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Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served
 
 

Battle of Trafalgar

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Battle of Trafalgar

This news was relayed to Nelson at Merton on 2 September 1805. On receiving Collingwood’s despatches he stated ‘I am sure you bring me news of the French and Spanish fleets…and that I shall have to beat them’ (Dictionary of National Biography). Nelson left Merton on the evening of 13 September 1805, joined HMS Victory on 14 September and sailed to Cadiz. On 27 September he took over Collingwood’s squadron, which had been augmented by four ships on 22 August and by Calder’s fleet of 18 ships on 28 August. Nelson almost immediately advised his officers of his plans of attacking the combined French and Spanish fleets.

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Nelson leaving Merton on 13 September 1805

 

Nelson explaining his plans of attack - The Nelson Touch

The Franco-Spanish fleet had continued to wait in Cadiz. On 16 September Napoleon had ordered it to sail to Naples but the senior officers refused to do so fearing that the British fleet was far stronger. Admiral Villeneuve, on hearing that six of Nelson’s ships had sailed to Gibraltar on 18 October 1805, gave the order to leave Cadiz on 18 October 1805. The French and Spanish fleet was spotted by Captain Blackwood of HMS Euryalus and the British fleet was alerted.

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Nelson’s prayer

Nelson did not immediately attack. He wanted to make sure that he would be able to engage the enemy at sea. Instead he shadowed at a distance the French and Spanish fleet to avoid being sighted, keeping it under surveillance with his frigates. On 20 October 1805 the opposing fleets drew closer together. Knowing that battle was imminent, Nelson wrote his last letters to Emma. At 04.00 on 21 October 1805 Nelson ordered a change of direction towards the enemy. He gave the order to ‘prepare for battle’ at 06.00. Because of light winds it would be several hours before Nelson’s fleet would be able to engage the Franco-Spanish fleet in battle. Knowing this, Nelson set about finalising some paperwork. In his last journal he asked the government to look after Emma, ‘give her an ample provision to maintain her rank in life’ (Morriss, page 145), and his adopted daughter. He also wrote a prayer. At 11.48 he made the famous signal to his fleet of 33 ships (including 27 ships-of-the-line) ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. The 18,000 plus men - there is also evidence that a woman served at Trafalgar - on these ships were, perhaps surprisingly, drawn from many different countries. HMS Victory’s crew was typical, with 592 British nationals, 22 Americans and small numbers from other countries including Sweden, Holland, Malta, Italy, France and the West Indies.

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Extract from Naval General Service Medal Roll relating to Jane Townshend who served in Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar

 

Extract from HMS Victory ship’s muster roll, 1805 showing cosmopolitan nature of the men that served with Nelson

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Map showing Cape Trafalgar

At around midday, off Cape Trafalgar, Nelson’s fleet formed into two columns. One was led by Nelson in HMS Victory, the other by Collingwood, in HMS Royal Sovereign. They sailed towards a single line of 33 French and Spanish ships on which served nearly 30,000 men. Nelson was intent on concentrating his ships’ attack on breaking the enemy line at several strategic points, a tactic which would surprise the enemy and causing what he referred to as a ‘pell-mell battle’. This would favour the superior gunnery and seamanship of the British fleet. The tactic was dangerous as the leading ships of the two British divisions were raked head-on with enemy gunfire from about noon without being able to return fire until they closed in on the enemy line, as HMS Victory did at about 12:30. Nelson had instructed his officers that if anything should go wrong with his plan and ‘in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy’ (White, page 24).

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Map showing ships attacking at Battle of Trafalgar, 17 December 1805

As HMS Victory approached the enemy line it had to turn towards the ships at the centre of it, as there was not enough space to break through. HMS Victory’s captain, Thomas Hardy, asked Nelson which of the ships should be engaged first. Nelson replied ‘it does not signify…take your pick’ (Hibbert, page 370). HMS Victory fired her first broadsides at the Bucentaure, the French Admiral’s flagship. Alongside HMS Victory other British ships began to engage French and Spanish ships, breaking through the enemy line. Hardy described the proximity of the ships as ‘closed like a forest’ (Hibbert, page 370). HMS Victory then collided into Redoutable becoming entangled with her rigging. At about 13:15 Nelson was hit by a musket ball fired by a sharpshooter on Redoutable which passed through his left shoulder and a lung and lodged in his spine. Nelson was carried to the cockpit, knowing his backbone had been shot through and that he was close to death. As Nelson lay dying news was brought to him by Hardy at about 14:30 that between 12 and 14 enemy ships had been captured. Nelson was now satisfied, ‘Thank God, I have done my duty’ (Lambert, page 306). Nelson died at 16:30 as a result of his wounds.

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Extract from HMS Victory Captain’s log for 21-22 October 1805

 

Extract from HMS Victory journal by Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy, recording the death of Nelson, 21 October 1805

The destruction of the French ship Achille at 17:45 marked the end of the battle, which had resulted in the loss of 19 French and Spanish ships, no loss of British ships, 6,953 French and Spanish casualties (4,408 dead) and 1,690 casualties in Nelson’s ships (430 dead). It was a most emphatic and brilliant victory but one overshadowed by the death of Nelson, a popular British hero. Nelson’s death was openly mourned amongst the men who served in the battle. Men on HMS Royal Sovereign were described as doing ‘nothing but Blast their Eyes and cry ever since he was killed…Chaps that fought like the Devil, sit down and cry like a wench’ (Hibbert, page 377).

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Captured crew list of the French ship, ‘Scipion’ which escaped at the Battle of Trafalgar, dated 1805

 

Nominal list of men serving in Nelson's fleet killed in action in the Battle of Trafalgar

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