Battle of Trafalgar: Admiral Nelson's Epic Victory Over Napoleon

Battle of Trafalgar: Admiral Nelson's Epic Victory Over Napoleon

With Napoleon massing an invasion force on the French coast, English Admiral Horatio Nelson sailed home to prevent assault on the British homeland.

Here's What You Need to Know: Trafalgar ended any real threat of invasion of the British Isles.

When the Treaty of Amiens was signed on April 1, 1802, bringing peace between France and Great Britain after nearly a decade of war, there was wild rejoicing in England. In London, there were even scattered shouts of “Long Live Bonaparte.” The elation, unfortunately, proved to be short-lived. The treaty ended active hostilities but did little to curb Napoleon’s dynastic ambitions on the European continent, where he had already annexed Holland, the Piedmont, and the Mediterranean island of Elba. In addition, French troops had overrun traditionally neutral Switzerland and forced it to accept a constitution dictated by Napoleon.

A Short Peace, A Plan for Invasion

The most important threat to the British, however, was France’s negotiation of an alliance with Spain, which was still a major naval power. The English could not sit idly by and allow French expansion of its power to proceed, with Spain’s help, on the high seas as well as on dry land. On May 18, 1803, England declared war again. Napoleon, undaunted, vowed in his Diary: “If the English want to make us jump the ditch, we will jump. They may capture a few frigates or a few colonies, but I will strike terror in London, and I prophesy that before the war is over they will weep tears of blood.”

For the first time, Napoleon began to seriously consider an invasion of England. As early as 1801, before the Treaty of Amiens, he had threatened such an attack, but the English downplayed the threat, expecting any move against the homeland to be at most an armed raid on London, not a full-fledged invasion. With the abrogation of the Treaty of Amiens, however, Napoleon began mobilizing his forces along the French coast of the English Channel. Now was the time—the continent was relatively calm, and French armies were not needed elsewhere. The proposed invasion was to consist of three basic elements: a flotilla large enough to ferry an army across the Channel, appropriate facilities and fortifications for the ships needed to transport the troops, and a massive invasion force capable of storming the English beaches.

Preparations began with improvements to the port of Boulogne and the building of the invasion flotilla. Napoleon had little experience with naval matters, yet he resisted delegating even the smallest details of the preparations. He decided on flat-bottom boats against the advice of his senior naval commanders, who feared that they would be lost crossing the notoriously treacherous Channel. He proceeded to award contracts for approximately 1,050 of these boats, with delivery of the first 310 by December 23, 1803. At least part of the financing for the ship-building was to come from wealthy private citizens, who were asked to donate a minimum of one vessel each. The boats so procured would be named after the donors.

The invasion flotilla was made up of four distinct types of craft. First was the prame, a 110-foot vessel with a 25-foot beam and no real keel. This shallow-draught vessel, with its heavy rigging, was the most unstable in heavy weather. It had a complement of 38 sailors and 120 soldiers and was armed with 12 24-pound guns. The chaloupe canonniere was an 80-foot boat with a beam of 17 feet. It was armed with three 24-pounders and one eight-inch howitzer, and carried 152 men, including a crew of 22. The bateau canonniere was 60 feet long, with a beam of 14 feet. It carried one 24-pounder, one howitzer and one piece of field artillery, and sported a crew of six and 106 soldiers. The final class was the peniche. This was the smallest of the landing craft. It was 60 feet long, with only a 10-foot beam and no decking. It carried 71 men, including a crew of five, and a four-inch howitzer. The final two classes of boats proved to be the most numerous.

By the end of 1803, orders had been placed for approximately 1,300 vessels. In addition, 180 existing boats could be used, as well as approximately 700 transports, which had been built for fishing. The fleet was commanded by experienced Admiral Eustace de Bruix, who estimated that he could deliver an army of 114,000 troops to the south of England. Already, Napoleon was amassing these troops in camps spread along a 75-mile stretch of the French coast from Calais to Boulogne. By the summer of 1804, three army corps, totaling some 10 divisions, were ready for action. The camps were plainly visible to English eyes from the famous white cliffs of Dover, sending a collective shiver through the civilian population living on the coast. For years they had been making their children behave by reciting a nursery rhyme that warned them that Napoleon, “tall and black as [a] Rouen steeple,” would tear them “limb from limb” if they did not mind their parents.

Each step taken by Napoleon was carefully observed by the British Navy, which blockaded the French fleet and dared it to venture into the open seas. In addition, the English repeatedly shelled the installations around Boulogne. At home, the government prepared for the threatened enemy invasion by forming volunteer units to defend the beaches, as well as drawing up elaborate evacuation plans for the women and children. A string of squat, bunker-like Martello towers was erected along the southern and eastern coastlines, and fortifications were strengthened along the Medway and Thames Rivers to prevent another penetration up the Thames Estuary like the one accomplished by the Dutch in 1667. In London itself, a register was drawn up of laborers, smiths, carpenters, and gardeners who could be called upon at a moment’s notice to construct deep ramparts and ditches for artillery defenses.

Challenging Britain in the Channel

Napoleon’s plans called for naval squadrons to protect the invasion flotilla, and this meant ending British naval dominance of the English Channel, at least temporarily. In 1804, Napoleon wrote, “We have 1,800 gunboats and cutters carrying 120,000 men and 10,000 horses between Etaples, Boulogne, Wimereux, and Ambleteuse. If we are masters of the Channel for six hours, we are masters of the world!” That would prove to be easier said than done.

The renewal of the war posed a serious challenge to the British, who now were menaced by the combined sea power of France and Spain. When the Spanish, at Napoleon’s insistence, declared war on Britain on December 12, 1804, the Combined Fleet, at least quantitatively, had the capability of seriously challenging the British on the seas. The problem of blockading the allied Franco-Spanish navy to forestall its support of an invasion became more complex, because Napoleon’s ships of the line were based in a larger number of ports.

As long as the western mouth of the Channel was in English hands, however, Napoleon could not successfully invade, no matter what the size of his combined forces. The French leader understood this full well. He needed to create a diversion to temporarily ensure Allied naval supremacy in the Channel and cover his invasion force. On December 4, 1804, he ordered Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, his senior admiral afloat, to break out of the port of Toulon and sail for the West Indies. He was to be joined by Admiral Edouard Missiessy, after the latter avoided the British blockade of Rochefort. Villeneuve was to stay in the area for 60 days and do as much damage as possible to British possessions before heading back to Europe. Napoleon’s calculation was that the British, impressed by the near-simultaneous departure of two French fleets and uncertain about the enemy’s purpose, must send at least 30 ships in pursuit. This diversion would facilitate the operations of the Brest fleet, under Admiral Honoré Ganteaume, which would then land an advance army corps in Ireland and cover the crossing of the main body of French troops from Boulogne to England.

Lord Nelson: the Thorn in Napoleon’s Side

The greatest roadblock to Napoleon’s ambitious plan of conquest was an old and all-too-familiar enemy—Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. The 47-year-old Nelson had long been a thorn in the emperor’s side. A native of Norfolk and a distant relative of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, Nelson had gone to sea at the age of 12. He advanced rapidly through the ranks, seeing duty in the West Indies, the Revolutionary War, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, where he assumed his first command as captain of the 64-gun Agamemnon. He helped defeat the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797, and the next year he won a great victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile, which effectively ended Napoleon’s ambition to make war on the British holdings in India.

Nelson was a brilliant commander, but also a rather unlucky one. He was shot in the back during the siege of Bastia, Corsica, in 1794, and lost the sight in his right eye after being struck by stone fragments at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent three years later. He had his right arm amputated after being shot in the elbow by a musket during an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife. At the Battle of the Nile he suffered a concussion, bruised face, and lacerations over his good left eye. In addition, he was plagued by an abdominal hernia caused by another wound, as well as the 18th-century sailor’s regular afflictions of ship fevers and malaria. His much-publicized love affair with Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British ambassador to Naples, was a self-inflicted wound that likely had an adverse effect on his career as well.