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."


The armament figures speak for themselves. Consider this: the total firepower of both armies at the battle of Waterloo, fought 10 years later, amounted to just 7.3 per cent of the firepower at Trafalgar. Nelson's flagship, the Victory, which alone carried more than 100 guns, was just one of 27 ships of the line (vessels considered large enough to stand in the line of battle) in the British fleet. There were 33 in the allied French and Spanish fleet. 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. This is why Trafalgar rightly stands as one of the greatest naval clashes in history.

Light winds, heavy swell

The course of events is well known. In May 1805, Britain’s nemesis, Napoleon, was crowned king of Italy in Milan. Soon, his beloved new kingdom was threatened by the Third Coalition (made up of Britain, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire), and so the French emperor ordered his fleet to the Mediterranean to help in its defence. The British, however, had arrived in time to cut them off, just off the coast of Cadiz. Now, in light winds and a heavy swell, the French and Spanish fleet waited patiently for their attackers, in a crescent formation.

Nelson bore down in two lines, at right angles to his enemy. At the head of one, the windward division, was Nelson himself; at the head of the other, the leeward division, was Cuthbert Collingwood, who had joined the navy at the age of 11 and was now a 57-year-old vice admiral.

The British approach was a tortuously slow process. We know from the ships’ logbooks that they made that journey at 1.5 miles per hour – roughly half of the average walking pace of an adult.

The anticipation on both fleets would have been appalling for veterans of battle and novices alike. On the British ships, the sailors were ordered to lie down as their vessels came within range and shot fell from the sky like giant iron hailstones sending up spray in erupting geysers. On the Victory alone, 30 men died and 20 were wounded before they fired a single shot at their enemy.

When Nelson and Collingwood broke the Franco-Spanish line, they cut their enemy’s body into three parts: a head, a centre and a tail. This evened up the odds for the British, who then fell on the centre and tail, isolating and overwhelming them.

Nelson said that he felt the ball break his spine, and the blood pulsing into his lungs. He knew he was a dead man

Soon after Nelson engaged the enemy, the French captain of a far smaller ship, the two-decked, 74-gun Redoutable, brought her directly alongside the Victory. The Redoutable's decks were crowded with soldiers preparing to board. Her rig was occupied with marksmen, sniper-birds perched aloft, their bodies braced between mast and tarred standing rigging, upper bodies hard as iron, legs loose to move with the roll of the ship. One of these men took aim with his musket at Nelson, that diminutive, one-armed, half-blind, grey-haired admiral who had unleashed hell on this French marksman's nation, on his friends' ships, on the Redoutable, his own home.

Nelson would have been distinctive as he was wearing his uniform with imitation medals on his breast. The shot was not easy, however; the musket not designed for precise shooting. The musket balls were not perfectly spherical, they did not always come out of the centre of the musket’s barrel. Nelson was 16 metres from the base of the mizzen mast of the French ship in which this particular sniper was lurking, and we know that he was 15 metres up the mast – leaving a shot of nearly 22 metres. Both ships were rolling in the lumpy swell and both shrouded in smoke that, in its thickest wafts, would have made it difficult to see your hands in front of your face.

Perhaps firing blind onto the Victory's quarter deck, perhaps with a brief window as a smoke cloud cleared, the marksman fired and hit Nelson in the left shoulder. The musket ball broke his shoulder, broke some ribs, burst a lung, broke his back and severed his bronchial artery. Nelson later said that he felt the ball break his spine and that he felt arterial blood pulsing into his lungs. He knew he was a dead man. He was taken down to the surgeon with a handkerchief covering his face so as not to discourage the men.

Death on the gun decks

The battle raged on as more British ships arrived at the enemy line with fresh broadsides. The head of the French fleet, severed from its body by the British strike, did not turn to help until it was too late. The British sailors worked their guns and repaired their ships relentlessly; so many corpses filled the French and Spanish gun decks that they began to encumber men still attempting to work the ships and operate the guns.

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After six hours of struggle, the British had secured an unprecedented victory. Nelson lingered for three hours, until he learned of the scale of the triumph. At that stage, 14 French and Spanish ships had surrendered. Moments before he died, Victory's surgeon, William Beatty, heard Nelson murmur: "Thank God I have done my duty." By the time the guns fell silent, 22 enemy ships had been taken as prizes. The British lost none. An unknown number of French and Spanish soldiers and sailors died but a rough estimate is that 4,400 were killed. That outnumbered British losses by a factor of ten to one.

That Britain had got the better of its foes at the battle of Trafalgar is beyond dispute. What remains more complicated, however, is what the battle actually meant at the time, and means to us now. And if you pick away at its edges, all sorts of interesting narratives and arguments appear.

Consider first the date. When victory was secured off Cape Trafalgar in October 1805, it was hailed as Britain’s greatest naval triumph. Here was proof that Britannia really was destined to ‘Rule the Waves’, as everyone had learned from the patriotic song that had already been well known for more than half a century. But the British needed such proof, because they had invested massively in their navy. The sheer scale of the fleet, and the dockyards that supported it around the world, and the money granted it by parliament for its upkeep, were testament to that. The numbers speak for themselves. In 1795, the Royal Navy consisted of 123 ships of the line and 160 cruisers manned by 99,608 men. A year later it exceeded 100,000 men for the first time, and shortly after Trafalgar reached 122,860. To maintain that force, parliament granted the navy the enormous sum of £15,864,341. To put that into perspective, the largest fleets were bigger than most towns in the country.

But here’s the rub: regardless of this investment, and regardless of the victory it served up at Trafalgar, it would be another decade before Britain and her allies would defeat Napoleon – that’s a period of conflict two and a half times longer than the First World War. The ‘greatest victory’ didn’t deliver a decisive blow.

In fact, in the short term, the land war went from bad to worse. A matter of weeks after Trafalgar, Napoleon won the greatest of all of his military victories, at the battle of Austerlitz, where he captured an entire Austrian army led by Holy Roman Emperor Francis II and the tsar of Russia, Alexander I. He also seized Vienna, the first time the city had fallen in its history. As a result, the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne a millennium earlier, ceased to exist.

The impossible blockade

And what of the war at sea? Did Britain ‘Rule the Waves’ after Trafalgar? Not really. The entire French Brest fleet took no part at all in the battle, and there was another unscathed squadron in Rochefort. A small combined French and Spanish force remained in Cadiz.

What’s more, blockading the enemy was a near impossible task. Although the British may have known where their French and Spanish foes were at any given moment, the weather alone was enough to ensure that those foes could slip through their fingers. Which they did.

The task was made even tougher by the geography of the western coastline of France. Brittany’s coast is plagued by fog, and its waters run with fierce currents over hidden rocks. The Bay of Biscay is plagued by formidable swells capable of rearing up and tossing the biggest ships like bath toys. Keeping ships at sea there ceaselessly was simply impossible, and on 13 December 1805 the battle-scarred blockading British ships and their battle-scarred men headed home and anchored in Torbay.

In the short term, the land war got worse. Weeks later, Napoleon won his greatest victory, at Austerlitz

Seizing the opportunity, a powerful French fleet of 11 ships of the line, four frigates, a corvette and two dispatch vessels, split into two separate squadrons, broke out from Brest and headed west and south – towards vulnerable British colonies and trade routes in both the Caribbean and East Indies.

Just as concerning was Napoleon’s decision to embark on an enormous new shipbuilding programme focused on Antwerp. With an abundance of natural harbours, the Dutch coast was excellently placed to threaten naval bases and ports on the east coast of England and Scotland – and to menace London itself. Napoleon dredged the Scheldt estuary and constructed docks at Antwerp, at a cost of 66m Francs. By 1809, 10 new 74-gun ships had been built at Antwerp and four more were under construction. A further six were being built at Flushing. In this light, the impact of the battle of Trafalgar becomes rather uncertain.

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. These included blockades, cruising and amphibious operations and, most interesting of all, fleet seizures. At Toulon in 1793, for example, the British inflicted the worst disaster on the French navy of the entire period when they seized its Mediterranean fleet and its dockyard. In this one action, 22 ships of the line, eight frigates, numerous smaller craft and the whole Toulon arsenal and shipbuilding stores fell into British hands without a shot being fired.

Four years later, the Royal Navy defeated the Dutch at the battle of Camperdown in the North Sea. But the Dutch navy actually suffered far more severely at Saldanha Bay (in modern-day South Africa) in 1796 when it lost a complete fleet of nine ships of the line without a shot being fired, and at the Texel in 1799, when they surrendered eight ships of the line, four frigates and a brig.

So too with the Danes: they were beaten in fleet battle by the British at Copenhagen in 1801. Much more damaging, however, was the aftermath of the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, when 18 ships of the line, 11 frigates, two smaller ships, two ship-sloops, seven brig-sloops, two brigs, one schooner and 26 gunboats were captured, and five ships of the line and two frigates destroyed.

While fleet seizures inflicted considerable damage on the enemy with no blood being spilled, fleet battle always adversely affected both sides, regardless of who won. Although they suffered far fewer casualties than the French and Spanish at Trafalgar, the British still lost 1,500–1,700 sailors dead or injured – no navy at the time could simply absorb such losses and retain operational effectiveness. The casualty rate in British officers in particular was unusually high for naval battles of the period: of the 30 British flag officers and captains present, a third were either killed or wounded.

Spain neutered

Don’t get me wrong, Trafalgar was a significant victory – 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. Before Trafalgar, the Spanish and French fleets could combine to outnumber Britain’s. By the end of 1808, the Spanish had thrown in their lot with the British; they would not launch another warship until 1853.

All this combined to place Britain in a formidable position at sea. This was enough to deter Napoleon from attempting repeats of his ambitious transoceanic invasions of Egypt (1798) and Hispaniola (1802). Only Britain now had the capacity to launch significant overseas military campaigns, which it did, with mixed results, at Walcheren in 1809 (a disaster), and the long-running Peninsular War, which ultimately led to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Trafalgar was defined not by Britain’s naval dominance but by the death of its greatest naval hero

British sea power was now strong enough to defend and expand the maritime empire, so protecting Britain’s economic prosperity. That prosperity could, in turn, bankroll more men and ships and help Britain subsidise its allies’ campaigns against Napoleon on the continent.

But, for all this, British naval dominance wasn’t the reason that Trafalgar became famous. No, 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. And the man who contributed most to that was the impressive and astute Collingwood. His dispatch written to the Admiralty after the battle, a letter that he knew would be published and read by hundreds of thousands of people in his lifetime and beyond, is a masterpiece of penmanship. It also reveals an acute awareness of where public opinion needed to fall.

Collingwood did not start with a dramatic account of the battle, or even a dry one dealing only in numbers. Instead, he began with a lyrical line that grabbed everyone’s attention at the time, and has done so ever since. Collingwood had survived and won the greatest naval battle of the age and yet his headline was this: “The ever to be lamented death of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson who in the late conflict with the enemy, fell in the hour of victory…”

For Collingwood and his contemporaries, Trafalgar’s identity was uncertain, for it was both a victory and a loss. Historians would do well to remember this, and embrace the fascinating battle’s enigmatic legacy.

Sam Willis's new book, The Battle of Trafalgar: A Ladybird Expert Book, was published by Penguin in June. He is currently taking his live show, 'Histories of the Unexpected', across the UK, and will be appearing at both of our History Weekends: historyextra.com/events.

Timeline: Britain’s battle for the oceans

The struggle for naval supremacy in the Napoleonic Wars

August 1799

A fleet belonging to the Dutch, France's ally, surrenders to the British in the Texel on the Netherlands' North Sea coast

November 1799

Following a bloodless coup, the 30-year-old Corsica-born general Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power in France

April 1801

The Royal Navy defeats a Danish fleet at the battle of Copenhagen, in what is one of the most dangerous attacks ever mounted at sea


Napoleon's invasion army, the Armée d'Angleterre, is established at Boulogne and a fleet of invasion boats is built

December 1804

Spain declares war on Britain. When combined, the Spanish and French fleets now outnumber the Royal Navy

October 1805

The Royal Navy defeats a French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. Britain mourns the death in battle of Horatio Nelson


The Royal Navy defeats a French fleet at the battle of San Domingo in the Caribbean


The Danish fleet surrenders following Britain's naval bombardment of Copenhagen


Spain changes sides and throws its lot in with Britain. It's now France's turn to be outnumbered at sea

July 1815

Napoleon surrenders to the Royal Navy and is transported to exile on St Helena. He dies there six years later at the age of 51


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