21 October 1805: the Battle of Trafalgar

After the French Revolution, Europe saw 20-odd years of almost constant war as Napoleon and his armies went on a conquering spree around the continent. By 1805, France pretty much ruled Europe. But Britain ruled the waves.

Boney wanted to invade Britain. To do that, he had to take control of the English Channel long enough to get his troops across – 93,000 were waiting in and around Boulogne. But Britain had blockaded most of his ports, with his ships in them.

After a while, Napoleon gave up on invading Britain – for now – and his army headed east. On 19 October, Napoleon ordered Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, in charge of the joint French and Spanish fleet, to break out of Cadiz and head for Naples. But the British fleet was waiting, and shadowed the French and Spanish ships down the coast, keeping out of sight. On 21 October, British admiral Horatio Nelson attacked.

Traditionally, enemy fleets would face each other in parallel lines. Nelson’s strategy was to arrange his ships in two smaller squadrons at right angles to the enemy – one column lead by Nelson in HMS Victory, captained by Thomas Hardy; the other by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign. That way, Nelson hoped to get in among the enemy and spread confusion from the outset. It left them vulnerable to enemy fire as they approached, but allowed them to rake the enemy – fire along the length of the ships, causing huge damage.

Collingwood’s ship was the first to engage. Nelson soon followed, engaging with three ships, one of which was the Redoubtable, carrying a complement of well-trained musketeers. It was a bullet from one of these that hit Nelson in the chest, mortally wounding him.

He died later that day, after uttering the immortal line, “Kiss me, Hardy”.

In total, 33 enemy ships were lost. No British ships were sunk, but 430 British sailors were killed, along with 4,408 French and Spanish sailors. The crushing victory ensured Britain would enjoy mastery of the seas for the next hundred years.

Also on this day

21 October 1520: Magellan finds the path to the Pacific

On this day in 1520, a fleet of five ships, led by Ferdinand Magellan in search of a passage to the Pacific, first entered the waterway that now bears his name. Read more here.