“Do my duty? I’ve always done my duty; haven’t you, Jack?” – The Battle of Trafalgar

21 October 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar was fought off the southwest coast of Spain.
 “Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter." (Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood to his officers before his flagship HMS “Sovereign” opened fire on “Santa Ana” at the Battle of Trafalgar)

J.M.W. Turner: “The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory” (1806 – 1808)


Nobody actually expected the Peace of Amiens to last very long. However, when hostilities ceased in in March 1802, considerable parts of the Royal Navy were ordered back home to England, battleship after battleship and frigate after frigate had her crew paid off and was either laid up in ordinary or scrapped. Admittedly, these ships usually were veterans from the American War, afloat for more than a generation and usually on blockade duty since war broke out in 1793, year in, year out in the North Sea, the Channel or the Bay of Biscay, waters actually not known for being among the gentler of the Seven Seas. The blockade never really ceased, though. While Napoleon busied himself with reordering affairs on the continent after his own goût and preparing his own coronation as emperor, his considerable navy still rotted at its moorings in French ports along the Atlantic coast and on the Med with their mostly inexperienced crews condemned to idleness. And still, British squadrons were out there, keeping a watchful eye on their former enemies and when government finally had it with Napoleon’s manoeuvrings and war was declared in May 1804, they just closed the bag and the French were bottled up again, scattered in various harbours, Brest, Le Havre, Toulon and elsewhere, along with the men-of-war of Napoleon’s new Spanish allies since the self-proclaimed Prince of Peace, Prime Minister Godoy, was bribed to side with the French. Imagining he needed just six of hours of mastery of the Channel to ferry his huge invasion force assembled in Boulogne over to England unhindered by the Royal Navy and become Master of the World, Napoleon devised various cunning plans to lure the Channel Fleet out into the Atlantic and as far away as possible. Unfortunately, none of the single squadrons available to him was able to meet the blockade off shore head on and thus, his choice finally fell on Villeneuve’s Mediterranean fleet in Toulon who was supposed to collect the Spanish in Cadiz, then passing Gibraltar and the smaller British squadron there and break out into the Atlantic, forcing the British to react and protect their rich possessions in the West Indies. Unfortunately, poor Villeneuve, while not being an incompetent admiral at all, had obviously received something along the lines of a trauma fighting Nelson at the Nile back in ’98 and did his utmost to avoid a direct confrontation. And while he did make it out to the West Indies in 1805 with his large allied fleet, September found him back in Cádiz without having achieved anything but drawing Nelson closer, in a catastrophic supply situation with demoralised crews, damaged ships, miffed Spanish allies and Napoleon biting the carpets of the Palais des Tuileries in his wrath and finally sending Admiral Rosily on his way to replace Villeneuve. When the latter learned of Rosily’s arrival in Madrid on 18 October and received intelligence that Nelson just had 20 ships of the line at his disposal while he had 33 seaworthy battleships, Villeneuve finally decided to leave Cádiz for Cartagena during a calm. It took him a whole day to bring his allied fleet to sea and during the night of October 20th, they were sighted by Nelson’s frigates who alerted the squadron, famously consisting of 27 ships of the line and not 20. 


John Constable: "H.M.S. Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar" (1805)


Nelson’s plan to attack an allied line-of-battle in two columns, break it and engage the enemy in close ranged ship-to-ship combat where the rate of fire the crack British gunners could maintain would make all the difference was anything but secret and widely discussed since 1804. Actually, the best defence against it was to keep the battle line as intact as possible, batter the approaching lead ships to pieces and deal with the rest. Unfortunately, clumsy manoeuvring tore Villeneuve’s line wide apart and leaving his van miles away and then the British approached in something of a calm, as quickly as possible, with anything close to handkerchiefs set to gain more speed, the leeward column under Admiral Collingwood led by the huge 1st rate HMS “Royal Sovereign”, the weather column with “Victory” at the head, flying the Admiral’s words “Nelson confides that every man will do his duty” from her mizzen, shortened to the somewhat scathing signal: “England expects that every man will do his duty", received almost as an insult and summarised by an unnamed sailor aboard HMS “Ajax”: “Do my duty? I’ve always done my duty; haven’t you, Jack?”, the next signal, No 16: “Engage the enemy more closely” was flown and to that nearly everyone could agree in Nelson’s navy. After having received a sound drubbing during her approach, “Victory” crossed “Bucentaure’s” stern around 12:45, fired a triple-shotted broadside into the French 3rd rate, almost wrecking her, about half an hour after “Royal Sovereign” had fired into the Spanish 1st rate “Santa Ana” to the south and the action off Cape Trafalgar began in earnest, ending with Nelson’s death in one of the bloodiest battles of the Age of Sail and a complete British victory, 1,666 British and 13,781 French and Spanish casualties, dead, grievously wounded, drowned or captured.



Auguste Mayer's (1805 - 1890) famous but somewhat fictional account of Villeneuve's flagship "Bucentaure's" last broadsides exchanged with HMS "Sandwich", actually it is a scene acted out between "Redoutable" and HMS "Temeraire"


A second battle was won by the British crews after the guns fell silent when a fierce storm rose that threatened to give the rest to the battered ships-of-the-line and the 21 prizes they had captured and Collingwood, now commanding admiral of the fleet, wrote “The condition of our own ships was such that it was very doubtful what would be their fate. Many a time I would have given the whole group of our capture, to ensure our own... I can only say that in my life I never saw such efforts as were made to save these [prize] ships, and would rather fight another battle than pass through such a week as followed it.“ The allied battleships that managed to escape from Trafalgar were brought to bay off Cape Ortegal on 4 November and thus, the Trafalgar campaign and British invasion scare ended. Ironically enough, Napoleon had to postpone his plans of invading England for an indefinite period anyway since August as he was forced to withdraw his “Army of England” from Boulogne to fight the German-speaking states in Central Europe and being direct, straightforward and brilliantly victorious there, soundly defeating the Austrians at Ulm two days before the events at Cape Trafalgar took place. French newspapers celebrated Villeneuve’s supposed victory at sea for weeks until Napoleon learned the truth that would become one of the most important nails in his coffin. The French and Spanish navies would never recover from their defeat and Britain would rule the waves, the prerequisite for a world-spanning empire, for the next 100 years.

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