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Battle of Trafalgar

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) proved the most significant naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, and the pivotal naval battle of the 19th century.

The British Royal Navy led by Horatio Nelson destroyed a combined French and Spanish fleet and in doing so guaranteed to England uncontested control of the world's oceans for more than 100 years. Because the British won the Battle of Trafalgar, they, not the French, would rule an expanded empire that included India, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, around the world. It would be the British, not the French, that would be in the driver's seat for the world economy, and it would be London, not Paris, that would become the pre-eminent financial seat of Europe.

In 1805 under Napoleon, the French were masters of the European continent, the British still ruled the seas. The British, during the course of the war, managed to impose a fairly effective blockade on France. This blockade had the effect of keeping the French from fully mobilizing her own naval resources. So the French were unable to invade England although Britain could always land in France. Disgusted with this situation, Napoleon Bonaparte determined to sweep the Royal Navy from the seas, and issued orders for the French Navy to combine with forces from the Spanish Navy, (Napoleon ruled Spain), break the English blockade, then, escort an invasion force of some 350,000 French soldiers to the shores of England.

Now, Napoleon had had has naval troubles with the British before. The French occupation of Egypt was ultimately undone when Nelson smashed the French Fleet off Alexandria. Were this all Nelson did, he would be still be regarded as a famous admiral, but his greatest day was yet to come.

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By the late 1700s the development of the modern "ship of the line" had progressed to the point where the larger naval cannons were just able to break through the ever-thickening sides of the ships -- but only after repeated shots. This led to battles of attrition where lines of ships battered at each other until one side lost, at which point both would limp home for repairs.

Ships had one weak spot however, on the stern. Here a single shot would often penetrate the thinner plankings, and if it did so, could run down the length of the decks. However tempting this sort of attack might be, ships were so slow to manuver at the time, that it was unlikely that one could make such an attack en-mass while still protecting yourself from being attacked in the same way in return.

Instead both admirals would attempt to form up into long lines and pick a sailing angle to the wind that made it difficult for the opposing fleet to catch them if the picked any other angle. The two lines would then maneuver, sometimes for days, in an effort to gain position in which a small part of the opposing fleet could be attacked by your entire force.

A hint of a new tactic came to be known in 1782. After defeating the British attempt to re-enforce their deployment in what would soon be the United States during the Battle of the Chesapeake, the French decided to attempt the taking of Bermuda. Facing them was a smaller fleet under George Brydges Rodney. When they met on April 12th things looked excellent for the French, but a missed signal made their line split up. Rodney quickly signaled a 90 degree turn in his own line, running his ships between the French line while they continued to sail in their original directions. His ships ended up firing right into the sterns of the French ships, and soon reduced six of their main ships.


In the Napoleonic era, the Royal Navy had long been mired in pointless tradition, but a young class of admirals quietly looked at naval doctrine and decided it was so much bunk. Nelson was part of that class. After proving himself at the Battle of the Nile, much of the former tactics were open to investigation.

Knowing that the coming battle would be in open waters, "tricks" of bravado like those of the Nile would not be applicable. Instead they selected Rodney's battle as the pattern for their strategy and set about investigating ways to perform it on command. The night before the battle all was in place.

The Battle

At Cadiz, in Spain, a combined French and Spanish fleet assembled, and finally set sail. Lord Nelson's fleet had bottled up the Mediterranean, and thus, the combined French and Spanish fleets came to fight their way out. The French and Spanish Fleet numbered 33 ships, and Nelson had about 29.

The battle progressed pretty much according to Nelson's plan. At 11:50 AM, Nelson sent throughout the fleet the famous semaphore signal, "England expects every man to do his duty". He then charged the French position, leading one column in HMS Victory; HMS Royal Sovereign[?] led the other column.

As the battle opened the British fleet approached the French and Spanish from right angles, sailing in two lines on either end of the opposing line. This way the best the French could have done would have been to turn their ships 90 degrees, essentially splitting up into 33 individual lines. Instead they held their ground, and watched in dismay as the English sailed right through the lines.

A general mle ensued, and during that fight, the Victory locked masts with the French Redoubtable. A sniper[?]'s bullet struck Nelson in the spine. Nelson was carried below decks, and died as the battle that would make him a legend, was ending in favour of the British.


France was forever altered by their loss at Trafalgar. Napoleon's ambitions against England were thwarted. Nelson would go down a hero, and the most famous square in England, Trafalgar Square, would be named for the victory. Without France to challenge her -- Germany was not yet unified, and Russia was no naval power -- England would rule the World's oceans for 100 years.

In Literature

See also: British naval supremacy.

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