TRAFALGAR, BATTLE OF. The British victory over the French off Cape Trafalgar, fought on the 21st of October 1805, was a sequel of the breakdown of Napoleon's great scheme for the invasion of the British Isles (See Napoleonic Campaigns: Naval). When Villeneuve gave up in despair the attempt to enter the Channel, he steered for Cadiz, and anchored in that port on the 20th of August 1805. He found three British ships of the line, under the command of Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, on the watch. Collingwood, resolved that the allies should not drive him through the Straits of Gibraltar without being compelled to follow, retired slowly, and at a short distance ahead of the ships sent to pursue him. They, not being willing to be drawn into the Mediterranean, gave up the pursuit. The British officer then resumed his watch off Cadiz. On the 22nd of August he was joined by Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Bickerton with four ships of the line, and on the 30th by Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder with 18. The allied fleet, consisting of 29 sail of the line which had come with Villeneuve, and five already at Cadiz, 34 in all, remained quiescent. The use to be made of it, or the measures to be taken for its destruction, were matters of urgent consideration to Napoleon and to the British government. On the 14th of September Napoleon gave orders that the French and Spanish ships at Cadiz should put to sea at the first favourable opportunity, join seven Spanish ships of the line then at Cartagena, go to Naples, and land the soldiers they carried to reinforce his troops then in that kingdom, and should fight a decisive action if they met a British fleet of inferior numbers. Two Spanish ships of the line were to be counted as equal to one French. Their final destination was to be Toulon. On the 15th he decided that Villeneuve, whose “excessive pusillanimity” rendered him incapable of vigorous action, must be replaced by Admiral Rosily. Rosily received his orders on the 17th and left for Cadiz. The British government, determined to confine the allies to Cadiz, or beat them if they came out, sent Nelson to take command and prepared to despatch reinforcements. Nelson left Portsmouth on the 15th of September, and reached Cadiz on the 28th, bringing three ships of the line with him. He gave orders that no salute should be fired for him lest the enemy should learn that reinforcements had arrived. The bulk of the fleet—23 sail—was kept well out at sea, and five ships of the line under Rear-Admiral Louis were appointed to cruise close to Cadiz as an inshore squadron. On the 5th of October Louis was sent to Gibraltar to renew his provisions and water, and the watch was left to two frigates. Between the 7th and the 13th of October Nelson was joined by six ships of the line, making a total of 34. But Admiral Calder, having been summoned home to stand a court-martial, took his flagship with him on the 14th, and on the 17th another line-of-battle ship had to be detached to renew her stores. As Admiral Louis could not return before the battle of the 21st, Nelson had at his disposal 27 ships of the line in all. Napoleon's order of the 14th of September reached Villeneuve on the 28th. He learnt also that Rosily was coming, but not that he himself was to be superseded. On the 5th of October he held a council of war of French and Spanish officers. They decided that the condition of their ships did not justify them in hoping for victory over the British fleet, but Napoleon's orders were peremptory, and they agreed that a sortie must be made. Easterly winds were needed to facilitate the sailing of a large and awkward fleet from Cadiz, and till the 14th the wind was hard from the west. Even when it fell the allies lingered. On the 18th of October Villeneuve heard that Rosily had reached Madrid, and of his own supersession. Stung by the prospect of being disgraced before the fleet, he resolved to go to sea before his successor could reach Cadiz.
The allies, aided by a light land breeze which blew from the east, though the wind at Sea was westerly, began to leave Cadiz Bay on the 19th. Their movements were at once known to the British look-out frigates, and were transmitted by signal to Nelson, who was cruising some thirty miles to the west. During the period of blockade he had instructed his captains as to how he meant to fight the approaching battle. The memorandum in which his instructions were embodied was dated the 9th of October. It was drawn up in view of the circumstances which did not arise—that the enemy would come to sea with a strong easterly wind which would give him the weather gage; that he might be reinforced to a strength of over 50 ships of the line from Brest, Rochefort and Cartagena; that the British fleet might be raised by reinforcements to 40 ships. But the governing principles of the memorandum were independent of such details. They were that the order of sailing in which the fleet was when the enemy was seen was to be the order of battle; that no time was to be wasted in forming a precise line; that the attack was to be made in two bodies, of which one, to be led by the second in command, Collingwood, was to be thrown on the rear of the enemy, while the other, led by Nelson himself, was to take care that the centre and van should not come to the assistance of the ships cut off. Nelson was careful to point out that “Something must be left to chance. Nothing is sure in a sea fight beyond all others”; and he left his captains free from . all hampering rules by telling them that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” In short the execution was to be as circumstances should dictate, subject to the guiding rule that the enemy's rear was to be cut off and a concentration of superior force on an inferior sought for.
The uncertainties of naval warfare in the days of sailing ships were fully shown at Trafalgar. The allies, having left Cadiz on the 20th of October, were 33 sail of the line strong, one of the fleet having been left behind. They sailed in five squadrons. Three were nearer the land than the other two. The leading squadron of the three was commanded by the Spanish admiral, Alava; Villeneuve followed; and the French admiral, Dumanoir, commanded the rear. The other two squadrons of six ships of the line each, commanded by the Spanish admiral, Gravina, and the French admiral, Magon, were parallel with, and outside of the three. All headed for the Straits of Gibraltar in the westerly breezes, which had become very light. The British fleet of 27 sail in two divisions also headed for the Mediterranean. During the night of the 20th-21st of October several movements were made to gain position, and there was an inevitable tendency to straggle among vessels which did not all sail equally well and were moving in light winds. On the early morning of the 21st the allies were some twelve miles off Cape Trafalgar. The British fleet was some ten or twelve miles out at sea to the west of them. Seeing that a battle would now be forced on him, Villeneuve ordered his whole fleet to turn so as to bring their heads on Cadiz. He was painfully aware that the incomparably more expert British fleet would not be content to attack him in the old-fashioned way, coming down in a parallel line and engaging from van to rear. He knew that they would endeavour to concentrate on a part of his line. But Villeneuve was too conscious of the inexperience of his officers and men to think it possible to make counter movements with them. It has been said that the French and Spanish ships which had taken part in the late cruise to the West Indies and back must be considered as trained in the same sense as the British. But apart from the fact that these vessels formed little more than a half of the allied fleet, the comparison is childish. It could only have occurred to writers who, wishing to exalt the glory of Trafalgar, forget that the superior quality of the British fleet, the fruit of foresight, of good sense, and the strenuous work of a people, was itself the best of all claims to honour. A hasty cruise across the Atlantic and back was no equivalent for years of training. The blockades maintained by the British fleet had made it difficult for the allies to obtain stores and their ships were ill fitted. Their crews contained a minute proportion of men bred to the sea, and as they had to be taught the elements of seamanship on the few occasions when they got to sea, their gunnery was neglected. There was valour in the allied fleet, but there was neither skill nor confidence. Moreover the very light wind then blowing rendered manoeuvring all but impossible for the most expert crews. Villeneuve could do nothing more than order his fleet to turn so as to bring the ships' heads on Cadiz, to form the line, and await the enemy's attack. He, however, left his captains free to act for the best when the battle had begun, by telling them that whoever was not under fire was not at his post. The movement of conversion ordered at 6 o'clock a.m. was not executed till about 10 o'clock, and it was ill done. The three squadrons nearest the shore turned first, the rear beginning, to leave room for the others. Thus Dumanoir now led the van and Alava followed Villeneuve. The two squadrons of Gravina and Magon, which had been outside, fell in behind Alava. No accurate line was formed. The allies drifted rather than sailed into a curve of some five miles long, stretching from north to south, concave on the west side, and more pronounced at the southern than at the northern end. Their ships did not follow one another, but were in many cases two, and in some cases three, abreast in groups. To some extent this was to their advantage, as the effective range of fire of the artillery of the day was barely 1200 yds., and as the power of concentrating the fire of guns out of ports was limited, the danger to an assailant bearing down was not great during his approach. The peril was that he would be engaged with two or three enemies when he had broken into the line, and this risk was increased by the accidental group formation of the allies.
The confidence and promptitude of the British fleet presented, a marked contrast to the passivity of the allies. When in the early morning the enemy was seen to the east, Nelson's fleet was in two divisions, somewhat scattered—his own of 12 sail of the line being to the westward and windward in the light breeze from W.N.W.; Collingwood's of 15 sail being to leeward and east. At 6.40 the signal was made to form the order of sailing and prepare for battle. The enemy's movement of conversion was already seen, and it was obvious that unless he were rapidly stopped he might reach Cadiz Bay in safety. A few minutes before 7 o'clock the signal to bear up, No. 76, was made by Nelson. Much discussion has arisen as to whether this was an order to bear up together, or in succession; the first if exactly executed would have caused the British ships to approach the enemy in a line abreast (side by side) since all would have turned at once; the second would have caused them to approach in a line ahead (one after the other) since they would have turned successively. The discussion is in reality futile, because the want of wind rendered it impossible to arrange exact formations, because it had been decided that no time should be wasted in dressing the line, and because Nelson's flagship, the “Victory” (100), and Collingwood's flagship, the “Royal Sovereign” (100), were quick-sailing vessels, and both admirals moved at the best attainable speed. The slow ships could not keep up with them. The two squadrons went down heading to north of east, Collingwood to the right and leeward, Nelson to the north and windward, in two bodies without exact formation, according to the speed of the ships. Collingwood headed for the centre, and the pronounced curve at the south end of the allied line caused the ships of his division to come into action in a close approach to a parallel with the enemy. The “Royal Sovereign” was the first British ship to break into the enemy's line, which she did about midday and astern of Alava's flagship the “Santa Ana.” She was alone for a few minutes, but the ships of Collingwood's division, as they sailed into the curve, were mostly able, by steering lo the right, to get into action very soon after their admiral. Nelson's division was headed by himself to cut through the enemy between his van and centre, and to bar his road to Cadiz. It was certainly in a nearer approach to a line ahead than Collingwood's. After making a demonstration at the allied van, he broke into their line astern of the “Bucentaure” (100), the flagship of Villeneuve.
The exact movements of all the ships engaged could only be given in a very detailed account of the battle, but the main lines of the action are already indicated. To the allies it appeared that the British fleet assailed them in two lines converging on their centre, and that it then carried out a concentration on this part of their line. Though this is too simple—or too bald—a statement of the case, it does not go far from the truth. The allied formation was broken in two, and though the rear part was kept well in play by Collingwood's division, the severest blows fell on the central sections.
The battle, which began at midday, was terminated about five. Eighteen of the allies were taken. Their van, after long remaining quiescent, made a futile demonstration, and then sailed away. The four van ships which escaped with Admiral Dumanoir were met and captured off Cape Ortegal on the 4th of November by a British squadron of five ships under Sir Richard Strachan. The stormy weather which followed the battle gave the enemy an opportunity to retake some of the prizes, and others were lost. Four only were carried into Gibraltar by the British fleet—three French and one Spanish. Only eleven of the allied fleet succeeded in finding safety in Cadiz. The fragment of the French squadron remained there under Admiral Rosily till he was forced to surrender to the Spaniards in 1808 on the breaking out of the Peninsular War. The loss of life of the allies cannot be stated with precision. In the British fleet the reported loss in killed and wounded was 1690, of whom 1452 belonged to 14 out of the 27 ships of the line present—the inequality of loss being mainly due to the fact that it was as a rule these vessels which came earliest into action. For the circumstances of Nelson's death see the article Nelson.
Authorities.—Accounts of the battle of Trafalgar are to be found in all the naval, and most of the general, histories of the time. The most essential of the original authorities are collected by Sir N. Harris Nicolas in his Despatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, vol. vii. (London 1844–1846). The controversy as to the exact method on which the battle was fought, and the significance of the signal to bear down, is fully worked out with many references to authorities in The Times from the 14th of July to the 21st of October 1905, both in a general correspondence and in a series of articles on "Trafalgar and the Nelson Touch," 16th, 19th, 22nd, 26th, 28th and 30th of September 1905; see also J. S. Corbett, The Campaign of Trafalgar (1910).