Trafalgar Day ceremony on board HMS Victory.
Trafalgar Day ceremony on board HMS Victory.
Naval History

What is Trafalgar Day?

Trafalgar Day ceremony on board HMS Victory.
Trafalgar Day ceremony on board HMS Victory.

Trafalgar Day is an annual celebration of the victory over the French and Spanish fleets by the Royal Navy in the 19th Century.

On 21 October 1805, Royal Navy Commander Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson's fleet defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet that was attempting to invade the United Kingdom.

The event went down in history as the Battle of Trafalgar, which also marked the end of the so-called Trafalgar campaign.

The aim of the campaign was for France, led by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, to successfully invade the United Kingdom, forcing a passage through the English Channel.

How is Trafalgar Day celebrated?

Because of its history, Trafalgar Day is the most important day in the calendar of HMS Victory.

The day begins with the daily naval ceremony of 'Colours'. 

The White Ensign of the Royal Navy and the Union Jack are hauled up and followed by the flag sequence indicating Nelson's final signal to the fleet: "England expects that every man will do his duty."

An annual ceremony is held on board HMS Victory to mark the anniversary of the victory while also remembering the loss of Lord Nelson and those who lost their lives in the battle or as a result of their injuries.

Commissioned officers of the Royal Navy also usually celebrate the occasion by holding a traditional Trafalgar Night dinner in the Officers' Mess.

Similar dinners in memory of Lord Nelson and to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar are often held in various locations, including the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth.

Different celebrations also take place across the UK, with the Sea Cadet Corps holding the National Trafalgar Day Parade on Trafalgar Square, and the statue of Lord Nelson in Birmingham is decorated with wreaths.

Royal Navy musicians play to mark Trafalgar Day on HMS Victory in Portsmouth.
Royal Navy musicians play to mark Trafalgar Day on HMS Victory in Portsmouth.

Trafalgar Day is also celebrated in the city of Nelson in New Zealand and in the Australian town of Trafalgar, in Victoria.

The Battle of Trafalgar

In 1805, France was the lead military force on the ground and Napoleon himself was a skilled soldier.

On the other hand, in the European context, the Royal Navy had supremacy at sea.

The sea battle saw 33 ships of the line, five frigates and two brigs on the Franco-Spanish front, while the Royal Navy had 27 ships of the line, four frigates, one schooner and one cutter.

Despite having more ships of the line, the Franco-Spanish fleet, led by Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, adopted complicated and impractical tactics at sea that eventually led to its defeat.

The French and Spanish vessels set sail in three columns from the Straits of Gibraltar to the south-east on 20 October 1805.

Watch: Man completes HMS Victory replica after 50 years of work.

The very same evening, some 18 British ships of the line were spotted in pursuit.

Admiral Villeneuve used the evening between 20 and 21 October to organise his fleet in a straight line in the Atlantic Ocean along the Spanish coast.

Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Nelson adopted a considerably different tactic.

The Royal Navy fleet approached the enemy in a single line of battle, but later separated and formed two parallel lines.

Vice Admiral Nelson's vessels then approached the single line of ships that had been formed by the French and Spanish forces and proceeded to split the single line into three smaller, more manageable segments that were easier to control.

Cannon on HMS Victory.
Cannons on board HMS Victory.

While part of Admiral Villeneuve's fleet was left isolated, the other two parts of the fleet were forced to engage in one-on-one close-quarters battle against the Royal Navy vessels.

This tactic allowed Royal Navy crews to engage in ship-to-ship fighting, something they were skilled at.

At the same time, breaking the single line that had been formed by Admiral Villeneuve's forces meant the Royal Navy was also able to break easy communication between Franco-Spanish ships.

The battle was violent and many British ships were damaged.

HMS Victory, which had engaged the French flagship Bucentaure and the Redoutable, was one of the seriously damaged vessels.

However, Vice Admiral Nelson was able to capture 18 enemy ships which led to the surrender of Admiral Villeneuve at 13:45 of the same day.

The Battle of Trafalgar was officially over by 16:30 on 21 October 1805.

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