Battle of Trafalgar
background to the action
build up to the Battle of Trafalgar began more than two years
16 May 1803 the experimental peace of the Treaty of Amiens failed, and
England again declared war on France.
intent of the French was to invade Britain - and they would do this by
gaining control of the Channel for long enough to allow an invasion force
to cross the Channel.
claimed that "England alone could not venture upon a struggle with
France", but indeed by 1805 England was standing alone against the
combined might of both France and Spain.
He called the
English Channel - "the ditch which will be crossed when anyone has
the audacity to attempt it."
During 1803 and
1804 both sides jockeyed for position.
The strategy of
the British was to blockade the French fleet - principally in the ports of
Brest and Toulon and in the Texel and Rochefort.
| 16 May 1803
||Britain declared war on France and Nelson was appointed
Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet.
| 18 May 1803
||Nelson hoisted his flag in the Victory
| 6th July
||Nelson joined the Mediterranean fleet off Toulon. In Toulon
at that time were seven ships-of-the-line with two more completing and
three on the stocks. Against these Nelson's fleet mustered only seven
ships-of-the-line and eight frigates
of Toulon - July 1803 to December 1804
immediate task was to watch the French fleet within the port: "My
first object must be to kep the French fleet in check, and if they put out
to sea, to have force enough to annihilate them." The ultimate
purpose of his presence was the defence of England against invasion. The
threat of this has long been at the forefront of British fears but, at
last, the Grande Armee, more than 120,000 strong, was encamped in the Pas
de Calais and in Belgium and Bonaparte himself was at Boulogne. Before the
barges could sail, the French must command the Channel and that could only
be attempted by concentrating all their squadrons. Those were now kept
apart and in port by the Royal navy under Lord Keith in the North Sea,
Cornwallis off Ushant and Nelson off Toulon.
French fleet by Nelson was under the command of Admiral La Touche-Treville
who had repulsed the attack on Boulogne two years before.
commented;"La Touche was sent for on purpose, because as he beat me
at Boulogne, to beat me again; but he seems very loathe to try."
the hope that he would come out, Nelson kept most of his own ships beyond
the horizon with only a weak squadron within watch of the French
system is the very contrary of blockading", he explained. "Every
opportunity has been offered the enemy to put to sea, for it is there we
hope to realise the . . . . expectations of our country."
another occasion he stressed, "There seems an idea that I am blocking
up the French fleet in Toulon. Nothing could be more untrue. I have never
blockaded them a moment. All my wish and the anxious wish of this fleet is
to have them out."
weeks became months the task of keeping ships and men seaworthy and ready
for action became in itself a challenge equal to any Nelson had met. Some
idea of the conditions experienced are contained in a letter nelson wrote
to Emma: "Imagine what a cruise off Toulon is - even in summer-time
we have a hard gale every week and two days' heavy swell."
August of 1804 La Touche-Treville suddenly died and he was replaced by
Admiral Pierre Villeneuve who had been one of Nelson's opponents at the
Battle of the Nile.
The Spanish enter the war
14 September 1804 Rear-Admiral Cochrane had already reported to Cornwallis
and the Admiralty that the Spanish were beginning to arm their ships in El
Ferrol harbour. Cochrane received an order that he should not let the
Spanish ships leave the harbour. Britai was not officially at war with
Spain, but this was tantamount to just such an declaration, and marked a
serious escalation in a very dangerous game.
treasure ships were captured and other ships attacked. Vice-Admiral Sir
John Orde was ordered to take command of a new squadon at Cadiz, with
orders to "seize any Spanish treasure or warships." In many ways
the British were accomplishing what Napoleon had failed to do - bring the
Spaniards into the war on the side of the French.
on the first day of the new year, 1805, Cochrane sent an urgent
"secret" dispatch to Cornwallis: he had just learned "that
war was actually declared (on 12th December 1804) by Spain against Great
||The French Admiral Villeneuve was given orders to put to sea
|| Nelson took his small fleet of eleven sail-of-the-line to water at
Sardinia, leaving two frigates to keep watch on Toulon. The French used
this opportunity to break out, but the weather prevented them beating to
westward and on 19 February Nelson learned that they had put back to
Toulon in miserable order, with four vessels of their fleet disabled.
| 29 March
|| Again, Villeneuve stole out of Toulon, with eleven ships-of-the-line
and six frigates. This time the wind and weather gave Nelson no indication
whither they were bound. Nelson letters show that he bore on his shoulders
the fortuns of his country, the fate of Europe, the destiny of the
chase across the Atlantic
Early in April
the absence of all news convinced Nelson that the French must have sailed
to the West. He set his course for the straits of Gibraltar. The winds
that had favoured the French turned and became unfavourable to Nelson.
was not until May 4 that Nelson felt an easterly wind, and to the
astonishment of his officers and men hoisted the signal to weigh. He
waited off Lagos Bay to protect a convoy and troops en route to the
Mediterranean. Finally on May 18 Nelson was able to depart on his most
monumentous mission. More and more the belief was growing upon him that
the destination of the French was the West Indies.
Nelson was left
with ten sail of the line and three frigates, but of his battleships
several were in wretched condition, and one, the Superb was quite unfit
for a long voyage. The eagerness of her captain, Keats, to be with Nelson
outweighed all her defects, though she delayed the fleet at every turn.
The French had a
month's start but Nelson expected to gain a fortnight by the rapidity of
As he crossed
the Atlantic Nelson already had his battle plans drawn, but the battle
never took place.
orders appeared contradictory, and devoid of purpose or energy the French
fell back upon inactivity.
Nelson's fleet to be considerably bigger than it was Villeneuve turned and
stood back across the Atlantic.
orders were now to add another fifteen French and Spanish ships to his
fleet and give Napoleon's army the longed-for opportunity to cross the
Channel. Success was within Napoleon's grasp if Villeneuve had acted with
determination. But the rush of Nelson's ships in pursuit demoralised
he approached Europe Villeneuve ran up against Admiral Robert Calder and
fifteen British ships off Finisterre. Calder failed miserably to destroy
the French, nor even inflict very serious damage on them. Thefleets parted
in the fog, and Villeneuve decided to run to Cadiz
| August 11 1805
Having anchored in Vigo Bay, Villeneuve and the Spanish fleet from Ferrol
put to sea. Instead of heading northwards he turned South to Cadiz where
he intended to refit and reprovision his ships. When news of this reached
Napoleon he broke forth in a tumult of rage: "What a fleet! What
sacrifices for nothing! What an admiral! All hope has vanished!"
| August 14
|| Nelson had joined his old friend Admiral Cornwallis off Brest. He was
ordered back to Portsmouth with the Victory and the Superb.
| August 18
|| Nelson arrived at Portsmouth
| August 19
Nelson proceeded to London and
Merton. So began Nelson's last 25 days in England. In London the following
scene was witnessed by Lord Minto. "It is really quite affecting to
see the wonder and admiration and love and respect of the whole world. It
is beyond anything represented in a play or a poem."
| August 20
|| The combined French and Spanish Fleet reached Cadiz.
| September 2 1805
|| Captain Blackwood, captain of the frigate Euryalus, reached Merton with
the news that the enemy were at Cadiz.
| September 13 1805
|| Nelson left Merton for the last time.
| September 14 1805
Nelson arrived at Portsmouth
and boarded the Victory.
An enormous crowd had gathered
to witness his embarkation, but he strove to elude its attentions by
taking his boat at the bathing machines on Southsea beach, instead of at
the usual landing place. The crowd was not easily to be avoided. Men
poured about him as about a saint, eager to look upon his resolute face,
sobbing and falling down before him in prayer. Never had mortal man so
true and tender a welcome.
"I had their huzzas
before, I have their hearts now, " he said to Captain Hardy as he
stepped from English soil.
| September 16 1805
is a circumstance not unworthy of remark, in connection with the success
which has invariably attended Lord NELSON, that the wind, which has blown
to the Westward and to other points, which was foul for sailing for a
considerable time past, shifted on Saturday, a few minutes after his
Lordship reached the Victory. At eight o'clock yesterday morning the
Victory got under weigh, and by twelve she had cleared the Isle of Wight.
sailing with her was the frigate Euryalus, Captain H Blackwood)
gallant Vice-Admiral Sir T. DUCKWORTH, K.B. has received his appointment
as second in command to the brave Vice-Admiral Lord NELSON. It is supposed
he will hoist his flag on board the Ajax, of 74 guns, now in Cawsand Bay,
ready to join him, with the Thunderer, of 74 guns, on his appearance to
the S.E. of the Eddystone.
this morning at eight o'clock, the Victory, of 100 guns, Vice-Admiral Lord
NELSON, in company with a frigate, which he sent in to call ot the ships
ready here, when the Ajax and Thunderer, of 74 guns each, sailed to join
| September 29 1805
joined the Fleet off Cadiz.
reception I met with on joining the Fleet", Nelson wrote to a friend,
"caused the sweetest sensation of my life."
| October 8
|| By this date, Nelson had an inshore squadron of five
frigates and two schooners off Cadiz, and had stationed three fast-sailing
74-gun ships, Mars, Defence, and Colussus, nine to twelve miles between
the Fleet and Cadiz "in order that I may get the information from the
Frigates as expeditiously as possible".
| October 15 1805
|| In the previous two weeks there had been an almost
continuous movement of ships. However, by October 15, the British fleet
had rached its full strength - twenty-seven ships of the line and five
frigates - as the force which would meet the Combined Fleet a week later.
these final days of blockade, Nelson invited all the fleet's captains to
dinner onboard the Victory. During one of these meals he first mentioned
his new plan for attacking the Franco-Spanish Fleet, the "Nelson
Touch", which stunned them "like an electric shock".
the approach to the enemy, the fleet would be divided into three seperate
lines. There were to be two major lines of sixteen ships each, accompanied
by "an advanced squadron of eight of the fastest-sailing two-decked
line would lead through the enemy battle line at about their twelth ship
from the rear and thus cut off and encircle the entire rearguard.
would then cut through at about their centre and the advanced squadron two
or three or four ships ahead of that.
would leave upwards of twenty sail of the Combined Fleet untouched, but
"it must be some time before they could perform a manouevre to bring
their force back to attack any part of the British Fleet."
on board the Mars relayed a message from Captain BAlckwood on the
Euryalus: "The enemy are coming out of port".
Nelson then signalled: "General chase, S.E."
Fleet under a cloudy sky and "light airs" were in a scattered
formation nine miles long, a dozen miles from Cape Trafalgar, maintaining
a southerly course.
| Each ship in the Combined Fleet turned through 180
degrees and they began to sail to the North
As the two
Fleets approached each other they knew that in just one hour their guns
would be in range of each other.
Fleet was inferior in every area:
| Nelson raised the famous "England
Expects" signal. It was followed by a gradually increasing roar
as thousands of sailors cheered their chief.
ordered the combined sqaudrons to commence firing when the British came