yards’ distance. Superior British firepower — a 26-gun advantage — and rate of fire gave Victory a decided edge and soon Redoubtable‘s gun decks were awash in blood, a virtual abattoir. As per their doctrine, however, French marines swarmed into the rigging and poured musket fire and at least 200 hand grenades down on Victory‘s exposed decks. The ship’s surgery facilities were soon overflowing with anguished sailors, totaling 57 killed and 102 wounded.
Redoubtable‘s Captain Jean-Jacques Lucas, his ship splintering around him, could also see the slaughter on Victory‘s deck, some caused by his own guns, some by Santissima Trinidad‘s. A single solid shot had smashed into the Royal Marine contingent on the poop deck, killing eight and wounding a dozen. Mr. Scott, Nelson’s personal secretary, standing by the admiral’s elbow, was literally whipped away by a cannon ball in the chest. According to a French officer, Victory‘s ‘decks were strewn with dead and wounded.’ Valiantly, Lucas twice rallied his men and tried to board, all too aware that his own ship, seams sprung by repeated hits from heavy British guns, was settling in the water. The Royal Marines aboard Victory decimated the would-be boarders and boarding nets impeded their movements. Lucas, seriously wounded, called off both suicidal attempts.
Victory, mauled, dismasted and being steered by hand below decks, was suffering, but Redoubtable was being utterly eviscerated, for the British Temeraire had come up on its other side, close enough to almost touch the French ship. So dismembered was Redoubtable that many British cannon balls were passing right through it, to impact on the friendly vessel beyond. Lucas, gaining the respect of his foes, fought on, even after his lower gun deck flooded and most of his upper guns were out of action. When he finally struck his colors at about 1:40 p.m., his vessel was more a shattered hulk than a warship, with 522 of his 670 men dead or wounded.
Shortly before Lucas’ surrender, though, a French marine in the remnants of Redoubtable‘s rigging fired his musket and shattered Nelson’s spine as the admiral paces the deck. He fell, twisted an in agony — both Nelson and those around him knew the wound was fatal. He was rushed below to the surgeon’s overflowing work area, his face covered with a lace handkerchief to hide his identity and prevent demoralizing rumors. There, in the gloomy bowels of his flagship, Nelson was perfectly lucid despite his agonizing wound. He demanded and received frequent reports on the battle’s progress.
The British Neptune, following close behind Victory, passed between it and Villeneuve’s Bucentaure, soon coming up on Santissima Trinidad, whose stern was entirely exposed to Neptune‘s fire without its being able to return a single effective shot. While Neptune turned its aft quarters into a slaughter pen of lethal splinters, Africa, Leviathan and the first rate Britannia came up and mercilessly hammered the hapless Spaniard from the sides.
As the Spanish Leviathan shuddered under a storm of British shot, its huge figurehead of the Holy Trinity symbolically fell into the sea. By 1:50, Santissima Trinidad was totally dismasted and barely a quarter of its guns were slowly returning British fire. At 2:05, with more than 400 of its crew dead or wounded, the white flag fluttered above the world’s largest warship. The prize crew that took charge was appalled. As one British officer recalled: ‘the scene aboard was simply infernal….Blood ran in streams about the deck, and, in spite of the sand, the rolling of the ship carried it hither and thither until it made strange patterns on the planks.’ The Spaniard could probably have stood off any ship of any navy, but not four British foes mounting a total of 336well-served guns.
Things went no better elsewhere for the allies. Rear Admiral Pierre R.M.E. Dumanoir de Pelley, commanding the cut-off van of 12 ships, was still out of the fight, struggling to reverse course in a contrary breeze, and had to plod perhaps five miles to aid his compatriots.
Bucentaure, briefly hammered by half a dozen British ships as they passed, suffered considerable losses before HMS Conqueror approached to do serious battle. From 100 feet or so, the two ships traded broadsides, their gunners screaming, noses gushing blood form the repeated concussive blasts, their ears deafened — many permanently — from the crashing salvoes. According to one of Conqueror‘s officers, not only was the British gunnery twice as rapid as that of the French, but ‘every shot flew winged with death.’ Sailors, almost maddened by the grisly cacophony and coated with sweat and black powder dust, sprinted through wreaths of smoke like demons, swabbing red-hot gun barrels to avoid ‘cooking off,’ or exploding when the next powder charge was inserted, toting powder and ball, dragging away the wounded and throwing the dead overboard. The scene was truly hellish. Within 15 minutes Villeneuve’s flagship was both dismasted and gutted, with 209 men — one-third of its crew — down. With tears in his eyes, the admiral permitted the ship’s captain to strike the colors at about the same time as Santissima Trinidad‘s surrender. A tribute to Conqueror‘s gunners can be seen in that ship’s casualty list: three killed, nine wounded.
Spanish Admiral Gravina’s flagship, Principe de Asturias, traded half a dozen broadsides with the almost equally powerful HMS Dreadnaught, the admiral himself dying early in the clash. Rear Admiral Antonio Escano took over Principe de Asturias, which fought back with unusual efficiency — Dreadnaught, starting to take significant damage while not seeming to inflict any, abandoned the fight to tackle the weaker, already damaged San Juan Nepomuceno, whose Captain Come Churruca was soon directing the fight with a gloomy calm in spite of one leg being all but severed by a cannon ball. When Churucca finally surrendered his battered command at about 2:30, almost half his men and most of his guns were out of action. He did not live to greet the British prize crew.
As the melee continued, some ships, such as Neptune or Principe de Asturias, avoided protracted shootouts in favor of roaming about and sending a few broadsides at targets of opportunity. By 3 p.m. Dumanoir was approaching the fight with his as yet unbloodied van, which included his flagship Formidable and Macdonnel’s powerful Rayo. By then, however, the issue had largely been decided, with the majority of the other allied ships disabled or captured.
Mars, skitterring around the edges of the melee and firing whenever the smoke parted to reveal an enemy, eventually fetched up on Fougueux, which put several broadsides precisely on target before it surrendered. Among Mars‘ 98 casualties was its captain, George Duff, decapitated by a French cannon ball.
Bahama, an ably served Spanish ship, absorbed punishment from a number of passing British vessels, after which it gamely tackled HMS Bellerophon in a close-range shootout. It should not have; in a mere 20 minutes the British ship virtually shredded Bahama, killing or wounded in more than 400 of the crew and forcing its surrender. The hitherto-nearly untouched Bellerophon took 152 casualties in those minutes, its Captain John Cooke being among the 27 dead.
While Bahama was disintegrating, Dumanoir’s first ships entered the fray. Since much of the allied fleet was out of action by that time, there were many lightly damaged British ships unemployed and Dumanoir ran into the buzzsaw. In short order he lost Neptuno and San Agustin took massed British fire and soon after that, Intrepide was battered, settling and raising the white flag.
Still the battle alternately flickered and raged. The British Colossus traded fire with Formidable and several other allied vessels, suffering some 200 casualties but taking no prizes. The French Achille settled down to slug it out with Revenge at close rang. As the battle wound down, those two ships were locked within the smoke of their own batteries. Achille, taking the worst of it, soon had a fire blazing on its sail-littered decks. The fire spread along the deck and into the rigging, feeding upon the fallen sails and igniting the powder sacks laid by each gun. As the blaze spread, scattering the gun crews, HMS Defiance also came up to batter Achille. Burning splinters took the flames below, ever closer to the main powder magazine. Long after the battle was over Achille, drifting and burning brightly, literally blew apart in a majestic explosion. The only ship actually sunk at Trafalgar, it took with it all but a dazed handful of its 650-man crew.
By 4:15 or so, only sporadic firing — most of it directed at Achille — was to be heard. Dumanoir had broken off the action to save his remaining ships. Rayo, probably the only ship at Trafalgar that failed to fire a single gun, slipped away from the fight with only a few casualties caused by stray British shot. San Justo followed with even fewer losses. Almost as unscathed were San Francisco de Asis, Scipion, which suffered no casualties, Formidable, with 65 men down, Mont Blanc, Héros and Duguay Trouin. Of the rest of the allied fleet, only stout Principe de Asturias, Montanez, San Leandro, Neptuno, Indomitable, Pluton and Argonaute, some badly mauled, got away under their own flags.
Victory‘s logbook recorded: ‘Partial firing continued until 4:40, when a Victory having been reported to the Right Honourable Lord Viscount Nelson, [Knight of the Bath] and Commander-in-Chief, he then died of his wound.’
The fleeing French and Spanish left behind them some 6,000 seamen killed and captured, the detritus of sad Achille and 17 of their damaged ships as prizes. That Britannia would now rule the waves was clear to all — she was to do so for more than a century. Nelson, who had innovated so daringly and successfully before at the Battle of the Nile, at Copenhagen, had done so again. And in winning so spectacular a Victory at Trafalgar, he had changed naval tactics forever. The days of parallel lines trading broadsides in rarely decisive slugfests were over.
With no rivals left upon the seas, Britain could and did act accordingly. In 1806, it invaded and took South Africa’s Cape Colony from the Dutch. Britain briefly held Buenos Aires and Montevideo in Spanish South America. Two years later, with confidence born of overwhelming sea power, Britain landed an army in Portugal under General Arthur Wellesley — the future Duke of Wellington — and began the famous Peninsular Campaign that, with Portuguese and later Spanish help, would bleed Napoleon’s army white.
This article was written by John Hoyt Williams and originally published in the June 1986 issue of Military History magazine.
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!