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It was the year of 1805, the year when it seemed that at long last Napoleon would invade England, which, for twelve years, had stood in the path of the Grand Armée´s complete domination of Europe. It was the year when, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, Napoleon had suddenly convinced himself that his united fleet could annihilate any squadron which the English could put to sea to meet it.

In August of 1805, he wrote to his admirals: „Come into the Channel. Bring our united fleet and England is ours. If you are only here for 24 hours, all will be over, and six centuries of shame and insult will be avenged."
It was an order, however, which his captains found impossible to obey. Although Napoleon had 2,000 ships and 90,000 men assembled along the coast of France, the British blockade of the French and Spanish harbours had virtually ammobilised this gigantic force.
In desperation, Napoleon ordered his fleet at Cadiz to sail out and meet the enemy ships which sat quietly waiting on the green Atlantic swells at Cape Trafalgar, some 80 kilometres east of Cadiz.
„His Majesty counts for nothing the loss of his ships," Napoleon´s message ended, „provided they are lost with glory."
In response to this order, a Franco-Spanish fleet of 33, with 2,640 guns, commanded by Admiral Villeneuve, set out from Cadiz to engage the enemy. Massive though this force was compared to the force that awaited them, its destruction was an almost foregone conclusion from the very beginning.
There were several reasons for the inevitable destruction of the Franco-Spanish fleet, not the least being that it was commanded by a man who was haunted by the memory of his humiliating defeat at the hands of a much smaller English force only three months earlier. A man, moreover, that even Napoleon had decided at the last moment was ill-fitted for the task that had been entrusted to him.
As Villeneuve was sailing out of Cadiz, a horseman was hastening down the Spanish Peninsula, carrying a message, informing Villeneuve that he was to hand over his command to Admiral Rosily.
It would be wrong to assume that if the messenger had arrived in time to stop Villeneuve sailing, and the highly capable Admiral Rosily had been in command, the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar might have been a different one. There were too many other factors weighed in the balance against the Franco-Spanish fleet for this to have happened.
Like Villeneuve, the captains of the Freench and Spanish fleets were imbued with a sense of impending defeat before they had even encoutered the enemy. And with good cause!
Demoralised by a long period of inactivity, and with 1,700 sick men aboard their ships, the French sailed out of Cadiz knowing that only a miracle could give them a victory.

Press-ganged crews

The Spanish ships, manned mostly by soldiers or by beggars press-ganged from the slums of Cadiz, with gunners who had never fired a gun from a rolling ship, and commanded by Spanish captains who resented being placed under a French admiral, were in an even worse plight.
Most unnerving of all for the captains of the fleet was the knowledge that they were about to put themselves against the most skilful sea captain of all time - Horatio Viscount Nelson.
Only slightly less awe-inspiring was the British Jack Tar himself, that clay-piped, pig-tailed sailor, who, more often than not, had been recruited by the press gangs from the scourings of the English sea towns. Already an aggressive fighting man by instinct, he had literally been whipped into becoming a magnificent sailor by the iron discipline of autocratic captains for whom the lash was the answer to almost every infringement of the ship´s rules.
A seasoned French sailor would have had difficulty in holding his own against such a formidable foe, let alone those pathetic crews sailing out to meet the English fleet.
On the 20th of October, 1805, the Franco-Spanish fleet was sighted, and soon afterwards the area where the British ships waited became bright with patches of gaudy bunting as each ship broke out strings of flags which assed on the message: „The French and Spanish are out at last, they outnumber us in ships and guns and men: we are on the eve of the greatest sea fight in history."
On board the flagship, HMS Victory, the message had been delivered to the English commander, a slight, one-armed man, blind in one eye and shabbily dressed in a threadbare frock coat stained with sea salt, its gold lace tarnished to black flattened rags.

Battle plans

This slatternly-looking admiral was, of course, Lord Nelson, who received the news with the utmost calmness. And why not? His battle plans had already been made and communicated to all his captains. Those plans, he was convinced would give him a swift victory.
Until the Battle of Trafalgar, the problem of how a fleet could gain an annihilating victory over the enemy was one that had never really been solved, and for want of a better tactic, it had been the custom for the fleets to sail into action in two parallel lines, with each ship taking on a single opponent, firing its guns broadside as it passed.
Inevitably, the enemy would také an opposite tack, and the battle would then become a vastly prolonged affair, with the ships continually sailing on opposite tacks, or engaging on the same tack, until one of the fleets eventually retired.
Nelson had decided to break completely with this tradition. His plan was to divide his fleet into two groups. One group would attack sections of the enemy line and destroy them before other ships could come to their aid. The other group would attack the enemy at right angles, break through their lines and then cut off the retreat of the enemy fleet.
This aggressive piece of strategy, which was later referred to as the „Nelson Touch", was to change the whole course of naval warfare.
The battle did not begin until the following day, by which time the enemy fleet was well in sight, off Cape Trafalgar. Nelson was on deck, now in a freshly laundered uniform and with new ribbons for all the medals on his breast.

Battle signal

Shortly after, Nelson called for the signal officer. „Make the signal to bear down on the enemy in two lines," he ordered. He then went down to make his will, which was witnesssed by Captain Hardy and Captain Blackwood who had come aboard from the Euryalus. Afterwards, Nelson went up to the poop and ordered that signal officer to hoist his celebrated signal: ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY.
It has been said that this famous signal was to have been worded: „Nelson confides that every man will do his duty," and that his name was replaced by that of England at the suggestion of the signal officer, who pointed out that if the words „confides that" were used, they would have to be spelt out with a long string of flags. The word „expects" was substituted.

First blood

The first shot was fired at the English ship Royal Sovereign at noon. This salute of iron was received in silence by the Royal Sovereign, who waited until she had drawn astern of the Spanish three-decket, Santa Anna, then raked her decks with a murderous fire that killed or wounded 400 of her crew.
In the meantime, Nelson´s ship was moving on, silent and intent, searching for the French admiral´s ship. Eventually, right in front of her, lay the huge Spanish four-decker, Santissima Trinidad. Guessing correctly that the French admiral´s ship must be nearby, Nelson bore down on her. As he did so, the Bucentaure, Villeneuve´s ship, and seven or eight other enemy ships, opened fire on the Victory. Still she advanced without firing. By the time she had come close enough to rake the Santissima Trinidad with her larboard guns, 50 of her men were dead and 30 wounded.
It was at this point that the Victory came into collision with the French Redoubtable. Locked together, and wrapped in sheets of flame, the two ships drifted slowly through the smoke of battle. Gradually, although the fighting had continued unabated, the smoke cleared a little from the decks of the Victory, enough for the marksmen to see the epaulets of the English officers. A marksman kneeling in the mizzen-top aimed his musket at Nelson.
On the quarterdeck of the Victory, Captain Hardy had turned to leave Nelson´s side to give an order when Nelson fell, mortally wounded. Immediately, Hardy, a sergeant of the marines and two privates, rushed forward to lift him up. Nelson was then carried down to the cockpit, where he ordered that his face should be covered with a handkerchief so that he might not be recognized.
In the meantime, the Redoubtable´s top marksmen had shot down 40 officers and men, destroying so many that the French, seeing the upper deck clear of all but dead or wounded, tried to board her. It was an enterprise which was to cost them dear. A botswain´s whistle piped, „Boarders; repel Boarders", and the order immediately summoned swarms of smoke-begrimed blue-jackets to the deck, where they killed every man who had managed to board the Victory.
Below decks, Nelson´s life was now ebbing away fast. But he was still alive when Hardy returned from the fighting above to inform him that fourteen enemy vessels had given in. „That´s well," Nelson said, „but I had bargained for twenty." He lingered on for a little while longer. After murmuring some inarticulate words, he said distinctly, „I have done my duty. I thank God for it!"

The first stage of the battle, with the Victory leading a frontal attack, while the rest of Nelson´s fleet attacks at right angles to break through the lines of the enemy ships, and thus cut off their retreat. This tactic was in complete variance with all the accepted rules of naval warfare.
The last stage of the battle, with the French and English ships engaged in a general melée. By then 25 French ships were already out of action and trying to make for Cadiz.

The raking manoeuvre employed with great success by the British ships. When attacking the enemy line, a British vessel would steer for a gap between enemy vessels. After brilliant seamanship had gained the British ship an advantageous position, a broadside was fired at one enemy vessel before sailing in front of it to unleash yet another broadside into the stern of the next ship in the line. Yet another broadside was then delivered to that crippled vessel from the other side.

Ruined dream

Above,beneath the setting sun, his fleet was lying in two groups with the shattered hulks of the enemy ships all around them. The British losses had been heavy; 449 killed and 1,241 wounded. But of the 27 ships of the British fleet, not one had been sunk or captured. Trafalgar was the decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars.
It had always been essential to Napoleon´s master plan to control the world that he should have command of the seas. With his Allied fleet now ruined as a fighting force thet dream had been destroyed forever.
Trafalgar, moreover, established England´s supremacy at sea for nearly a century and a half, during which time her navy remained the bedrock on which her control of the far-flung British Empire rested through the age of steam and into the 20th century.

It was not until several days after the battle that The Times newspaper was able to inform its readers of the outcome of the battle. Their joy that England had won a great sea battle was tempered by the knowledge that the country had lost its most beloved naval commander.

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