The Battle of Trafalgar took place on October 21, 1805, between the French and Spanish fleets commanded by Vice Admiral Villeneuve and the British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Nelson. While Vice Admiral Nelson was killed, the British were able to prevail despite being outnumbered. After the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon abandoned his plans to conquer Britain, and the British Navy established its dominance over the oceans. Following this decisive victory, England performed a number of symbolic acts to honor the occasion.
Why was the Battle of Trafalgar fought?
After the short Peace of Amiens, hostilities between the United Kingdom and France resumed on May 18. Napoleon Bonaparte‘s goal of invading and conquering Britain remained steadfast despite his extensive travels throughout Europe. In order to vanquish his most formidable foe, he mustered an army in the Boulogne camp.
When the French monarch dared to challenge the British, he had to do so with a fleet that could compete with and hopefully defeat the British navy. Conquering the landmass without first dominating the waters around the island was an absurd idea. So he gave Vice Admiral Villeneuve the job of assembling a fleet.
Who fought in the Battle of Trafalgar?
Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet, under the command of Vice Admiral Villeneuve, fought against the British fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Nelson, at the Battle of Trafalgar. It was Napoleon himself who gave Villeneuve, the military leader, the responsibility of assembling a navy strong enough to confront and destroy the British. Vice Admiral Nelson, on the other hand, was picked by the British government because of the innovative ways in which he broke with conventional military strategy.
Nelson was able to think on his feet and take swift action, allowing him to consistently outmaneuver his superiors. Even though he was killed in action at Trafalgar, his efforts set him apart from the competition and helped secure victory for an outnumbered British force. And whereas the Franco-Spanish fleet had 33 ships of the line, six frigates, and two brigs, the British fleet only had 27.
The victory was thus rather favorable to the Franco-Spanish troops, who, sure of Nelson’s strategy, let themselves be trapped. During the conflict, Nelson told his troops, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” a phrase that has since been ingrained in the language of the English-speaking world.
The Victory, Royal Sovereign, Temeraire, Neptune, and Britannia were the primary ships representing Britain in the conflict. The French and Spanish fleets included such ships as the Neptuno, the Principe de Asturias, the Indomptable, the Santa Anna, the Rayo, and the Santisima Trinidad.
Who won the Battle of Trafalgar?
British forces, under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, prevailed in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. Though outnumbered, they had much more battlefield experience than their French and Spanish counterparts. Nonetheless, the British owe their success, in all likelihood, to the strategies Nelson used. The later plan included a perpendicular rather than a frontal assault, cutting the defensive line of the Franco-Spanish fleet.
The British plan worked, as Villeneuve was captured and 23 of the French and Spanish fleet’s 33 ships were destroyed. More than 7,000 people were killed, 2,500 were injured, and hundreds of detainees were taken. The British navy suffered significantly less damage; they lost no vessels and just 400 men.
While the French celebrated the capture of the ship Le Redoutable, the British forces were still mourning the loss of their vice admiral, Nelson, who was killed by a sharpshooter. Within hours of being shot, he was dead because the bullet had entered his spine, lung, and left shoulder. Despite this significant loss, the British were still able to gain undeniable maritime supremacy.
What were the results of the Battle of Trafalgar?
Napoleon gave up on his intentions to attack England after losing at Trafalgar and instead turned his attention to the rest of Europe. The French navy never again made an effort to attack Britain through the sea after this victory solidified British maritime superiority. The French navy continued its operations despite the country’s loss. In contrast, the Spanish fleet suffered heavy losses at the hands of the British during the Battle of Trafalgar.
There are several symbolic remnants from the Battle of Trafalgar that are still there today. In the Royal Navy, for instance, you may see HMS Victory, the ship that Admiral Nelson used. Also, the British instituted a holiday called Trafalgar Day to commemorate the victory, although hardly anyone seems to remember it now.
Last but not least, we must not overlook Trafalgar Square, one of the British memorials to the success of the Battle of Trafalgar. There is a statue of Admiral Nelson atop a tall column in this plaza in the heart of London, which bears the name of the epic fight.
The state of the forces at war
The British advanced in two parallel columns, some distance apart: In the north, the 12-ship line led by Horatio Nelson himself consisted of the following ships:
- HMS Africa (two-decker of 64 guns, crew of 498 men under the command of Captain Henry Digby), charged with attacking the head of the Franco-Spanish fleet
- HMS Victory (flagship, three-decker of 104 guns, crew of 821 men under the command of Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy), with Vice Admiral Lord Nelson on board, commander in chief of the fleet
- HMS Temeraire (three-decker of 98 guns, crew of 718 men under the command of Captain Eliab Harvey)
- HMS Neptune (three-decks of 98 guns, crew of 741 men under the command of Captain Thomas Francis Fremantle)
- HMS Leviathan (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 623 men under the command of Captain Henry William Bayntun)
- HMS Conqueror (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 573 men under the command of Captain Israel Pellew)
- HMS Britannia (three-decks of 100 guns, crew of 854 men under the command of Rear-Admiral William Carnegie, 7th Earl of Northesk)
- HMS Spartan (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 620 men under the command of Captain Sir Francis Laforey)
- HMS Minotaur (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 625 men under the command of Captain Charles John Moore Mansfield)
- HMS Ajax (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 702 men under the command of Lieutenant John Pilford)
- HMS Agamemnon (two-decks of 64 guns, crew of 498 men under the command of Captain Sir Edward Berry)
- HMS Orion (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 541 men under the command of Captain Edward Codrington)
A leeward column, composed of the following 15 vessels (Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood’s division):
- HMS Royal Sovereign (three-decks of 100 guns, crew of 826 men under the command of Captain Edward Rotheram, with on board Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood)
- HMS Belleisle (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 728 men under the command of Captain William Hargood)
- HMS Mars (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 615 men under the command of Captain George Duff and Lieutenant William Hennah)
- HMS Tonnant (two-decks of 80 guns, crew of 688 men under the command of Captain Charles Tyler)
- HMS Bellerophon (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 522 men under the command of Captain John Cooke then Lieutenant William Pryce Cumby)
- HMS Colossus (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 571 men under the command of Captain James Nicoll Morris)
- HMS Achilles (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 619 men under the command of Captain Richard King)
- HMS Defence (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 599 men under the command of Captain George Hope)
- HMS Defiance (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 577 men under the command of Captain Philip Charles Durham)
- HMS Prince (three-decks of 98 guns, crew of 735 men under the command of Captain Richard Grindall)
- HMS Dreadnought (three-decks of 98 guns, crew of 725 men under the command of Captain John Conn)
- HMS Revenge (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 598 men under the command of Captain Robert Moorsom)
- HMS Swiftsure (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 570 men under the command of Captain William Gordon Rutherfurd)
- HMS Thunderer (two-decks of 74 guns, crew of 611 men under the command of Lieutenant John Stockham)
- HMS Polyphemus (two-decks of 64 guns, crew of 484 men under the command of Captain Robert Redmill).
An attached fleet is also composed of the following vessels:
- HMS Euryalus (frigate of 36 guns, crew of 262 men under the command of Captain The Honourable Henry Blackwood)
- HMS Naiad (36-gun frigate, crew of 333 under the command of Captain Thomas Dundas)
- HMS Phoebe (36-gun frigate, crew of 256 men under the command of Captain The Honourable Thomas Bladen Capel)
- HMS Sirius (36-gun frigate, crew of 273 under the command of Captain William Prowse)
- HMS Pickle (schooner of 8 guns, crew of 42 men under the command of Lieutenant John Richards La Penotière)
- HMS Entreprenante (10-gun cutter, crew of 41 men under the command of Lieutenant Robert Benjamin Young).
The French and Spanish fleet sailed in a circle with a concave side toward the enemy, spanning three nautical miles. The allied ships did not move forward in a single, continuous line, but rather in five different groups, each of which followed a roughly linear path but was severely isolated from the others.
These 33 vessels were arranged from north to south as follows:
- Spain’s Neptuno, the two-decker with 80 cannons, crew of 800 men, and Captain Don Cayetano Cayetano Valdés y Flores in charge.
- France’s Scipion, a two-decked gunboat with 74 cannons and 755 men serving under the command of Captain Charles Berrenger
- France’s Intrépide was a two-decker gunboat with 74 cannons and had a crew of 745 men working under the direction of Captain Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet.
- France’s Formidable, two decks with 80 guns, crew of 840 men, commanded by Rear Admiral Pierre-Etienne-René-Marie Dumanoir Le Pelley and Captain Jean-Marie Letellier.
- France’s Duguay-Trouin, the two-decker had 74 cannons and carried a crew of 755 men. Captain Claude Touffet was in charge of the vessel.
- France’s Mont-Blanc was a ship with two decks and 74 guns, and it had a crew of 755 men who were commanded by Guillaume-Jean-Noel de Lavillegris.
- Spain’s Rayo was a three-decker warship with a total of 100 cannons. It had a crew of 830 men and was commanded by Don Enrique MacDonnell.
- Spain’s San Francisco de Ass, a two-decker with 74 guns and a crew of 657 men, was commanded by Captain Don Luis de Florès.
- France’s Héros had 74 guns and a crew of 690 men. Corvette captain Jean-Baptiste-Joseph-René Poulain and subsequently lieutenant Jean-Louis Conor were in charge of the two-decker ship at various times.
- Spain’s San Agustin was a two-decker warship with 74 guns and 711 men serving under the leadership of Captain Don Felipe Jado Cajigal.
- Spain’s Santisima Trinidad was a 136-gun four-decker with a crew of 1,048 men. Rear Admiral Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros y de la Torre and Captain Francisco Javier de Uriarte y Borja were in charge of the ship.
- France’s Bucentaure, the flagship was a two-decker with 80 cannons and had a crew of 888 men under the command of Captain Jean-Jacques Magendie. Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve was also present on board.
- France’s Redoutable, a two-decker with 74 guns and 643 men serving under the command of Captain Jean Jacques Étienne Lucas.
- Spain’s San Justo was a ship with two decks and a total of 74 cannons. It had a crew of 694 men and was commanded by Don Francisco Javier Garstón.
- France’s Neptune, two decks with 80 guns, and 888 men serving as crew under the direction of the captain of ship 1st class Esprit-Tranquille Maistral.
- Spain’s San Leandro with two decks and 64 cannons, and a crew of 606 men, all under the direction of the ship’s captain, Don José Quevedo.
- Spain’s Santa Ana was a three-decker warship with a total of 112 cannons and a crew of 1189 men. She was commanded by Vice Admiral Ignacio Mara de Llava y Sáenz de Navarrete and Captain Don José Ramón de Gardoqui y Jaraveitia. Santa Ana was in service during the Spanish American War.
- France’s L’Indomptable was a two-decker battleship equipped with 80 cannons and boasting an 887-man crew that was led by Captain Jean-Joseph Hubert.
- France’s Le Fougueux was a two-decker gunboat with 74 cannons and had a crew of 755 men under the leadership of Captain Louis Alexis Baudouin.
- France’s Pluton, a two-decker with 74 cannons and a crew of 755 men, was commanded by Captain of the First Class Julien Julien Cosmao.
- Spain’s Monarca was a warship with two decks and 74 guns, and it had a crew of 667 men who were commanded by Don Teodoro de Argumosa Bourke, the captain of the ship.
- France’s Algeciras had a total of 74 cannons between her two bridges and a crew of 755 men. Rear Admiral Charles René Magon de Médine and afterwards Commander Laurent Tourneur were in charge of the vessel.
- Spain’s Bahama was a two-decker ship of 74 guns and a crew of 690 men. Commodore Dionisio Alcalá Galiano y Pinedo was in charge of the vessel.
- France’s L’Aigle was a two-decker gunboat with 74 cannons and a crew of 755 men. Captain Pierre-Paulin Gourrège was in command.
- Spain’s Montaés, a two-decker with 74 guns and 715 men serving under the command of Captain Francisco Alcedo y Bustamante.
- France’s Swiftsure was a two-decker with 74 guns and a crew of 755 men. Captain Charles-Eusèbe Lhospitalier de Villemadrin was in command.
- France’s Argonaute was a naval force consisting of two 74-gun warships, a total crew of 755 men, with Captain Jacques Épron-Desjardins in charge.
- Spain’s Argonauta was a two-decker warship equipped with 80 cannons and boasting a crew of 798 men who were led by Captain Don José Antonio de Pareja y Mariscal.
- Spain’s San Ildefonso was a two-decker warship with 74 cannons. It had a crew of 716 men and was commanded by Captain Don José Ramón de Vargas y Varáez.
- France’s Achille was a two-decker ship with 74 cannons and had 755 men working for her under the command of Captain Louis Gabriel Deniéport.
- Spain’s Príncipe de Asturias, three-decker of 112 guns, crew of 1113 men under the direction of Commodore Rafael de Hore, having on board Admiral Don Federico Carlos Gravina and Rear Admiral Don Antonio de Escaño y García de Cáceres
- France’s Berwick, two-decker with 74 cannons, crew of 755 men, and Captain Jean-Gilles Filhol de Camas in command.
- Spain’s San Juan Nepomuceno was a two-decker warship with 74 guns and a crew of 693 men. Commodore Don Cosme Damián Churruca y Elorza was in charge of the ship’s crew.
An attached fleet included the following vessels, all French:
- Cornélie was a frigate with 40 guns and was commanded by André-Juls-Francois de Martineng.
- Hermione is a forty-gun frigate that is commanded by Captain Jean-Michel Mahé.
- Hortense was a forty-gun frigate that was commanded by Louis-Charles-Auguste Delamarre de Lamellerie.
- Rhin was a frigate with 40 guns and was commanded by Captain Michel Chesneau.
- Thémis, Captain Nicolas-Joseph-Pierre Jugan was in charge of the 40-gun frigate, which was named after him.
- Furet, a brig armed with 18 cannons and with a crew of 130 men, it was commanded by Lieutenant Pierre-Antoine-Toussaint Dumay.
- Argus was a 16-gun brig with 110 men on board and was commanded by Lieutenant Yves-Francois Taillard.
Together, the Allies’ 33 warships and 7 frigates sported 2,856 cannons. Only 27 ships and 6 frigates or corvettes were available to the English, together with 2,314 cannons. Their ships were typically quicker, more nimble, better directed, and served by commanders and sailors who were more experienced and more educated, and they had 7 three-deck ships versus the allies’ four (all Spanish).
Damage report of the Battle of Trafalgar
The Allies suffered a crushing loss. The English were successful in seizing 17 vessels out of a total of 33 that were involved in the battle. Eighteenth went down in the water. Four of the fifteen survivors, commanded by Dumanoir, made their way to the open sea, while the other eleven sought sanctuary in Cadiz with Gravina. Around 6,500 people were killed or injured, among them were 3,000 French and over 1,000 French wounded. Nine ship captains, including Rear Admiral Magon, perished. Ten others were wounded, as well as Rear Admirals Gravina, Álava and Báltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros. A large number of Villeneuve’s soldiers, numbering in the thousands, also became prisoners.
Here are the details of the fate of each ship:
- Neptuno: Recaptured by the allies and then failed before Cadiz
- Scipion: Taken on November 4
- Intrepid: Voluntarily burned by the English after its capture
- Formidable: Taken on November 4
- Duguay-Trouin: Taken on November 4
- Mont-Blanc: Taken on November 4
- Rayo: Burned by the English before Cadiz after its stranding
- San Francisco de Asís: Rescued
- Hero: Rescued
- San Agustín: Voluntarily burned by the English after its capture
- Santísima Trinidad: Scuttled by the English after its capture
- Bucentaure: Recaptured by its crew then wrecked
- Redoubtable: Scuttled by the English after its capture
- San Justo: Rescued
- Neptune: Rescued
- San Leandro: Rescued
- Santa Ana: Recaptured by the Allies in front of Cadiz
- The Indomitable: Rescued
- The Fiery: Abandoned by the English after its capture and then wrecked
- Pluto: Rescued
- Monarca: Abandoned by the English after its capture and then wrecked
- Algeciras: Recaptured by her crew
- Bahama: Sunk
- L’Aigle: Abandoned by the English after its capture then wrecked
- Montañés: Rescued
- Swiftsure: Taken to Gibraltar then destroyed
- Argonaut: Rescued
- Argonauta: Scuttled by the English after its capture
- San Ildefonso: Taken to Gibraltar and destroyed
- Achilles: Burned and sunk
- Príncipe de Asturias: Rescued
- Berwick: Abandoned by the English after its capture and wrecked
- San Juan Nepomuceno: Rescued.
In all, 449 British sailors were killed, including Admiral Horatio Nelson, and 1,214 were injured. Of the ships involved, the HMS Colossus suffered the most casualties (40), while 13 others had fewer than 10, and one had none (the HMS Prince). Despite the relatively low number of casualties, the damage was so severe that half of the fleet had to seek shelter in Gibraltar.
Map of the Battle of Trafalgar
Period representation of the battle: the British ships are in red, the French in green and the Spanish in yellow. The British ship furthest north is the Africa, not the Neptune.
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