Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Trafalgar

Battle of Trafalgar. Public Domain

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805, during the War of the Third Coalition (1803-1806), which was part of the larger Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Fleets & Commanders


French & Spanish

  • Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve
  • Admiral Fredrico Gravina
  • 33 ships of the line (18 French, 15 Spanish)

Napoleon's Plan

As the War of the Third Coalition raged, Napoleon began planning for the invasion of Britain. The success of this operation necessitated control of the English Channel and instructions were issued for Vice Admiral Pierre Villeneuve's fleet at Toulon to elude Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's blockade and rendezvous with Spanish forces in the Caribbean. This united fleet would re-cross the Atlantic, join with French ships at Brest and then take control of the Channel. While Villeneuve succeeded in escaping from Toulon and reaching the Caribbean, the plan began to unravel when he returned to European waters.

Pursued by Nelson, whom he feared, Villeneuve suffered a minor defeat at the Battle of Cape Finisterre on July 22, 1805. Having lost two ships of the line to Vice Admiral Robert Calder, Villeneuve put into port at Ferrol, Spain. Ordered by Napoleon to proceed to Brest, Villeneuve instead turned south towards Cadiz to elude the British. With no sign of Villeneuve by late August, Napoleon transferred his invasion force at Boulogne to operations in Germany. While the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was at anchor in Cadiz, Nelson returned to England for a brief rest.

Preparing for Battle

While Nelson was in England, Admiral William Cornwallis, commanding the Channel Fleet, dispatched 20 ships of the line south for operations off Spain. Learning that Villeneuve was at Cadiz on September 2, Nelson immediately made preparations to join the fleet of Spain with his flagship HMS Victory (104 guns). Reaching Cadiz on September 29, Nelson took command from Calder. Conducting a loose blockade off Cadiz, Nelson's supply situation quickly degraded and five ships of the line were dispatched to Gibraltar. Another was lost when Calder departed for his court-martial regarding his actions at Cape Finisterre.

In Cadiz, Villeneuve possessed 33 ships of the line, but his crews were short on men and experience. Receiving orders to sail for the Mediterranean on September 16, Villeneuve delayed as many of his officers felt it best to remain in port. The admiral resolved to put to sea on October 18 when he learned that Vice-Admiral François Rosily had arrived in Madrid to relieve him. Straggling out of port the next day, the fleet formed into three columns and began sailing southwest towards Gibraltar. That evening, the British were spotted in pursuit and the fleet formed into a single line.

"England Expects..."

Following Villeneuve, Nelson led a force of 27 ships of the line and four frigates. Having contemplated the approaching battle for some time, Nelson sought to achieve a decisive victory rather than the typically inconclusive engagement that often occurred in the Age of Sail. To do so, he planned to abandon the standard line of battle and sail directly at the enemy in two columns, one towards the center and the other the rear. These would break the enemy line in half and allow the rear-most ships to be surrounded and destroyed in a "pell-mell" battle while the enemy van was unable to assist.

The disadvantage of these tactics was that his ships would be under fire during the approach to the enemy line. Having thoroughly discussed these plans with his officers in the weeks before the battle, Nelson intended to lead the column striking the enemy center, while Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, aboard HMS Royal Sovereign (100), commanded the second column. Around 6:00 AM on October 21, while northwest of Cape Trafalgar, Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle. Two hours later, Villeneuve ordered his fleet to reverse their course and return to Cadiz.

With difficult winds, this maneuver wreaked havoc with Villeneuve’s formation, reducing his line of battle to ragged crescent. Having cleared for action, Nelson's columns bore down on the Franco-Spanish fleet around 11:00 AM. Forty-five minutes later, he instructed his signal officer, Lieutenant John Pasco to hoist the signal "England expects every man will do his duty." Moving slowly due to light winds, the British were under enemy fire for nearly an hour until they reached Villeneuve's line.

A Legend Lost

The first to reach the enemy was Collingwood's Royal Sovereign. Charging between the massive Santa Ana (112) and Fougueux (74), Collingwood's lee column was soon embroiled in the "pell-mell" fight that Nelson desired. Nelson's weather column broke through between the French admiral's flagship, Bucentaure (80) and Redoubtable (74), with Victory firing a devastating broadside that raked the former. Pressing on, Victory moved to engage Redoubtable as other British ships hammered Bucentaure before seeking single-ship actions.

With his flagship entwined with Redoubtable, Nelson was shot in the left shoulder by a French marine. Piercing his lung and lodging against his spine, the bullet caused Nelson to fall to the deck with the exclamation, "They finally succeeded, I am dead!" As Nelson was taken below for treatment, the superior training and gunnery of his seamen were winning out across the battlefield. As Nelson lingered, he fleet captured or destroyed 18 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet, including Villeneuve's Bucentaure.

Around 4:30 PM, Nelson died just as the fighting was concluding. Taking command, Collingwood began preparing his battered fleet and prizes for a storm that was approaching. Assaulted by the elements, the British were only able to retain four of the prizes, with one exploding, twelve founderings or going ashore, and one recaptured by its crew. Four of the French ships that had escaped Trafalgar were taken at the Battle of Cape Ortegal on November 4. Of the 33 ships of Villeneuve's fleet that had departed Cadiz, only 11 returned.


One of the greatest naval victories in British history, the Battle of Trafalgar saw Nelson capture/destroy 18 ships. In addition, Villeneuve lost 3,243 killed, 2,538 wounded, and around 7,000 captured. British losses, including Nelson, numbered 458 killed and 1,208 wounded. One of the greatest naval commanders of all time, Nelson's body was returned to London where he received a state funeral before being interred at St. Paul's Cathedral. In the wake of Trafalgar, the French ceased to pose a significant challenge to the Royal Navy for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. Despite Nelson's success at sea, the War of the Third Coalition ended in Napoleon's favor following land victories at Ulm and Austerlitz.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Trafalgar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Trafalgar. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Trafalgar." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).