View Full Version : The Battle That Changed The World

10-16-05, 06:46 AM
The Battle That Changed The World
Nelson's brilliant victory at Trafalgar shaped history and enshrined his name among its greatest warriors
By Jay Tolson

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.

Decisive as Trafalgar was, however, it took just one of those British casualties to make Oct. 21, 1805, a day of tragedy as well as a day of triumph for Britain. For just as the battle unfolded as Nelson had planned, so did his death come as he had even more uncannily foreseen. "God bless you, Blackwood, I shall never speak to you again," he had told one of his frigate captains as the fighting got underway, and that was not the only time he voiced his premonition that day. Almost exactly an hour after his parting words to Blackwood, at around 1:15, a shot fired by a French marksman from the mizzenmast of the Redoutable, then locked in gunwale-to-gunwale combat with the Victory, tore through Nelson's left shoulder, severing a branch of his pulmonary artery and lodging in his backbone. "They have done for me at last, Hardy," the admiral muttered. Probably paralyzed below the waist, Nelson managed to cover his face and medals with his large handkerchief, hoping that his men would not be able to identify their fallen leader as he was borne below deck to the ship's surgery. Once there, he assured the surgeon that there was nothing he could do: "I have but a short time to live; my back is shot through." He was right. It would take a little over three hours for death to arrive, as Britain's most beloved hero verged increasingly on delirium, calling on Captain Hardy--and indeed on England itself--to look after his beloved mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, and their daughter, Horatia. But around 4:30, not long after Captain Hardy assured him that the battle was effectively won, Nelson uttered his last words several times over: "Thank God, I have done my duty."

It is hardly surprising, given the importance of the man and his victory, that the bicentenary year of the Battle of Trafalgar has occasioned hundreds of public conferences and academic seminars, countless commemorations, at least one major re-enactment (though the Royal Navy, out of sensitivity for the feelings of the Spanish and French, dubbed the opposing sides of last summer's mock battle the Red and Blue fleets), and a raft of popular and scholarly books. Among the last are excellent treatments of the battle itself ( The Trafalgar Companion by Mark Adkin), the contemporary cultural significance of Nelson's heroism and his many legacies ( Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar by Adam Nicolson; Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy, edited by David Cannadine), the lasting influence of Nelson's style on naval command and control ( Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control Since the Sixteenth Century by Michael Palmer), the great man's correspondence (Nelson: The New Letters, edited by Colin White), and Nelson's own most remarkable life ( Nelson: A Dream of Glory, the first of two volumes by John Sugden; The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Horatio Nelson by Roger Knight).

The "Nelson touch." Not that there was a lack of interest in Nelson or his most famous battle in the years leading up to the bicentennial. Reviewing many of the new works in the Times Literary Supplement , N. A. M. Rodger observed, without irony, that "a man who has already received roughly one biography for every year which has elapsed since his death is obviously in need of some more." Rodger is not alone in recognizing the need to locate and rectify errors in the millions of words written about Nelson and Trafalgar. But if the new scholarship dutifully succeeds in doing so, even discrediting some of the more endearing myths (it now seems as though the adolescent Nelson did not, alas, go mano a mano with a polar bear on a North Pole expedition), the brunt of this more scrupulous examination reveals a man no less heroic, and achievements no less significant, than what earlier history, biography, and legend purported. Nelson with warts and weaknesses--including vanity, occasional pettiness, and a sometimes reckless arrogance--is no less an awe-inspiring figure for all those flaws. Likewise, if Nelson's tactical and strategic innovations were not all strictly of his own making, the way he put them into practice through his remarkable style of leadership more than justifies his exalted standing in the annals of military history. Stressing discipline and hard training, along with empathy with and concern for his men, he above all encouraged (and prepared) his subordinates to seize the initiative whenever necessary, particularly in the fog of war. "That," says Palmer, a naval historian at East Carolina University, "was what he called the 'Nelson touch,' and the men who served under him knew what he expected."

Among the questions that continue to circle the naval hero, some loom large: If Nelson hadn't existed, would the Britain of his day have been forced to invent him--or at least find someone very like him to push to the fore and idolize? Was he the embodiment of the qualities that his age admired, or was he so exceptional, so distinctive, that his contemporaries could only partly define his greatness through the categories and ideals of his time? And perhaps most important, if Nelson had not existed and Trafalgar never happened, would Britain have acquired naval supremacy and so decisively influenced the course of modern history?


10-16-05, 06:46 AM
Born in 1758, the son of an Anglican rector, Nelson spent his first 12 years in the village of Burnham Thorpe, near the coast of eastern England. His mother died when he was 9, perhaps from the...

10-16-05, 10:00 AM
The love affair of the ages

Lord Horatio Nelson

Lady Emma Hamilton

His last words at Trafalgar

"And take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy. Take care of poor Lady Hamilton. Kiss me, Hardy. . . . Remember that I leave lady Hamilton and my daughter, Horatia, as a legacy to my country--and never forget Horatia."

Horatia Nelson

Semper Fidelis/Semper Fi