October 20, 2005


200 years since Nelson did his duty (John Keegan, 21/10/2005, Daily Telegraph)

Nelson's plan was to solve the problem of sailing down on the enemy with the wind, which always left the opponent with the option of sailing off when defeat threatened. Nelson now planned not to lay his fleet alongside the enemy on the windward side but to sail through the enemy line and lay alongside to leeward, thus putting the enemy between their opponents and the wind and trapping them so that they could be beaten down by the gunnery.

By the morning of Oct 21, his captains knew exactly what they had to do. They were assured of victory, as long as the Combined Fleet left port to accept battle. Villeneuve decided to do so, though with a heavy heart; he feared defeat but he feared even more Napoleon's disfavour if he did not fight.

The morning of Oct 21 1805 was calm with light winds scarcely strong enough to move the two columns of Nelson's fleet at more than walking pace. Nelson led the left-hand column, Admiral Collingwood the right-hand. Their ships were severely punished in the approach, Victory's foresails today on display at Portsmouth show 100 shot holes. The two columns bore on inexorably however and once through the enemy line turned to cut off its retreat. The gunnery battle then began in earnest.

British gunnery was greatly superior to the enemy's and, as the British succeeded in surrounding several clusters of French ships, the execution done was frightful. Victory was joined by several ships around the French Redoubtable, commanded by the tiny captain Lucas, less than five feet tall.

Lucas however was a fire eater and had crowded his tops with musketeers. It was one of these men firing down on to Victory's quarterdeck who shot Nelson. The bullet lodged in his spine and though the admiral survived long enough to learn that the Combined Fleet was beaten, died before the end of the battle.

The calm of the morning was succeeded by a violent storm, which drove many of the surviving enemy ships ashore, with terrible loss of life - 8,500 dead and wounded out of 50,000 present.

Only 16 of the 28 enemy ships survived. None of the 23 British ships was lost. Victory of course survives to this day. And if Britain has such a thing as a national shrine she is it.

At Trafalgar under Nelson's command, she and her sisters assured that Britain would not be invaded and that Napoleon would have to look elsewhere for a victory.

Full Nelson: Outmanned and outgunned, the British flummoxed the French. (PATRICK O'BRIAN, 4/18/99, NY Times Magazine)
When Nelson discovered Bonaparte's fleet at about 2 P.M. on Aug. 1, the breeze was in the north-northwest, and the French lay almost directly to leeward. At this point, Nelson had only eleven 74's and one 50-gunship. He nevertheless attacked directly, and his fleet bore down under all the canvas that could be set.

Despite this zeal, it was not until 5:30 P.M. that the fleet, finally abreast of the end of the shoal off Aboukir, was ordered to form the battle line ahead and astern of Nelson in the Vanguard. Shortly thereafter, Nelson hailed Capt. Samuel Hood, asking whether he thought the ships were far enough to the eastward to bear up. Hood replied, "I don't know, sir; but with your permission I will stand in and try." This he did, and sounding carefully, he rounded the shoal. At about 6 P.M. Nelson ordered the fleet to fill its sails and prepare for battle. They did so, the 74's coming down on the anchored Frenchmen with the north-northwest wind on their starboard beam. At this point, the Culloden, a 74 under Nelson's particular friend, Thomas Troubridge, struck on the tail of the rocky shoal, while two remaining 74's were still a great way off.

The attack nevertheless went on, although it meant 10 ships of the line, mounting 740 guns, against 13, mounting no fewer than 1,026, not counting the shore batteries.

At 6:20 P.M., with the sun low in the west, the Conquerant and the Guerrier, the leaders of the French van, opened fire on the two foremost British ships, the Goliath and the Zealous, while the mortars on the island began throwing shells. The Goliath's captain, sounding as he came, found that there was room for him to cross the Guerrier's bows without running on the shoal, and then, setting his topgallant sails again, he did so, raking the Frenchmen with his broadside as he crossed. He had meant to anchor by the stern and batter her yardarm-to-yardarm on her larboard side, there being depth enough for him to do so. But his anchor did not bring him up directly, and he moved on to the next 74, the Conquerant, while the Zealous took her place alongside the Guerrier, hitting her so hard that her foremast came down within five minutes.

The sun set, and now the bulk of Nelson's fleet came down, the Orion following the Goliath along the French inner side, while most of the rest ran down the outer, each anchoring opposite her chosen foe. The two fleets filled the sky with the smoke, flashes and bellowing of some 2,000 guns, for by now the last British ships, guided by the stranded Culloden, had reached the fight.

The odds in numbers and in weight of broadside metal were heavily against Nelson, but the tactical position was entirely in his favor.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2005 10:48 PM

The Folio Society has just published a fine account of Trafalgar in which Tom Pocock has selected and woven together into a narrative contemporary accounts of the battle. I think it's also being published by Penguin as "Trafalgar: An Eyewitness Account"

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 21, 2005 12:59 AM

War is a wicked and unholy thing, but if there must be wars, let there always be men like Nelson.

Posted by: Rick at October 21, 2005 2:13 AM

British gunnery was greatly superior to the enemy's and, as the British succeeded in surrounding several clusters of French ships, the execution done was frightful.

The odds in numbers and in weight of broadside metal were heavily against Nelson...

The Royal Navy gun crews could load and fire three times faster than those of the Combined Fleet, so the Royal Navy really wasn't at a disadvantage due to the Combined Fleet's greater number of guns... Except on the first volley.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 21, 2005 3:08 AM

"Thus, while we have heard of blundering swiftness in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged." -- Sun-Tzu (The Art of War)
"... Because in human affairs the sources of success are ever to be found in the fountains of quick resolve and swift stroke; and it seems to be a law inflexible and inexorable that he who will not risk cannot win." -- John Paul Jones
"A good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week." -- George S. Patton

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 21, 2005 5:06 AM

Here is how the MSM of the day reported it. (Via Think of England)

Posted by: Peter B at October 21, 2005 9:20 AM

Also two hundred years ago, on the same day, The Corps of Discovery was finally headed down Columbia River itself and less than a month from the Pacific.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 21, 2005 12:44 PM