Twas a Famous Victory

On this day, October 21st in 1805, the British Navy fought and won one of the most significant naval battles in European history and lost one of its national heroes in the course of the fight. Off the coast of Spain, in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of the Straits of Gibraltar, twenty-seven British warships with 17,000 men and 2,148 canon, commanded by Lord Horatio Nelson, engaged a combined French and Spanish fleet of thirty-three warships with nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 canon. This was the Battle of Trafalgar, one of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

 

Battle of Trafalgar-October 21, 1805

By 1805, France and Britain had been waging war, on-and-off, for more than a decade. The French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, had become the best army in the world at that time while the British Navy really, truly ruled the waves around the globe. Some have compared the struggle to a war between a tiger and a shark.

The Battle of Trafalgar ranks as the most decisive British naval victory of the wars. Led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory, the British defeated the combined French and Spanish ships under French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. The British suffered 458 killed, including Nelson, and 1,208 wounded but lost none of their ships. On the other hand, the French lost 2,218 dead, another 1,155 wounded, and about 4,000 sailors, including Admiral Villeneuve, were taken prisoner by the British. One French ship was utterly destroyed and ten others captured. Of the Spanish ships,eleven were captured, along with somewhere between 3,700 to 4,000 sailors. Spanish casualties included 1,025 dead, and 1,383 wounded. Spanish Admiral Federico Gravina escaped with the remnant of his fleet and died a few months later from wounds suffered during the battle.

 The British victory confirmed in a spectacular manner the naval supremacy which Britain had established during a long series of wars with France between 1700 and 1805 and was achieved partly through Nelson’s use of non-conventional tactics. Nelson, and later the Duke of Wellington in the British Army, became heroes to the British. The adulation continued through most of the twentieth century. Both successfully adopted new methods of fighting. My favorite story of Nelson’s quintessential British nature is from the Battle of Copenhagen harbor in April 1801. Nelson had previously lost an eye and a good part of one arm. When being advised that his commander was signaling by flags that he should withdraw, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and declared, “I really do not see the signal.” He kept attacking and despite heavy losses, eventually received the Danish surrender.

 At Trafalgar, Nelson received a mortal wound from a French sharpshooter as HMS Victory prepared to repel boarders from the French ship Redoutable. Aided by another British ship, Victory not only repelled the French boarders but killed so many of them that the captain of the Redoutable surrendered.

 Over 10,000 sailors and soldiers attended Nelson’s funeral. As with many heroes, Nelson defies any easy description, being a rather complex and sometimes quixotic personality. His fame reached new heights after his death, and he came to be regarded as one of Britain’s greatest heroes, ranked alongside the Duke of Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington. In the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons program in 2002, Nelson was voted the ninth greatest Briton of all time.

 

Admiral Horatio Nelson

Perhaps it is true: “There will always be an England.”

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