Battle At Trafalgar Essay, Research Paper
One of the greatest sea battles ever to occur took place off the Spanish coast of Trafalgar. On October 21,1805 Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson of the English Royal Navy, with twenty-seven ships of the line crushed the combined forces of the French and Spanish fleets. Had the outcome of this great battle been different, Napoleon may have realized his dream of ruling an empire that never saw the setting sun. The purpose of this paper is to explain the events that led to this great battle, to discuss the ships of the line, and the men who worked them. It will also expose the lack of commitment the French had in regards to naval warfare.
Bonaparte wanted to rule the world. The largest obstacle in his way was that of the Royal Navy of England. Bonapart’s idea was to cross the English Channel, moving his vast army onto British soil. If the English mainland could be penetrated, and London occupied, Napoleon felt that the Royal Navy would collapse under the French army and its allied forces.
The peace Treaty of Amiens afforded Napoleon eighteen months of opportunity to put the plan of crossing the English Channel into place. Napoleon’s plan was to build a fleet of landing craft, flat bottom boats, powered by sail and oar that could outmaneuver the great English Men of war.
The person Napoleon appointed to direct the building of the fleet was Admiral Denis Decres. Decres, in turn, appointed a Flemish engineer, Pierre Forfait, to see to the construction of the landing fleet. Forfait’s objective was to supply the French forces amassed at Boulogne with 1300 vessels. One thousand of them were to be utilized for troop transport, the balance were to be armed with cannons and used in the role of defense.
Most all of France rallied around the objective of Napoleon. To finance such an undertaking most of the major cities, townships, and districts donated men and supplies to build the new French navy. Lyons for example donated a complete 100-gun ship of the line, while Paris, not to be outdone, donated a ship of 120 guns. Patriotic fever ran its course throughout France. Smaller villages supplied sailcloth and rope, cannons and ammunition. Coastal dockyards worked around the clock producing the maritime war machine. Napoleon took advantage of the support and raised the number of landing craft to 2000.
With an alliance signed with Spain by Decres and Admiral Gravina of the Spanish fleet in January 1805 Napoleon felt he now had the sea power to implement his plan.
The critical part of the plan was the actual crossing of the channel. To do this Napoleon would need the assistance of the French and Spanish Navy battle ships. For a short period of time, French and Spanish Men-of War or sips of the line were to take control of the North Sea, blockade the striates of Dover, and allow the flat bottom boats a chance to cross the channel.
The problem Napoleon faced was to get his fleet together. The main body of the fleet was located off the coast of Toulon in the Mediterranean and Brest in the Atlantic. If the crossing had any chance of success these two groups would have to form one unit in order to have the strength to implement the blockade and to fight the British naval forces. The British, however had been able to keep the French fleets pinned to port. Anytime the French would try to escape the British would pound these ships with cannon shot and force them back into port. This had been going on in excess of two years and would take its toll on both the French and the British. In short the sailors wanted to go home.
Life aboard a ship of the line was difficult at best. The men who served, both voluntary and involuntary learned to pull their own weight. Often at sea for two to three months at a time, the sailors saw land only when food or water was needed. Of the British, Lord Nelson was to stay aboard ship for over two years before setting foot on dry ground. Admiral Collingwood was no exception. He in fact stayed afloat and on patrol for twenty-two months without dropping anchor. When a ship did come to port, the crews were required, for disciplinary reasons, to stay onboard the ship. The captains felt that the crews would desert the ships if they were allowed to go ashore.
Not all of the crew working the ships came to the job of their own accord. Life of the sailor was hard. Discipline was the order, and every man was responsible for his job. The pay was low, and the time of servitude kept the men away from family for extended periods. For this reason, voluntary enlistment was rare. To satisfy the requirements of manpower the English as well as French used a method of forced enlistment. Press-gangs were used to recruit new sailors into service. These gangs of seasoned shipmen, under orders of the captain the ship, would row into port under the cover of night armed with clubs and sabers. The press-gangs would seek out the local tavern or pub, burst through the doors and apprehend any person that look healthy enough to serve in his majesties fleet. Arguments of the party apprehended went unheard as the victim was carried away to the ship. The length of this service could and often lasted for over eight years.
The crews of the French ships were forced into service quite similarly to that of the English. Vagabonds, criminals, and beggars were captured by the English and French press-gangs and forced to serve on the French ships of the line. This method of enlistment was sucsessful for the English but detrimental for the French navy. The English navy was out at sea training the new recruits; the French were confined to the ports. A crew of untrained and seasick seamen was what the French officers had to work with.
Not all of the seamen were forced into service. Many a young boy found his calling with the English and French navy. On the English side in particular was Horatio Nelson, the Hero of the Battle of the Nile and latter Trafalgar. Nelson voluntarily joined the fleet at the age of twelve years and would spend his life in the service.
Admiral Villeneuve of the French navy also joined the life at sea at a boyish age. In fact, the majority of seamen in both fleets averaged twenty-two years and had spent a great portion of their lives at sea. This was particularly true with the Royal Navy. From these experienced seamen were to come the officers in charge of the ships operation, and the practical use of weaponry.
The French fleet experienced a lack of qualified officers to command the ship in their fleets. During the French revolution, officers were often considered of the old regime and loyal only to the monarchy of Louis XVI. With the fall of the king, these officers were often imprisoned or executed by orders of the assembly. Those who were spared often left the service for fear of life. Another critical fact that hindered the French fleet
was the lack of training on the open sea. The blockades of the English fleets were so successful at keeping the French in port that gaining the experience of combat was impossible. Even had the French been able to break through, the lack of officers available to properly administer command and train the crews virtually made the fleet ineffective in times of engagement with the Royal Fleets. Villeneuve recognized these deficiencies and was reluctant to fight. In effect, his orders as well as the other admirals were not to voluntarily engage the English.
The ship of the line themselves offered little comfort for the crews that worked them. Every thing on the ship had a purpose and each man had a job to do. The decks below the top deck were dark, with no or little light. The men would sleep in close quarters, sleeping in hammocks spaced every fourteen inches apart, and eat at tables that were hung from ceiling beams. Nothing was provided to heat the ships and cold and dampness were something that the sailor lived with. The food was to match the living conditions. Most of the meat was salted for years, and the flour for making bread was alive with maggots. The water for drinking held its own interesting qualities, taking on the color of tea and omitting a stench that would gag a person.
The events that led to the French defeat at Trafalgar are interesting to note because of the impossibility of them. Admiral Villeneuve, on orders from Napoleon, was to slip unnoticed from the Port of Cadez and make for the West Indies. He was to accomplish two goals, one to lead Nelson and his squadron away in pursuit, and secondly, to hook up with a fleet
of Spanish ships off Martinique. Also in route to the Indies were Admiral Magon sailing from Rochefort and Admiral Ganteaume sailing from Brest. The combined forces were then to cause disturbances to the English colonies and then with all speed return to Brest. At Brest, he was to increase the French fleet with additional French ships under the command of Admiral Allemand. With the combined squadron, the ships were to sail to Boulogne and break the blockade at Dover, thus freeing up the channel. This would allow the forces that Napoleon had assembled to make the crossing and fight the land battle Napoleon so longed for.
Villeneuve was able to slip from port and headed for the West Indies. Nelson thought they headed for Egypt and his fleet took off in pursuit. Nelson’s misjudgment allowed the French to make the crossing with out incident. Nelson, realizing his mistake, immediately left the Mediterranean on course for Trinidad.
Villeneuve had received orders to wait in the West Indies for Admiral Ganteaume who was supposedly sailing from Brest. Due to the blockade by Collingwood’s 18 ships at Brest, Ganteaume was not able to escape the English and returned to port.
At this point, it is important to understand that all orders that French admirals were to follow came directly from Napoleon through dispatches from Decres. One could ascertain that the inability for French Admiralty to act of their accord further reduced the effectivness of the French fleet. These orders and instructions were slow to reach the fleets and when they did, they were often months old. Villeneuve had no news of Ganteaumes difficulty at Brest until late.
It was in the Indies that things began to fall apart for the French Fleet. Uncertainty of Ganteaumes where abouts and knowing that Nelson had arrived worried Villeneuve. Napoleon had new orders for Villeneuve to attack Barbados but to do so he risked a fight with Nelson. A battle so far from friendly ports would leave the French unable to repair and refit. Rations for the fleet were also running low. Villeneuve rightly chose to sail back to Europe.
Villeneuve’s trip back to Europe was less comfortable then trip to the Indies. Rough seas and cold weather took its toll on the crews of the ships. Many were sick with scurvy and dysentery. To compound matters the French fleet was spotted off Cape Finisterre. Sir Robert Calder was forewarned of the French fleets’ approach and was ready to take decisive action. The battle of the 15-20 should have been in favor of the Franco-Spainish fleet. Due to poor sails, rigging, and a sick and inexperienced crew the battle was inconclusive. Heavy seas and dense fog saved Villenueve and victory could not be claimed by Calder.
Villenuve was forced to port in Vigo Bay, contradictive to Napoleons orders to sail for Ferrol. After taking on fresh water and rations Villenuve set sail determined to complete the trip.
On orders at Vigo he was instructed that if unfavorable conditions presented themselves he was to abandon Ferrol and put in at Cadiz. Spotting a large contingent of unidentified sails Villenuve mistook them as Nelson’s fleet and bolted for Cadiz. It was latter assumed that the ships seen that day were most probable those under the French command of Allemand. These events, the ineffectiveness off Cape Finisterre against Calder, the failure to act in the Indies, being forced to Cadiz by unknown ships, and a reputation of cowardliness would be the downfall of Villenuve and his command of the French Fleet.
Napoleon considered it treason for the bulk of the French fleet to anchor at the port of Cadiz. He needed them in the channel and he needed them there now. Time was running out. The Russian forces were building in Italy and the Austrians were increasingly becoming more defiant. With the decision By Villeneuve to go to Cadiz Napoleons land battle across the channel was over. Napoleon was outraged. A letter from General Lauriston to Napoleon, critical of Villeneuves performance through out the campaign, would ultimately lead to his fall.
At Cadiz things seemed to turn from bad to worse for Villenuve. His crews were sick and he himself had become ill. In a letter to Decres, Villeneuve complained that all that could have gone wrong for the fleet did. His ships were in disrepair and undermanned. The poor showing at Finisterre in regards to battle situation deminstraighted the lack of training the men had received. Now he was trapped in port by Collingwood. Decres response to the letter urging Villeneuve to weigh anchor or deal with the wrath of Napoleon.
Napoleon, frustrated with Villeneuve and not having the knowledge of the intricacies of sea warfare ordered Vice Admiral Rosily to Cadiz to replace Villenuve. Officially, Villeneuve was never informed of his dismissal from duty, however rumors spread rapidly and he seemed to know that his role in Napoleon’s plan of over. Acting on previous orders and fearing court-martial Villeneuve would sail the fleet once more and fight his way out of Cadiz.
With favorable winds Villeneuve did indeed leave the port of Cadiz with 40 ships. In the meanwhile Nelson and Collingwood had united their squadrons, now numbering 33 ships of the line. As Villeneuve made for Brest the stage was set for the great sea battle at Trafalgar.
The actual conflict demonstrated the superior training of men, and command of the English navy. Nelson had brought onboard his flagship, the captains of the fleet. He laid the plan of attack, the Nelson touch, clearly, and made sure that all captains understood their roll. On the other hand Villenueve failed to bring the captains into a cohesive unit. Orders were misinterpeted and the French ships were in disarray when the battle began. This clearly shows the lack of experience by the French officers and the ability to carry out orders by the crews of the ships.
The battle came with Nelson’s fleet attacking in two columns with Collingwood attacking the rear 12 ships and Nelson attacking the center. The lead ships of the French would have to turn into the wind in order return to the battle. Nelsons plan to attack in this manner proved to overwhelmingly successful. The French battle line was separated and the English could surround each ship as need be. The fight lasted till dark and the French were totally destroyed losing 20 ships to destruction or capture.
Casualties were high on both sides. The French lost over 14,000 seamen while British losses numbered around 1,500. The most significant casualty for the British was that of Nelson. Ever the warrior, Nelson while standing on the poop was killed by sniper fire.
The battle was a demonstration of the brutality of war but the storm that followed immediately after the fight would prove equally fatal to the ships and crews of both the French and English fleets. With so many ships in disrepair, broken masts, damage sails, or destroyed rudders, control of the ships in a hurricane like storm drove the ships into the rocky shores of Trafalgar. Those that were able to drop anchor were spared from the wrath of the storm. Many French ships that had been captured had to be cut lose from towropes only to be swept into the rocks, thus drowning the survivors. The English were to fare little better as many of their fleet faced the same situation.
The battle at Trafalgar is significant in several ways. It was the last great naval fight between sailing ships, as steam power would soon replace ships of the line. It also thwarted Napoleons attempts to gain a land battle on English soil. Had the French better trained their officers and crews, the results may have very well turned in favor of the French. Also consider Villeneuve’s fear of punishment as it relates to his decision to sail from Cadiz on that fatal October day. Napoleon knew little of naval warfare and should have left the navy alone, allowing the Admirals to act on there on accord.
Of the men who fought this battle, years of blockade served to train the English and render the French ineffective at times of engagement. Ships of poor quality and rigging showed a hasty build up of the French fleet. Napoleon, while being the great soldier, had no respect for the needs of efficient fleet.