What Next, General?: Nelson at Trafalgar, 1805 | HistoryNet MENU

What Next, General?: Nelson at Trafalgar, 1805

By Richard N. Armstrong
4/13/2017 • HistoryNet

 “WOODEN WALLS”

It is October 18, 1805, as you assume the role of British Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. Due to your aggressiveness, exceptional tactical skill and ability to inspire your crews in numerous naval battles, you have earned a reputation as the Royal Navy’s most outstanding “fighting admiral.” Indeed, the phrase the “Nelson Touch” – referring to your superb combination of innovative tactics and inspirational leadership – has been coined as a result of your stunning victories, particularly those over the fleets of Napoleonic France and its allies at the battles of the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801). Although previous engagements have cost you your right arm and the sight in one eye, the wounds have not affected your ability to exercise command.

Beginning in 1803, Britain, Austria, Russia and other allies formed the Third Coalition, yet another alliance aimed at making war against French Emperor Napoleon I. However, due to Napoleon’s unmatched battlefield brilliance, his armies, totaling 350,000 troops, have proved virtually unbeatable in European land campaigns. Yet at sea, Britain’s Royal Navy, its traditional first line of defense, typically holds the upper hand. Since only the narrow waters of the English Channel separate Britain from France, the “wooden walls” of the Royal Navy’s warships are all that protect the British from a French invasion.

Unfortunately, Napoleon’s conquest of Spain has allowed France to add the Spanish fleet to its naval forces. The French-Spanish combined fleet anchored in Spain’s Cadiz Harbor, located on the Atlantic Ocean coast near the Strait of Gibraltar, threatens to tip the naval balance in Napoleon’s favor. (See October 1805 map.) Moreover, British intelligence has confirmed the enemy fleet’s imminent departure from Cadiz under the command of French Vice Admiral Pierre Charles de Villeneuve. Your mission, therefore, is to engage and decisively defeat the combined fleet, lest it become a dagger Napoleon can use to fatally pierce Britain’s “wooden walls.”

CADIZ BLOCKADING FLEET

Late last month, you arrived off the coast of southwest Spain in your 104-gun flagship, HMS Victory, to take command of Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood’s vessels that were blockading Cadiz. You immediately applied the “Nelson Touch” to the blockade, moving the close-in fleet 50 miles west, beyond the enemy’s observation, and leaving only two frigates to keep watch on Villeneuve’s ships in Cadiz Harbor. You also placed two British warships within signaling distance between the frigates and the fleet to ensure that the enemy’s movements are relayed to your flagship within minutes.

You moved your fleet farther out to sea not only to entice Villeneuve to leave Cadiz Harbor but also to position your ships where they can react to any course the enemy commander might choose to sail upon, whether that is north to the English Channel, south to Gibraltar or west into the Atlantic.

Although your fleet should have 33 “ships of the line” (major warships), six of them have been dispatched to protect a convoy to Malta. Of the 27 you have left, seven are “three-deckers” (three with 100 guns and four with 98 guns) and 20 are “two-deckers” (one with 80 guns, 16 with 74 guns, and three with 64 guns). You also have four frigates (36-38 guns), one schooner (12 guns) and a cutter (10 guns). The 16,820 officers and crewmen manning your fleet possess better gunnery skills and are of better fighting quality than Villeneuve’s French and Spanish sailors.

You have formed your fleet into two divisions, a van column of 12 ships of the line you command from aboard HMS Victory and a rear column of 15 warships Collingwood controls from aboard HMS Royal Sovereign. You have made clear to all of your ship captains that your overriding aim is to force a “close and decisive battle” with Villeneuve’s fleet. You also emphasized that once the fighting is under way, they are expected to act aggressively on their own initiative without waiting for additional signals from your flagship.

FRENCH-SPANISH COMBINED FLEET

Admiral Villeneuve’s combined fleet outnumbers your fleet 33 to 27 in ships of the line. His 18 French and 15 Spanish warships are composed of one huge “four-decker” (136 guns), three “three-deckers” (two with 112 guns and one with 100 guns) and 29 “two-deckers” (six with 80 guns each, 22 with 74 guns, and one with 64 guns). His fleet’s smaller vessels are five frigates (40 guns) and two brigs/corvettes (18 guns). Villeneuve’s guns outnumber those aboard your ships, and his fleet is manned by a larger number of personnel – 21,580 officers and crewmen. Although, principally due to rampant sickness, this is still 2,000 sailors short of full crew complements.

Admiral Villeneuve is an experienced commander with whom you have previously crossed swords. In 1798, he commanded one of only two warships that escaped your crushing victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile, and then earlier this year, he led his fleet in a transatlantic round trip to France’s West Indies colonies and successfully evaded your vigorous pursuit. Clearly, you cannot afford to underestimate him.

Like you, Villeneuve has organized his fleet at Cadiz into two divisions, a battle force of 21 ships under his personal command and a reserve force of 12 ships under Spanish Admiral Don Federico Gravina. Demanding aggressive action by his captains, Villeneuve warned, “A captain who is not under fire is not at his post.”

Despite experiencing difficulties with Spanish authorities that delayed the reprovisioning and rearming of the French-Spanish combined fleet, Villeneuve has managed to prepare his ships to set sail from Cadiz by October 18. However, a large number of his men lack basic seamanship and gunnery skills, thus their progress has proceeded very slowly.

ABOARD HMS VICTORY

Once you receive the signal that Villeneuve’s fleet has begun departing Cadiz Harbor, you immediately gather your captains aboard HMS Victory for a final orders meeting. While you have already emphasized that initiative and aggressiveness will decide the battle’s outcome, you now want their input regarding how you should approach Villeneuve’s fleet to put your warships in the best possible position to close with and destroy the enemy vessels.

To accomplish your vitally important mission, you develop three possible courses of action:

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: LINE ABREAST ATTACK. Your first plan, which capitalizes on your British sailors’ superior gunnery skills, entails employing the standard tactic typically used in fleet engagements. This consists of forming a single battle line sailing parallel to Villeneuve’s battle line, and then once within cannon range, firing broadsides at the ships’ sails and rigging in an effort to disable his vessels and prevent them from maneuvering. Your captains will then position their ships to engage their opponents in close-quarter fighting.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: LINE AHEAD ATTACK. The second option relies on your crews’ superior seamanship. With this plan, you will array your British ships in a single battle line and sail them head-on against the enemy fleet’s van, concentrating your ships and firepower against the forward section of Villeneuve’s fleet. This tactic will block the enemy fleet’s progress, disrupt its battle formation and force Villeneuve to change course.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DOUBLE LINE CENTER ATTACK. Your final plan relies on aggressive action by your captains. Employing the concentrated force of two columns of ships – one led by you and the other by Collingwood – the British fleet will strike the thin center of Villeneuve’s long battle line, breaking through at a point where his ships at the van and rear of the line are unable to bring maximum firepower to bear. Once the enemy line is broken, your captains will engage their opponents in close-quarter combat.

With the French-Spanish combined fleet now heading out of Cadiz Harbor, you must decide on a course of action without further delay.

What next, Admiral Nelson?

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: LINE ABREAST ATTACK

Collingwood, supported by several of the longest-serving captains, argues that the traditional line abreast attack formation has served the Royal Navy well in previous battles. He singles out this tactic’s effective use during two battles in which he took part – one against the French navy at “the Glorious First of June” in 1794, and another against the Spanish navy at Cape St. Vincent in 1797.

Although you have never felt bound by tradition when fighting naval battles, you agree that there is an advantage to employing an attack formation with which your captains are thoroughly familiar. Thus you decide to choose Course of Action One.

By positioning your blockading fleet 50 miles from the Spanish coast, you have encouraged Villeneuve to depart Cadiz Harbor with his combined fleet. However, your ships are now at a disadvantage, as they must cover this distance to overtake the enemy. Moreover, the winds are not cooperating. They are so light that your vessels make little headway.

Concerned that Villeneuve might avoid being intercepted, you boldly order your captains to raise all sails, including cumbersome steering sails, to achieve the maximum possible speed. You realize this could prove dangerous during combat since the additional canvas might obscure the vision of your captains and helmsmen and could greatly increase the chance of fire breaking out once the cannonades commence. To lessen these risks, you direct your captains to cut away the excess sails once the battle is joined.

Fortunately, Villeneuve helps you achieve your goal of intercepting his French-Spanish fleet. Due to his shortage of crewmen and large number of inexperienced sailors, he faces extreme difficulty getting his ships into sailing formation outside the harbor. Indeed, two of his huge “three-decker” ships narrowly avoid a disastrous collision. Furthermore, the light winds are slowing his fleet’s speed of maneuver. Nonetheless, Villeneuve does not risk ordering his ships to raise all sails. Thus your fleet steadily gains on his ships, finally overtaking them off the Spanish coast about 20 miles west of Cape Trafalgar.

Although your long approach is visible to Villeneuve, he makes no attempt to flee back into the safety of Cadiz Harbor. It appears the French admiral intends to fight. You conclude that he must be confident that his numerical advantage in guns and ships of the line will hand him a victory.

As the parallel battle lines come within cannon range of each other, the ships on both sides erupt in broadsides. The rounds splinter and smash the wooden masts and spars while shredding and sometimes setting fire to the canvas sails. One British captain who is slow to cut down his extra sails is forced to pull out of the battle line to fight a raging fire that threatens to destroy his ship.

Although your British gunners are firing faster and more accurately than their French and Spanish counterparts, the combined fleet’s greater number of ships proves to be a significant advantage for Villeneuve in this traditional line abreast battle. Since he has more vessels, his fleet can better absorb the British broadsides while also concentrating the fire of multiple enemy ships against individual British ships. In short, the sheer quantity of enemy guns is threatening to overcome the superior quality of British gunnery.

Determining the broadsides have gone on long enough, you signal to your captains to engage the enemy in close-quarter, ship-to-ship combat. In the ensuing melee, the skilled seamanship of your sailors under the command of aggressive captains soon gains your fleet the upper hand. Your flagship is in the thick of the fighting when you suddenly feel a tremendous punch to your left shoulder. You drop to the deck gasping for air, the victim of a French musket ball.

The officers who rush to your side realize your wound is fatal, yet they attempt to raise your spirits by pointing out that Villeneuve is now fleeing with his surviving ships. Your fleet has destroyed or captured 11 of his French and Spanish warships and has heavily damaged perhaps half of his 22 surviving ships of the line. Your officers congratulate you on winning the battle.

Yet you realize that several of your ships have been sunk as well, and that many of the others have suffered heavy damage. You fear this is too high a price to pay for a victory in which you have merely defeated, but not destroyed, the French-Spanish combined fleet.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: LINE AHEAD ATTACK

You decide that Course of Action Two, attacking line ahead, will allow you to overcome the enemy fleet’s advantage in numbers by concentrating your British ships against the van of Villeneuve’s battle line. This tactic also will force Villeneuve to change course, thereby disrupting his fleet’s formation at the critical moment when the opposing sides come into contact. Because of your sailors’ superior seamanship, you will be able to react faster than the enemy and thus outmaneuver him.

To ensure your fleet reaches a position ahead of Villeneuve’s fleet, you set your ships in motion shortly after you receive the first report of the enemy departing Cadiz Harbor. However, since the winds are blowing only lightly, you make the bold decision to hoist every sail, including steering sails, to ensure all possible speed. Since this move is risky – the exposed canvas greatly increases the chance of fire once the cannonades begin – you instruct your captains to cut away the extra sails once the battle is joined.

As your fleet sails eastward toward the Spanish coast, your signal ships indicate that the enemy fleet’s departure from Cadiz Harbor is proceeding very slowly. This is great news, as it means your ships will have time to arrive at the necessary position to intercept Villeneuve’s fleet. Yet at daylight on October 20, you scan the horizon and still see no sign of his ships. You set a course for Cadiz Harbor, hoping this will bring you into contact with his fleet.

Finally, your signal ships indicate Villeneuve’s fleet is not heading toward you, but rather sailing due west from Cadiz, into the Atlantic Ocean. Although this information prompts you to make another course change, your fleet maintains its speed advantage since Villeneuve still has not ordered his ships to hoist all sails.

When dawn breaks on October 21, you spot the enemy fleet at last. However, the French admiral has once again changed course. Now, instead of heading west into the Atlantic, he is leading his ships back east. You immediately realize he must have been alerted to your fleet’s approach and is rushing back to the safety of Cadiz Harbor rather than facing you in battle.

Your plan to engage Villeneuve’s fleet in a line ahead attack has failed since you are unable to position your ships ahead of his ships. Your only option now is to pursue the fleeing French-Spanish combined fleet and attempt to catch as many enemy vessels as possible before they can escape.

Although Villeneuve can see that your ships are using all sails, he still refuses to order his captains to do likewise. Yet you can understand his reluctance – raising all sails is a manpower-intensive procedure that even skilled crews find difficult to manage, and he has a shortage of sailors and a large number of inexperienced seamen.

In what is now a race for Cadiz, your ships steadily gain on the rear of Villeneuve’s fleet. Led by HMS Victory, the first 12 ships of the line in your fleet overtake the 10 rearmost vessels in his fleet – all of which are Spanish ships, including Admiral Gravina’s three-decker flagship. Your aggressive captains quickly maneuver their ships against the enemy vessels, and in lopsided, close-quarter combat, they destroy or capture all but one of the 10 Spanish ships. Yet through the smoke of battle, you see the rest of Villeneuve’s fleet – two dozen ships of the line – entering Cadiz Harbor.

You have achieved a victory, but only a partial one. Although not a single British ship was sunk and only a few were severely damaged, Napoleon still retains a strong fleet to contest the Royal Navy’s control of the sea.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DOUBLE LINE CENTER ATTACK

You decide that Course of Action Three, a concentrated attack on the enemy fleet’s center, can help you overcome Villeneuve’s numerical advantage by preventing the ships at the van and rear of his line from firing on your fleet. You inform your captains that once your two columns have broken through the enemy’s battle line, they are to maneuver their ships alongside Villeneuve’s ships and defeat them in close-quarter combat.

First, however, you must cover the 50-mile distance to Villeneuve’s fleet as quickly as possible to ensure you can engage his ships in battle. Unfortunately, due to the light winds, you are unable to achieve the necessary speed. To remedy this situation, you boldly order your ships to raise all sails, including steering sails. Such a move is considered dangerous, principally because the additional exposed canvas increases the risk of fire once the cannonades commence. As a precaution, you order your captains to cut away all extra sails once the battle is joined.

The light winds also slow Villeneuve’s ships; nonetheless, the French admiral does not risk raising all his sails. Moreover, his shortage of crewmen and the inexperience of many of his French and Spanish sailors affect his ships’ ability to maneuver into line formation. Villeneuve’s problems allow you to intercept his fleet off the Spanish coast about 20 miles west of Cape Trafalgar.

Sailing in a double line formation, you and Collingwood swiftly lead your respective columns toward Villeneuve’s combined fleet. The enemy ships, meanwhile, maintain their single line formation. Apparently your French counterpart assumes you will switch to a traditional battle line once you have closed the distance to his fleet.

However, you surprise Villeneuve by sailing your two columns directly at the center of his battle line. You then further confound him by ordering your column to bear slightly to port, thereby giving him the impression that you intend to attack the ships in his van. This forces Villeneuve to hold his fleet’s course, and thus delays his van from turning back to help his threatened ships in the center.

With your flagship within range of enemy fire, you bear back to starboard, once again leading your ships toward the center of the enemy line. Your attack – led by the three-decker ships HMS Victory (104 guns), Temeraire (98 guns) and Neptune (98 guns), followed closely by Conqueror and Leviathan (74 guns each) – is a fist of “sheer weight of metal and momentum.” Your column slices through the enemy line, with each of your ships passing under the stern of its target and raking it with concentrated fire. Your aggressive captains then close with the opposing warships in completely one-sided melee combat. One after the other, the enemy ships strike their colors in surrender.

Meanwhile, Collingwood’s column breaks through the enemy center and concentrates on the rearmost 15 ships of Villeneuve’s battle line. His targets include a three-decker ship bearing the Spanish admiral’s flag. The British guns mercilessly batter the enemy ship.

At this point in the action, you are suddenly doubled over by a searing pain in your left shoulder, the victim of a mortal wound delivered by a French musket ball fired from atop an enemy ship’s rigging. Yet before you die, you recognize that you have destroyed Villeneuve’s fleet and won a decisive victory from which Napoleon’s naval forces can never recover.

HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS

Nelson chose the unconventional tactic of attacking the center of the enemy battle line with a concentrated force sailing in two columns (COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DOUBLE LINE CENTER ATTACK), and the battle unfolded as described in the COA Three narrative.

Applying the “Nelson Touch” – a brilliant combination of innovative tactics, aggressive command and inspiring leadership – Nelson won the Royal Navy’s most decisive victory in one of the most famous naval battles in history. His British fleet sank or captured 11 French ships and 11 Spanish ships, yet it did not lose a single British vessel. Villeneuve was seized when Nelson’s men captured his ship, and although Gravina escaped back to Cadiz, he died of his battle wounds five months later.

Admiral Nelson did not survive his greatest triumph. He was struck down by a musket ball that entered his left shoulder and ripped a path through his lung, ribs and an artery. However, he lived long enough to realize that he had achieved a decisive victory. The Battle of Trafalgar ended Napoleon’s hopes of invading England and decided the struggle for command of the seas in Britain’s favor. Indeed, Nelson’s 1805 naval triumph at Trafalgar is often cited as the decisive battle of the 1803-15 Wars Against Napoleon.

 

 Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.

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