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The Trafalgar Battle Plan

The Trafalgar Battle Plan

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"LORD NELSON explaining to the Officers the PLAN OF ATTACK previous to the BATTLE of TRAFALGAR" with a plan of attack below and a key to the Captains' names.

Trafalgar was the greatest battle of the age of fighting sail and marked a key turning point in Napoleon’s campaign of aggression, waged to implement his policy of European domination.

By 1805, Napoleon had realised that his fleet did not have sufficient control of the seas to support an invasion of England. He therefore abandoned both his invasion plans for the north and his fleet and marched east instead to begin the campaign which ended with his great victory over the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz.

The combined French and Spanish fleet was therefore left in October 1805 holed up in Cadiz. The French commander, Admiral Villeneuve, was due shortly to be replaced and, not wishing to leave under a cloud, led his 33 ships to sea to support the French campaign in the Mediterranean despite the fact that he was aware that the British lay in wait for him. The combined fleet of French and Spanish ships was thus confronted by a fleet of 27 ships of the Royal Navy, under Admiral Nelson’s command, on October 21st, 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, on the Spanish coast.

Villeneuve led his fleet from on board the Bucentaure at the centre of the French line. Rather than fight broadside-to-broadside in two long lines, Nelson’s unusual plan was to attack the French and Spanish line in two columns from the windward direction in the west and to hope to break straight through the centre of the enemy line, effectively separating the van from the rest of the fleet, and bringing the British into close action with the enemy. The plan was daring one; the light winds at Trafalgar and the placement of the gunnery around the British ships meant that the enemy would effectively be able to fire at the advancing British fleet for almost half an hour without the British being able to fire back. Nelson was gambling that his ships could sustain this barrage for the time it took to get close enough in to the combined fleet to allow his superior guns and better-trained crews to win the day.

Nelson commanded from the Victory, and flanked by Temeraire, these two ships led the ‘Weather Column’, with another nine ships closely behind. The ‘Lee Column’, under the command of Admiral Collingwood aboard Royal Sovereign, consisted of fifteen ships, and attacked further down the enemy line.

Before the battle began, Nelson ordered the famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” to be run up above the Victory. Nelson, who stood on the deck of the Victory in his full regalia and wearing all his stars of honour, led the attack, in full view of the French fleet and its snipers. Originally, Nelson had intended Victory to pass between Bucentaure and the Santissima Trinidad but Bucentaure closed the gap, forcing her to pass astern instead. Victory’s 68-pounders were fired gun by gun as they passed the Bucentaure, ripping out the insides of the French flagship ship, before turning and crashing into Redoubtable. Locked together, and as the fighting continued, the two ships drifted through the smoke of battle but as the smoke temporarily cleared from the decks of the Victory, a French marksman in the rigging of the Redoutable recognized the epaulets of an officer and fired the shot into his spine which was later to kill Nelson.

With the British fleet fully engaged and with the formidable experience and weaponry of the British crews winning the day, Nelson was carried below the decks with a handkerchief over his face. He died at 4.30pm, aware of the great victory which was his and declaring: “I have done my duty. I thank God for it!"

As the battle waned, Villeneuve himself was captured, and 17 of his ships were taken. 4408 of his men were killed and 2545 were wounded, whilst as many again became British prisoners of war. Only 11 French or Spanish ships returned to Cadiz. 449 British crewmen were killed, but not one British ship was lost.

Gouttelette Print taken from the original engraving.

Image size: 18 x 11 1/2 inches (45 x 29 cm)

Paper size: 18 x 11 1/2 inches (45 x 29 cm)
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