Trafalgar, Battle of

Trafalgar, Battle of
   The most decisive naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, in which a Royal Navy fleet of 27 ships under Admiral Horatio Nelson routed a combined French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships commanded by Rear-Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve. It took place off Cape Trafalgar on the southwestern coast of Spain on October 21, 1805.
   Weather conditions on the morning of that day were such that Nelson was able to approach the Franco-Spanish line from the northwest to catch Villeneuve’s ships downwind and sailing a northerly course. To attack Nelson formed his ships in two parallel lines and ordered them to close on Villeneuve’s fleet, forming a line-ahead formation north-to-south, at right angles. This tactic had in fact been anticipated by Villeneuve, yet he had no counter to it and indeed had difficulty keeping his line orderly owing to its awkward position to the wind. One column of ships, headed by Nelson’s flagship Victory, steered into and split off the top third of Villeneuve’s line; the other, headed by Vice-Admiral Wilfrid Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign, split off the bottom third. Nelson’s tactics ran the danger of exposing his ships to punishing fire as they closed on Villeneuve’s line. Yet they also temporarily separated a third of the French admiral’s ship from action as the two British columns tore into the Combined Fleet’s line and engaged it at close range. Once this had been accomplished, the gunlock firing mechanism of the Royal Navy’s cannon and the superior discipline of its gun crews was able to deliver a volume and rate of fire that inflicted casualties and damage disproportionate to what was received. Villeneuve’s line broke apart as Nelson’s ships fell among them, Royal Sovereign alone engaging no fewer than eight enemy ships. Victory, and in succession the ships that followed her into the French line, fired broadsides into Villeneuve’s flagship, Bucentaure, toppling its masts, shattering it timbers with solid shot, and tearing up its crew with grapeshot. Nelson lost no ships yet managed to sink or capture 19 of the Combined Fleet; 449 British died against 4,000 French and Spanish. In Britain, national jubilation at so spectacular a victory was submerged in grief at the news of Nelson’s death from the ball of a sniper.
   Trafalgar did not, technically, save Britain from invasion. Napoleon’s plans in this direction had already been all but abandoned. It nonetheless guaranteed Britain’s survival and economic prosperity, which in turn permitted her to continue the struggle for the next decade and to support her continental allies in the effort. Napoleon had, in 1805, not yet reached the zenith of his success, but, as he eventually stretched his ambition and resources to Spain and Russia simultaneously, having an implacable foe such as Britain meant that Trafalgar was a defeat of strategic dimensions. This was even more so for Spain whose loss of a fleet at Trafalgar emboldened its colonies to rebellion had hastened the demise of a vast overseas empire. Lastly, it gave Britain almost the century of naval predominance that enabled it to preserve and extend it own imperial interests, a fact that, by the 1890s, moved Mahan to cite Trafalgar in making the case for the influence of sea power on history.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Davies, David. Fighting Ships. London: Constable and Co., 1996;
    Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty. London: Hutchinson, 1988;
    Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. London: A. Lane, 1976;
    Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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