The Battle That Changed The World
Nelson's brilliant victory at Trafalgar shaped history and enshrined his name among its greatest warriors
It was shortly before noon on Oct. 21, 1805, a light wind blowing easterly across the Atlantic just a few miles off southwestern Spain's Cape Trafalgar. Admiral Lord (Horatio) Nelson, with his 27 ships of the line now slowly closing on the 33 ships of Adm. Pierre-Charles Villeneuve's combined French and Spanish fleet, ordered his flagman to hoist the signal whose words would ring down through 200 years of naval history: "England expects that every man will do his duty."
As always, leading by personal example, the one-armed commander, looking weathered and worn beyond his 47 years, stood with his fellow officers on the quarterdeck of the 102-gun Victory as he strained with his one remaining eye to sight Villeneuve's flagship. The British admiral had split his fleet into two divisions, and the 12 battleships and accompanying frigates in Nelson's windward column were holding to a northerly tack in order to block the Combined Fleet from sailing back into the protective waters of their harbor at Cadiz. Nelson had already chased the Frenchman through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic and back, and now that he had caught Villeneuve heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, he didn't want to lose him. But Villeneuve was not retreating. Napoleon had ordered him to bring his fleet--and 4,000 troops of reinforcement--to Naples to support the campaign in Italy. Villeneuve had ordered his fleet to reverse course and prepare for battle.
About five minutes after Nelson issued his famous exhortation, the French commander, aboard the 80-gun Bucentaure, ordered his ships to hoist their colors. Spotting his foe's flagship, Nelson ordered the Victory hard to starboard, directly for the Bucentaure. Nelson's second in command and leader of the 15-ship leeward column, Rear Adm. Cuthbert Collingwood, had already plunged into the Franco-Spanish fleet at a point farther down the line, launching the furious melee for which Nelson and his "band of brothers" were so widely known and fearfully respected.
At 12:30, Nelson's Victory cut the enemy line just astern of the Bucentaure, though not before exchanging heavy broadsides with as many as eight of Villeneuve's ships, including Spain's formidable 136-gun four-decker, the Santisima Trinidad. One roundshot had taken out Nelson's secretary, who had been standing not far from the admiral's side; another had bowled through eight Royal Marines stationed just below him on the poop deck; yet another destroyed the ship's wheel, greatly complicating steering. "This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long," Nelson said to the Victory's captain, after one blast sent splinters flying across the quarterdeck. Yet Nelson refused to budge. "Engage the enemy more closely," read one of the last signals he sent up the main topgallant mast. The commander, who had lost his right arm and right eye and suffered countless other blows to his frail frame in previous actions, wasn't about to absent himself from the thick of this engagement.
"Killing machine." During the next several hours, the battle unfolded almost exactly as Nelson had planned. In some ways, it went even better. The 10 ships in the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet could have doubled back in timely fashion to help their comrades to the rear, whose ships were being raked, splintered, and subdued by superior British gunnery. (While it took, on average, five minutes for Combined Fleet gun crews to reload and refire, the Royal Navy crews averaged 90 seconds, and some did even better.) But Rear Admiral Dumanoir kept his ships sailing on a northerly course for so long that by the time they turned around and returned to the battle, the melee had been all but decided in the Royal Navy's favor. By no later than 6 p.m., the Combined Fleet had lost 18 ships--one sunk, the rest captured--and its battered remnant was fleeing for safe harbor. While the British fleet took 1,666 casualties, Nelson's finely honed "killing machine" had left the Combined Fleet with 5,239 dead and wounded. Thanks to Nelson, Britain's command of the seas was firmly established, a fact that demolished Napoleon's fantasy of conquering Britain and helped shape the geopolitical realities of the world for at least the next 100 years.