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Nelson also had four frigates of 38 or 36 guns, a gun schooner and a gun cutter. Against Nelson, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve—sailing on his flagship Bucentaure —fielded 33 ships of the line, including some of the largest in the world at the time. The Spanish contributed four first-rates to the fleet. The fourth first-rate carried guns. The fleet had six gun third-rates, four French and two Spanish , and one Spanish gun third-rate.

The remaining 22 third-rates were gun vessels, of which fourteen were French and eight Spanish. In total, the Spanish contributed 15 ships of the line and the French The fleet also included five gun frigates and two gun brigs , all French. The prevailing tactical orthodoxy at the time involved manoeuvring to approach the enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engaging broadside in parallel lines.

One reason for the development of the line of battle system was to facilitate control of the fleet: if all the ships were in line, signalling in battle became possible. Nelson's solution to the problem was to cut the opposing line in three. Approaching in two columns, sailing perpendicular to the enemy's line, one towards the centre of the opposing line and one towards the trailing end, his ships would break the enemy formation into three, surround one third, and force them to fight to the end.

The plan had three principal advantages. First, the British fleet would close with the Franco-Spanish as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that they would be able to escape without fighting. Nelson knew that the superior seamanship, faster gunnery and better morale of his crews were great advantages.


The ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, which would take a long time. The main drawback of attacking head-on was that as the leading British ships approached, the Franco-Spanish fleet would be able to direct raking broadside fire at their bows, to which they would be unable to reply. To lessen the time the fleet was exposed to this danger, Nelson had his ships make all available sail including stunsails , yet another departure from the norm.

The Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell , causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating the problem. Nelson's plan was indeed a gamble, but a carefully calculated one. During the period of blockade off the coast of Spain in October, Nelson instructed his captains, over two dinners aboard Victory , on his plan for the approaching battle.

The order of sailing, in which the fleet was arranged when the enemy was first sighted, was to be the order of the ensuing action so that no time would be wasted in forming a precise line. One, led by his second-in-command Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood , was to sail into the rear of the enemy line, while the other, led by Nelson, was to sail into the centre and vanguard.

In preparation for the battle, Nelson ordered the ships of his fleet to be painted in a distinctive yellow and black pattern later known as the Nelson Chequer that would make them easy to distinguish from their opponents. Nelson was careful to point out that something had to be left to chance.

Nothing is sure in a sea battle, so he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.

Ernest Hemingway

Admiral Villeneuve himself expressed his belief that Nelson would use some sort of unorthodox attack, stating specifically that he believed—accurately—that Nelson would drive right at his line. But his long game of cat and mouse with Nelson had worn him down, and he was suffering from a loss of nerve.

Arguing that the inexperience of his officers meant he would not be able to maintain formation in more than one group, he chose not to act on his assessment. At first, Villeneuve was optimistic about returning to the Mediterranean, but soon had second thoughts. A war council was held aboard his flagship, Bucentaure , on 8 October.

At the same time, he received intelligence that a detachment of six British ships Admiral Louis' squadron , had docked at Gibraltar, thus weakening the British fleet. This was used as the pretext for sudden change. The weather, however, suddenly turned calm following a week of gales. This slowed the progress of the fleet leaving the harbour, giving the British plenty of warning. Villeneuve had drawn up plans to form a force of four squadrons, each containing both French and Spanish ships.

It took most of 20 October for Villeneuve to get his fleet organised; it eventually set sail in three columns for the Straits of Gibraltar to the southeast. That same evening, Achille spotted a force of 18 British ships of the line in pursuit.

Yellow Cat, Hendry & Me: Dispatches From Life's Front Lines

The fleet began to prepare for battle and during the night, they were ordered into a single line. The following day, Nelson's fleet of 27 ships of the line and four frigates was spotted in pursuit from the northwest with the wind behind it. Villeneuve again ordered his fleet into three columns, but soon changed his mind and ordered a single line.

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The result was a sprawling, uneven formation. This reversed the order of the allied line, placing the rear division under Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley in the vanguard. The wind became contrary at this point, often shifting direction. The very light wind rendered manoeuvring virtually impossible for all but the most expert seamen. The inexperienced crews had difficulty with the changing conditions, and it took nearly an hour and a half for Villeneuve's order to be completed. The French and Spanish fleet now formed an uneven, angular crescent, with the slower ships generally to leeward and closer to the shore.

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Nelson's entire fleet was visible to Villeneuve, drawn up in two parallel columns. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour.

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  • Villeneuve was concerned at this point about forming up a line, as his ships were unevenly spaced and in an irregular formation. As the British drew closer, they could see that the enemy was not sailing in a tight order, but rather in irregular groups. Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants.

    Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned, the enemy totalling nearly 30, men and 2, guns to his 17, men and 2, guns. The Franco-Spanish fleet also had six more ships of the line, and so could more readily combine their fire. There was no way for some of Nelson's ships to avoid being "doubled on" or even "trebled on". As the two fleets drew closer, anxiety began to build among officers and sailors; one British sailor described the time before thus: "During this momentous preparation, the human mind had ample time for meditation, for it was evident that the fate of England rested on this battle".

    The battle progressed largely according to Nelson's plan.

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    At , Nelson sent the famous flag signal, " England expects that every man will do his duty ". His Lordship came to me on the poop , and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, "Mr. The term "England" was widely used at the time to refer to the United Kingdom; the British fleet included significant contingents from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Unlike the photographic depiction right , this signal would have been shown on the mizzen mast only and would have required 12 lifts.

    As the battle opened, the French and Spanish were in a ragged curved line headed north. As planned, the British fleet was approaching the Franco-Spanish line in two columns.

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    Leading the northern, windward column in Victory was Nelson, while Collingwood in the gun Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column. The two British columns approached from the west at nearly a right angle to the allied line. Nelson led his column into a feint toward the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet and then abruptly turned toward the actual point of attack. Collingwood altered the course of his column slightly so that the two lines converged at this line of attack.

    Just before his column engaged the allied forces, Collingwood said to his officers: "Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter. At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal "engage the enemy", and Fougueux fired her first trial shot at Royal Sovereign. As she approached the allied line, she came under fire from Fougueux , Indomptable , San Justo , and San Leandro , before breaking the line just astern of Admiral Alava's flagship Santa Ana , into which she fired a devastating double-shotted raking broadside. Victory could not yet respond. At , Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure and Redoutable ; she came close to Bucentaure , firing a devastating raking broadside through her stern which killed and wounded many on her gundecks.

    Villeneuve thought that boarding would take place, and with the Eagle of his ship in hand, told his men, "I will throw it onto the enemy ship and we will take it back there! The crew of Redoutable , which included a strong infantry corps with three captains and four lieutenants , gathered for an attempt to board and seize Victory. A musket bullet fired from the mizzentop of Redoutable struck Nelson in the left shoulder, passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and lodged two inches below his right scapula in the muscles of his back.

    Nelson exclaimed, "They finally succeeded, I am dead. Victory' s gunners were called on deck to fight boarders, and she ceased firing. The gunners were forced back below decks by French grenades. As the French were preparing to board Victory , Temeraire , the second ship in the British windward column, approached from the starboard bow of Redoutable and fired on the exposed French crew with a carronade , causing many casualties. At , Captain Lucas , of Redoutable , with 99 fit men out of and severely wounded himself, surrendered.

    As more and more British ships entered the battle, the ships of the allied centre and rear were gradually overwhelmed. The allied van, after long remaining quiescent, made a futile demonstration and then sailed away. The British took 22 vessels of the Franco-Spanish fleet and lost none. As Nelson lay dying, he ordered the fleet to anchor, as a storm was predicted. However, when the storm blew up, many of the severely damaged ships sank or ran aground on the shoals.

    Surgeon William Beatty heard Nelson murmur, "Thank God I have done my duty"; when he returned, Nelson's voice had faded, and his pulse was very weak. Nelson's chaplain, Alexander Scott , who remained by Nelson as he died, recorded his last words as "God and my country.

    Nelson died at half-past four, three hours after being hit. Towards the end of the battle, and with the combined fleet being overwhelmed, the still relatively un-engaged portion of the van under Rear-Admiral Dumanoir Le Pelley tried to come to the assistance of the collapsing centre. After failing to fight his way through, he decided to break off the engagement, and led four French ships, his flagship the gun Formidable , the gun ships Scipion , Duguay Trouin and Mont Blanc away from the fighting.

    He headed at first for the Straits of Gibraltar, intending to carry out Villeneuve's original orders and make for Toulon. With a storm gathering in strength off the Spanish coast, he sailed westwards to clear Cape St Vincent , prior to heading north-west, swinging eastwards across the Bay of Biscay , and aiming to reach the French port at Rochefort.

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    The seriously wounded Admiral Gravina passed command of the remainder of the fleet over to Captain Julien Cosmao on 23 October.