Trafalgar, a futile victory? Why Nelson’s triumph didn’t turn the tide on Napoleon

Nelson’s defeat of a Franco-Spanish fleet in October 1805 has long been hailed as the Royal Navy’s greatest triumph. But, asks Sam Willis, does that claim stand up to scrutiny?

Winner takes all: A painting shows the French ship 'Redoutable' clashing with the British 'Temeraire'. "Regardless of the victory off Cape Trafalgar, it was another decade before Britain and her allies defeated Napoleon. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

When the British vice admiral Horatio Nelson broke through the French and Spanish line of battle off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, he unleashed a full broadside from the four gun decks of HMS Victory through the stern window of the French flagship Bucentaure. Sailors on his weather deck also fired a 68-pound carronade – the most destructive short-range gun on the ship – at that same window, loaded with 500 musket balls. The carnage that followed in both fleets was so appalling that few chose to write about it in detail, but the fragments that have survived the 214 years since are telling. On the poop deck of Victory, eight marines were killed by a single double-headed shot and on the Revenge a child was brutally cut down. “He was a youth of not more than 12 or 13 years of age… Killed on the quarter-deck by a grape-shot, his body greatly mutilated, his entrails being driven and scattered against the larboard side.”

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