In October 1805, the British Fleet commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, finally found the French and Spanish fleets (Herenafter “French”) off the Spanish Coast near the Cape of Trafalgar south of the port of Cadiz. Nelson had been searching for this fleet all summer and that involved sailing into the Caribbean and back across the Atlantic.
The French were sailing south for Gibralter and the British approached from the west. Naval war was typically fought with both fleets parallel to each other as they pounded each other with heavy cannon. Because of the alignment of the two fleets, and the fact the French outnumbered the British, Nelson introduced a new tactic. He divided his line into three parts and had each sail into the French line at different places, cutting the line into three segments.
The danger of this approach was the British would be exposed to the broadsides of the French ships on the approach and be subjected to potentially damaging fire. Nelson, however, analyzed the situation and dismissed the danger. He did so for two reasons. First, the French were taking waves on the beam, or side of their ships, hence, rolling from side to side. It’s very hard to aim cannon is such a situation. Second, Nelson knew that the French cannons were fired with a slow match. This is a length of twine impregnated with pitch that burned slowly but allowed for the firing of a cannon when touched to the firing hole in the cannon. The firing did not take place instantly. Nelson knew that on a rolling deck with a slow match, the French gunners would be highly inaccurate with shots falling into the sea or flying high. He was right. British cannon was fired with flintlocks that cause immediate combustion and were easier to aim.
The British closed with the French in three points on the line. Nelson issued his most famous order as the lines closed, “England Expects Every Man Will Do His Duty.” They did. Passing through the French line, the British then had the advantage as their ships fired close broadsides into the bows and sterns of the French ships at close range. The destruction was catastrophic for the French.
When the battle ended, the French had lost 28 ships and the British 1.
Tragically, Nelson was shot by a French marine positioned in the mast. His descending shot went through Nelson’s body and severed his spine. He was carried below and died soon thereafter. His body was packed in a barrel of rum and taken to England. He was aware of his great victory before he died.
The battle ended French maritime hopes of invading England.