Nelson arrived off Cádiz with HMS Victory to take command of a moveable feast of resources as the British ships broke away to be resupplied or reallocated.
With new objectives Napoléon now ordered Villeneuve’s fleet to Naples to land reinforcements for his troops there. Villeneuve and his senior officers talked about this order and initially seemed to conclude on inaction. Villeneuve was only stirred into action when he learned he was to be removed from command, though to save face he suggested that his change of mind was the result of intelligence he had received that six British ships had put in to Gibraltar to be resupplied.
Villeneuve had thirty-three ships-of-the-line including some of the largest that existed at the time, but after years of being blockaded the experience and skill of his sailors had been much depleted. Nelson had twenty-seven ships at his behest. Villeneuve had 30,000 men and 2,568 cannon; Nelson just 18,000 men but 2,148 cannon.
Villeneuve’s fleet was slow to emerge from Cádiz and also slow to assume its planned formation. When he heard of the size of the British force facing him he tried to return to port but was intercepted off Cape Trafalgar.
Excerpts from 1492 and all that!
Nelson had painted his ships in a yellow and black check to make them easily identifiable in any melee. He also employed an unorthodox approach, driving two lines into the crescent formation of the Franco-Spanish fleet, thus dissecting them into three groups and interfering with their communications.
The Battle of Trafalgar was fought in light winds and the British tactic had good fortune as the gunnery skills displayed by Villeneuve’s ships proved to be very poor.
Nelson prevailed, capturing twenty-two ships while losing none of his own. However a subsequent storm did see a number of ships sink from their battle damage. During that storm several small British prize crews were also overwhelmed by the Franco-Spanish who recovered several of their ships in this manner. A group of French ships also regrouped and mounted a rearguard to recapture further vessels.
A fortnight later four French ships that had escaped from the battle to the north and were heading for Rochefort were lured into chasing a British frigate. At Cape Ortegal they encountered a fleet of five British ships that harried them until they surrendered.
So the final count was two of the Franco-Spanish fleet lost at Finisterre, twenty-one at Trafalgar and the subsequent storm, four more taken at Ortegal – twenty-seven out of thirty-three ships had at one stage or other been lost. This major defeat and the ongoing blockade of their ports effectively destroyed any confidence in a French and/or Spanish naval capability.
The British recorded some 450 deaths (including that of Nelson himself) and 1,200 wounded. The Franco-Spanish force suffered over 3,000 deaths, 2,500+ injured and some 8,000 captured – close to 50% of the original force.
Villeneuve was captured and taken to England where he was allowed to live in Hampshire under parole with two hundred of his men. He was invited to and attended Nelson’s funeral. Released in late 1805, he returned to France and sought to resume his military career without success. In 1806 his body was found in the Hotel de la Patrie in Rennes with seven stab wounds. The official verdict was suicide!
Excerpts from 1492 and all that!
Nelson was struck by a French marksman from the Redoubtable. The shot hit him in the left shoulder and passed through his spine. He was carried beneath decks with a handkerchief placed over his face so as not to alarm the crew. He took three hours to die but used the time to regularly dispense advice.
His body was placed in a cask of brandy and at Gibraltar transferred to a lead-lined coffin filled with distilled wine for return to England. The Times reported ‘The country has gained the most splendid and decisive victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased’.
His funeral was attended by the Prince of Wales and his brothers, tens of admirals and hundreds of captains. The cortege was escorted to St Paul’s Cathedral by 10,000 soldiers.
Some forty years later he and the battle were commemorated in the creation of London’s Trafalgar Square and the erection of Nelson’s column.