Okay, so it’s not quite the 21st here yet, but it is across the pond, so that’s what matters. In honour of Trafalgar Day, I’ve put together this Nelson/Trafalgar-tastic post! It is very lengthy. You have been warned.
The 21st of October 1805 saw what is considered one of the most famous naval battles in history take place. The British fleet of 27 ships-of-the-line soundly defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships-of-the-line off of Cape Trafalgar, near Cadiz, Spain. While these odds may seem steep, it was pretty well-known even at the time that the Royal Navy would be able to thump the French and Spanish.
One reason for this is that British sailors had better training than their French and Spanish counterparts. Most Royal Navy ships drilled at gunnery every evening, and if their captains could afford the extra powder and shot, that included live fire. The French and the Spanish were often blockaded in port by the British, depriving them of valuable time at sea to train. French and Spanish ships were also immensely overcrowded. While British ships were made up primarily of able seamen with a contingent of Marines to help man the guns and small-arms during battle, French and especially Spanish ships were filled to bursting with soldiers. These soldiers were often seasick, no good to man or beast (Oh, O’Brian, how you’ve influenced my language).
In addition to this, the British had knowledgeable officers to lead their men. In order to reach the rank of lieutenant, a midshipman had to pass a gruelling examination given by a board of captains. This exam included extremely detailed questions about practical seamanship, which could include completely de-rigging and rigging again an entire mast (trust me, that’s tricky). French officers, in contrast, were decimated by the Revolution. Most belonging to the aristocracy (like the British), had to flee the Terror. This left inexperienced officers to take their lubber-filled ships into battle.
Another problem for the French came from their Emperor. While Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant tactician on land (well, except for that Russia thing), he was completely incompetent when it came to naval matters. Thinking that quantity beats quality, he filled his ships with soldiers, not realising that they were doing more harm than good. Bonaparte also didn’t allow his captains and admirals to make decisions on their own, giving them very detailed orders without taking into account the weather, the enemy, or other uncertainties that go hand-in-hand with sea travel.
This is partially why the Battle of Trafalgar occurred in the first place. The French admiral, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was attempting to carry out Bonaparte’s invasion plan when, aware of superior British forces, he turned the fleet he had managed to gather back to Cadiz and waited in the harbour, the British fleet just beyond the horizon. Well, Napoleon didn’t like this, so he sent for Admiral Rosily, a French naval hero, to replace Villeneuve. Villeneuve got wind of this before his actual orders arrived, and sent the combined fleet out to face the British in a last-ditch attempt to save his honour.
The battle commenced around noon on the 21st of October 1805, concluding some four hours later. The British captured 18 French and Spanish ships while losing none of their own. It was an outstanding victory that greatly improved British morale at home, where fear of a French invasion had been brewing. It was a bittersweet victory, however, because it also saw the loss of Britain’s hero, Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson.
Horatio Nelson was born on 29 September 1758 in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, to Reverend Edmund Nelson and Catherine (hey, my name with a C!). The sixth of eleven children, Nelson’s mother died when he was nine years old. He began his naval career at the age of 12 when he signed on aboard HMS Raisonnable under his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. Here he discovered he suffered from seasickness, which would plague him for the rest of his career.
Nelson later joined an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage under Captain Constantine Phipps aboard HMS Carcass. While the passage was never found (though they did reach within 10 degrees of the North Pole), a popular story was circulated that Nelson had gone after a polar bear because he wanted to give the skin to his father before being called back to the ship. This is debated, but it makes for a nice story, anyway.
Between 1773 and 1776, Nelson served aboard HMS Seahorse in the East Indies in support of the East India Company. He contracted malaria in 1776, though, and was sent back home to England aboard HMS Dolphin. By the time he got there, though, he had practically recovered and (thanks to his uncle’s influence) was appointed acting lieutenant aboard HMS Worcester.
After passing his lieutenants’ examination and receiving his commission, Nelson carried out several cruises in the Caribbean. With the breakout of the American War of Independence, Nelson was given his first command. A captured tender named Little Lucy. On the 8th of December 1778, Nelson was appointed Master and Commander of the brig, HMS Badger. (How awesome is that? I want a boat named Badger.)
On 11 June 1778 Nelson was made Post (Huzzah!) and took command of HMS Hinchinbrook. After taking some American prizes though, Nelson suffered again from a bout of malaria. After being discharged and recovering back home, he was appointed to HMS Albermarle in 1781.
Nelson was moderately successful during his command of the Albermarle, but when the peace broke out in 1783, he returned to Britain. He was soon given command of HMS Boreas and sent to enforce the Navigation Acts. He and his admiral, Sir Richard Hughes, interpreted the acts differently, and the American captains of ships he had captured sued Nelson. While in Nevis, Nelson met and married his wife, Fanny Nisbet. With the courts ruling in his favour, Nelson returned home, Fanny following him.
When the war resumed in 1783, Nelson was in command of the 64, HMS Agamemnon. He served in the Mediterranean, where he met Emma Hamilton in Naples. While involved in an assault on Calvi, Corsica, Nelson lost the sight in his right eye after being struck by sand and debris. Nelson continued to serve in the Mediterranean, seeing a few actions, through 1796, when the British evacuated to Gibraltar.
On 14 February 1797, Nelson fought aboard HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, where he engaged and captured two Spanish ships. While he directly disobeyed orders, it was a great victory, and Nelson was made a Knight of the Bath. Soon after (due to seniority), he was promoted to Admiral of the Blue.
In July of 1797, Nelson led the failed attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife where he was shot in the right arm which was subsequently amputated. On his return to England in September, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome after his success at Cape St. Vincent, while the public ignored the shambles of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
In 1798, in command of HMS Vanguard, Nelson set sail for the Mediterranean once again. It was at Aboukir Bay he discovered the anchored French fleet on 1 August and fought the famous Battle of the Nile. The French didn’t expect the British to attack in the evening, but this they did. The British pounded the French on both sides until their surrender. While Nelson was wounded above his left eye, the battle was a significant victory, destroying many French ships and stranding Napoleon in Egypt.
Nelson landed in Naples after the battle to immense celebration. He was titled Baron Nelson of the Nile, though he had hoped for something higher. At Naples he again met with the Hamiltons, and soon fell deeply in love with Emma.
In December, though, the Royal Family and British nationals had to evacuate Naples when the French invaded after Naples’ King Ferdinand declared war. In 1799 Nelson was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Red and spent his time blockading Naples. King Ferdinand gave Nelson the Dukedom of Bronté in thanks for his support.
By 1800, Nelson was gaining a reputation for insubordination and his relationship with Lady Hamilton was being scrutinised. He returned to England (with the Hamiltons) and was again treated to a hero’s welcome. Tensions, however, between Nelson and Fanny reached the breaking point, and they separated.
On 1 January 1801, Nelson was promoted Vice Admiral of the Blue, and on the 29th his daughter Horatia was born. He soon had to set sail for the Baltic however, where he fought at the Battle of Copenhagen. Deliberately turning a blind eye (har har, where the phrase comes from), Nelson ignored direct orders to retreat and instead engaged the Danish fleet. The battle ended in a truce, and Nelson was awarded with a Viscountcy.
He returned to England in July but almost immediately was ordered to defend the English Channel as Napoleon was gathering an invasion force. With the Peace of Amiens in October, however, he returned home and toured England and Wales with the Hamiltons, being greeted as a hero everywhere he went. William Hamilton died in April 1803, but the next month war once again broke out, and Nelson returned to sea aboard HMS Victory.
He commanded the Mediterranean fleet in a blockade of Toulon for the next year and a half. He was promoted Vice Admiral of the White in April 1804, and spent the beginning of 1805 chasing Villeneuve across the Atlantic. He returned to England briefly before receiving orders to command the fleet blockading Villeneuve in Cadiz.
The rest, as they say, is history (sorry, that was really cliché). Before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson sent up his famous signal to the fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” An inspiring message to the men who would fight in a bloody battle. (Though some argued it was a silly thing to say. Of course they would do their duty.) Around 1:00pm, Nelson was shot by a French sniper aboard Redoutable. The bullet had entered his left shoulder, went through his lung, and stopped at his spine. He spent the remainder of the battle below in agonising pain, until the news reached him that they had won. Among his last words were, “Thank God I have done my duty.”
Whew! That was a bit long. The Trafalgar stuff I have down pat. Written two essays (and counting) on it already… If you’re interested in a bibliography, do send me a message. While I know most of the general Nelson stuff, I’m sorry to say many of the details came from Wikipedia. Which is why it’s so long. I have two big, fat biographies of Nelson I plan on reading when I finish Aubrey-Maturin. Unfortunately, school keeps getting in the way.
I hope this post added to your Trafalgar Day! Do remember to raise a glass to the Immortal Memory of Lord Nelson today.