Battle at Trafalgar


One of the greatest sea battles ever to occur took place off the Spanish coast of Trafalgar. On October 21,1805 Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson of the English Royal Navy, with twenty-seven ships of the line crushed the combined forces of the French and Spanish fleets. Had the outcome of this great battle been different, Napoleon may have realized his dream of ruling an empire that never saw the setting sun. The purpose of this paper is to explain the events that led to this great battle, to discuss the ships of the line, and the men who worked them. It will also expose the lack of commitment the French had in regards to naval warfare.
Bonaparte wanted to rule the world. The largest obstacle in his way was that of the Royal Navy of England. Bonapart's idea was to cross the English Channel, moving his vast army onto British soil. If the English mainland could be penetrated, and London occupied, Napoleon felt that the Royal Navy would collapse under the French army and its allied forces.
The peace Treaty of Amiens afforded Napoleon eighteen months of opportunity to put the plan of crossing the English Channel into place. Napoleon's plan was to build a fleet of landing craft, flat bottom boats, powered by sail and oar that could outmaneuver the great English Men of war.
The person Napoleon appointed to direct the building of the fleet was Admiral Denis Decres. Decres, in turn, appointed a Flemish engineer, Pierre Forfait, to see to the construction of the landing fleet. Forfait's objective was to supply the French forces amassed at Boulogne with 1300 vessels. One thousand of them were to be utilized for troop transport, the balance were to be armed with cannons and used in the role of defense.
Most all of France rallied around the objective of Napoleon. To finance such an undertaking most of the major cities, townships, and districts donated men and supplies to build the new French navy. Lyons for example donated a complete 100-gun ship of the line, while Paris, not to be outdone, donated a ship of 120 guns. Patriotic fever ran its course throughout France. Smaller villages supplied sailcloth and rope, cannons and ammunition. Coastal dockyards worked around the clock producing the maritime war machine. Napoleon took advantage of the support and raised the number of landing craft to 2000.
With an alliance signed with Spain by Decres and Admiral Gravina of the Spanish fleet in January 1805 Napoleon felt he now had the sea power to implement his plan.

The critical part of the plan was the actual crossing of the channel. To do this Napoleon would need the assistance of the French and Spanish Navy battle ships. For a short period of time, French and Spanish Men-of War or sips of the line were to take control of the North Sea, blockade the striates of Dover, and allow the flat bottom boats a chance to cross the channel.
The problem Napoleon faced was to get his fleet together. The main body of the fleet was located off the coast of Toulon in the Mediterranean and Brest in the Atlantic. If the crossing had any chance of success these two groups would have to form one unit in order to have the strength to implement the blockade and to fight the British naval forces. The British, however had been able to keep the French fleets pinned to port. Anytime the French would try to escape the British would pound these ships with cannon shot and force them back into port. This had been going on in excess of two years and would take its toll on both the French and the British. In short the sailors wanted to go home.
Life aboard a ship of the line was difficult at best. The men who served, both voluntary and involuntary learned to pull their own weight. Often at sea for two to three months at a time, the sailors saw land only when food or water was needed. Of the British, Lord Nelson was to stay aboard ship for over two years before setting foot on dry ground. Admiral Collingwood was no exception. He in fact stayed afloat and on patrol for twenty-two months without dropping anchor. When a ship did come to port, the crews were required, for disciplinary reasons, to stay onboard the ship.