The crowning chapter in the history of naval warfare” was how Julian Corbett, Great Britain’s early apostle of sea power, described the Battle of Trafalgar.1 The climactic battle was also the final achievement in the astonishing career of its victor, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. But Trafalgar’s importance transcends Nelson’s heroic death and the battle’s lofty place in the pantheon of great naval fights. It is one of the best examples of relevant history, and Trafalgar’s bicentennial provides a special opportunity to illuminate its enduring lessons and to draw on the legacy of leadership left by Nelson, a naval officer who changed the course of history from the decks of his ships.
Run-up to Combat
The Battle of Trafalgar, fought just off the southwestern Spanish port of Cadiz, was the culmination of Britain’s maritime strategy to defeat France, its main rival for empire. The battle did not end the war between the two countries, but it was a pivotal victory after which Britain clearly had global momentum toward a preeminent empire. The bloody naval action at Trafalgar also marked the beginning of the end for a particularly aggressive threat—represented by Napoleon Bonaparte—to Britain’s very survival.
Great Britain’s complex maritime strategy included blockades, amphibious thrusts, support of army ground operations, attacks on commerce, protection of merchant convoys, support of allies, and pitched battles against massed fleets and smaller naval units. Intricately interwoven was the need to protect the trade-based economic foundation supporting Britain’s war efforts and to weaken the economic base of France’s corresponding efforts. Similarly, present-day countries use naval forces for power projection, sea denial, support of land campaigns, interdiction, protection of critical trade routes, and diplomatic presence.
On 16 May 1803 Britain renewed its war with France, an intermittent conflict that stretched from 1756 to 1815.2 Anticipating the resumption of fighting, the British government had begun rebuilding the Royal Navy, and as a result it had 52 ships of the line in service by 1 May and 75 by the end of 1803.3 Thus, Britain entered its renewed war with France with a significant naval nucleus around which it continued to build. Although stretched thin, the Royal Navy would serve as Britain’s military leverage in the struggle against Napoleon, as well as in the longer war against France.
On the other hand, because the renewal of war came earlier than Napoleon had anticipated, the French had only 47 ships of the line in service and 19 under construction in May.4 France’s navy could not reverse its numerical and strategic inferiority to the Royal Navy. As a result, while the Royal Navy was an extremely effective instrument of national policy, Napoleon’s navy was significantly less effective in that regard. France never achieved naval superiority in the English Channel long enough to launch an invasion of Britain. Thought-provoking comparisons are Germany’s inability in World War II to establish the theater naval control needed to effect a cross-Channel invasion of Britain and the contrasting ability of the Allies to mount the June 1944 Normandy landings.
Napoleon primarily used his navy in conjunction with his land campaigns; the Royal Navy performed the same function—and much more. Britain’s naval capability was built around two standing fleets. The Channel, or Ushant, Fleet was responsible for the protection of the United Kingdom and Ireland against a French invasion, the protection of British merchantmen in the Channel area, and the suppression of French naval forces and privateers operating out of Cherbourg and Atlantic ports. The Mediterranean Fleet operated almost continually on that sea and had a wide range of operational responsibilities including suppressing French naval units and privateers operating from Toulon and other Mediterranean ports, protecting British allies, convoying merchant ships, and dealing with diplomatic irritants such as the dey of Algiers. Also of paramount strategic importance was blocking France’s military and political ambitions at various key points along the rim of the Mediterranean, such as the small kingdoms of northern Italy. In addition to the standing fleets, the Royal Navy periodically formed squadrons to cover such strategic areas as the Baltic, the American theater, the West Indies, and the Irish coast.
The result of Britain’s sea-based strategy was that the Royal Navy was constantly on the move. Its arduous duties stretched crews and materiel to their limits. As an important, positive consequence, the British crews were well trained and confident. Nelson frequently reflected his understanding of the correlation between operating tempo and skill level with statements such as his acerbic assessment of the commanders of the Franco-Spanish fleet, or Combined Fleet, blockaded in Cadiz before the Battle of Trafalgar: “These gentlemen must soon be so perfect in theory, that they will come to sea to put their knowledge into practice.”5
France, on the other hand, generally husbanded its naval forces, frequently in ports that the British then blockaded. Their crews were courageous but neither honed nor hardened to the high degree of the officers and sailors of the Royal Navy. Compounding the relative lack of operational experience, much of the professional officer corps of the French Navy was aristocratic and had become suspect during the French Revolution. Many of the service’s best leaders were purged or fled the country.
Nelson Takes Command
In May 1803 Vice Admiral Lord Nelson was selected for the Mediterranean command on the basis of his record as an operational leader. At that point, he had 14 years of wartime experience against the French and had proven tireless, aggressive, and totally dedicated to maintaining his forces in a constant state of readiness. He achieved two strategically important fleet victories at the battles of the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801). He also knew the operating theater, having previously been commander in chief of an important squadron sent into the Mediterranean in March 1798. Perhaps most important, from the moment Admiral Nelson took command of the Mediterranean Fleet, he knew what Britain needed: a decisive victory by the Royal Navy over the French. As he put it in a letter written from HMS Victory, his flagship, to a British politician in early October 1805: “[I]t is . . . annihilation that the Country wants.”6
For many months Nelson doggedly kept the French Navy bottled in Toulon, its main Mediterranean port. Despite his own deteriorating health, he paid close attention to the health of his sailors and the readiness of his ships. The latter was a special challenge because Malta, the only British base east of Gibraltar, was too distant to be useful when focusing on Toulon. To compensate, Nelson frequently used Agincourt Sound, an anchorage among the Maddalena Islands off Sardinia’s northern coast. In addition, he used store ships to resupply his units on station. Almost two centuries later, the U.S. Sixth Fleet brought the technique to a high state of operational efficiency with underway replenishment in the Mediterranean theater.
One of the more significant characteristics of Nelson’s command was the special quality of his blockade of Toulon. He used his forces to closely monitor the French rather than to prevent their exit, a strategy intended to eventually lure the enemy fleet out of port, to where he could destroy it. He characterized his strategy in an August 1804 letter: “[T]he Port of Toulon has never been blockaded by me: quite the reverse—every opportunity has been offered the Enemy to put to sea, for it is there that we hope to realize the hopes and expectations of our Country.”7
In January 1805, Nelson’s blockade strategy worked. The French fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, sortied from Toulon, only to be driven back into port by a storm. It broke out again on 30 March, however, and this time a lack of reliable British intelligence and an insufficient number of frigates for scouting allowed the French fleet to slip out of the Mediterranean and head for the West Indies. In his dispatches and letters, Nelson frequently wrote about how the lack of frigates compromised his operations in the Mediterranean. In September 1798 he had written emotionally to the first lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, “Was I to die this moment, ‘Want of Frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart.”8 Nelson’s complaints illustrate the often-inconvenient reality that there is a strong correlation between force numbers and a force commander’s ability to carry out a mission—a point that two centuries later continues to elude build-to-budget military planners.
Napoleon’s plan at this point was for Villeneuve’s fleet to join with Spanish units out of Cadiz and attack British colonies in the West Indies, link with another force on a similar mission there, and return to the English Channel area. More French vessels would then join the fleet, and it would cover a cross-Channel invasion of England. With interesting symmetry, the first parts of both Nelson’s blockade strategy and Napoleon’s invasion strategy worked, but in each case the second part failed. Villeneuve escaped Toulon, eluded Nelson, and was joined by the Spanish fleet, but after a brief period of ineffective operations in the West Indies, he failed to link up with other French naval forces, as ordered by Napoleon.
Villeneuve’s breakout and departure for the West Indies was a severe test for Nelson. After weeks of searching to determine his opponent’s destination—Nelson thought it most probably was Alexandria—the British commander received confirmation that the French fleet had cleared Gibraltar and was heading toward the West Indies. On 11 May, roughly a month behind his adversary, Nelson left Lagos, Portugal, and began his chase.
Nelson’s pursuit of Villeneuve’s Combined Fleet demonstrated several of the vice admiral’s underdiscussed but important leadership qualities. One was his ability to understand the larger objectives of Britain’s maritime strategy and to pursue those goals with iron determination. In 1798 this ability had been evident during his nerve-racking, nearly two-month hunt for French Vice Admiral François-Jean Brueys d’Aigalliers’ fleet leading up to the 1 August Battle of the Nile, the outcome of which frustrated Napoleon’s strategy of attacking Britain’s eastern colonies. Nelson’s appreciation of broad strategy was also evident on 2 April 1801 at the Battle of Copenhagen. There, he confronted a daunting Danish defense and his own timid commander in chief, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, and Nelson’s fierce determination was evident. His resulting victory deterred the Baltic countries from increasing their cooperation with Napoleon.
Nelson’s decision to pursue Villeneuve across the Atlantic also illustrated his willingness to risk his career by making difficult decisions. Nothing in Nelson’s orders told him to pursue the French to the West Indies. In fact, his decision left a vacuum in the Mediterranean that could well have been costly to the British. But in evaluating all of the factors, and with his usual grasp of strategy beyond his immediate sphere, Nelson determined that Villeneuve’s fleet on the loose was a strategic threat that warranted pursuit beyond his theater of command.
Battle Clouds Build
On 22 July 1805, as the Combined Fleet was returning to Europe from the West Indies, it encountered a British squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Robert Calder. The result of the ensuing battle, fought in light airs and fog, was largely inconclusive; however, Villeneuve did lose two ships and headed for Ferrol on Spain’s Atlantic coast, and on 20 August his fleet entered the port of Cadiz, where it was soon hemmed in. Calder, whom many think did as well as could be expected under the circumstances, was eventually court-martialed and censured by the Admiralty for not achieving a more conclusive victory. Its displeasure indicated that Nelson’s sense of the Admiralty’s and Whitehall’s attitude toward the French Navy was accurate: It must be annihilated in order to advance Britain’s maritime strategy.
On 28 September, after a brief leave in England spent with his paramour, Lady Emma Hamilton, Nelson rejoined the fleet off Cadiz. In a letter to an unknown correspondent in early October, he wrote: “The reception I met with on joining the Fleet caused the sweetest sensation of my life. The Officers who came on board to welcome my return, forgot my rank as Commander-in-Chief in the enthusiasm with which they greeted me.”9 Nelson had 29 ships of the line in his fleet, six of which were due for resupply; the Combined Fleet counted 36 ships of the line. During the following weeks, Nelson rotated small squadrons of ships into Gibraltar, about 80 miles away, for water and other replenishing. He also found opportunities to brief his second in command, Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, and his captains on his intentions.
On 9 October, Nelson summarized his plans in a secret memorandum to them.10 One of the most noteworthy tactics he outlined was his intention to break the Combined Fleet’s line of battle with several units of ships, rather than with a single line of battle. A number of Nelson’s predecessors had broken an enemy’s line, but only one had done so with two columns, Admiral Viscount Adam Duncan at the Battle of Camperdown.11
More important, however, Nelson’s Trafalgar Memorandum was a reflection of his overarching principles for fighting the upcoming battle. Thus, the memorandum was more the expression of a winning combat doctrine—the core of which was seizing and maintaining the initiative—than a set of rigid tactics. That point is generally lost in analyses of the Battle of Trafalgar and is a point of particular relevance in the present-day military world of high-tech, information-saturated battle management.
Nelson’s own words in the Trafalgar Memorandum reinforce the contention that it is a critical statement of doctrine. For example, he wrote, “Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight.” Later he concisely summed up the need to maintain the initiative: “But, in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy.” Still later, he made clear that his doctrine applied to his second in command as well: “[T]he entire management of the Lee Line [Collingwood’s division], after the intentions of the Commander-in-Chief is signified, is intended to be left to the judgment of the Admiral commanding that Line.” The willingness of Nelson to rely on his admirals and captains, which was reflected in those statements, was one of the reasons he called them his “Band of Brothers.”
At first light on 19 October, the frigate HMS Sirius, cruising on station off Cadiz, hoisted the signal that the Combined Fleet was preparing to get underway. At 0700, she signaled, “The enemy’s ships are coming out of port.” By 0930, the latter signal had been relayed to Nelson, who was 50 miles away.12 The commander immediately headed for the Combined Fleet, and at daylight on 21 October the adversaries were in sight of each another.
Nelson had been seeking all-out combat for years. His commanders and their crews, also eager for battle, had confidence in their abilities. Villeneuve and the officers and men of his fleet, however, had a very different outlook. He believed that he was overmatched, and he was unnerved at the prospect of facing Nelson. Villeneuve had sailed from Cadiz only because he knew his relief of command had been ordered by Napoleon. He also realized that he probably faced disgrace upon his return to Paris. Additionally, dissension divided the French and Spanish captains, and for many crewmen of the Combined Fleet, the action at Trafalgar would be their first.
The Battle Begins
The wind was light and provided a significant early advantage to Nelson, whose ships had the wind on the port quarter, while the ships of the Combined Fleet were either close-hauled and working onto the wind or had the wind on the port beam. Initially, both fleets lacked coherent formations. By late morning, Villeneuve had organized his 33 ships of the line (18 French, 15 Spanish) into a traditional but ragged line-ahead formation. In addition, a number of ships in the Combined Fleet’s line were sailing side-by-side, rather than bow-to-stern. This irregularity actually made the British plan to break the Combined Fleet’s line more challenging. Because Villeneuve is known to have anticipated Nelson’s intention to do just that, the irregularities cannot be presumed the result of poor tactics or inferior seamanship.
Nelson, with 27 ships of the line, followed the general intent of his Trafalgar Memorandum by attacking the rear two-thirds of the Combined Fleet with two divisions—rather than the three described in the memorandum—sailing roughly parallel courses. During the approach, Nelson, in HMS Victory, led the weather division’s four three-deckers and eight other men-of-war. The lee division, led by Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign, counted three three-deckers and 12 other ships of the line. As with the Combined Fleet, the British divisions were not perfectly formed into lines, and some witnesses reported them as clusters of ships, rather than columns. In all probability, Nelson’s failure to form two distinct columns reflected his desire to strike as quickly as possible in order to seize the initiative.
As the divisions neared the enemy line, broadsides from French and Spanish vessels pounded the British ships, which were unable to bring more than a few bow guns to bear on their enemies. Nelson’s tactic, however, was a means of generating maximum shock against the Combined Fleet, with an initial concentration against the rear two-thirds of the enemy’s ragged line.
Around noon, Collingwood smashed into the enemy line at Spanish Vice Admiral Ignacio Alava’s flagship, the Santa Ana, which was about two-thirds down the line from the Combined Fleet’s van. The Royal Sovereign’s opening, double-shotted broadside raked the Santa Ana’s stern with devastating effect, killing or wounding some 400 members of her crew. The staggering first blow established the tenor for what followed.
Nelson, meanwhile, led the weather division toward a cluster of ships just astern of Villeneuve’s flagship, the Bucentaure. HMS Victory hit the enemy line about 45 minutes after the lee division’s first contact. Nelson joined the combat with a ferocity that matched Collingwood’s. The Victory fired a 68-pounder bow carronade charged with one round shot and a keg of 500 musket balls directly into the stern of Villeneuve’s flagship. A point-blank broadside followed, fired as each double- or triple-shotted gun bore. As with Collingwood’s initial blow, an estimated 400 crewmembers of the enemy flagship were killed or wounded.
Nelson had breached the Combined Fleet’s line about a third of the way down from its van. In doing so, he in effect eliminated the leading third of the Combined Fleet from the opening phase of the battle. Those ships were sailing away from the action and, because of the wind’s direction and its lack of strength, were unable to get back to the fighting in time to affect the outcome.
That outcome became clear during several hours of the type of pell-mell battle Nelson had wanted. The superior British discipline and close-range gunnery carried the day. At about 1730, the French Achille blew up, providing the final punctuation to the day’s carnage. Nelson’s ships were badly mauled, but none sank or was taken. In contrast, the Combined Fleet lost the Achille plus 17 ships captured.
For the British, however, the elation of the victory was countered by the death of Nelson. At about 1330, a musket ball fired from the mizzen top of the French ship Redoutable had struck the admiral, lodging in his backbone.13 Sometime between 1630 and 1700, he died; according to the Victory’s chaplain, his last words were “Thank God I have done my duty.”14
The victory also was somewhat diminished by a severe storm, an event anticipated by Nelson before the combat had begun. During the ensuing three-day gale, many of the British prizes were driven ashore and the victors burned or sank others to prevent their recapture. In any event, as Collingwood put it: “The Combined Fleet [was] destroyed.”15
Food for Thought
Arguably, the principal leadership lesson of the Battle of Trafalgar, one that transcends time and technology, is for commanders to establish a clear combat doctrine for their subordinates. Nelson’s greatest talent was his ability to convey such a principle to his subordinate admirals and captains. Because of his battle doctrine, Nelson flew no fleet tactical signals, and none was expected, during the fighting at Trafalgar. In fact, when Nelson sent his now-famous signal “England Expects that Every Man Will Do His Duty” in anticipation of the battle, Collingwood is said to have responded dryly that he wished the commander would make no more signals, for they all understood what they were to do.
Significantly, Trafalgar marked a shift from sea battles that were important for their own sake to more broadly purposeful victories tied to concepts of sea power and national interests. That shift anticipated the theories espoused toward the end of the 19th century by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, America’s early global naval strategist.17 Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar was also important because it was overwhelmingly decisive and had a profound impact on the shape of the world that followed it. The victory was the tipping point that began Napoleon’s downfall, clearly established Britain as the world’s premier sea power for a century, and enabled it to build an unparalleled empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1897 Mahan summed it up in his biography The Life of Nelson: “There were, indeed, consequences momentous and stupendous yet to flow from the decisive supremacy of Great Britain’s sea-power, the establishment of which, beyond all question or competition, was Nelson’s great achievement.”18
1. Julian S. Corbett, The Campaign of Trafalgar (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910), p. vii.
2. Armed skirmishes between British and French forces on the North American continent actually began in the mid-17th century.
3. Roger Morriss, The Campaign of Trafalgar: 1803-1805, ed. Robert Gardiner (London: Chatham Publishing, 1997), p. 10.
4. Roger Morriss, The Campaign of Trafalgar, p. 10.
5. The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, Vol. VI, ed. Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, (London: Henry Colburn, 1846; reprint, London: Chatham Publishing, 1998) hereafter as The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, p. 253.
6. Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson Vol. VII, Letter to Sir George Rose, 80.
7. Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson Vol. VI, Letter to the lord mayor of London, p. 125.
8. Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson Vol. III, p. 98.
9. Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson Vol. VII, pp. 66, 67.
10. Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson Vol. VII, p. 89.
11. Admiral Sir John Jervis (later Earl St. Vincent) broke the Spanish line of battle at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in February 1797. Admiral Viscount Adam Duncan used two columns to split a Dutch formation at the Battle of Camperdown in October 1797. Admiral Sir George Rodney broke the French line at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782.
12. John Terraine, Trafalgar, Wordsworth Military Library ed. (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1998), hereafter as John Terraine, Trafalgar, p. 134.
13. The spot on the Victory’s quarterdeck where Nelson fell is marked with a bronze plaque and can be viewed in the ship, which is open to public tours at Portsmouth’s Historic Naval Dockyard, England.
14. For a narrative of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death, see Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, Vol. VII, beginning p. 142.
15. Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, Vol. VII, p. 233.
16. Oliver Warner, Trafalgar (London: B. T. Botsford Ltd, 1959), p. 82, 83.
17. See A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1899). There have been many subsequent editions.
18. A. T. Mahan, The Life of Nelson 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1899), p. 742.