The Battle of Trafalgar was a sea battle between the British and the French-Spanish Navy. It occurred on October 21, 1805, at Cape Trafalgar on the Atlantic coast of Spain. In this decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, France and Spain lost twenty-two ships, while the British lost none. During the battle, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, Commander of the British Navy, was killed. The United Fleet of France and Spain was commanded by the French Admiral Pierre Villeneuve. Under his command was Spanish Admiral Federico Gravina, who led the Spanish forces.
The Battle of Trafalgar was part of the Third Coalition War and the main maritime confrontation of the 19th century. The victory of Britain confirmed its’ naval superiority, established in the 18th century. After the defeat, Napoleon abandoned his plan of attack on southern England and focused on the war against the other two main forces of Europe: Austria and Russia.
After May 1803, after a brief peace, Britain and France were again at war. Napoleon decided to invade Britain. During the war, Great Britain imposed a sea blockade of France, which affected trade and prevented France from mobilizing all of its naval forces. Despite several successful breakthroughs, French ships were not able to stop the British fleet, which could easily attack them both on its territory and outside it.
On October 5, 1804, four Spanish frigates, carrying large amounts of money, were stopped by British ships. Spain responded by declaring war on Great Britain and, thus, entered into an alliance with France.
Britain had a well-trained and experienced naval officer corps, while the best officers of the French fleet were either executed or suspended from service at the beginning of the Great French Revolution. The most reliable person, entrusted with the command of Napoleon’s Mediterranean fleet, was Pierre-Charles Villeneuve.
Napoleon in the Boulogne camp was preparing a powerful military landing, which was planned for the British Isles. However, they could not cross the channel, because they were completely defenseless against British battleships.
The United French-Spanish navy, despite the objections of the Spanish commander, left Cadiz on October 19 and moved south toward Gibraltar. Contrary to the advice of his admirals, Villeneuve, adhering to the old linear tactics, formed his fleet in one line.
Early in the morning of October 21, the signalmen saw the approaching English fleet coming from the west. The Allied fleet was 10-12 miles from Cape Trafalgar. For a while, Villeneuve hesitated – whether to fight or return. Villeneuve ordered his ships to move back to Cadiz. This meant that the forward ships became the rear ships. Such a maneuver before the start of the battle upset the battle order, dangerous rifts appeared in the ranks of the Allied ships, and some ships fell behind.
Nelson took into account all the circumstances. He took advantage of a weak wind and decided to abandon the classic linear tactics, where the outcome of the battle would be decided by the number of ships participating in the battle, as well as the number and caliber of artillery. Nelson aligned his ships in two columns. The Admiral’s flag was raised on the ship Victory. This ship took the head of the left division. The right division was led by Rear Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in the ship Royal Sovereign.
The first salvo of the Battle of Trafalgar was heard. The French ship St.Anne opened fire on the Royal Sovereign. Subsequently, allied ships opened fire.
Gunners on British ships greatly exceeded the poor training of Allied gunners: on average, for every volley from the French and Spanish, there were three volleys from the British. Because of the weak wind, British ships entered the battle in long time intervals. The allies were troubled by indecision and poor coordination. The Spanish Allies broke away from the central group, and, ignoring Villeneuve’s signals, continued to go to Cadiz. They took nine ships with him.
Soon Villeneuve surrendered. By this point, 12 ships of the French and Spanish could not continue the battle or were captured. The structures of the battleships on both sides were hopelessly broken, and each captain chose his own direction/destination.
Final Stage of the Battle
Admiral Collingwood was at the head of the ships breaking through the enemy’s formation. He rushed after the ships of the Spanish fleet that were moving toward Cadiz. The allied rear was by then immobilized and could not maneuver, presenting an easier target.
The commander of the Allies, Admiral Dumanuar, seeing the Collingwood’s breakthrough, finally made a turnaround. He ordered all of his ships to follow the course to the west-southwest. This course ran considerably more away from the location battle. However, many did not obey the commanders order and turned left, rushing into the very thick of the battle. Nearly all the ships that followed the headship rushed after him. A new phase of battle ensued when fresh allied forces entered the battle against the battered ships of the left division of the British.
On October 22, a storm raged all day, which sank many ships, that had barely kept afloat, or threw crewmembers overboard. The crews fought for their ships, hastily patching holes, pumping water from the ships, splicing or replacing the broken wood.
Results of the Battle of Trafalgar
The Allies, France and Spain, lost 18 ships (one sunk, the rest captured) and about 15,000 crewmen were killed, wounded or surrendered. The British captured or sank almost the entire Allied fleet, without losing a single ship. However, the strategic results of this battle were much more significant. France and Spain forever lost their dominant sea power. Napoleon abandoned his plans to attack and invade England and the kingdom of Naples. Great Britain finally acquired the status of the Ruler of the Seas.