- Remembering Nelson:A Review Essay
On the morning of October 21, 1805, as a major storm was brewing out in the Atlantic, two powerful fleets prepared for action off Cape Trafalgar, midway down the Spanish coast between Cadiz and Gibraltar. The larger of the two, the Combined [Franco-Spanish] Fleet of thirty-three ships of the line under the command of French Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean- Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, had sailed two days earlier from Cadiz under pressure from Napoleon to proceed into the Mediterranean to support an assault on Naples.1 British frigates tracked the Combined Fleet as it left Cadiz, signaling its location to a nearby British fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line under the command of the Royal Navy's most illustrious commander, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson, already a national hero for his victories in the Battles of the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801) and his heroic exploits in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797), relished the opportunity not just to defeat the French and Spanish fleets, but to annihilate them. And he had prepared his captains well for just such an encounter. Against common practice, his flagship, HMS Victory, would lead one column of British warships through the enemy's line of battle and its concentrated broadsides to engage Villeneuve's flagship. The second column, headed by Nelson's friend Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, would confront the confused and leaderless enemy and pound them into submission. Nelson had no doubts as to the outcome. Once they compromised the integrity of the enemy line of battle, the British commanders would exercise their own initiative to exploit whatever opportunities emerged. His band of captains would follow him anywhere, even through the Combined Fleet's line of fire. They acted as if the fate of Great Britain hung in the balance—and it may well have.
The battle about to occur was the culmination of months of frustration and anxiety for Britain and its navy. Along the French coast between Calais and Boulogne, Napoleon had collected an invasion force of about 100,000 soldiers and a large flotilla of landing craft. But he could not risk a cross-Channel attack until he could be assured that the Royal Navy would not intervene. So he devised an elaborate scheme to draw British naval strength away from home waters long enough to permit his invasion force to establish a secure foothold in England. Taking advantage of any opportunity that the weather would provide, the French Atlantic Fleet at Brest would sortie to Martinique, hoping that the British would be forced to divert ships to search for it. Meanwhile the French Mediterranean Fleet would sail from its Toulon base, slip past Gibraltar, link up with a squadron of Spanish warships from Cadiz, and then join the French Atlantic Fleet in Martinique. Sufficient Spanish naval strength would remain at Cadiz to force the British to maintain a naval blockade and prevent the Royal Navy from reinforcing its Channel Fleet. The Franco-Spanish force would attack British holdings in the West Indies, hoping to draw the Royal Navy to the Caribbean. Then with much of Britain's navy scouring the Caribbean, the Franco-Spanish force would rush back to the English Channel to cover the invasion.
To work, Napoleon's strategy required sophisticated coordination. Overall, this was missing, though elements of the plan succeeded. The French Brest Fleet never found an opportunity to sortie. But Villeneuve's Toulon fleet successfully escaped to the Atlantic in early April 1805 and eventually made its way to Martinique. In late May the Cadiz squadron joined Villeneuve in Martinique. For the British, Villeneuve's bold move was a strategic nightmare. They had no idea where the French Mediterranean Fleet was. Nelson searched frantically for it off Sicily until he learned that Villenueve's fleet had passed by Gibraltar...