The Battle of Trafalgar - 21st October 1815

Turner's painting of the Battle of Trafalgar
Trafalgar by Turner

After the Spit Head Mutinies over worsening conditions in the Navy the Admiralty decided to look into matters. Especially when war ships refused to sail and some realisation that a form of effective organisation existed in the lower decks. Black Dick as Lord Howe was named responded by taking many of the grievances to The Lords of the Admiralty. You may image the surprise when Admiral Lord Bridports orders to set out to sea were halted by the crew of the Royal Sovereign, who sent a wave of descent to all the ships in view. The power of  Admirals had been cut as the ships lay still. On a note to increase pay and pardons to mutineers from King George on St Georges day lifted the Spithead Mutinies. Old Admiral Lowe coming out of retirement arranged the affairs of the Flotilla. This was after much confusion. He personally realised the importance of the British Navy is not only in ships but its Sailors.

At the time of Trafalgar, Napoleon Bonaparte had set his course on the conquest of Britain. The only thing that stood in his path was the Royal Navy, the floating Fortification of the islands. Vice - Admiral Viscount Horatio Nelson had learned the lessons of fighting at close quarters and intended to use such tactics against Bonaparte’s Fleet. The power of a Ship of the Line depended on the number of guns on each Man of War, HMS Victory was a first rated vessel armed with 100 guns. Her Flag Captain Thomas Hardy a loyal friend of Nelson. The men and women of the Victory and other ships were well trained at the art of gunnery, Women were often on board serving as gunners or powder monkeys to supply the guns, as well as looking after the sick and wounded. At that time the men of the lower decks were a mix of volunteers and pressed subjected to a high standard of discipline, strict regulation and expected to live on board for long periods of time.

In confined spaces smaller than a jail cell the crew were paid at the same rate as in the time of Charles the second. They had to wait until the completion of a voyage to receive money or a voucher to be handed in at a Royal Naval Office for cash. This was of course open to misuse and profiteering.

The only real hope of some monetary gain was in the capture of an enemy vessel to be distributed as shared sums. Officers on occasion could take their wives or partners often depending on the nature of the Ships Captain.

Food and wine in relatively decent quarters were expected with a suitable period of leave divided the ship. Drink for the ordinary sailor was often beer as water putrefied quickly, but the beer soon followed in gutter like stink yet still consumed. Grog was given out twice a day and led to much drunkenness. It was said that on a Saturday night the capture of a Man of War would be easy, as the decks were strewn with inebriated crew.  
 
We suspect Napoleon knew that the strength of British hopes of defence lay in ships of the line, as he camped his great army of over a hundred thousand on or near the French Coast. On the southern reaches of our coast some fortifications were in place called Martello towers. These could not hold out for long and London would probably been captured in a short time, with Napoleon as an all conquering Emperor. Despite the grievances and corruption, Officers, men and women of Britain were a match for anyone on the high seas. Especially when commanded by a experienced and well loved Admiral Nelson, who intended tempting the French Admiral Villeneuve out of Toulon.
 
On an order from Napoleon to move out of the safe harbours in case of British blockade, the French fleet sailed to the West Indies. Nelson on advice from Gibraltar knew the French had escaped the Mediterranean and instead of reporting to an arranged assembly point, made for the West Indies in pursuit. His judgment proved right, as not far from Martinique on an island known as HMS Diamond Rock a small British Naval party noted the arrival of Admiral Villeneuve. He sent a sufficient number of ships to capture the island as it was a painful thorn in the side of Napoleon and his ambitions. Miraculously it held out, to allow Nelson to catch up sufficiently to breath down the neck of his French enemy.

Villeneuve knew it was time to head back to  Europe with his now shorter lead, but it did not all go his way. After a short sharp delaying battle against a small British contingency fleet at Ferrol, commanded by Admiral Calder, the French rushed to harboured in Portugal to rest up. Nelson did the same and left his fleet for a spot of leave in the Victory and used the opportunity to liased with Admiralty, to discuss the next expected move of Villeneuve. Nelson often had premonitions of his death and a coffin made from a French ship mast captured in his victory at the mouth of the Nile, was made ready on his order, for his return.
 
The French Admiral Villeneuve had been ordered from the beginning to command the English Channel and allow Napoleons army to jump the ditch, (the channel) instead chose another place of safety at Cadiz. His boss noting this, sent his great army to Austria, we assume, in an act of frustration. Napoleon's masterly triumphs on land were now to be over shadowed by the French Fleet Admirals misfortunes.

Villeneuve sensed an oncoming disaster and knew others felt the same. He was in fact ready to be replaced and this left him only one card to play. That was a breakout to escape Admiral Collinwood’s entrapment of his ships in Cadiz. Nelson and crews were ready to execute his plan to divide the enemy by a two column attack and to set about them individually. He would personally take the centre of battle to be near to his opponent Admiral Villeneuve, hoping to destroying his fleet and capturing him alive.

 In the Northern line of attack Nelson in the Victory would lead by example. Without his sword and dressed in his Admirals apparel Nelson draped in his honourable Orders made ready to command. Some of the men stripped to the waist all checked their powder and ball. Muskets primed and ears well covered for the oncoming clamour. To the south Admiral Collinwood behind in the Royal Sovereign, the same ship that had caused so much trouble earlier in Spithead.

The Battle of Trafalgar - 21st October 1815
EnsignThe morning was warm with the sun breaking through a mist as the bosuns piped, prepare for battle. The Marine drums rattled out for the men to take up their chosen positions in yet another of their hundreds of battles. The Irish and Scots were popular in the Navy as with other men of different countries along with the majority of English. This time a fight had been arranged by the French and Spanish who seemed to like picking a fight or disrupting the British trade.
 
Nelson knew that nothing was certain in a sea battle and considered in cases of indecision it best to place a ship along side the French and let loose an range of broadsides. At that moment the key ship was the frigate Sirius that sent relays of signals to Nelson of the enemies disposition. While both sides shuffled back and forward into a favourable attacking positions. The enemy closed like a wall of bobbing wood. In response the British Sailors and Marines cheered to heighten their courage and show distain to the French and Spanish.

A gentle wind favoured the British on that fine morning as the twenty seven ships of the Royal Navy encountered the thirty three combined French and Spanish Armanda. Nelson anticipated the Villeneuve plan,  Extraordinarily the Spanish seemed to be the first to recognise the danger. “The Fleet is Doomed,” Cried, their second in command. This feeling seemed to have spread through French and Spanish ships before any action took place. At fighting quarters the British gunners waited as the Admirals tried to out manoeuvre each other. Then Nelson in a remarkable decision reassured his crew on the Victory ordered the piping for dinner, not forgetting a welcome draught of Grog.
 
The enemy was now within a respectable distance and the well know signal of England Expects was sent in flag code by the Signal Lieutenant. Some of the crews responded to the signal in wild cheers, while others did not. Admiral Collingwood shrugged the display off as he understood well what was expected of him. Admiral Villeneuve ordered fire on Nelsons ships as they came in towards them. The sounds of cannon fire caused a great din and soon ships were struck. The Victory lost its Mizzen Mast and wheel so that alternate steering had to be used. The Victory and Buccentaure came side to side and the Victory fired into her.
 
Broadside after broadside as ships sailed by each other or were fastened by grappling irons. It was a muddles affair as the both sides had ships of the same names such as the Neptune, which is understandable. Muskets, bayonets and sabres mixed with sounds of grenades, blended in the screams when dozens of men died in broadsides.
 
During this melee two French ships the Neptune and the Redoutable began firing at the Victory. The Redoutable clashed with the Victory becoming interlocked by the yardarms and French grapples. Shoots were fired into and on to the decks of the Redoutable, which had readied its crew to board the Victory. Lucas the Redoutable Captain had planned well for such an event and had his men on the enemy ship swiftly. A masterly shot from a 68pdr fired by Wilmot Victories Coxswain ended this action suddenly. But high in the masts and Mizzens the French Sharp shoots found their targets.

Detail from the Death of Lord Nelson by
A detail of The Death of Nelson (1859-1864) by Daniel Maclise

One in clear sight was Admiral Nelson who received a shot through his left shoulder, that penetrated to his back. He fell face down, and as he lay his friend Hardy came to him. “They’ve done for me at last, Hardy.” Sergeant Secker of Marines and two Seamen carried the stricken Nelson to the ships cockpit, while still crying out for Hardy. When Hardy did arrive he was asked how the battle was going.

Trafalgar was at that time in a pall of smoke and far from over.   On board a ship giving the order to fire a carronade, its captain White was struck on the toe which he removed with his knife. He refused to go below saying,” I wish to give the beggars a few more hard pills before I have done with them.” The ships surgeons were kept busy mainly with amputations. They had placed near them two tubs labelled Wings (arms) and Limbs ( legs). Marine Conolly waiting in line holding a badly damaged arm told the surgeon, “ I am only winged above the elbow and am waiting my turn to be lopped.” Around an hour after Nelson was taken below Hardy returned to tell him of a great victory. Nelson asked him to take care of Lady Hamilton, his poor Lady Hamilton. Then asked Hardy to kiss him.

Nelson died with the final words, “Thank God I have done my duty.”   French Johnny Craps had enough and surrendered the last being the ship Intrepide. Thanks mainly to the efforts of  Admiral Collingwood amply described by one of his midshipmen during the battle as with his little triangular lace cocked hat, tights, silk stockings and buckles, musing over the progress of the fight, and munching an apple. Seventeen enemy ships surrendered.

A severe storm struck with immense impact that very night and the British seaman were tried to the limit again on the high seas of Trafalgar. The ships that won were damaged and needed skill and bravery to keep them afloat, crews worked to the limit. Villeneuve said “ as if they had not been fighting a dreadful battle.
 
To finish this notable time in British history that saved Europe and possibly the world. We only add; The News arrived in Britain carried in the schooner HMS Pickle reporting, Sir we have won a great victory but we have lost Lord Nelson.
 
This little schooner had been seen during the battle of Trafalgar. Sailing proudly towards the enemy with her four guns about as large and formidable as two Wellington boots. 
 
Acknowledgments to my History School teachers and the dozens of books and comments.

The Nelson Monument, with its Timeball on Edinburgh's Calton Hill will be hosting an exhibition..

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