War and Conflict


What happened at Trafalgar?

Cape Trafalgar, on the southwest coast of Spain, was in 1805 the scene of a decisive victory for Great Britain over Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769–1821) navy. Other than a one-year respite in 1802, France and Britain had been at war with each other since 1793. Napoleon remained determined to conquer Britain, just as he had most of continental Europe. But when his fleets met those of decorated English Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) off the coast of Spain, the certain defeat and destruction of Napoleon’s navy ended the emperor’s hopes of invading England.

The confrontation at Trafalgar was the culmination of a two-year game of cat and mouse between Nelson’s fleets and the French under the direction of Admiral Villeneuve (1763–1806), whose sole objective it was to invade Britain. To prevent this from happening, in 1803 Nelson began a two-year blockade of Villeneuve and the French navy at Toulon, France (on the Mediterranean coast). When the French fleets escaped Toulon, attempting to lure the British out to sea, Nelson chased them all the way across the Atlantic—to the West Indies and back—before the showdown off Spain’s coast, where the French were joined by Spanish fleets. Meantime, the coast of England remained protected by the British navy, leaving no opportunity for invasion by the French.

On October 21, 1805, seeing the enemy sailing out of Trafalgar, Nelson formed his fleet of 28 ships into two columns, intending to divide and conquer the combined French and Spanish force of 33 ships. About noon that day, as they prepared for the confrontation, Admiral Nelson sent out one of the most famous commands of naval history: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” While the British prevailed, destroying Napoleon’s fleet in less than four hours’ time, Nelson was fatally wounded by a sharpshooter, and the English navy hero died just as victory was his. The brave Nelson had seen fate coming: The night before Trafalgar, he had revised his will, and just before the battle had begun, he told Captain Henry Blackwood, “God bless you, Blackwood, I shall never speak to you again.” Nevertheless, Nelson died knowing that he had won, uttering the still famous words, “Thank God, I have done my duty.”


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