Death at Trafalgar

11:41 AM

Shortly before noon on October 21, 1805, a fleet of 27 Royal Navy warships sliced through the seas near the southern coast of Spain. Onboard the flagship HMS Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson paced the main deck, his gazed fixed on the 33 French and Spanish ships floating on the horizon. 
Traditionally, enemy fleets would face each other in parallel lines. Nelson’s strategy was to arrange his ships in two smaller squadrons at right angles to the enemy – one column lead by Nelson in HMS Victory, captained by Thomas Hardy; the other by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign. That way, Nelson hoped to get in among the enemy and spread confusion from the outset. It left them vulnerable to enemy fire as they approached, but allowed them to rake the enemy – fire along the length of the ships, causing huge damage. Unable to return fire during their approach, Victory’s 820 crewmen could only grit their teeth and take cover as iron shot ripped through their decks and rigging. One blast hewed Nelson’s personal secretary clean in half. Another tore through a group of marines, killing eight men and mauling several more. Seemingly ignoring the mayhem, Nelson continued to stroll the deck alongside Victory’s captain, Thomas Hardy. “This is too warm work to last long,” he mused. 

This shot entered the bow of the Victory at the glorious battle of Trafalgar on the 21st October 1805 and lodged in the piece of timber in which it now lies
As their twin columns inched toward the Combined Fleet, Nelson’s 18,000 sailors readied themselves for a fight. They ate a hearty breakfast, stowed wooden objects that might splinter during battle, and stuffed bandages and handkerchiefs into their ears to dull the roar of cannon fire. Similar scenes had already unfolded on the decks of the 33 Franco-Spanish vessels, which had formed a traditional battle line that stretched several miles. On the French flagship Bucentaure, Admiral Villeneuve displayed a bronze Imperial Eagle to his crewmen, who responded with patriotic cries of “Long live the Emperor!” At half past noon, Victory finally advanced within firing range of the Combined Fleet. The British vessel immediately steered toward the stern of Villeneuve’s Bucentaure and unleashed a blast from a carronade, a 68-pound gun packed with both a single cannonball and a hive of 500 musket rounds. They followed it with a withering broadside from their 50 portside guns. After only a few minutes, 20 of Villeneuve’s cannons were disabled and some 200 French crewmen lay dead.


Having struck a ferocious blow against the enemy flagship, the badly damaged Victory continued its rampage by confronting the 74-gun French vessel Redoubtable. The two vessels soon rammed into one another and became entangled. As the ships shuddered from broadsides fired at point blank range, French marines tried to clear the British decks with musket fire and hand grenades. Around 1:15 p.m., a sniper on Redoubtable’s mizzen top took aim at Nelson and shot him in the shoulder. The musket ball passed through the Admiral’s back, severing an artery and smashing part of his spine. “They have done for me at last, Hardy,” Nelson cried as he collapsed in agony. He died later that day.

Around 1:45 p.m., Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure became the first French vessel to strike its colors in surrender. Redoubtable followed suit a few minutes later, having been pummeled into submission by repeated broadsides from both Victory and the British HMS Temeraire. More French and Spanish ships gave up over the next few hours, and following an abortive assault by their long overdue vanguard, the remaining vessels of the Combined Fleet hoisted their sails and took flight. By then, 19 French and Spanish ships had been captured or destroyed and some 6,000 of their sailors were dead or wounded. Despite suffering some 1,700 casualties of their own, the British hadn’t lost a single ship.


Top image: Flag of Spanish warship San Ildenfonso, which fought against the British fleet led by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Later it was hung at Admiral Nelson's funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral alongside a similar French flag.

Sketches made by Nelson just before the battle
Epaulet on Admiral Nelson's coat and the bullet hole that killed him



The only surviving Union Jack Flag from the Battle of Trafalgar 


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