By Eric Anderson
Hundreds of British sailors charged up to the top decks of their ships. After waiting for two years, the seamen finally spotted what they were searching for: Napoleon’s French and Spanish armada on the distant horizon of Cape Trafalgar. As the 10-mile distance separating them diminished, the two fleets hastily prepared for battle.
British Admiral Lord Nelson swung his ship, Victory, steadily into the path of the rising sun. One by one, his 25 other ships fell in line behind him.
All of Nelson’s captains knew exactly what to do. He had a revolutionary plan. In most battles, one fleet would form one line with the enemy in a parallel line facing them. When the two lines were within firing range, each ship fought a duel of gunnery with its nearest opponent.
No day would be long enough, Nelson said, to position himself correctly with his large fleet. He would divide his fleet in two lines instead. He’d lead first and splice through the center of the enemy’s line. The second line of ships, led by Admiral Collingwood and his ship, the Royal Sovereign, would cut in near the rear. Together the lines could finish the battle, he expected, before Napoleon’s van could make a ponderous and complicated turn in formation and join the battle.
This was dangerous because the leading ships would be under fire before they could get into position and reply, for these vessels could only fire broadside. They had few or no guns at all ahead or astern. “Something must be left to chance,” he told the captains. “Nothing is sure in a sea fight beyond all others.”
No one can go into battle without some fear for his own safety; but as the approach to battle began on the morning of Oct. 21, 1805, every man was certain that whether he lived or died, the fleet under Nelson would win. The novelty of the plan made every captain confident; enthusiasm spread through the whole fleet.
The mood among the French and Spanish armada was different. The captains felt certain they would lose. Although their fleet was stronger in numbers, they knew they were no match for the British.
Many of Napoleon’s ships were magnificent, but most of his crews were in deplorable condition. The French sailors were demoralized by the lengthy blockade and had 1,700 men on the sick list. The Spaniards had manned their ships with army soldiers, convicts and beggars from the city of Cadiz in Spain. Hundreds had never been to sea before and were miserably seasick. Few of their gunners had ever shot from a rolling ship. In addition, the Spanish resented being placed under French command, and many of the captains mistrusted their admiral, Pierre Villeneuve. Only desperate courage—and a mandatory order from Napoleon—drove them onward to battle.
The approach to battle was a long ordeal in the weak breeze. The French and Spanish turned and tried to head back towards Cadiz, but scarcely moved at all. The British bore down on them at about two knots. Six hours passed that morning before the two fleets were within firing range.
At 11:30 a.m., the fleets were a mile apart. Nelson summoned his flag lieutenant: “I will now amuse the fleet with a signal,” he said with boyish enthusiasm. A few minutes later, the British confidently raised a banner up the mastheads of the Victory reading: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” This battle cry was a taunt at Napoleon’s fleet.
At 11:50, a burst of smoke came from the French ship Fougeux and the booming sound of its cannons came rolling across the sea. With a range of 1,000 yards now, the Fougeux shot a full broadside at Royal Sovereign.
Five other French and Spanish ships began to fire; the rest of the fleet watched in amazement as Britain’s Sovereign sailed toward the enemy line. As the Sovereign passed close under the stem of the Spanish flagship Santa Ana, the crew blasted their port guns. The fight ensued, and eventually the Sovereign hauled up alongside the Spaniards. The two ships’ rigging accidentally became entangled and soon both disappeared in the billowing cloud of their own gun smoke.
The Victory was attacked a few minutes later. One of the first cannonballs fired killed one of Nelson’s secretaries. Another flew right past Nelson, who was walking up and down, as custom demanded, on the quarterdeck. The steering wheel was shattered, so the ship had to be steered by 40 men on the tiller—a lever used to turn the rudder of the ship down on the lower gun-deck.
Miraculously, however, Victory managed to reach the enemy line and cut through it behind Villeneuve’s ship, the Bucentaure, so close that with a gust of wind men could have seized the French ensign. At point-blank range the Victory fired its port carronade, the largest of guns in the fleet. The gun was loaded with a 64-pound shot and a keg of 500 musket-balls, which proved powerful enough to blow apart the entire starboard side of the Bucentaure.
Then, the Victory rammed into the French ship Redoutable and the two ships locked together. Three other British ships, following close behind, sailed through the gap that Nelson made.
Nelson had said he wanted to bring about “a pell-mell battle” (a confused, disorganized battle). That was what happened! Nothing quite like it in naval history had been seen before. In one fell swoop, the rules about formal lines in sea battles disappeared.
In one square mile of sea, some 60 ships were scattered in a huge mess. Each ship was always within range of another ship. For the sea captains, this was a deadly game—a mixture of chance and skill. It took intense teamwork for the sailors to adeptly maneuver the hulking vessels in line for a clean shot—then they had to wait, sometimes for several minutes, for the clouds of smoke to dissipate in order to determine whether they were aiming at friend or foe.
Below, on the gun decks, such close encounters were awful. The noise was cacophonous: the concussion of guns, which deafened some of the men for life; the shouts and yells, occasionally cheers, of hundreds of men as they loaded, rammed and fired; the rending crashes as enemy shots smashed through the wood of the boats; the screams of the wounded.
On the upper decks, the dangers were extreme. Men constantly had to be on the alert against musketry, cannon-shot and falling masts. Most men on the deck and in the rigging were not there primarily to fight. Their job was to sail the ship.
After half an hour of battle, Nelson was shot and fell to the deck. He was carried below, where it was discovered that his spine was broken. Although he knew he was dying, his mind remained on the battle at hand. When his officers came below deck to see him, he would inquire, “How goes the day with us?” He continued to lead his men courageously, even while on his deathbed.
By that time, the outcome of the battle began to tell. The difference in training between Nelson’s and Napoleon’s fleets was evident. The British were far better at ship handling and gunnery. As a consequence, the casualties in the French and Spanish ships were five to 10 times greater than the British. But the most significant difference was the attitude of the men. The British had grit and determination during the heat of the battle, while the wounded French and Spanish immediately began to think of surrender.
While Nelson lay dying in the dark cockpit of Victory among the other wounded, 19 enemy ships hauled down their flags. By 4 p.m., the battle was over. An unknown hand wrote with a pencil in the Victory’s logbook: “Partial firing continued until 4:30, when, a victory having been reported to the Right Hon. Lord Viscount Nelson, K.B. and Commander-in-Chief, he died of his wound.”
It was this overall confident, faithful, steadfast positive mental attitude, plus God’s grace, that helped make Trafalgar such a victory. There is no question that Nelson’s tactical masterpiece, and the unquestioning confidence he had inspired in his sailors, helped save the day.
For these reasons, Trafalgar is regarded as the greatest of naval battles, and Nelson as the greatest of admirals.
However, one other factor undoubtedly helped Nelson to become Britain’s greatest military hero to that time in history: prayer.
When the moment had come for invasion, and right after Nelson signaled his captains to form for the attack in two columns, notice what he did: He went down to his cabin to compose a prayer to Almighty God!
According to Winston Churchill’s book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Nelson prayed, “May the great God whom I worship grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general a great and glorious victory …. For myself, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavors for serving my country faithfully.”
“This was one of the greatest sea battles in history,” Gerald Flurry wrote in his booklet, The Former Prophets. “It saved the British Empire. It appeared that Captain Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned. But was he? He turned to God with a beautiful prayer. He committed his life to his Creator. Nelson sacrificed his life for the British Empire, and God gave him the victory.”