History - Battle of Trafalgar 21st Oct 1805

200th anniversary of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar was considered to be the greatest sea battle with sailing ships. It was also the last. It took place just off the coast of Cape Trafalgar between Caños de Meca and Conil on the Costa de la Luz.

At this time, Napoleon was allied with Spain and reigned supreme in Europe. He was planning an invasion of Britain, but to do this, he needed to be sure of his supremacy on the seas.

The British fleet was commanded by Admiral Horacio Nelson and the combined Franco/Spanish fleet by General Villeneuve.

For two years, the two fleets chased each other around the Atlantic, the West Indies and the Mediterranean, before finally coming together for the Battle of Trafalgar. Communication and intelligence information at the time was slow and difficult. It could be weeks before a vital piece of information reached its destination, with the result that by the time it arrived, it was often hopelessly out of date.

On the 14th August, Villeneuve left northern Spain for Brest but later changed course southwards. On 20th August, he led thirty-nine Franco/Spanish Man o' War ships past four British ships and into the Bay of Cadiz.

Napoleon directed Villeneuve to leave Cadiz for Toulon at the first favourable opportunity. Whilst Villeneuve waited, Nelson arrived onboard the Victory, providing valuable reinforcement for the British.

Napoleon sent Admiral Rosily to relieve Villeneuve of his command. It took him ten days to travel by road from Madrid to Cadiz. Villeneuve knew it was time to leave the Bay.

Villeneuve formed a battle line three miles long with his forty ships. The fleet sailed ahead very slowly and Nelson hoisted a flag signal "England expects every man to do his duty".

Nelson's thirty-three ships split into two columns rather than forming the customary parallel battle line, so avoiding the typical long strung-out battle which had been practiced for centuries. This bold strategy caused confusion and resulted in a series of smaller, single combats of bloody ferocity.

Nelson paced the quarterdeck, the ribbons of his jacket ablaze with colour, urging his men on. It was during this battle that a French sniper fatally wounded him. Nelson was immediately taken below decks and the great man uttered his famous dying words "Thank God I have done my duty".

Of the thirty-three allied ships engaged, seventeen had surrendered during the Battle and many others were damaged and sunk soon afterwards.

Of the forty ships to leave Cadiz, only ten returned. More than 4500 allied lives were lost.

The English had far fewer casualties, but had lost their best and beloved admiral, Admiral Nelson.

The British ships limped back to the safety of Gibraltar. The Gibraltar Chronicle carried its greatest world exclusive the next day. Nelson's body was brought ashore at Rosia bay and placed in a brandy vat in preparation for the long journey back to England. The sailors who lost their lives were buried at sea. Those who survived the battle but who later died of their wounds, were buried in the Trafalgar Cemetery in Gibraltar.

Without a navy, the allied forces were no longer in a position to attack the British Isles.

Despite the magnitude of this battle, many historians argue that the fate of the Napoleonic wars were sealed at Cape Trafalgar, and not at Waterloo, ten years later.

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