How a Naval Battle Crippled a Land Power: The Battle of Trafalgar

For almost two years, Napoleon had a gun pointed at the head of the British Empire. If he ever managed to pull the trigger, he would have removed the greatest thorn in his side that kept him from peace and ultimate power. Although he had established himself as the greatest power in Europe through a series of brilliant military victories, he had a problem. British dominance at sea was as complete as French dominance on land. Without access to the sea and the wealth it brought by trade, France was being slowly strangled. The solution for Napoleon was simple: cross the channel and invade England. If he could cross the channel and land his 200,000 strong Armée d'Angleterre (Army of England) on English soil, he would probably defeat them as he had every other enemy and break the blockade that so crippled his nation.
Unfortunately for him, the 21 miles of the English Channel provided a better defense for England than any army could. Crossing while the English maintained their naval dominance was suicide. Meanwhile the English blockaded his ports, crippled his trade, and generally did everything a naval power can to cause problems for a land power. However, the situation was not entirely hopeless for Napoleon. The French and their Spanish allies could theoretically muster a significant fleet. The trouble was the English had trapped the French and Spanish fleets in their harbor. By maintaining years of tedious blockades, the English could keep the French and Spanish from ever coming together with enough force to challenge them. Meanwhile, Napoleon made plans ranging from drawing the English fleet off with a ruse to building a fleet of hot air balloons to fly over the channel. He sold the United States a tremendous amount of land in the Louisiana Purchase to fund his army. He built vast fleets of barges to transport men in the hopes he would someday have the few hours of opportunity he needed to cross.
After years of fruitless waiting (and being mocked by English cartoonists) Napoleon withdrew his army to fight the Austrians, at least postponing his planned invasion of England. Although his army had withdrawn, the French fleet and their Spanish allies continuously searched for any way to defeat or outmaneuver the British fleet. Finally, a storm blew an English blockade out of position and allowed a portion of the French fleet to escape the harbor where they had been trapped for so long. A long, complex game of cat and mouse ranging from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean took place over months as the French tried to free the rest of their ships from the British. Eventually, they managed to assemble an allied fleet of 33 French and Spanish ships-of-the-line when they were intercepted by the English fleet of 27 ships-of-the-line off the coast of Cape Trafalgar.

In a typical naval battle of the day lines of ships would sail along parallel, and blast each other with broadsides until someone surrendered, usually due to the their opponent’s superior speed and accuracy at firing guns, number of guns, or the sheer luck of where the cannons struck. Nelson took a different tactic at Trafalgar, typical of his aggressive style. He divided his fleet into two squadrons and sailed them directly perpendicular into the long enemy line. This was a risky maneuver. By sailing perpendicular to the enemy, they were exposed to the full force of the French and Spanish broadsides without being able to return any significant fire themselves. The wind was slight that day and so the English fleet had no choice but to inch painfully towards the enemy while receiving broadside after broadside of enemy fire. On Nelson's own ship, the HMS Victory, 50 men were killed or wounded before they reached the enemy line. Nelson's own secretary was cut in half by a cannon ball. There was no relief for the English when they Reached the Franco-Spanish line, but they could at last return fire.
The naval battles of the time were brutal, random, and deadly. A ship-of-the-line could have anywhere from 70 to over 100 guns, each firing a shot that could weigh up to twenty-four pounds. In a close quarters brawl like the one at Trafalgar the cannons could be loaded twice, or double-shotted, once with grapeshot that turned a cannon into an artillery sized shotgun, and once with the typical cannon ball. With a single double-shotted broadside at a range of mere yards the HMS Victory was said to have killed or wounded over 200 sailors on an enemy ship. Limbs were commonly blown off or rapidly amputated by the ships surgeon. Meanwhile enemy muskets, rifles, and grenades were unloaded at the sailors on deck. A typical sailor of the day could do nothing but endure and do their job until the battle was over while shrapnel, musket balls, splinters and cannon balls battered their ship. But here the British could play to their strengths. While the French and Spanish fleets had been blockaded for years and had suffered a lack of training and actual experience, the British had been at sea, actively working to attack French trade and maintain the blockade. In contrast, the French sailors and officers were generally inexperienced and incapable of matching the English sailors. The English could fire faster, and as more of their ships reached the Franco-Spanish line, the battle turned in their favor. Meanwhile, the French suffered a series of miscommunications and poor maneuvers, crushing any chance they had to resist the English attack.
In the end, the English won a resounding victory. 1,587 English sailors were lost to approximately 16,000 French and Spanish, killed, wounded, or captured. The French and Spanish fleets were so devastated that they would never again be able to challenge the British at sea. But Nelson himself was shot through the spine by an enemy sniper, and died the same day shortly after hearing of their victory. Without his fleet, Napoleon would never be able to cross the channel to invade England. Instead he focused on a different tactic: cutting the English off from all European trade. But to do this, he had to truly control all of Europe, and so set off on the disastrous Russian campaign that devastated his army and led ultimately to his defeat and exile.
How a Naval Battle Crippled a Land Power: The Battle of Trafalgar How a Naval Battle Crippled a Land Power: The Battle of Trafalgar Reviewed by Your Destination on March 29, 2020 Rating: 5

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