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OTD 21 October 1805 - The Battle of Trafalgar

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

The Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar: I. The Beginning of the Action: The 'Victory' Breaking the Line Signed and dated 1833,
The Battle of Trafalgar: I. The Beginning of the Action: The 'Victory' Breaking the Line. By William John Huggins. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The overwhelming victory over the French & Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 gave the Royal Navy its most famous triumph & confirmed a long tradition of naval supremacy.

The battle also immortalised the memory of Viscount Horatio Nelson who was shot & died of his wounds at the moment of his greatest victory.

The naval campaign began as part of Napoleon Bonaparte's plan to invade Britain in the summer of 1805. Napoleon needed to gain control of the English Channel to allow his Grand Armée to cross. To achieve this he ordered the French fleet's three squadrons blockaded at Brest, Toulon & other ports to break out, meet in West Indies & then return as one fleet to gain control of the Channel.

In March the squadron of Admiral Villeneuve at Toulon was able to evade the British blockade, joined up with a Spanish squadron & left for the West Indies. Nelson learned of his departure on 10 April & was soon in hot pursuit. Villeneuve lost his nerve & immediately returned to Europe. After a minor battle off Cape Finisterre he was bottled up in Cadiz in Spain. Recognising that the invasion was now impossible, Napoleon marched his Grand Armée to meet the threat posed by Austria & Russia in the east.

J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1822–1824) shows the last three letters of the signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" flying from Victory

Lord Nelson's fleet of 27 ships of the line now waited for Villeneuve's force to emerge. The fleet was a high peak of fighting efficiency having been at sea blockading the French for almost two years. At the end of September, Nelson revealed his plan to his captains; the fleet would be split into two columns to break through the enemy line & overwhelm the centre & rear sections of the enemy's fleet.

HMS Victory, Historic Dockyards, Portsmouth. Photo by Lee Stuart Sherriff. 2018
HMS Victory, Historic Dockyards, Portsmouth

On 19 October a British frigate watching Cadiz spotted the Franco-Spanish fleet leaving harbour. It consisted of 33 ships of the line including the 136 gun Santissima Trinidad, the largest ship in the world. Villeneuve's orders were to try to break into the Mediterranean. The message was passed to Nelson's fleet, 48 miles off the coast & he ordered a general chase.

By dawn on 21 October the British fleet was only 9 miles away from the enemy.

At 1148 HMS Victory hoisted the famous signal 'England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty' followed by 'Engage the enemy more closely'. The two columns led by HMS Victory & HMS Royal Sovereign successfully pierced the enemy line firing into the bow & stern of enemy ships as they passed between them.

The fighting was severe & much of it was at close quarters. Many of the British ships were damaged, some seriously, including the HMS Victory which engaged the French flagship Bucentaure & the Redoutable. But Nelson's faith in the superior gunnery & ship handling skills of the British crews was fully borne out with the capture of 18 enemy ships including the Santissima Trinidad. Villeneuve had surrendered at 13.45 & despite renewed resistance by some Spanish ships the battle was over by 16.30.

A great storm blew up on 22 October & when it subsided only four enemy ships remained in British hands most having sunk. The total number of killed & wounded on both sides was about 8,500 whilst the British took about 20,000 prisoners. Nelson himself had been shot by a musket ball at about 13.15 & died around 16.30 when victory was assured.

The era of British naval supremacy brought about by the victory at Trafalgar lasted for a century until Germany's naval challenge in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.


Further interest;


21 October 1805 - Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté was killed in action at The Battle of Trafalgar

Lemuel Francis Abbott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(Born.29 September 1758 – died..21 October 1805)

Nelson was noted for his inspirational leadership, grasp of strategy, & unconventional tactics, which together resulted in a number of decisive British naval victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was wounded several times in combat, losing the sight in one eye in Corsica & most of one arm in the unsuccessful attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife. He was shot & killed during his final victory at the Battle of Trafalgar near the port city of Cádiz in 1805.

John Francis Rigaud [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A young Horatio Nelson

Nelson was born into a moderately prosperous Norfolk family & joined the navy through the influence of his uncle, Maurice Suckling, a high-ranking naval officer himself. He rose rapidly through the ranks & served with leading naval commanders of the period before obtaining his own command in 1778. He developed a reputation in the service through his personal valour and firm grasp of tactics but suffered periods of illness & unemployment after the end of the American War of Independence.

The outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars allowed Nelson to return to service, where he was particularly active in the Mediterranean. He fought in several minor engagements off Toulon & was important in the capture of Corsica & subsequent diplomatic duties with the Italian states. In 1797, he distinguished himself while in command of HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St Vincent.

"Gentlemen, when the enemy is committed to a mistake we must not interrupt him too soon."

Shortly after the battle, Nelson took part in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where his attack was defeated & he was badly wounded, losing his right arm, & was forced to return to England to recuperate.

"Let me alone: I have yet my legs & one arm. Tell the surgeon to make haste & his instruments. I know I must lose my right arm, so the sooner it's off the better. "

The Battle of the Nile, depicted in an 1801 painting by Thomas Luny
The Battle of the Nile, depicted in an 1801 painting by Thomas Luny

The following year, he won a decisive victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile & remained in the Mediterranean to support the Kingdom of Naples against a French invasion. In 1801, he was dispatched to the Baltic & won another victory, this time over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen. He subsequently commanded the blockade of the French & Spanish fleets at Toulon & after their escape, chased them to the West Indies & back but failed to bring them to battle. After a brief return to England, he took over the Cádiz blockade in 1805.

"England expects that every man will do his duty."

John Hoppner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) Vice-Admiral of the English Fleet; British naval officer, by John Hoppner

On 21 October 1805, the Franco-Spanish fleet came out of port, & Nelson's fleet engaged them at the Battle of Trafalgar. The battle was Britain's greatest naval victory, but during the action, Nelson, aboard HMS Victory, was fatally wounded by a French sharpshooter. His body was brought back to England where he was accorded a state funeral.

Nelson's death at Trafalgar secured his position as one of Britain's most heroic figures. The significance of the victory & his death during the battle led to his signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty", being regularly quoted, paraphrased & referenced up to the modern day. Numerous monuments, including Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, & the Nelson Monument in Edinburgh, have been created in his memory & his legacy remains highly influential.

The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805., by Denis Dighton
The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805.

Nelson's death onboard his flagship HMS Victory has been described by Andrew Lambert as 'the ideal romantic death'. He was mortally wounded by an enemy sniper, dying slowly & remaining conscious throughout, surrounded by his chaplain & staff officers. His last thoughts covered matters such as final directions for his fleet, his hopes & fears for his family, & his personal desire for absolution & reassurance. The events were recorded by several of those present, including the surgeon, William Beatty, & later interpreted in dramatic paintings, both of the death scene, such as those by Benjamin West, & Arthur William Devis, & of allegorical depictions of Nelson's ascent into immortality as a result of his glorious death, including works by West, & Scott Legrand.

Samuel Drummond [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
he Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, by Samuel Drummond

When news arrived in Britain the initial joy at the news of the victory was stifled by the report of his death, & a state funeral was immediately planned. Nelson was to be buried in St Paul's Cathedral, in a grand ceremony that was not just a mere funeral but was intended to 'capture the essence, the spirit, & the name of Nelson for the nation.' A special coffin was devised, heavily decorated with emblems & symbols of Nelson's many victories. It enclosed the simpler coffin, given to Nelson by Benjamin Hallowell, & was itself enclosed in a grand sarcophagus made for Cardinal Wolsey. When Nelson was laid in state at Greenwich Hospital, a crowd of 30,000 arrived to pay their respects. The subsequent funeral was one of the grandest ever staged, costing some £14,000 & attended by large numbers of admirals, captains & members of royalty.

Daniel Maclise [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise

photo by lee stuart sherriff
The plaque on HMS Victory marking the spot where Nelson was shot

Nelson's Legacy;

A number of monuments & memorials were constructed across the country, & abroad, to honour his memory & achievements. In Montreal, a statue was started in 1808 & completed in 1809. Others followed around the world, with London's Trafalgar Square being created in his memory in 1835 & the centrepiece, Nelson's Column, finished in 1843. A Royal Society of Arts blue plaque was unveiled in 1876 to commemorate Nelson at 147 New Bond Street.

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London

Nelson's legacy has endured. In the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons programme in 2002, Nelson was voted the 9th greatest Briton of all time. The bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005 led to a round of celebrations under the banner of 'Trafalgar 200'. An International Fleet Review was held, & several new biographies & histories of the battle were published.

The Royal Navy have named a number of ships after Nelson or his victories. These have included HMS Nelson, HMS Lord Nelson, HMS Nile & HMS Trafalgar. The Royal Navy celebrates Nelson every 21 October by holding Trafalgar Night dinners & toasting "The Immortal Memory" of Nelson. His flagship Victory is still kept on active commission in honour of Nelson — it is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord, & is the oldest commissioned Naval ship in the world. She can be found in Number 2 Dry Dock of the Royal Naval Museum at the Portsmouth Naval Base, in Portsmouth, which is named HMS Nelson. The Victory was dry docked for restoration in 1922, & opened to the public as a shrine to Nelson & his navy in 1928.

Further interest;


Other notable events on 21 October

1097 – First Crusade: Crusaders led by Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemund of Taranto, & Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse, begin the Siege of Antioch.

1449 – George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence was born, son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York & Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. He was the brother of two kings, Edward IV & Richard III. He played an important role in the dynastic struggle between rival factions of the Plantagenets known as the Wars of the Roses. Though a member of the House of York, he switched sides to support the Lancastrians, before reverting to the Yorkists. He was later convicted of treason against his brother, Edward IV, & was executed (allegedly by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine).

1854 – Florence Nightingale & a staff of 38 nurses are sent to the Crimean War.

1955 - The 150th anniversary of Admiral Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar is appropriately marked by the Queen's unveiling of the King George VI Memorial Statue in London. Later, the Queen dines with the Board of Admiralty at Greenwich.


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