The naval battle of Trafalgar, which took place in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain on October 21, 1805, was a pivotal moment in the Napoleonic wars that helped seal Napoleon’s eventual downfall and established England as a dominant naval power. 

In the battle, 27 ships commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson confronted a combined French-Spanish fleet of 33 ships, led by French Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve, which was trying to return to the Mediterranean. Instead, Napoleon’s fleet was so badly pummeled that it was essentially knocked out of the conflict, assuring British naval supremacy on the water.

The French naval defeat was the culmination of Napoleon’s brash—and ultimately unsuccessful—plan to invade Britain and conquer his main adversary. 

“If Napoleon wanted to rule Europe, he had to deal with Britain,” explains military historian Derek Frisby, associate professor of Global Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. And because of the island nation’s location just a few miles off the French coast, it must have been a tempting target for Napoleon. Once he got his troops onto British soil, he was confident they would quickly prevail. 

“Sometimes I think this was genius on Napoleon’s part, and sometimes I think it’s naivete,” Frisby explains. “He basically said, look, we’ve just got to hold the English Channel for six hours and get our people across. Then the whole thing is over, and we will rule the world.”

To do that, though, he had to wrest control of the channel from the British Royal Navy, a highly skilled and formidable fighting force that had previously beaten the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, a decisive battle that kept Napoleon from taking Egypt.  

Napoleon Launches Attack

Seven years later, though, Napoleon was undeterred. He got his then-ally, Spain, to contribute ships to his effort, and then ordered the three French squadrons in Brest, Toulon and other ports to break out of a British blockade and rendezvous in the West Indies. As detailed by the Royal Navy, the French plan called for the ships to form one large force and then sail back across the Atlantic to seize the channel from the British. 

In March 1805, a squadron led by Villeneuve did manage to evade the British blockade and join up with the Spanish, and then head to the West Indies. Nelson caught wind of the French departure and took off in pursuit. Villeneuve feared Nelson, who had been the winning British commander in the Battle of the Nile, and when the other French squadrons didn’t show up, he rushed back across the Atlantic to avoid a confrontation. When Villeneuve got back to the Spanish coast, though he encountered another British fleet commanded by Admiral Robert Calder. In the resulting battle of Cape Finisterre, Villeneuve managed to escape with a draw, but found himself bottled up in the port at Cadiz, Spain. 

At that point, Napoleon saw that the invasion of Britain wasn’t in the cards, and marched his army eastward to take on his other foes, Austria and Russia. Even so, Nelson wasn’t going to let Villeneuve escape. He waited at sea for Villeneuve to make his move toward the Mediterranean. He hatched a plan to split his force into two columns and break through the line of French and Spanish ships. 

On October 19, Nelson saw his opportunity, when a British ship spotted the French-Spanish fleet departing from the harbor. He again gave chase, and by the morning of October 21, reached his quarry. 

'England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty'

 Just before noon, Nelson, who was aboard his ship HMS Victory, decided that it would be a good idea to use flags to send a message to his fleet to inspire them in the fight. As author David Howarth described in this excerpt from his book Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch, the admiral originally wanted to say, “Nelson confides that every man will do his duty.” One of his officers suggested, though, suggested replacing “Nelson” with “England,” while another pointed out that “confides” wasn’t in the signal book, and suggested replacing it with a different word. Thus, Nelson’s message morphed into one of the most famous slogans in the history of naval warfare: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

But Nelson’s men probably didn’t need the reminder. The British had better-trained gunners and superior weaponry.

The French used inferior gun power that caused their shots to fall short, according to Frisby. Worse yet, their guns required gunners to light fuses, so that by the time the guns actually fired, the rolling of the ships had thrown off their aim. The British, in contrast, used flintlocks that fired their guns almost instantly. 

“The British gunners could fire probably three or four times before the French fired once,” Frisby explains, recalling that one of the Spanish survivors described the fight as so terrifying that it was as if the devil was loading the cannons. 

The French and Spanish ships’ tactics were to disable their opponents by shooting at their masts, as they came in close so that marines could board the enemy ships. But the British were prepared to thwart that tactic. They used small deck guns called carronades to mow down the enemy while they were still on their own decks. “That’s where all the carnage took place,” Frisby explains. And as the French aimed high and often missed, the British shot at French ships below decks, inflicting more damage. 

Admiral Nelson Is Killed, But British Prevail

Though the French got the worst of the fight, one of their snipers did manage to mortally wound Nelson, who was out on the deck in the midst of the fray. Nelson had survived being wounded in battle so many times before, Frisby notes, that he dared to wear a conspicuous dress uniform that day. But his luck ran out. “They got him in the shoulder and severed his spinal cord, I think,” Frisby explains. “He knew instantly that he was going to die.” He was taken below decks, where he died three hours later, with the knowledge that his fleet had been victorious. 

Though many of the British ships were damaged in the fight, by 1:45 that afternoon, Villeneuve had surrendered. The British captured 18 enemy ships—most of which sank in a storm the following day. The British lost 449 sailors, with another 1,217 wounded, while the French and Spanish suffered 4,408 killed, 2,545 wounded and 20,000 taken prisoner, according to the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

As Frisby sees it, the French defeat at Trafalgar left Napoleon in a strategic bind. “Without control of the sea, there’s always going to be England there as a thorn in your side, even if you conquer all of Europe,” the historian says. “And without the ability to use naval logistics to move your supplies around, you’re kind of disadvantaged.”

After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, British naval power continued to rule the waters for a century, until the Germans dared to challenge it in World War I. Wellington’s colleague and close friend, Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who also had fought in the battle and was praised by Nelson for his bravery, took over for the slain admiral, and ultimately also became Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet before his death in 1810.

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