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date: 29 September 2023

Trafalgar, Battle of

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History

Colin White

Trafalgar, Battle of 

The Battle of Trafalgar, which occurred on October 21, 1805, is the defining moment of British naval history. Other battles have been more decisive both in their immediate and in their long-term results, but the scale of Trafalgar, and the death of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson in it, combine to give the battle a unique character that, two hundred years later, still fascinates.

A number of myths have gathered around Trafalgar—the most persistent of which is that it saved Britain from invasion. In fact, by the time the battle was fought, Napoléon’s overambitious plans for the invasion of Britain had already been thwarted by the skillful strategic moves of the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham. Napoléon had spent months planning, and had expended millions of francs on, the creation of a special “Army of England,” as well as the creation of a huge flotilla of transports to get the army across the Channel. But in the end Napoléon was outmaneuvered by the Royal Navy, which skillfully blocked him at every turn as he tried to unite his fleets of battleships and push them into the Channel to cover his army’s crossing. Finally, in late August 1805, even Napoléon could see that his plans were not going to work. So when he heard that Austria was mobilizing its army, he turned with evident relief to the sort of warfare he understood best, striking at the Austrians before they were fully prepared. Napoléon directed his fleets to sail into the Mediterranean in support of his operations; thus when, on October 19, the combined Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty-three battleships left Cádiz, it was starting a completely new campaign.

Waiting out of sight over the horizon was a British fleet of twenty-seven battleships under the command of Britain’s foremost naval officer, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. As soon as he arrived off Cádiz to take command of the British fleet, on September 28, Nelson set about molding his captains—most of whom had never served with him before—into a fighting unit. He held convivial dinner parties at which he explained his battle plan, which he called “The Nelson Touch.” Like all good plans, it was very simple. He aimed to concentrate one part of his force on the enemy’s rear, crushing it with superior gunfire. In the meantime, the rest of his ships would prevent the rest of the enemy ships from coming to the aid of their comrades. This, Nelson hoped, would bring about what he called “a pell-mell battle,” in which the superior gunnery and ship handling of his crews would have maximum advantage.

Another myth is that this plan of Nelson’s was completely new and was the product of his own tactical genius. In fact, none of the individual elements was particularly revolutionary; Nelson was building on years of tactical experiment in the Royal Navy. What was different was that he had worked out his plan well in advance and shared it fully with his subordinates—and that he was prepared to delegate responsibility to individual captains. As Nelson wrote in the memorandum that he distributed just before the battle, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”

As the combined Franco-Spanish fleet emerged, heading south for the Strait of Gibraltar, it was expertly shadowed by British frigates under Captain Henry Blackwood, who kept in close touch with Nelson by means of a new signal system devised by an ingenious English naval officer, Sir Home Riggs Popham. As a result, Nelson was able to choose both the direction of his attack and the precise moment for it.

The two fleets sighted each other at about six in the morning on October 21, but the wind was light and so the first shots were not fired until midday. As planned, the British fleet split into two divisions. One, led by the second in command, Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign, headed for the rear of the Franco-Spanish line, while Nelson in HMS Victory first aimed his division at the Franco-Spanish vanguard, as if he were going to land his blow there, and then, at the last moment, sidestepped and smashed through the center. Scarcely any operational signals were required—a tribute to the thoroughness of Nelson’s prebattle briefings. Indeed, when the flags were hoisted with his famous message of encouragement, “England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty,” Collingwood’s first reaction was to remark crossly, “I do wish Nelson would stop signaling. We all know what we have to do!”

Collingwood was first into action, firing a broadside into one of the Spanish flagships, Santa Anna, as he passed under her stern at about 12:20 p.m. Collingwood was followed by the ships of his division, which approached in a slanting line, thus spreading the force of the impact and enveloping the allied rear, as Nelson had intended. Meanwhile Nelson in Victory passed under the stern of the French flagship, Bucentaure, and Victory fired a murderous broadside as she went by that gave Bucentaure a demoralizing blow right at the start of the contest. As Victory moved on, she became entangled with Redoutable, whose captain, Jean Lucas, had been gallantly trying to help his comrades, and the two ships drifted away, locked in a deadly close-quarters struggle. This created a large gap in the allied line, through which the ships of Nelson’s division then poured, thus splitting the enemy fleet in two—again, exactly as Nelson had intended.

Thereafter the battle developed into a ferocious pounding match. The individual French and Spanish ships fought with great bravery, but they were isolated and leaderless, while the British were working to a single preconceived plan and were much better trained in delivering rapid, accurate gunnery. Collingwood’s ships gradually subdued the allied rear, while Nelson’s division first captured most of their center and then fought off a belated counterattack by the vanguard under French Rear Admiral Dumanoir. When the battle finally ended, at about 4:30 p.m., seventeen allied ships had been captured and another was a blazing wreck. Four ships escaped with Dumanoir, but they were captured a few weeks later at the battle of Cape Ortegal (November 4, 1805); only eleven ships managed to struggle back into Cádiz, under the command of the Spanish senior admiral, Gravina, who was himself badly wounded.

For the British sailors, joy at this extraordinary victory was overshadowed by the news that Nelson was dead. Shot on his quarterdeck at about 1:15 p.m., he was carried down to Victory’s cockpit where, having been told of his great victory, he died at about 4:30 p.m. Even his protracted death scene has become the subject of myth. The Victorians, hating that the great hero actually asked another man to “kiss me,” invented the story that the desperately wounded admiral suddenly broke into Turkish: “Kismet [fate], Hardy!” In fact, all the eyewitness accounts agree that the kiss was both asked for and given. Indeed, Captain Hardy kissed his friend twice—once on the cheek and then again, after a short pause, on the forehead. Nelson’s response set the seal on this poignant exchange: “Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.”

The British triumph was further dissipated by a fierce storm that blew up after the battle, forcing them to scuttle most of their hard-won prizes. A daring sortie from Cádiz on October 23 by some of the survivors of the allied fleet under Commodore Cosmao-Kerjulien succeeded in wresting two of the prizes from their British captors, but the allies lost a further three ships in the process.

News of Trafalgar reached London in the early hours of November 6, about a fortnight after the battle, carried home in the schooner Pickle by Lieutenant John Lapenotiere. Public rejoicing for the victory was muted by widespread sorrow for the death of Nelson. Collingwood was made a baron, all the captains received the King’s Naval Gold Medal, and a special grant of money was made by the government to all those who had taken part, to compensate them for the prize money they had lost when their captures sank in the storm. Nelson’s body was brought home to Britain and buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, with the elaborate ceremonial of a full state funeral.

Because it was so decisive and because there were no other great set-piece fleet actions in the rest of the great war with France, Trafalgar has acquired a reputation for completeness that it does not really deserve. True, the Spanish fleet was dealt a mortal blow from which it never recovered, losing over a quarter of its effective battleships (eight out of thirty) and, perhaps more important, suffering serious casualties among its high command. The French, however, lost a smaller proportion of their effective fleet (thirteen out of seventy), and the lost ships were later replaced in an extensive building program. Moreover, Trafalgar had little immediate effect on the overall course of the war. The day before, Napoléon had defeated the Austrians at Ulm, and six weeks later he confirmed his ascendancy over Europe with an even more decisive victory over the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz (December 2, 1805). Arguably, therefore, Nelson’s victory at the Nile in 1798 was much more decisive than was Trafalgar: in the Battle of the Nile, almost the entire French Mediterranean fleet was eliminated and a completely new phase in the war began.

On the other hand, the psychological influence of Trafalgar was immeasurable. It demonstrated that the Royal Navy had superiority in training, professionalism, and expertise in naval tactics—superiority that set it apart from any of its rivals. The battle confirmed Britain’s command of the seas and steadied Britain on the course that would lead it to a wide-flung empire that depended almost entirely on sea communications. Above all, the battle gave the Royal Navy an unmatched tradition of victory that is still potent even two hundred years later.

Perhaps most important, Trafalgar was also the swan song of Horatio Nelson, still widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders that Britain has ever produced. His death, almost at the very moment of victory, added a bittersweet quality to the story of the battle, a quality that raised the story above a commonplace tale of broadsides and boarding parties. Maybe that is why, in 2005, the bicentenary of the battle was commemorated so elaborately, and with such fervor, both in Britain and overseas.

[See also Nelson, Horatio; Nile, Battle of the; Tactics; Telegraphy, subentry on Optical Telegraph Systems; Victory; and Wars, Maritime, subentry on Anglo-French Wars.]


Cayuela Fernández, José, and Ángel Pozuelo Reina. Trafalgar: Hombres y naves entre dos épocas. Barcelona, Spain: Ariel, 2004. The latest and most comprehensive Spanish account of the battle, incorporating much recently discovered material.Find this resource:

Clayton, Tim, and Phil Craig. Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004. The best of all the many books about the battle published for the bicentenary, containing much new material, including accounts by participants.Find this resource:

Corbett, Julian S. The Campaign of Trafalgar. London: Longmans, Green, 1910. Despite its age, still one of the best books on the subject—especially useful for its detailed and magisterial analysis of the complicated campaign that preceded the battle.Find this resource:

Desbrière, Edouard. The Naval Campaign of 1805. Translated and edited by Constance Eastwick. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933. An invaluable source for primary French material, including transcriptions of all the dispatches of the French and Spanish admirals and captains.Find this resource:

Jackson, T. Sturges, ed. Logs of the Great Sea Fights, 1794–1805. 2 vols. London: Navy Records Society, 1900. For Trafalgar, see vol. 2; invaluable for British primary source material, including the logs of all the ships involved, together with personal accounts by some of the participants.Find this resource:

Knight, Roger. The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson. New York: Penguin, 2005. By far the best of all the many new biographies of Nelson; includes an excellent section on the campaign and battle, with excellent illustrations and plans.Find this resource:

Mackenzie, R. H. The Trafalgar Roll: The Ships and the Officers. London: George Allen, 1913. Reprint. London: Chatham, 2004. A complete list, with biographical details, of all the officers on the British side, together with biographies of all the British ships.Find this resource:

Monaque, Rémi. Trafalgar. Paris: Tallandier, 2005. The latest and most comprehensive French account of the battle.Find this resource:

Nicolson, Adam. Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the British Hero. London: HarperCollins, 2005. A study of the battle from the point of view of a cultural historian, placing the conflict in its contemporary social context.Find this resource:

Warwick, Peter, ed. Voices from the Battle of Trafalgar. London: David and Charles, 2005. A vivid account of the battle itself, made up almost entirely of accounts by participants.Find this resource:

White, Colin. Nelson the Admiral. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton and the Royal Naval Museum, 2005. A detailed study of Nelson as a commander, showing how his tactical ideas and leadership style evolved and placing the Trafalgar plan in its tactical context.Find this resource:

Colin White