Battle of Trafalgar
The early 19th Century was a precarious time for Britain. The French under Napoleon Bonaparte were in their pomp, with much of mainland Europe under the control of their diminutive but battle-hungry leader. Only Britain’s mighty naval presence in the English Channel kept the French at arm’s length – with the Channel only 22 miles wide at its narrowest, Britain would have been in a plumb position for France’s invasion flotilla to advance.
1805 would prove decisive. The seas off Britain and mainland Europe had entered an attritional stalemate, with the British offering little way through, and the French embargoing trade from the Continent. Britain’s allies, Austria and Prussia offered support. But the awkward Treaty of Amiens would fall, and the Third Coalition of Britain, Austria and Prussia declared war once again on the French. Allied with the Spanish, whose fleets were stationed off Cádiz and Ferrol, the French Navy under Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve needed to amass the bulwark of their fleet at the advanced port of Boulogne. Only then would they have enough ships of the fleet to have a chance of breaking through Britain’s naval blockade and opening the country’s southern rump to the invasion party. But Villeneuve was not daft, and not predisposed to suicidal attacks: he was well aware that the British Navy under Nelson was not to be trifled with.
On the 2nd September, word reached Britain that the French-Spanish alliance were ranked en masse at Cádiz. HMS Victory , however ill-prepared, set sail on the 15th, heading to join the 20 ships of the line sent by William Cornwallis to protect the waters south of the Channel. Nelson favoured an open battle in the seas, something that would have been causing Villeneuve sleepless nights as he rushed to ready his fleet. Within weeks, the two fleets, the British on one side with the French-Spanish to the south-west, were readied.
By the morning of battle, on the 21st October 1805 , Nelson’s fleet boasted 27 ships of the line. Villeneuve had 33. Those statistics would have frightened lesser men but Nelson was resolute. And also cavalier. His tactics would see the enemy lines bisected by a bold British advance. Nelson’s plans relied on the adroit seamanship and battle skills of his fleet, something which he could stake all on.
Where the French-Spanish coalition drafted men who were poorly trained gunners, the British Navy was a well-drilled, indomitable unit. And so, with battle imminent, the yellow and black (‘Nelson Chequer’) British fleet sought to cut Villeneuve’s fleet in two. Nelson’s own ship led the attack, striking at Villeneuve’s flagship, the Bucentaure. It was the kind of derring-do that had made him such a hero and galvanising presence in the company of his men.
Nelson’s plan exposed his fleet to enemy fire. But, crucially, it had dealt the French a crushing blow by early afternoon. Villeneuve’s ship was devastated. The French-Spanish fleet still had superior firepower but they were leaderless and facing a Naval superpower very much on its mettle. The crescent shaped ranks of the enemy were split. Nelson’s plans were actualised amidst the cloying stench of cordite and ghostly white plumes of smoke. The thunder of the guns spewed forth, shrouding the deck in thick smog. As the battle reached its most feverish, with Victory now engaging the fiercesome Redoubtable, Nelson was fatally wounded. Taken below deck, he would soon know he was going to die a victor. “Thank God, I have done my duty’ he exclaimed.
As Nelson died, the battle was over. The Navy had claimed nineteen enemy vessels. Its leader died as he had lived, a hero. France’s threat to British maritime hegemony had ceded for the time being. Britain, owed her freedom to Nelson, and those who fought resolutely alongside him at Cape Trafalgar .
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