Battle of Trafalgar

Battle of Trafalgar
Part of the Trafalgar Campaign
Joseph Mallord William Turner 027.jpg
The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory. J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806–1808)
Date21 October 1805
36°17′N 6°16′W / 36°17′N 6°16′W / 36.29; -6.26
ResultBritish victory
 United Kingdom France
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Horatio, Lord Nelson 
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Cuthbert Collingwood
First French Empire Pierre-Charles Villeneuve POW)
Spain Federico Gravina DOW)

33 ships

(27 ships of the line and six others)

41 ships

(France: 18 ships of the line and eight others

Spain: 15 ships of the line)
Casualties and losses

458 dead
1,208 wounded

Total: 1,666[1]

10 ships captured,
one ship destroyed,
3,373 dead,
1,155 wounded,
over 4,000 captured[2]

11 ships captured,
1,022 dead,
1,386 wounded,
3-4,000 captured[2]

Total: about 15,000

The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) was a naval engagement fought by the British Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies, during the War of the Third Coalition (August–December 1805) of the Napoleonic Wars (1796–1815).[3]

Twenty-seven British ships of the line led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships of the line under French Admiral Villeneuve. The battle took place in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar, near the town of Los Caños de Meca. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships and the British lost none.

The victory confirmed the naval supremacy Britain had established during the course of the eighteenth century and it was achieved in part through Nelson's departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy of the day.[4] Conventional practice at the time was for opposing fleets to engage each other in single parallel lines, in order to facilitate signalling and disengagement, and to maximise fields of fire and target areas. Nelson instead arranged his ships into two columns to sail perpendicularly into the enemy fleet's line.

During the battle, Nelson was shot by a French musketeer and he died shortly before the battle ended. Villeneuve was captured, along with his ship Bucentaure. He later attended Nelson's funeral while a captive on parole in Britain. Admiral Federico Gravina, the senior Spanish flag officer, escaped with the remnant of the fleet. He died five months later from wounds sustained during the battle.


Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, the French Admiral
Federico Gravina, the Spanish Admiral

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

When the Third Coalition declared war on France, after the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon was determined 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.[8]

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.[9]

The British possessed an experienced and well-trained corps of naval officers.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

Pursuit of Villeneuve

Early in 1805, Vice Admiral Lord Nelson commanded the British fleet blockading Toulon. Unlike William Cornwallis, who maintained a close blockade off Brest with the Channel Fleet, Nelson adopted a loose blockade in the hope of luring the French out for a major battle.[14] However, Villeneuve's fleet successfully evaded Nelson's when the British were blown off station by storms. Nelson commenced a search of the Mediterranean, erroneously supposing that the French intended to make for Egypt. However, Villeneuve took his fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar, rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet, and sailed as planned for the Caribbean. Once Nelson realised that the French had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he set off in pursuit.[15]


Villeneuve returned from the Caribbean to Europe, intending to break the blockade at Brest,[13] but after two of his Spanish ships were captured during the Battle of Cape Finisterre by a squadron under Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, Villeneuve abandoned this plan and sailed back to Ferrol in northern Spain.[16] There he received orders from Napoleon to return to Brest according to the main plan.[17]

Napoleon's invasion plans for Britain depended on having a sufficiently large number of ships of the line before Boulogne in France. This would require Villeneuve's force of 33 ships to join Vice-Admiral Ganteaume's force of 21 ships at Brest, along with a squadron of five ships under Captain Allemand, which would have given him a combined force of 59 ships of the line.

When Villeneuve set sail from Ferrol on 10 August, he was under orders from Napoleon to sail northward toward Brest. Instead, he worried that the British were observing his manoeuvres, so on 11 August, he sailed southward towards Cádiz on the southwestern coast of Spain.[18] With no sign of Villeneuve's fleet, on 25 August, the three French army corps' invasion force near Boulogne broke camp and marched into Germany, where it was later engaged. This ended the immediate threat of invasion.[19][20]

The same month, Nelson returned home to Britain after two years of duty at sea.[21] He remained ashore for 25 days and was warmly received by his countrymen.[22] Word reached Britain on 2 September about the combined French and Spanish fleet in Cadiz harbour.[23] Nelson had to wait until 15 September before his ship, HMS Victory, was ready to sail.[24]

On 15 August, Cornwallis decided to detach 20 ships of the line from the fleet guarding the English Channel and to have them sail southward to engage the enemy forces in Spain.[25] This left the Channel drastically reduced of large vessels, with only 11 ships of the line present.[26] This detached force formed the nucleus of the British fleet that would fight at Trafalgar. This fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral Calder, reached Cádiz on 15 September. Nelson joined the fleet on 28 September to take command.[27]

The British fleet used frigates (faster, but too fragile for the line of battle), to keep a constant watch on the harbour, while the main force remained out of sight, approximately 50 miles (80 km) west of the shore.[28] Nelson's hope was to lure the combined Franco-Spanish force out and engage it in a decisive battle. The force watching the harbour was led by Captain Blackwood, commanding HMS Euryalus.[28] His squadron of seven ships comprised five frigates, a schooner, and a brig.[29]

Supply situation

At this point, Nelson's fleet badly needed provisioning. On 2 October, five ships of the line, HMS Queen, Canopus, Spencer, Zealous, Tigre, and the frigate HMS Endymion were dispatched to Gibraltar under Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Louis for supplies.[30]

Battle of Trafalgar By William Lionel Wyllie, Juno Tower, CFB Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

These ships were later diverted for convoy duty in the Mediterranean, although Nelson had expected them to return. Other British ships continued to arrive, and by 15 October the fleet was up to full strength for the battle. Nelson also lost Calder's flagship, the 98-gun Prince of Wales, which he sent home as Calder had been recalled by the Admiralty to face a court martial for his apparent lack of aggression during the engagement off Cape Finisterre on 22 July.

Meanwhile, Villeneuve's fleet in Cádiz was also suffering from a serious supply shortage that could not be easily rectified by the cash-poor French.[31] The blockade maintained by the British fleet had made it difficult for the Franco-Spanish allies to obtain stores, and their ships were ill-equipped. Villeneuve's ships were also more than two thousand men short of the force needed to sail. These were not the only problems faced by the Franco-Spanish fleet. The main French ships of the line had been kept in harbour for years by the British blockade with only brief sorties. The French crews included few experienced sailors, and, as most of the crew had to be taught the elements of seamanship on the few occasions when they got to sea, gunnery was neglected. The hasty voyage across the Atlantic and back used up vital supplies. Villeneuve's supply situation began to improve in October, but news of Nelson's arrival made Villeneuve reluctant to leave port. Indeed, his captains had held a vote on the matter and decided to stay in harbour.

On 16 September, Napoleon gave orders for the French and Spanish ships at Cádiz to put to sea at the first favourable opportunity, join with seven Spanish ships of the line then at Cartagena, go to Naples and land the soldiers they carried to reinforce his troops there, then fight decisively if they met a numerically inferior British fleet.

Other Languages
azərbaycanca: Trafalqar döyüşü
brezhoneg: Emgann Trafalgar
Bahasa Indonesia: Pertempuran Trafalgar
Lëtzebuergesch: Schluecht vun Trafalgar
Bahasa Melayu: Pertempuran Trafalgar
မြန်မာဘာသာ: ထရာဖဲလဂါတိုက်ပွဲ
Nederlands: Slag bij Trafalgar
norsk nynorsk: Slaget ved Trafalgar
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Trafalgar jangi
Simple English: Battle of Trafalgar
slovenščina: Bitka pri Trafalgarju
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Bitka kod Trafalgara
Tiếng Việt: Trận Trafalgar