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October 21, 2005

Confusion to Bonaparte ......

Exactly 200 years ago today the British fleet took on the combined fleets of France and Spain in an epic battle off Cape Trafalgar, South of Cadiz. As almost every school child in Britain now knows, the result was the near annihilation of the Combined Fleet and the death of Britains arguably most famous Admiral. Even so, many do not know the names of the ships involved, the other Captains and Admirals or that it brought the deaths of over 8,000 French and Spanish seamen and almost 500 British - althought there were many more injured.

Even fewer could probably tell you that the battle ended with 18 of the Combined fleet's ships under British Prize crews - or that most of these were lost in the "hurricane" that struck the fleets that night. In fact it was the storm that killed most of the casualties as the crippled and seriously damaged ships were driven ashore or simply sank, unable to keep the pumps going at a rate sufficient to keep the ship afloat. That was the fate of the ship from which a sharpshooter shot Nelson, the French "Redoubtable" under the command of probably the only man on the French side who had thought through how he could best use his ship against the superior British gunnery.

It is said, by some sources, that the French Commander in Chief, Admiral Villeneuve, lost the battle in HMS Victory's first shot from her massive 68 pdr Carronades mounted on her forecastle. It is reported that a shot from one of these, a hollow caste iron ball filled with steel balls or "grape" shot, struck the French flagship, the Bucentaure's mizzen mast directly above Villeneuve's staff, killing most of them and leaving the Admiral unable to communicate in the first vital minutes of the battle. It is ironic that Nelson had ordered his Flag Captain to pass ahead of the Bucentaure, between that ship and the huge Santissima Trinidade - at 130 guns the largest warship then afloat - but Victory had been unable to make sufficient speed to do this and so passed between Bucentaure and the next ship astern to collide with Redoubtable which had been deliberately positioned by her Captain to bring this about. Had she passed ahead of Bucentaure, Nelson may well have survived and Villeneuve may well have succeeded in bringing about a slightly different outcome.

Once the two fleets had become fully engaged in what was more of a melee than a battle - the wind fell away to a mere breeze and most ship's crawled into position, some not reaching the engagement until almost nightfall - each ship basically fought whoever was nearest and in range of their guns. Victory was grappled by Redoubtable and their yards were lashed together by Captain Lucas' crew, who also slammed shut their gun ports and concentrated on musketry against Victory's upper deck guncrews and officers. Victory's gunners however, continued to fire their massive cannon into Redoubtable, the muzzles of the massive 32 pdrs on her lower gun deck actually resting against the Redoubtable as they fired! A further British ship found herself enmeshed in the Redoubtable's disengaged side and then had to row a boat around to ask Victory to depress her guns as they were damaging the newcomer. This in turn meant that these heavy guns were now blasting their shot through the bilges of the Redoubtable whose pumps had also been shot away and so she was basically being held afloat by the two British ships.

Captain Lucas actually sent word aboard both ships demanding assistance to keep his ship afloat as, if she sank, there was the potential for her to take both Victory and the second ship (possibly, if memory serves me, the Temeraire, a former French ship captured and taken into British service) with her to the bottom. As it was, shortly thereafter, Redoubtable was forced to surrender but the ship was beyond saving, and sank in the subsequent storm.

Much has been written about the battle and it's aftermath, and many have doubted the willingness to fight of the Spanish and French ships which failed to engage during the action. What tends to get overlooked is that Nelson had taken a very bold step, one which Admiral Scheer refused at Jutland (Skagerak to the German side), of sailing his ships into the "crossed T" where they would be subjected to a punishing fire from the massed ships ahead while being unable to reply effectively themselves. In so doing he split the opposing fleet and the ships ahead and astern of the engagement found themselves with the almost impossible task of trying to beat to windward in the dying breeze to join the engagement.

The second matter which tends to get overlooked is that the British seamen could fire three to four times for each shot fired by their opponents. It was this massive rate of fire which carried the day for them, once they got into a firing position, their sheer volume of fire meant that their opponents soon found themselves suffering enormous damage. Secondly, as each ship sailed through a gap in the line of French and Spanish ships, she was able to pour all her fire power into the vulnerable bow or stern of the ships either side of her. Given an estimated time of four minutes to sail through the gap, this meant that each of Victory's 52 guns on each side would have fired at least seven shots as they passed between the Bucentaure and the ship astern of her! What this did to the Bucentaure can best be judged by "the butcher's bill" as it resulted in over 400 of her crew becoming casualties very early in the battle, with her wheel shot away and her stern in ruins. This left them unable to service the remaining guns (raking fire of this kind usually dismounted guns and left the gundeck a shambles of overturned guns and carriages, dead, dying and injured) and even fewer "Topmen" to work the ship and keep her under command. It frequently also severed the tiller lines and destroyed the head of the rudder, thereby destroying the ship's ability to steer as well.

Small wonder then, that this battle has left the indelible mark that it has, for, until Jutland, nothing like it would be seen at sea again. It ended the French intention of invasion of England, turning the Grand Armee' East to Austria, Prussia and its abortive assault on Moscow. So, in one sense, it was the beginning of the road which led ultimately to Waterloo and the destruction of the Napoleonic tradition of victory for French arms.

Ironically, the Royal Navy of today can muster fewer ships in total than formed the fleet Nelson commanded. While it may be argued that today's ships are far more powerful and far more deadly, they do not provide the same degree of cover that the RN provided in 1805 - or, to quote the fatuous argument of the Civil Service of today - that of the Grand Fleet of 1916. One ship may have more firepower than any of these fleets, but it is still a single ship and cannot be in twenty seven places as the individual ships of Nelson's fleet could. In 1805 the RN had a Channel Fleet, a Mediteranean Fleet (Nelson's fleet would assume this title later) a "Squadron" in the North Sea which could also be strengthened to Fleet proportions very quickly, another fleet in the West Indies, a squadron at the Cape and another "fleet" scattered between India, Australia and the South China sea. A total of over a thousand ships.

Our strength has always lain in our ability to command the seas around these islands. Governments that neglect that fact have learned to their cost that, without our sea defences, we are hostages to fortune. As the American Admiral Mahan wrote, a navy is the one instrument which can carry a nations defences beyond it's own shores and influence it's foreign relations significantly. We, it seems, have still not learned that lesson, or the one of the second Dutch War, when, after winning what politicians thought was the final battle at sea, they started negotiations and decommissioned the entire fleet, laying it up in the Medway. Then they found themselves trying to salvage their "victory" after the Dutch Admiral van Tromp destroyed the entire fleet and towed away the flagship as a trophy!

All that Nelson achieved has now been thrown away by ignorant politicians and civil servants interested only in their "rules" and self aggrandisement. I wonder how many of those thinking of Nelson's victory today will realise that, had he not won the battle, he could have been courtmartialled for disobeying the "Fighting Instructions" a rigid set of "rules" for commanders that required them to engage an enemy fleet in single line ahead, broadside to broadside. Nelson flouted them blatantly and flagrantly to achieve a smashing victory that changed history. That is the stuff of which leaders are made.

My title for this post? It comes from the toast drunk by Naval Officers during the Napoleonic wars "Confusion to Bonaparte, and death to the French!" Perhaps time to lay the sentiments expressed in it to rest, but not, perhaps, the time to forget this great victory in what was then seen as a fight against the tyranny of revolution a French victory was thought to bring, and a reminder that freedom comes at a very high price - one that gets higher whenever preparedness and vigilance fails!

Posted by The Gray Monk at October 21, 2005 12:18 PM

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Actually Nelson really won the battle earlier in the day when he was allowed to manuver his fleet into an unconventional formation that allowed him to pick off the french ships in small groups rather than all together...

Posted by: Sierra at October 22, 2005 05:09 AM