The Battle Of Trafalgar.

by Daniel Russ on October 10, 2011

HMS Victory, Stern View, Parked At Portsmouth. This Ship Was At Trafalgar

Napoleon has a reputation as a general who lost only one battle. I don’t know where that misinformed meme was born but he lost Moscow, Waterloo, and Trafalgar. Some say his win at Borodino was a technical victory because his opponents left the battlefield first. Trafalgar is one of my favorite naval battles because the strategy is so unusual Horatio Nelson knew he was outnumbered by he did not believe he was outmatched. The British naval crews were still the deadliest in the world and in a battle where you’re outnumbered, sometimes it pays to confuse the opponent and turn a logical fight into a brawl. It works in boxing too. There is a strategy in boxing that goes something like this: “you brawl a boxer and box a brawler”.


Horatio Nelson commanded a fleet of 27 ships of the line and he faced 33 French and Spanish ships of the line.


In the Summer of 1805, fearing that he would not be able to defeat the British fleet, the French Admiral Villeneuve retreated to the port at Cadiz. Napoleon was furious and decided to send a replacement. Fearing for his honor, Charles Villeneuve and Spanish Admiral Frederico Gravina set sail for the Strait of Trafalgar near Gibraltar with Nelson in hot pursuit. At 7:30 AM, on October 21st 1805, Villeneuve sighted Nelson and rather than retreat, decided to pull closer to a friendly Spanish port rather than fight in blue sea.


The battle itself was extremely bloody. Nelson decided that rather than pull to and fight in parallel lines, he would divide his ships into two lines, and strike at a right angle to the French fleet. His idea then was to cut through the French and Spanish fleet and then separate both the

Horatio Nelson

center and the rear from the van. Knowing he was outnumbered by six large ships Nelson then would force a close quarters battle royal. That day the wind was light and the attacking British lines, on leeward and one windward directly between the van and the center and the center and the rear. It was bold gutsy call. It was the opposite of crossing the “T” where you place your ships in a line and near all guns on the attacking line. Leaf ships HMS Royal Sovereign scored a huge blow by passing to the rear of the Spanish flagship Santa Anna and shot a devastating cannonade through aft and killed or wounded 400 men. The HMS Victory did the same to the French three decker, the Bucentaure.


Among the more famous tactics used at Trafalgar was employed by the French by firing two cannon balls out of the same artillery piece attached to each other by a chain; and they whirl around each other, hopefully to cartwheel into a tangle British masts and roping and bring down their sails. Some of these shots worked. But the British’ more experienced gun crews, more experienced ship boarding techniques won the day.


The British lost 500 men and another 1400 wounded, but no ships. The French suffered 4500 killed, 7,000 taken prisoner, one ship sunk and 17 ships captured. For now the French would have the advantage on the ground. But the British owned the oceans for the next century.



Battle Of Trafalgar

Battle Of Trafagar Diagram


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 6, 2017 at 6:55 am

Indeed, Napoleon lost more battles. Asspern-Esling was the first. Eylau was technically a win, like Borodino. But the largest battle that he lost, the one that ended his empire, was Leipzig. More than 600,000 men fought this battle. The largest battle in Europe, until WW I. Waterloo was not more than an afterthought.

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