Britain didn’t “rule the waves” after the battle of Trafalgar, says historian Sam Willis

The battle of Trafalgar is today remembered as "one of the greatest naval clashes in history" – but how much does this claim stand up to scrutiny? Historian and broadcaster Sam Willis offers a provocative take on one of the Royal Navy's finest hours

An episode of the naval battle at Trafalgar: the ship Redoutable (French) against the vessels Victory (British), Téméraire (British) and Thunderer (British). (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).

The battle of Trafalgar is today remembered as “one of the greatest naval clashes in history” – but how much does this claim stand up to scrutiny?

Advertisement

In his article ‘Trafalgar: a futile victory?‘ – available in the August issue of BBC History Magazine – historian Sam Willis argues that Trafalgar was not defined by the strength of the British navy, but instead by the death of its greatest naval hero: Horatio Nelson.

“British naval dominance wasn’t the reason that Trafalgar became famous,” writes Willis. “The events of October 1805 were celebrated both for the sheer scale of the battle and for the fact that it was all wrapped up in the story of the death of Britain’s greatest naval hero. Nelson’s funeral was a national show, only comparable to that of Princess Diana in 1997.”

What happened at the battle of Trafalgar?

The events of Trafalgar are well known, with the British victory remaining a landmark in naval history more than 200 years later. It took place in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars (c1801–1815), a series of conflicts between France and other European powers.

In May 1805, Britain’s nemesis – the French emperor Napoleon – had recently been crowned king of Italy in Milan. He was determined to dominate Europe, but faced opposition from the Third Coalition (Britain, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire).

On 21 October 1805, 33 of Napoleon’s ships faced off against 27 British vessels to the west of Cape Trafalgar, Spain. It was a resounding victory for the British Royal Navy, who – under the command of national hero Admiral Lord Nelson until his death part way through the battle – annihilated Napoleon’s combined Franco-Spanish fleet and halted his plans to conquer Europe.

“One of the greatest naval clashes in history”

The numbers involved at the battle of Trafalgar were remarkable, with the total firepower of both armies amounting to more than 13 times those fought with at Waterloo, fought ten years later.

“The British fleet had 2,148 guns; the French and Spanish 2,632. Nelson’s Victory had 821 people on board; the British fleet approximately 17,000 and the French and Spanish 30,000,” explains Willis. “This is why Trafalgar rightly stands as one of the greatest naval clashes in history.”

But, the historian argues, the decisive British victory had less of an impact than might be expected.

“Don’t get me wrong, Trafalgar was a significant victory,” he writes. “It strengthened considerably Britain’s hand in the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps the biggest dividend of Nelson’s triumph was the removal of Spain as a naval power.”

The situation on land, however, “went from bad to worse” in the immediate aftermath of the battle. And just a few weeks later, Napoleon won “the greatest of all his military victories” at the battle of Austerlitz.

And did Britain really ‘Rule the Waves’ following its success at Trafalgar?

“Not really,” suggests Willis. “The entire French Brest fleet took no part at all in the battle, and there was another unscathed squadron in Rochefort.

“In fact, if you’re searching for the British action that inflicted the greatest damage on Napoleon’s navy, you may have to look beyond not just Trafalgar but fleet battles altogether, and consider other types of naval operations.”

Sam Willis is a historian, archaeologist and broadcaster who has presented TV series for the BBC and National Geographic. You can read his full argument in the August issue of BBC History Magazine – now on sale or available online for magazine subscribers.

Advertisement

Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at HistoryExtra.com.