To enemy seamen, Britain’s greatest naval victory might well have looked like it would start out as a catastrophic defeat.
For many French and Spanish sailors looking off the port side of their vessels, the Royal Navy’s small, divided ship columns probably seemed like they were on a suicide mission, sailing right for the gun-heavy sides of every ship in their combined fleet.
Everyone knew that the way to fight a naval battle was to sidle up next to your opponent’s ships, and then for both fleets to open fire with all their guns, from their broadsides, into one another.
Ships-of-the-line were designed with such a fight in mind. Large vessels, usually hauling between 70 and 100 guns, they had crews packed on multiple decks to man and fire the cannons as rapidly as possible.
Pound the other fellow’s ships into firewood before he did the same to yours and you’d win – Nelson himself had won that way at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
And yet, here he was seven years later, on October 21st, 1805 (click below to watch the anniversary commemorations on HMS Victory), coming at the allied fleet perpendicular. His fleet was split into two columns, each trailing less than half as many ships as his enemies, and in the path of fully 50% of their guns.
Well, if Nelson wanted to die that day, the French and Spanish weren’t going to stop him. Napoleon needed, and had so far tried and failed, to remove the obstacle of the Royal Navy.
He might have controlled the whole continent, were it not for British ships blockading his ports, maintaining their own sea lanes, and bankrolling anyone who opposed him - with subsidies made possible by the lucrative colonial trading these sea lanes allowed.
A huge invasion flotilla of 160,000 troops was in the works – it would be 1066 all over again for the British. But Napoleon could never deploy that either, with the Royal Navy in the way. He needed them neutralised, just as Hitler did the RAF, as the first step for his planned invasion of Britain in 1940.
His fleet was at that point just off the coast of Spain, embarking on the first stage of an ambitious plan to assemble an even greater armada that would eventually take the fight to their British counterparts.
But if Nelson was foolhardy enough to force battle early by leading his smaller fleet right into the path of French guns, all the better for Napoleon.
Despite appearances, though, the Royal Navy and Vice Admiral Nelson knew exactly what they were doing.
Interestingly, French commander Vice Admiral Villeneuve did not underestimate his opponents, had fully anticipated what the British were about to do, and had warned his captains:
"The British fleet will not be formed in a line of battle parallel with the Combined Fleet… Nelson… will seek to break our line, envelop our rear, and overpower with groups of his ships as many of ours as he can isolate or cut off."
Villeneuve likely confirmed his suspicions when he saw the two British columns through his telescope coming from his left.
'Weather' column was to the north, led by Nelson aboard HMS Victory, and 'Lee' was to the south, led by his deputy Vice Admiral Collingwood on HMS Royal Sovereign.
He’d probably predicted Nelson’s plan because the maths did not favour the British. They had only 27 ships of the line, most carrying around 70 or 80 guns. Only three had 100 (Victory, Sovereign, and Britannia), and there were only four 35-gun frigates.
They were up against the allied fleet’s seven frigates, five with 40 guns each, and an imposing 33 ships of the line, including the hefty 100-gun Rayo, the enormous Santa Ana and Principe de Asturias (each with 112 guns), and the positively gargantuan 140-gun Santisima Trinidad – the most heavily armed ship of the age.
The British were rolling the dice on outmanoeuvring their foes, but getting into position to do so would require coming under heavy fire first. In fact, the already battered one-armed, one-eyed, and largely toothless 47-year-old Nelson had informed a subordinate that he did not expect to survive the battle. He’d made a point beforehand of amending his will to include a provision that his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, would be provided for after his death.
Despite his physical disfigurements, she’d been bowled over by him in the wake of his legendary victory at the Nile. Christopher Hibbert’s “Nelson: A Personal History” says he crossed paths with the alluring Mrs Hamilton, formerly Emma Hart, while liaising with her husband, the British Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton.
Her father died when she was a child. She became a maid by age 12 and later picked up an interest in acting while visiting London. She went on to work as a model and dancer, going on be hired by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, eventually becoming pregnant by him, and “upon whose dining-room table she was said to dance naked” and “may have become a prostitute… after her break with (him)”, before she fell in with Charles Greville, the son of the Earl of Warwick.
Greville directed his friend, the painter George Romney, to use her as a subject, and may have profited by selling a number of his portraits of her. However, “when Emma did not live up to the high standards he set for her, when her need for admiration or attention irritated him” the two grew apart and it fell to Greville’s uncle, Hamilton, to help rid his nephew of the “encumbrance of Miss Hart”.
Hamilton eventually married Emma himself, but, being many years her senior, was in declining health years later, giving Nelson and Emma the chance to spent increasing amounts of time together. Despite Nelson also already being married, Emma became his mistress. So aroused by her sexually was he, that Nelson later wrote to her:
“In one of my dreams I thought I was at a large Table You was not present. Sitting between a Princess who I detest and another. They both tried to Seduce Me and the first wanted to take those liberties with Me which no Woman in this World but Yourself ever did. The consequence was I knocked her down and in the moment of bustle You came in and, taking Me to Your embrace whispered ‘I love nothing but You My Nelson.’ I kissed You fervently And we enjoy’d the height of love.”
The fact that he might never see her again must have been at the back of Nelson’s mind throughout, as he sailed into action that day.
But it was Collingwood’s Sovereign that was the first to draw fire, at around 12:10 pm. The shots either missed or had little effect, however.
Hibbert’s relates what happened next aboard the Victory:
“Shortly afterwards the Victory also came under fire. The first two shots fell harmlessly into the water; the third flew past the sails… The shots were flying more thickly now, as seven or eight enemy ships directed their broadsides against the British flagship. Shots tore into the Victory’s sails, ripping bits of canvas away, and hurtled across the quarterdeck. One struck John Scott, the Admiral’s secretary and cut him almost in two. ‘Is that poor Scott?’ Nelson asked as the torn corpse was bundled overboard on the orders of an officer of Marines, eight of whose own men were killed by a ball that came tearing along the bulwarks”.
The French and Spanish almost certainly both fired standard cannon balls, and variants that were split in two and connected by a chain, designed to fly through the air and rip down rigging.
Despite the damaging fire, very shortly, the British gamble started to pay off.
Nelson’s strategy was predicated on cutting off the more forward part of the allied fleet, then surrounding and annihilating the rest. In the age of the sail, it was incredibly difficult for ships to turn around with any speed, so by cutting in behind about a third of the French led forces, he would exclude them from the battle.
The other advantage that would now pass to Nelson’s side was that once they bisected the enemy line, they could ‘cross the T’, and then unleash the full weight of their own broadsides on the front, or even better, the rear sides of the ships they were cutting across.
According to the documentary Line of Fire, HMS Victory did just this at around 1 pm, cutting behind the Bucentaure and “raking” it, firing every gun as it passed, the shots smashing through the whole of the ship from the stern all the way to the bow.
Duncan Anderson and Aryck Nusbacker of Sandhurst describe the carnage this would have caused:
"That allowed you to concentrate your entire broadside against the area of his ship where [the enemy] was weakest, where he couldn’t… maximise his firepower, and you could maximise yours."
"Anything in the ship that can be hit, gets hit. You’re firing right through the stern of the ship and you can hit anything on that ship. You can hit all three masts if you want."
Gregory Fremont-Barnes’ book 'Trafalgar 1805: Nelson’s Crowning Victory' reveals that Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign had already beaten Nelson to the punch by plunging into the French line at 12:20 pm...
“...Firing her double-shotted broadsides into the stern of the Santa Ana, demolishing the ornate woodwork and putting several hundred men immediately out of action. She also raked the bows of the Fougueux as she broke the line, that ship’s master-at-arms reporting later that the Royal Sovereign ‘gave us a broadside from five and fifty guns and carronades, hurtling forth a stream of cannonballs, big and small, and musket shot. I thought the Fougueux was shattered to pieces – pulverised”.
The same master-at-arms then relates how the French crew recovered and fired back. Indeed, it wasn’t long before both Collingwood’s ship was locked broadside-to-broadside with the Santa Ana, and Nelson’s ship with the Redoutable, right behind the now pulverised Bucentaure. Now, both sides poured fire into each other from point-blank range.
If you could go below deck during such a battle, you’d likely immediately succumb to temporary noise-induced hearing loss. You’d be stripped to the waist from the heat, and you’d burn your skin if you were foolish enough to touch the hot metal of the guns - there was no health and safety in Nelson's day. Unaccustomed to the perpetual rolling of the ship, you might vomit and become dizzy. And if, in the noise and confusion, you got disoriented and ended up behind a gun right as it fired, the huge recoiling mass of metal would break your leg, or shatter your ribs, or worse.
Gunpowder smoke would make the poor light below deck even worse, also causing you to cough and blink away the hot, acrid smoke or gun powder hanging in the air.
And that was only the worst from your own side. Cannon balls ripping through your hull, if they didn’t kill you or rip off a limb as they battered your deck, might kill you indirectly – explosions of shattered wood sending hundreds or thousands of lethally sharp splinters flying through the air. If none of that killed you, fires sparked by enemy hits might, and if said fires reached the magazines, the whole ship might explode, as the French ship Achille did, taking 480 sailors to the bottom with her as the wreckage sank.
But the carnage that day was not equally shared.
The terror in France following the Revolution in 1789 had targeted the aristocracy and so disproportionately affected the country's navy, which had been a very aristocratic institution. Additionally, with their sailors bottled up in ports by Royal Navy blockades, they knew their British counterparts had better sea legs and better gunnery. So a shift towards disabling British ships and evading them, by training gunners to fire when their ships rolled up and take out the masts, made sense. However, now that Nelson had so completely engaged and forced a full-scale battle on the French, British doctrine of firing on the down roll, into the hull and through the decks of their enemies, prevailed.
By the end of the day, French and Spanish casualties totalled 3,370 killed, 1,160 wounded, including 26 flag officers or captains dead or wounded. 7,000 more were eventually captured, including Vice Admiral Villeneuve. 18 of their 33 ships were also taken. Meanwhile, Admiral Dumanoir, in command of the lead ships that had been cut off from battle by Nelson’s manoeuvre, struggled with lack of proper wind to turn around and make it back to the battle. As a rival who hated Villeneuve, he may have also dithered unenthusiastically, and only made it back into the fray several hours later. By that point, the Royal Navy had already gained the upper hand.
But the British wouldn’t end without sweating some blood of their own. They suffered 449 officers and men killed and 1,214 wounded – 10% of their force. In the heat of battle, many no doubt wondered if they’d win that day. At one point, the French Aigle was locked in combat with HMS Bellerophon, and as a midshipman aboard the latter records:
"Our fire was so hot that we soon drove them from the lower deck, after which our people… elevated their guns, so as to tear her decks and sides to pieces [with anti-personnel grapeshot]… Her starboard side was entirely beaten in, so that she was an easy conquest for the Defiance, a fresh ship."
Actual boardings did occur elsewhere during the battle. Over in Weather's column, HMS Victory had smashed into Redoubtable, the men on the French vessel lashing the ships together and boarding the Victory:
"…our decks swarmed with armed men, who rapidly spread to the poop, the nettings and the shrouds; it is not possible to say who was first. Then we opened a heavy fire of musketry. More than 200 grenades were thrown on board the Victory, with the utmost success; her decks were strewn with dead and wounded."
Gregory Fremont-Barnes reminds us that this was the most ferocious part of the battle, often with vicious hand-to-hand fighting involving swords and daggers more than muskets, because the rapidity of the combat did not permit reloading.
Despite outperforming the French, there was one British casualty that would disproportionately sap morale and which afterwards caused widespread national mourning: Nelson himself.
Standing on the deck of Victory, at one point in the battle, a French sharpshooter high in the rigging appears to have picked Nelson out by the medals on his coat. His musket shot cut through the torso, broke Nelson’s spine, and ended up buried in his opposite shoulder.
Bundled below deck, the Vice Admiral told the surgeon he was finished and instructed him to save the lives of other men. As he lay dying, he told his deputy, Captain Thomas Hardy, to take care of Lady Hamilton before uttering the immortal line “Kiss me Hardy”, to which his Captain responded by kissing his cheek. Nelson slipped away a little while later.
His body was put in a cask of brandy and returned to England, then escorted to St Paul’s Cathedral by 10,000 soldiers - the funeral lasted four hours. Breaking royal protocol, the Prince of Wales chose to attend. Nelson was placed in a sarcophagus that had originally been intended for Cardinal Wolsey, the famous Archbishop who fell out of favour with Henry VIII. Sailors meant to drape the British flag over the coffin instead ripped it up and took pieces as mementos.
The Times said of his loss:
"We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased."
Trafalgar Square was created in 1844, with Nelson’s column as the focal point, but the consequences of Nelson's victory were an even more fitting tribute. The British Navy's success at Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805, ensured that Napoleon would never invade, and locked in British naval supremacy for over 100 years.
But Nelson's dying wish for Lady Hamilton and her daughter to be provided for by the government was never honoured. Emma ended up in debt, and eventually debtors' prison, later moving to France to evade creditors, where she died of amoebic dysentery in 1815, aged 49.
For more on the battle, read Trafalgar 1805: Nelson's Crowning Victory by Gregory Fremont-Barnes and Horatio Nelson by Angus Konstam. For more on military history, visit Osprey Publishing.
* This is an edited version of an article first published in 2016.