In 1805 anticipation of a great naval battle between Britain and France had been building for months. The British Royal Navy had blockaded French ports and established its supremacy on the seas. To break that blockade, France planned to combine its northern and southern fleets and sweep the English Channel free of British ships. This, in turn, would enable the Grande Armée, which Napoleon had massed along the channel, to descend unmolested on the British coast. The outcome would dictate the course of the Napoleonic Wars.
Just after dawn on October 21, twenty-seven British ships of the line met 33 French and allied Spanish vessels at Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. Many of the French and Spanish ships were larger and better built than their British counterparts. They also carried more and heavier guns. If potential “throw weight” were all that mattered, Napoleon’s fleet surely would have carried the day. However, by half past 4 that afternoon, 18 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet had surrendered, one had exploded and the British had won a shattering victory.
Lord Horatio Nelson dispensed with the traditional tactic of drawing alongside the enemy fleet in a single line to exchange broadsides. He opted instead to run straight at the Franco-Spanish fleet in two lines to break the enemy formation and compel close-quarters combat. This took nerves of steel, as ships in the British vanguard were subjected to unanswered broadsides for nearly an hour. As the opposing fleets closed, Nelson sent his legendary flag signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
Nelson’s men did not let him down. Every ship flew as much sail as could be lashed to the masts, several drawing ahead of Nelson and Vice Adm. Cuthbert Collingwood (leading the second line) to absorb some of the fire being directed at their respective flagships, Victory and Royal Sovereign. Nonetheless, Nelson soon fell, mortally wounded by sniper fire.
- Genius wins. Lord Nelson was a brilliant admiral with the courage to run risks that would make most men quake.
- Incompetence loses. Napoleon didn’t trust French commander Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. In fact, the admiral’s relief orders were en route when he sailed out of Cadiz.
- Pick the best, then trust them. Nelson chose only captains with demonstrated seamanship and conspicuous bravery. He trusted them to fight to the death and expected their replacements to be equally ferocious in combat.
- Inspire confidence. To fight under Nelson was an honor, and his officers and sailors were certain of victory. Villeneuve, on the other hand, was openly pessimistic, a self-defeating virus that quickly spread through his fleet. In the midst of battle, one captain read the orders coming from the flagship and announced the fleet was doomed because “our admiral does not know his business.”
- Share the love. Nelson was beloved by officers and crews alike. As word of his death spread throughout the fleet, men who would have killed their own mother for a shilling broke down and wept uncontrollably. Most Franco-Spanish captains loathed Villeneuve.
- Shoot to kill. French and Spanish sailors were trained to immobilize enemy ships by damaging their sails and rigging. British gun crews simply shot into opposing vessels’ hulls. At Trafalgar, almost every ship-on-ship engagement was decided by the first British broadside, which crippled the targeted vessel.
- Surrender is not an option. While many a French ship struck its colors the instant its captain decided the ship had fought as long as “honor demanded,” British captains refused to yield. When Nelson, on his deathbed, was brought the news of a great victory, his only question was, “Did any of our ships strike?” Assured that none had, he died peacefully.
- Nothing trumps experience. The poorly trained and often-inexperienced Franco-Spanish sailors were no match for Nelson’s old salts.
- Break the rules. At Trafalgar, Nelson broke every rule in the book. His headon approach exposed British ships to unanswered enemy broadsides. Then, once his fleet had broken Villeneuve’s line, Nelson yielded control to a free-for-all. Confronted with unorthodox tactics, the Franco-Spanish fleet folded.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.