Saturday, August 05, 2006

Good evening, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. For those of you who have read the British History 101 blog since yesterday morning, you know I’ve been extremely busy this week and just had no time whatsoever to record the podcast – I’m terribly sorry to come out with this installment a day later than I usually release them, but we all know what it’s like to have to prioritize and sometimes hobbies have to fall by the wayside. Anyways, here we are now, and the history can continue. This episode comes from a suggestion by listener David S. from Tiburon, California. David wrote in and said “A highlight on naval history, especially during the Napoleonic era, would be appreciated.” In reviewing what I could do with this, I decided the Battle of Trafalgar was the best way to go, and so today’s topic is the most famous British naval battle in which Admiral Lord Nelson defeated a combined French and Spanish force off the coast of Spain in 1805.
In 1805, the First French Empire, under Napoleon Bonaparte, was the dominant land force in continental Europe, while the British had overwhelming control over the seas. The Royal Navy maintained a blockade of France, making it quite difficult for Napoleon to accomplish anything requiring naval maneuvers. When the Third Coalition, consisting of the United Kingdom, Austria, Russia, Naples, and Sweden, declared war on France, Napoleon decided he needed to invade Great Britain, á la Hastings 1066. However, to accomplish this, it was vital for Napoleon to control the English Channel, which he obviously couldn’t do with the British blockade of France.
France’s main naval fleets were based at Brest and Toulon, which was in the Mediterranean. Also, thanks to its alliance with Spain, France also had fleets available at Cádiz and El Ferrol on the Spanish coast. Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve commanded the French navy, from his base at Toulon. Villeneuve found himself in command of the French navy because most of France’s best naval officers were either executed or otherwise gotten rid of during the French Revolution – the position more or less fell into his lap, and he was no match for the well-trained, top-notch officers and sailors of the Royal Navy.
Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain was quite competent – on paper, at least. The French and Spanish fleets were to break the blockade, meet up in the West Indies, and returned as a combined force to Brest and free the rest of the French navy there. From that point, the Franco-Spanish alliance could clear the Channel of British ships, paving the way for Napoleon’s invasion force. In theory, this was a good plan – however, Napoleon’s lack of understanding of naval tactics and strategy meant it was destined for failure.
In early 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson was in command of the blockade at Toulon, while William Cornwallis kept watch over the French at Brest, the other of the two most important French naval bases. While Cornwallis maintained a stranglehold on his port, Nelson adopted a loose blockade strategy, hoping to lure the French out and destroy them once they were out of port. However, storms blew Nelson’s fleet off station, allowing Villeneuve and the French Toulon fleet to slip past him, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and across the ocean to the West Indies. Once the French and Spanish had regrouped across the Atlantic Ocean, they headed back toward Europe, intent on freeing the fleet at Brest per Napoleon’s plan. However, Villeneuve lost 2 of his Spanish ships at the Battle of Cape Finisterre, and this loss made him decide to set course for El Ferrol.
Villeneuve’s orders were to sail from El Ferrol with his 32 ships and join Vice Admiral Ganteume’s 21 ships at Brest, along with 5 ships under the command of Captain Allemand, giving him a total of 53 ships. This would then create the largest possible number of ships at Boulogne, France, where Napoleon’s invading force was gathering. He indeed headed for Brest, but he then became worried that the British were watching him and knew what he was up to, and so the next day he changed course and moved toward Cádiz. By the 26th of August, the French army at Boulogne saw no sign of the fleet, and thus broke camp and went off to fight in Germany.
Admiral Lord Nelson went home to England in August for some time off and much-needed relaxation. However, his time was shorter lived than he had hoped, for word soon reached England of the French fleet at Cádiz – the British had figured out what was going on, and Nelson was dispatched to the area to handle the situation. On 29 September Nelson was sent to take command of the fleet that had been sent to stop the combined French and Spanish forces.
Nelson quickly formulated a plan to attack the enemy. He instructed the captains of his fleet that the attack was to take the form of two bodies of ships, one under the command of Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, the officer directly under Nelson, which would attack the rear of the enemy line, while Nelson himself would lead the group attacking the rest of the French-Spanish fleet. Among others, this plan gave the advantage to the British in that it would break the enemy line of ships, bringing the battle into a series of individual ship-to-ship skirmishes, which the British would likely win. It also meant that, with the attack on the rear of the French and Spanish fleet, the lead ships would have to turn around to defend them – a maneuver that would simply take a long time, making them vulnerable to British fire. The biggest problem this plan faced was due to the configuration of the opposing fleets – the French and Spanish were arrayed in a shallow crescent, two or three ships abreast and traveling in a line, while the British would attack on a line perpendicular to this formation – essentially, the French and Spanish would have many ships lined up to fire on the column of approaching British ships, exposing the leading ships under Nelson and Collingwood to a broadside they would be unable to respond to – a ship at that time could not fire directly forward (at least not with any gun with considerable power).
This idea of Nelson’s was quite radical – not many sea captains thought to engage in naval combat in any way besides lining up two fleets in parallel formations and exchanging broadsides. Radical though it was, Nelson put it into action, and at 11:35 A.M. on 21 October 1805, he sent the flag signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” across the fleet, and British plowed on toward the French. Nelson led one column on his Victory, while Collingwood led his line from Royal Sovereign.
Nelson’s plan indeed succeeded – the French and Spanish fleet was badly fragmented, allowing the British ships to destroy the poorly-crewed enemy formation. However, at one point, Nelson’s Victory locked masts with the French Redoutable, and the French prepared to board and capture Nelson’s ship. Nelson himself was shot in the ensuing battle, a shot hitting him in left shoulder, passing through his body, and becoming lodged in his spine. He was carried belowdecks and lay dying as the battle raged on around him. Eventually, 22 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet were destroyed, while the British lost none. Admiral Lord Nelson died at about 4:30 in the afternoon, 21 October 1805.
The war that the Third Coalition had declared on France ended less than two months later with the Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon defeated Russian and Austrian forces. However, the French leader never gained control of the United Kingdom – the power of the Royal Navy was simply too much for him to overcome. Even without Britain under his belt, Napoleon was undoubtedly one of the most powerful men in military history – on most days. 21 October 1805 was not one of those days.
Admiral Lord Nelson became Britain’s greatest naval hero, and Trafalgar Square in London is commemorated to his victory that day of the Spanish coast, and Nelson keeps watch over the Square to this day from his spot atop the column named after him.
The conclusion we reach here, a summary if you will, of the idea sent in by David, is that British naval power was confirmed by the events of the Napoleonic era. The 18th century was spent building up domination of the sea by Britain, and the perfection of naval practice was exemplified by the Battle of Trafalgar. While Napoleon became Emperor of France and King of Italy, the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom ruled the waves around the globe, and was never seriously challenged by an opposing force until World War I over 100 years later.
For those of you already well-versed in naval history and the Battle of Trafalgar, I’m sure it’s obvious I didn’t go into a terribly great amount of detail with this episode – that is quite intentional, as I like to keep this podcast more or less brief, and an in-depth explanation would have taken quite a while. I know that for me, my attention is kept best by something brief and to the point, and many of those who listen to this podcast are quite busy people – I wouldn’t dare to ask much of your time each week.
Another podcaster who keeps things short and sweet is Matt Dattilo, who I’m sure you’ve heard me mention before on previous episodes. Matt gets an enormous amount of my personal respect for two reasons – 1) Anyone who puts out a history podcast daily, and keeps it interesting and exciting, is worthy of great praise and honor; and 2) He’s my cousin. As brethren of good Italian stock, Matt and I have talked a lot over the past few months about podcasting and he’s taught me everything I know. I’d really love it if you’d try out Matt’s Today in History, the podcast that inspired this one.
I highly recommend Matt’s podcast for all listeners of British History 101 and anyone interested in history at all. Between the two of us, Matt and I can guarantee you’ll always get something fresh and exciting.
That’s it for this episode of British History 101. If you’d like to look back over the Battle of Trafalgar, check out my blog at for a transcript of this and every other episode. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to Our music tonight is Handel’s “Trio Sonato 2, Number 3 in B flat Major: Part 2, Allegro" performed by the Brook Street Band and available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Until next week, my best to you all, and as always, thank you so much for joining me. Have a great evening.

MP3 File


Post a Comment

<< Home