In 1805, Napoleon planned an invasion of England. Napoleon controlled the Atlantic and North Sea coasts of Europe, and 100,000 men were assembled for this invasion. However, British naval superiority prevented this armada from setting sail. Throughout the summer, a French fleet under Villeneuve struggled to gather enough ships to challenge the Royal Navy openly. When at last they clashed in October, the British under Lord Nelson would win due to a combination of a bold plan and the training and experience of British seamen.
A few observations about the realities of naval combat in that age must be made first. One is that effective cannon fire is restricted to a limited arc on either flank of a ship. Smaller pieces like swivel guns might enjoy a wider field of fire, but sailing ships had no effective means to bring any significant power to bear in the front or rear. The ship was most effective when firing all guns on one side at a target sailing parallel to it; this was known as a broadside.
The other important reality is that ships were powered by the wind. Traveling with the prevailing winds was invariably faster than sailing against them; complex battle maneuvers, however, demanded numerous changes in course, sometimes against the wind. Experienced sailors knew how to adjust the rigging to make best use of available wind, and depending upon the importance of speed, they could also adjust how many square feet of sail would be exposed to the wind. When speed was paramount, as in efforts to evade an opponent, sailors would expose every available inch of sail; this was known as full sail. In battle, however, they would adopt a posture known as easy sail, in which the largest sails were furled to reduce speed. Easy sail was useful in battle because slower speeds improved the accuracy of gunnery, made it easier to adjust one’s course due to the proximity of an enemy, and allowed ships to draw closer together for melee. Finally, having the lowest and largest sails of each mast furled improved visibility and movement across the deck.
The two forces came in sight of each other on the 20th of October, and they began the next day with their respective plans for the engagement. The French (and Spanish) side followed a simple, indeed strictly tactical, plan of maintaining a line under easy sail. When, inevitably, the British closed for melee, Villeneuve had no expectation of being able to coordinate a defense; instead, each ship had to do its best, hoping that the broadsides they would fire before the British closed in would significantly reduce their effectiveness.
Lord Nelson was much more ambitious. He had slightly fewer ships at his disposal, but his men were much better trained and most were seasoned veterans. Nelson assembled his ships into two columns that aimed for the middle of the French and Spanish line at full sail. By maintaining maximum speed as they closed the gap, they reduced the number of volleys they would sustain. Then, once committed to ship-to-ship combat, they would slow down from full sail to easy sail by cutting the appropriate rigging. There would be time enough later to raise new lines.
Such a plan negated the French numerical superiority by concentrating British forces at the center of the French line; the French and Spanish ships in front of the line had to come about in order to have any effect on the outcome, and this took time. Time was an asset the French could not afford to lose.
The gap in training, seasoned by experience, between the British and French sides was enormous. It ensured that British sailors could control their vessels more skillfully, allowing greater precision in maneuver, while British gunners could maintain a rate of fire roughly double that of the French and Spanish side. The disparity in gunnery skills effectively doubled the number of cannon on a British ship, amounting to an enormous advantage. The disparity in sailing skills ensured that British ships could maintain working order longer and under more adverse conditions than French and Spanish ships could do, even if they had been built with equal quality, which they were not.
Essentially, Nelson’s plan maximized his advantages, and it brought him victory, though he died in the attempt. Eighteen French and Spanish ships were lost in the action, just shy of the twenty for which Nelson had hoped. Several more were lost in the storm that followed, and most of the surviving vessels were in no condition to see further active service. Many British ships were seriously damaged, but none was lost outright, and British casualties were less than a third of French and Spanish casualties.
Trafalgar was the last large-scale battle fought with sailing ships. It put an end to Napoleon’s plans to invade England, and directed his gaze instead to the east. For Britain, the victory was a source of both pride and hope in the long war to come, tempered only by the loss of its architect. Ten years later, Britain would savor final victory over Napoleon with a living hero in the Duke of Wellington.
Bruce, Robert B. et al., Fighting Techniques of the Napoleonic Age 1792 – 1815. Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.
Lambert, Andrew, War at Sea in the Age of Sail 1650 – 1850. Cassel & Co., 2000.
Miller, Nathan, Broadsides: The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775 – 1815. Castle Books, 2005.
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