French vs. English The Battle of Trafalgar

About the naval battle of Trafalgar in 1805 between the Napoleon led French fleet and the English fleet.


In ordering Adm. Pierre de Villeneuve to leave Cadiz, Spain, and bring troops to Naples, Italy, for an attack on Austria, Napoleon Bonaparte added a 2nd demand: Attack the British fleet, if seen. The order annoyed Villeneuve, who realized he would probably lose in such an encounter. He procrastinated in complying with Napoleon's demand until he learned that Adm. Francois Rosily was being sent as his replacement. To forestall the blot to his honor by the demotion, Villeneuve sailed for the Mediterranean. His reluctant departure, putting to sea before Rosily's arrival, solved Nelson's problem on how to entice Napoleon's fleet into battle.

On October 21, 1805, Nelson, moving sluggishly before a light wind, struck at Villeneuve's 33 ships. The British admiral split his forces into 2 parallel columns: a squadron of 15, led by Admiral Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign, and a smaller, slower squadron of 12, commanded by Nelson, in the Victory. Nelson's battle plan called for Collingwood, sailing at the head of his column, to strike 1st. Coming within range, Collingwood executed a brilliant turning maneuver, and his trailing ships followed suit, bringing their guns to bear with broadside firing. He knifed between the Fougueux and the 4-decker Santa Ana, cutting off the last 16 ships in the long French-Spanish battle line. Nelson, his ships following in single file, continued straight ahead into heavy fire. He gambled that, by steering a course directed at the lead ship in line, the enemy captains, uncertain and confused as to his intended point of contact, would crowd on sail to keep pace. Nelson's maneuver achieved the desired purpose--it widened the gap between the forward half of the French fleet and the rear ships cut off by Collingwood, and eliminated the chance that others would come about to help. Once his objective was gained, he turned sharply to starboard and closed in to engage the Redoutable, sailing just behind Villeneuve's flagship, the Bucentaure, in the center of the French battle line.

Captain Harvey, following closely in the Temeraire, grappled with the Redoutable on its other side. A 4th French ship joined the trio, locking all 4 in mortal combat. Nelson's gunners were forced to reduce the charges on their starboard cannon, to avoid shooting clear through the Redoubtable and into the Temeraire.

Twice in the 4-hour fight, Admiral Nelson ordered a cease-fire, believing the Redoutable, its guns momentarily silent, was about to strike its colors. He was mistaken, and the last command cost him his life. The temporary lull gave the enemy sailors time to renew the battle and permitted the sniper aloft in the Redoutable's rigging an opportunity to fire the fatal musket shot that mortally wounded the admiral. Nelson, conspicuous in his admiral's frock coat with 4 stars of knighthood prominently displayed on his left breast, was only 15 yards away, an easy target for the marksman.

Over 4,000 cannon took part in the historic battle. The victory was lopsided: Villeneuve lost 18 ships, Nelson none. The tremendous engagement gave Britain control of the seas for a century, although it cost them their greatest admiral and almost 1,600 men. Of the prizes they captured all but 4 were sunk in the immediate gale that followed.

Nelson's famous flag signal, sent to the fleet for "amusement" before the ships closed for action, was verbally given to the signal officer with "confides" as the verb to follow "England." The officer requested permission to substitute, from his signal book, the signal 2-6-9 ("expects"), eliminating the need to spell out "confides." It was granted, and the message became:

253 269 863 261 471 958 220 370 England expects that every man will do his 4 27 19 24, d u t y,

The signal also impressed Napoleon. Later, he had a similar message painted on his warships: "La France Compte que chacun fera son devoir."

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