Battle of Trafalgar
Stanfield's 'Battle of Trafalgar' (1836). Painted some thirty years after the event, this shows the battle at about 2.30 pm in the afternoon
In 1805, the First French Empire, under Napoleon Bonaparte, was the dominant military land power on the European continent, while the British Royal Navy controlled the seas. During the course of the war, the British imposed a naval blockade on France, which affected trade and kept the French from fully mobilising their naval resources. Despite several successful evasions of the blockade by the French navy, it failed to inflict a major defeat upon the British, who were able to attack French interests at home and abroad with relative ease.
When the Third Coalition declared war on France, after the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon renewed his determination to invade Britain. To do so, he needed to ensure that the Royal Navy would be unable to disrupt the invasion flotilla, which would require control of the English Channel.
The main French fleets were at Brest in Brittany and at Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. Other ports on the French Atlantic coast harboured smaller squadrons. France and Spain were allied, so the Spanish fleet based in Cádiz and Ferrol was also available.
The British possessed an experienced and well-trained corps of naval officers. By contrast, some of the best officers in the French navy had either been executed or had left the service during the early part of the French Revolution.
Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve had taken command of the French Mediterranean fleet following the death of Latouche Treville. There had been more competent officers, but they had either been employed elsewhere or had fallen from Napoleon's favour. Villeneuve had shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for facing Nelson and the Royal Navy after the French defeat at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
Napoleon's naval plan in 1805 was for the French and Spanish fleets in the Mediterranean and Cádiz to break through the blockade and join forces in the Caribbean. They would then return, assist the fleet in Brest to emerge from the blockade, and together clear the English Channel of Royal Navy ships, ensuring a safe passage for the invasion barges.
Map of Battle of Trafalgar
As part of Napoleon's plans to invade England, the French and Spanish fleets combined to take control of the English Channel and provide the Grande Armée safe passage. The allied fleet, under the command of French Admiral Villeneuve, sailed from the port of Cádiz in the south of Spain on 18 October 1805. They encountered the British fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson, recently assembled to meet this threat, in the Atlantic Ocean along the southwest coast of Spain, off Cape Trafalgar.
Nelson was outnumbered, with 27 British ships of the line to 33 allied ships including the largest warship in either fleet, the Spanish Santisima Trinidad. To address this imbalance, Nelson sailed his fleet directly at the allied battle line's flank, hoping to break it into pieces. Villeneuve had worried that Nelson might attempt this tactic but, for various reasons, had made no plans in case this occurred. The plan worked almost perfectly; Nelson's columns split the Franco-Spanish fleet in three, isolating the rear half from Villeneuve's flag aboard Bucentaure. The allied vanguard sailed off while it attempted to turn around, giving the British temporary superiority over the remainder of their fleet.
The ensuing fierce battle resulted in 22 allied ships being lost, while the British lost none. The tactic exposed the leading ships in the British lines to intense fire from multiple ships as they approached the Franco-Spanish lines. Nelson's own HMS Victory led the front column and was almost knocked out of action. Nelson was shot by a French musketeer and died shortly before the battle ended. Villeneuve was captured along with his flagship Bucentaure. He attended Nelson's funeral while a captive on parole in Britain.
The senior Spanish fleet officer, Admiral Federico Gravina, escaped with the remnant of the Franco-Iberian fleet (a third of what it had been in a number of ships); he died of wounds sustained during the battle five months later.
The victory confirmed the naval supremacy Britain had established during the course of the eighteenth century and was achieved in part through Nelson's departure from prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy.