Nelson montage

Battle of Trafalgar


The background to the action

The build up to the Battle of Trafalgar began more than two years previously. 

On 16 May 1803 the experimental peace of the Treaty of Amiens failed, and England again declared war on France.


The avowed 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.

Battle of Trafalgar

Napoleon had 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 1803 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

"Blockade" of Toulon - July 1803 to December 1804

Nelson's immediate task was to watch the French fleet within the port: "My first object must be to kep the Battle of TrafalgarFrench 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.


The French fleet by Nelson was under the command of Admiral La Touche-Treville who had repulsed the attack on Boulogne two  years before. 

Nelson 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."

In 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 watch-towers.

"My 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."


On 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."

As 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."


In 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

On 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.


Spanish treasure ships were captured and other ships Battle of Trafalgar mapattacked. 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. 


Finally, 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 Britain. 


December 1804 The French Admiral Villeneuve was given orders to put to sea from Toulon. 
January/February 1805 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 1805 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 world. 

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.


It 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 his movements.  


As he crossed the Atlantic Nelson already had his battle plans drawn, but the battle never took place. 


Villeneuve' orders appeared contradictory, and devoid of purpose or energy the French fell back upon inactivity. 


Believing Nelson's fleet to be considerably bigger than it was Villeneuve turned and stood back across the Atlantic.


Villeneuve's 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 him.  

Calder's Action

As 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 1805 Nelson had joined his old friend Admiral Cornwallis off Brest. He was ordered back to Portsmouth with  the Victory and the Superb. 
August 18 1805 Nelson arrived at Portsmouth
August 19 1805

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 1805 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

The Times reported:


It 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.

(n.b. sailing with her was the frigate Euryalus, Captain H Blackwood)


The Times reported:


The 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.  


The Times reported:


Arrived 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 him.

September 29 1805

Nelson joined the Fleet off Cadiz.

"The reception I met with on joining the Fleet", Nelson wrote to a friend, "caused the sweetest sensation of my life."

October 8 1805 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.

The Nelson Touch

During 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".


In 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 Ships". 


Collingwood's 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.

Nelson would then cut through at about their centre and the advanced squadron two or three or four ships ahead of that. 


This 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." 

October 19 1805

9.30 a.m.

Captain Duff on board the Mars relayed a message from Captain BAlckwood on the Euryalus: "The enemy are coming out of port".

An eager Nelson then signalled: "General chase, S.E."

October 21 1805


The Combined 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.

October 21 1805

8 a.m.

Each ship in the Combined Fleet turned through 180 degrees and they began to sail to the North 

October 21 1805

11 a.m.

As the two Fleets approached each other they knew that in just one hour their guns would be in range of each other. 

The British Fleet was inferior in every area:

Ships 27 versus 33

Guns 2148 versus 2568

Men 17000 versus 30000

October 21 1805

11-11.30 a.m.

Nelson raised the famous "England Expects" signal. It was followed by a gradually increasing roar as thousands of sailors cheered their chief.

October 21 1805

11.30 a.m.

Villeneuve ordered the combined sqaudrons to commence firing when the British came within range.