Part of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), the Battle of Trafalgar featured a clash of Franco-Spanish and British fleets off the western mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar. Commanded by Vice Admiral Nelson, the onslaught broke the allied line and exposed its center and rear to overwhelming force, resulting in the capture of 19 of the 33 Franco-Spanish ships. Although Lord Nelson was killed in the battle, he was largely credited for thwarting Napoleon’s plans to concentrate a fleet in the Channel for the invasion of Britain.

This battle was fought off the western mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar between a Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty-three ships of the line commanded by Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve and Admiral Don Federico Gravina, and a British squadron of twenty-seven ships under Vice Admiral Horatio,Lord Nelson. The allied fleet, steering north in a very irregular line, was attacked by the British in two columns, running before the wind from the westward. This was a dangerous tactic, exposing the leading ships to the risk of heavy damage, but Nelson correctly counted on superior British training and discipline, and on the initiative of captains whom he had thoroughly imbued with his ideas. He also placed his biggest ships at the head of the columns (rather than in the center, as usual), himself leading one in the Victory, while Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood led the other in the Royal Sovereign. The result was to break up the allied line and expose its center and rear to overwhelming force, bringing a crushing victory in which nineteen ships were captured (though all but four of the prizes were wrecked, sunk, or retaken in a subsequent gale). The British lost no ships, but Nelson was killed.

This great victory brought to a halt Napoleon’s elaborate scheme to concentrate an overwhelming fleet in the Channel to cover the invasion of Britain, but the scheme was unrealistic from the start, and Nelson commanded only one of several squadrons that stood in its way. Nelson’s tactics have aroused controversy ever since, but attempts to derive universal principles from the battle are not persuasive. More important, Trafalgar fixed the image of invincible British sea power, which endured for more than a century thereafter, and apotheosized Nelson as the symbol of that invincibility.

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.