Battle of Trafalgar

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Battle of Trafalgar
Part of the Trafalgar Campaign
Joseph Mallord William Turner 027.jpg
The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizzen
starboard shrouds of the Victory

by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806 to 1808)
Date 21 October 1805
Location Cape Trafalgar, Spain
Result Decisive British victory
Belligerents
United Kingdom United Kingdom France First French Empire
Flag of Spain (1785-1873 and 1875-1931).svg Spain
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Horatio Nelson  
United Kingdom Cuthbert Collingwood
France Pierre-Charles Villeneuve
Flag of Spain (1785-1873 and 1875-1931).svg Federico Gravina
Strength
33 ships

(27 ships of the line and 6 others.)

41 ships

(France: 18 ships of the line and 8 others. Spain: 15 ships of the line)

Casualties and losses
458 killed
1,208 wounded


Total: 1,666[1]

France:
10 ships captured,
1 ship destroyed,
2,218 dead,
1,155 wounded,
4,000 captured[2]

Spain:
11 ships captured,
1,025 dead,
1,383 wounded,
4,000 captured[2]


Total: 13,781

Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, the French commander

The Battle of Trafalgar saw the British decisively defeat a combined French and Spanish fleet on October 21, 1805 in the most significant naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars. A Royal Navy fleet of 27 ships of the line destroyed an allied French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships of the line west of Cape Trafalgar in south-west Spain. The French and Spanish lost 22 ships, while the British lost none. The British commander Admiral Lord Nelson died late in the battle, by which time he had ensured his place as Britain's greatest naval hero.

It was part of the War of the Third Coalition, and a pivotal naval battle of the 19th century. The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the 18th century. However, by the time it was fought, Napoleon had abandoned his plans to invade southern England and instead was defeating Britain's allies in Germany.

The 200th anniversary of the battle was marked by Trafalgar 200 celebrations in the United Kingdom.


Battle

Battle of Trafalgar

On 18 October,Pierre Villeneuve received a letter informing him that Vice-Admiral François Rosily had arrived in Madrid with orders to take command. At the same time, he received intelligence that a detachment of six British ships (Admiral Louis's squadron) had docked at Gibraltar. Stung by the prospect of being disgraced before the fleet, Villeneuve resolved to go to sea before his successor could reach Cadiz. Following a gale on 18 October, the fleet began a rapid scramble to set sail.

The weather, however, suddenly turned calm following a week of gales. This slowed the progress of the fleet departing the harbour, giving the British plenty of warning. Villeneuve had drawn up plans to form a force of four squadrons, each containing both French and Spanish ships. Following their earlier vote to stay put, the captains were reluctant to leave Cádiz and as a result they failed to follow closely Villeneuve's orders (Villeneuve had reportedly become despised by many of the fleet's officers and crew). As a result, the fleet straggled out of the harbour in no particular formation.

It took most of 20 October for Villeneuve to get his fleet organized, and it set sail in three columns for the Straits of Gibraltar to the south-east. That same evening, the ship Achille spotted a force of 18 British ships of the line in pursuit. The fleet began to prepare for battle and during the night they were ordered into a single line. The following day Nelson's fleet of 27 ships of the line and four frigates was spotted in pursuit from the north-west with the wind behind it. Villeneuve again ordered his fleet into three columns, but soon changed his mind and ordered a single line. The result was a sprawling, uneven formation.

The British fleet was sailing, as they would fight, under signal 72 hoisted on Nelson's flagship. At 5:40 a.m., the British were about 21 miles (34 km) to the north-west of Cape Trafalgar, with the Franco-Spanish fleet between the British and the Cape. At 6 a.m. that morning, Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle.

At 8 a.m., Villeneuve ordered the fleet to wear together and turn back for Cádiz. This reversed the order of the Allied line, placing the rear division under Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley in the vanguard. The wind became contrary at this point, often shifting direction. The very light wind rendered manoeuvring all but impossible for the most expert crews. The inexperienced crews had difficulty with the changing conditions, and it took nearly an hour and a half for Villeneuve's order to be completed. The French and Spanish fleet now formed an uneven, angular crescent, with the slower ships generally leeward and closer to the shore.

By 11 a.m. Nelson's entire fleet was visible to Villeneuve, drawn up in two parallel columns. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour. Villeneuve was concerned at this point about forming up a line, as his ships were unevenly spaced and in an irregular formation. The French-Spanish fleet was drawn out nearly five miles (8 km) long as Nelson's fleet approached.

As the British drew closer, they could see that the enemy was not sailing in a tight order, but rather in irregular groups. Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants.

The six British ships dispatched earlier to Gibraltar had not returned, so Nelson would have to fight without them. He was outnumbered and out gunned, nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to his 17,000 men and 2,148 guns. The Franco-Spanish fleet also had six more ships of the line, and so could more readily combine their fire. There was no way for some of Nelson's ships to avoid being "doubled on" or even "trebled on".

The battle progressed largely according to Nelson's plan. At 11:45, Nelson sent the famous flag signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" He had instructed his signal officer, Lieutenant John Pasco, to signal to the fleet the message "England confides [i.e. is confident] that every man will do his duty." Pasco suggested to Nelson that expects be substituted for confides, since the former word was in the signal book, whereas confides would have to be spelled out letter-by-letter.

The term England was widely used at the time to refer to the United Kingdom, though the British fleet included significant contingents from Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as England. Unlike the photographic depiction, this signal would have been shown on the mizzen mast only and would have required 12 'lifts'. The fleet was approaching the French line in two columns. Leading the windward column in Victory was Nelson, while Collingwood in Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column.

As the battle opened, the French and Spanish were in a ragged line headed north as the two British columns approached from the west at nearly a right angle. The northern, windward column of the British fleet was headed by Nelson's 104-gun flagship Victory. The leeward column was led by the 100-gun Royal Sovereign, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. Nelson led his line into a feint toward the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet and then abruptly turned toward the actual point of attack. Collingwood altered the course of his column slightly so that the two lines converged at this line of attack.

Just before his column engaged the allied forces, Collingwood said to his officers, "Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter". Because the winds were very light during the battle, all the ships were moving extremely slow, and the foremost British ships were under heavy fire from several of the enemy ships for almost an hour before their own guns could bear.

At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal "engage the enemy", and Fougueux fired her first trial shot at Royal Sovereign. Royal Sovereign had all sails out and, having recently had her bottom cleaned, outran the rest of the British fleet. As she approached the allied line, she came under fire from Fougueux, Indomptable, San Justo and San Leandro, before breaking the line just astern of Admiral Alava's flagship Santa Ana, into which she fired a devastating double-shotted raking broadside.

The second ship in the British lee column, Belleisle, was engaged by Aigle, Achille, Neptune and Fougueux; she was soon completely desmasted, unable to manoeuvre and largely unable to fight, as her sails blinded her batteries, but kept flying her flag for 45 minutes until the following British ships came to her rescue.

For 40 minutes, Victory was under fire from Héros, Santísima Trinidad, Redoutable and Neptune; although many shots went astray others killed and wounded a number of her crew and shot away her wheel, so that she had to be steered from her tiller belowdecks. Victory could not yet respond. At 12:45, Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable. Victory came close to the Bucentaure, firing a devastating raking broadside through her stern which killed and wounded many on her gundecks. Villeneuve thought that boarding would take place, and with the Eagle of his ship in hand, told his men: "I will throw it onto the enemy ship and we will take it back there!" However Admiral Lord Nelson of the HMS Victory engaged the 74 gun Redoutable. Bucentaure was left to be dealt with by the next three ships of the British windward column Temeraire, Conqueror and Neptune.

A general mêlée ensued and, during that fight, Victory locked masts with the French Redoutable. The crew of the Redoutable, which included a strong infantry corps (with 3 captains and 4 lieutenants), gathered for an attempt to board and seize the Victory. A musket bullet fired from the mizzentop of the Redoutable struck Nelson in the left shoulder and passed through his body lodging in his spine. Nelson exclaimed, "They finally succeeded, I am dead." He was carried below decks and died at about 16:30, as the battle that would make him a legend was ending in favor of the British.

Victory ceased fire, the gunners having been called on the deck to fight the capture but were repelled to the below decks by French grenades. As the French were preparing to board Victory, the Temeraire, the second ship in the British windward column, approached from the starboard bow of the Redoutable and fired on the exposed French crew with a carronade, causing many casualties.

At 13:55, Captain Lucas, of the Redoutable, with 99 fit men out of 643 and severely wounded himself, was forced to surrender. The French Bucentaure was isolated by the Victory and Temeraire, and then engaged by Neptune, Leviathan and Conqueror; similarly, the Santísima Trinidad was isolated and overwhelmed without being rescued, surrendering after three hours.

As more and more British ships entered the battle, the ships of the allied centre and rear were gradually overwhelmed. The allied van, after long remaining quiescent, made a futile demonstration and then sailed away. The British took 22 vessels of the Franco-Spanish fleet and lost none. Among the taken French ships were the Aigle, Algésiras, Berwick, Bucentaure, Fougueux, Intrépide, Redoutable, and Swiftsure. The Spanish ships taken were Argonauta, Bahama, Monarca, Neptuno, San Agustín, San Ildefonso, San Juan Nepomuceno, Santísima Trinidad, and Santa Ana. Of these, Redoutable sank, Santísima Trinidad and Argonauta were scuttled by the British and later sank, Achille exploded, Intrépide and San Augustín burned, and Aigle, Berwick, Fougueux, and Monarca were wrecked in a gale following the battle.

As Nelson lay dying, he ordered the fleet to anchor as a storm was predicted. However, when the storm blew up many of the severely damaged ships sank or ran aground on the shoals. A few of them were recaptured by the French and Spanish prisoners overcoming the small prize crews or by ships sallying from Cádiz.


Aftermath

Only eleven ships regained Cádiz, and of those only five were considered seaworthy. Under captain Julien Cosmao, they set sail two days later and attempted to re-take some of the English prizes; they succeeded in re-capturing two ships, and forced Collingwood to scuttle a number of his prizes.

The four van ships which escaped with Dumanoir were taken on November 4th by Sir Richard Strachan at the Battle of Cape Ortegal.

When Rosily arrived in Cádiz, he found only five French ships remained rather than the 18 he was expecting. The surviving ships remained bottled up in Cádiz until 1808, when Napoleon invaded Spain. The French ships were then seized by the Spanish forces and put into service against France.

HMS Victory made its way to Gibraltar for repairs carrying on board the body of Admiral Nelson. It put into Rosia Bay, Gibraltar and after emergency repairs were carried out it returned to England. Many of the injured crew were brought ashore at Gibraltar and treated in the Naval Hospital. Those that subsequently died from injuries sustained at the Battle are buried in and near the Trafalgar Cemetery, at the south end of Main Street, Gibraltar.

All of the Royal Marine Corps officers in HMS Victory were killed, leaving the Sergeant Major of Marines (who was first by Nelson's side when he was hit) in command of Victory's Marine detachment. [citation needed]

The Battle took place the very day after the Battle of Ulm, and Napoleon did not hear about it for a few weeks - the Grande Armée had left Boulogne to meet Britain's allies before they could muster a huge force. He had tight control over the Paris media and kept the defeat a closely guarded secret. In a propaganda move, the battle was declared a "spectacular victory" by the French and Spanish.

Vice-Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner aboard his flagship and taken back to England. After his parole in 1806 and return to France, Villeneuve was found in his inn room during a stop on the way to Paris stabbed six times in the chest with a dining knife. While the verdict was that he had committed suicide, he was very likely murdered on the orders of Napoleon. Villeneuve had fallen from favor with Napoleon before Trafalgar and it was rumored he was to be relieved of command. Losing the battle resulted in further disfavor with Napoleon.

Less than two months later, the War of the Third Coalition ended with a decisive French victory over Russia and Austria, Britain's allies, at the Battle of Austerlitz. Prussia decided not to join the Coalition and, for a while, France was at peace again. However, it could no longer challenge Great Britain at sea. Napoleon instead established the Continental System in an attempt to deny Britain trade with the continent.

References

  1. Adkin 2007, p.524
  2. 2.0 2.1 Adkins pg. 190
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