Q&A: Why did news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar take so long to reach England?
News of the battle, which took place on 21 October 1805, didn't reach the Admiralty until 6 November
Admiral Collingwood’s victory dispatch covering Trafalgar and Nelson’s death was dated the following day, 22 October 1805, but severe storms prevented it leaving the fleet until 26 October. Lieutenant John Lapenotiere of the schooner Pickle then carried it more than a thousand miles, transferring to a post-chaise in Falmouth on 4 November and reaching the Admiralty two days later.
Despite bad weather he had made reasonable time, considering that news in those days travelled only as fast as ships and horses could carry it. Nelson’s victory dispatch for the battle of the Nile, fought in Aboukir Bay, Egypt, on 1–2 August 1798, exemplifies the problems of communication. One copy was intercepted at sea by the French, and a duplicate, travelling by way of Naples, Trieste and Vienna, did not reach the Admiralty until 2 October.
Britain generally received the news of land battles within continental Europe much sooner. Waterloo was fought in Belgium on 18 June 1815 and reported in The London Gazette four days later. But consider this sobering example from the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Peace was signed in Ghent on 24 December 1814, but the largest battle of the war took place later – at New Orleans on 8 January 1815, when the British were repulsed with 2,000 casualties. However, British forces in the Gulf of Mexico went on to capture Mobile on 11 February and did not suspend their operations until two days after. Andrew Jackson, commanding American forces at New Orleans, did not receive official notification of the peace until 13 March.
Answered by John Sugden, author of Nelson: The Sword of Albion (Bodley Head, 2012).
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