The full tale of this famous battle
As Napoleon threatened to invade the sceptered Isle of
England, Horatio Nelson, Rear Admiral of the White, took the fleet under
his command to find and defeat the combined navies of France and Spain.
Already a hero after his brilliant leadership in other naval victories,
especially the Battle of Nile in 1898, Nelson had the hearts of the English
people as well as the seamen and officers who served under him. Willing
to break the long-established rules of naval warfare, he had brought his
homeland victories, France its few defeats.
In the summer of 1805, Nelson gathered 33 ships and led a sometimes wild-goose
chase across the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas trying to second-guess
where the enemy fleet may be hiding. But on the evening of Oct. 20, he
finally caught up with the fleet off the Cape of Trafalgar, Spain under
Admiral Villaneuve. Villaneuve knew that his 15,000 sailors were under-trained
and under-equipped, and had been driven into hiding at Cadiz for several
weeks, even though he outnumbered the English ships. But under direct
orders from Napoleon to go out and fight, he set sail and ran right into
What Nelson did that evening and the next morning were documented with
reverence. He met with his captains to give them the battle orders, which
he called the "Nelson Touch." (Bold movement straight at ships lined up
to produce mass broadsides.) He wrote last letters to his daughter Horatia
and her mother, Emma Hamilton, his mistress of many years. Being a generally
melancholy fellow, he also wrote a will in which he asked his nation to
support the common-law family he was leaving behind. He said a famous
prayer, and on deck dictated his well-known signal to the fleet, "England
expects that every many will do his duty."
Moving large fleets takes time so it was mid-day before the two armadas
met in combat on the 21st. True to form, the French-Spanish fleet was
lined up to maximize their firepower, but Nelson's ships were proceeding
in spearhead lines that were going to cut into the defenses into order
to rake the enemy ships (firing down the length rather than broadside).
The tactic was a gamble because the English ships were vulnerable to raking
themselves until close enough for action. But as they were moving targets,
the odds were still in their favor, and it worked.
Not long after Nelson's flagship, the "Victory," engaged three French
ships, a sniper on board the "Redoubtable" fired a shot that entered Nelson's
shoulder and traveled down into his spine. The damage was too extensive
for treatment, and he was taken below to made a comfortable as possible
before the end. He lived long enough to hear from his close friend Captain
Hardy that they had won a tremendous victory, having destroyed, damaged
or captured the majority of the enemy fleet. Only a third of the French
sailors made it back to port, and many were wounded. It was the worst
defeat ever inflicted on a British enemy.
When England received the news of the victory almost two weeks later the
rejoicing was tempered by the loss of their greatest hero. There were
balls and bonfires around the country, but the nation really pulled out
all the stops for Nelson's funeral when his body arrived preserved in
a cask of liquor. His coffin was made out of the mast of the "Orient,"
the French flagship (one of the largest ever built) that had been blown
up during the Battle of the Nile. His procession was witnessed by huge
crowds of mourners, and he was interred in Westminster Abbey, along with
royalty and notables.
The "Victory" is the only preserved war ship of its time. Visitors to
Greenwich can tour her and see where Nelson was shot and where he died
below decks. Celebrations of this year's 200th anniversary of the battle
and Nelson's triumph and death have taken place all year in Britain. Our
event is but a modest tribute to both the man and the achievement.
For more information about Nelson and his career go to