WAS ENGLAND SAVED BY TRAFALGAR?
who are ready to die, the English will be reduced to size.
(Napoleon to Decrès, Navy Minister,
There just one condition the Emperor needed
to land his troops on the beaches of
The planning engineers calculated that the vessels of the flotilla had to make their way across the Channel seas using their own resources and taking advantage of either a calm spell (relatively rare in the Channel), or a very dark night, or, at worst but most likely, bad weather that would keep the English warships in their home bases.
last pointpresented thewith a
strange option. It had not taken long for Napoleon, while still
First Consul, to realize that even when fitted out with what in
some cases were large-bore cannon, these rowboats, gunboats, prame
could therefore be no question of waiting for bad weather to confine
the squadrons of the Royal Navy to port in order to cross the Channel.
Since, however, the 2,365 ships of the invasion flotilla could not
make the crossing all at once, it had to be expected that English
ships would swoop down on them fiercely.
This assumed that that a squadron of ships of the line would protect the flotilla.
In March 1805, the Emperor’s plan was finalized.
French squadrons from
The plan was both simple and daring, but to achieve success, the men had to fulfill the Emperor’s expectations, while the conditions had to be particularly favourable and the French admirals especially heroic.
In the event, from the very outset, nothing went as planned.
English squadron lying in ambush between the Brest Channel and the
Isle of Ouessant never lost sight of its French counterpart from
for Missiessy, orders from
That left Villeneuve.
Admiral Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve (1763-1806)
the Navy when he was only 15 in 1778, he was later dismissed as
an aristocrat during the French Revolution, then reintegrated during
the Directoire. In 1804, he was promoted to vice-admiral and in
1805 when he received command of the combined French and Spanish
fleet, Napoleon’s plan to invade
Napoleon’s orders, he had set sail from
Federico Carlos, Duke of Gravina, admiral of the Spanish fleet (1756-1806)
commanded the 15 Spanish vessels of the combined French and Spanish
fleet placed under the command of Vice-Admiral Villeneuve. It was
against his advice that the fleet sailed from
The Emperor had no choice but to wait.
Admiral Villeneuve’s strange conduct
started out by completing the first part of his mission. He managed
to trick the English, who in their pursuit sailed off course towards
July 22, on his return voyage to
Instead of pressing home his advantage and attacking immediately, Villeneuve hesitated and, although he was the clear winner, he allowed the English to flee in disorder, and worse still, he left them in possession of two ships that had been captured. The English were thus able to put it about that 15 ships of the Royal Navy had beaten 20 French vessels.
lost the little credibility that he had retained among his officers
and men following the disaster of the Battle of Aboukir Bay on
Napoleon’s growing impatience
Time passed, and the Emperor grew impatient when the lookouts reported nothing:
"Tell him," he wrote to Decrès, his Navy Minister, on August 13, "of my displeasure that he is wasting crucial time… This only goes to show that Villeneuve is a wretch who sees double, who has more vision than character."
Denis Decrès (1761-1820)
the French navy in 1779 and served during the American war of
However, as Villeneuve was the man on whom the whole operation depended, Napoleon thought it best to send a dispatch couched in quite different terms that were intended to spur him to action:
Admiral Villeneuve: Sir, I was pleased to learn that in the battle
of the 3rd Thermidor (July 22) several of my ships showed the courage
I expect. I am pleased with your fine action at the outset of the
engagement that thwarted the enemy plans. I hope that this dispatch
will find you no longer at
Emperor’s anxiety was heightened by the fact that Villeneuve’s dispatches
were contradictory. To the Navy Ministry, he wrote that he was withdrawing
On August 22, Napoleon sent three letters, among dozens of others.
One was to Decrès, in which he shared the low opinion he had of his protégé – Villeneuve owed his command to Decrès:
"I consider that Villeneuve does not have the character needed to command a frigate. He is a man without resolution or moral fibre… What is most insolent is that, on an expedition of this magnitude, he gives no details and does not say what he will or will not do. He is a man who has no knowledge of war and has no idea how to do war".
Admiral Ganteaume, still in
what I have been able to understand of Admiral Villeneuve’s dispatches,
it seems he intends to sail to
The last dispatch was for Villeneuve, with a final encouragement:
trust that you have arrived at
Villeneuve arrived neither at
Did Villeneuve make a "last stand?"
Villeneuve put in at the port of Cadiz on August 20, he had under
his command twice as many men as Admiral Collingwood had available
to blockade the port and bottle up the Spanish vessels of Admiral
seems that Villeneuve was dissuaded from cutting off Collingwood’s
retreat and destroying his squadron because of his lack of knowledge
of the number of English ships stationed around
did not budge from the
Although Villeneuve at this point had 33 ships of the line under his command, he was to stay at anchor for almost two months.
The English took advantage of these two months to send reinforcements to Admiral Collingwood. Ships damaged in recent battles were repaired in haste. oisting his admiral’s ensign on the Victory, which he had captained during the last two years of campaigns, Nelson urged that he be sent ships as soon as they were seaworthy.
waiting for two months, what impelled Villeneuve to leave
It was just off the southern coast of Spain, on 21 October 1805 that the Battle of Trafalgar took place when Vice-Admiral Villeneuve finally decided to sail out of Cadiz with the 33 vessels of the combined French and Spanish fleet apparently to save his honour. The fleet was totally annihilated: 2,180 killed, 4,760 wounded against the British who only lost 402 men – including Nelson - and 1,140 wounded. The battle was an overwhelming defeat for the French, yet an English minister wrote in a report, “The French fought uncommonly well”.
Here is the version that appeared in the Annual Register, 1805:
Villeneuve, convinced that the English fleet blockading
Although this is an English assessment, it is not unsound.
Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1806)
the Navy as a midshipman aged twelve, but only saw active service
for the first time in 1793 when the long conflict with
We do not intend to give a full account of this sadly famous battle, and will content ourselves with the results.
For the Royal Navy, given the stakes and the outcome, figures can be considered "reasonable:" 1,587 dead or injured, including, it is true, Admiral Nelson.
became Lord Nelson’s famous flagship after he was given command
of the British fleet in the
For the combined French and Spanish fleets, on the other hand, the numbers are appalling: 4,400 dead or drowned, 2,500 wounded and 7,000 taken prisoner, including Villeneuve (freed on parole in April 1806, he returned to France and took his own life in Rennes), and over half the 33 ships taking part were sunk or captured by the enemy.
Three years’ work reduced to nothing
The 33 vessels of the combined French and Spanish fleet commanded by Admiral Villeneuve were certainly no match for the 27 vessels of the Royal Navy commanded by Nelson. The French navy had still not recovered from the chaos of the Revolution and the crews often lacked training, experience and cohesion, whereas the crews of the Royal Navy hardened by brutal, inhuman discipline were better trained and far more accustomed to war at sea. However great a victory, Trafalgar did not save Britain from a French invasion - as is generally thought – for Napoleon threatened with war by both Russia and Austria had been forced to abandon his plan two months before the battle took place.
The battle of Trafalgar by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)
unparalleled defeat, which the Emperor was to learn of when he was
already on the triumhal
path of December
is not fanciful to state that the invasion of
defeat at Trafalgar also brought to naught three years of extraordinary
and enthusiastic efforts by the entire country, so great was the
fully justified hatred of the French for
admiral’s repeated hesitation finally made the Emperor realize that
Villeneuve was going to let him down and that he would have to abandon
his great plan: threatened by the Coalition on the borders of
their (hypocritical) protestations of peace, the Austrians had rearmed.
It was one result of the coalition accord, drawn up a year earlier
and signed officially between
Napoleon was no longer fooled:
have really nothing to expect from
decision, under duress, was to abandon the invasion plan for
When Napoleon sent his last message of encouragement to Villeneuve on August 22, his decision was already made, a decision that was enshrined in what is known as the "Dictée de Boulogne."
He had summoned Daru, Quartermaster General of the Grande Armée and dictated – in one long session of four or five hours! –complete plans for the 1805 campaign: the departure of all troops from Hanover and Holland to the western borders and the south of France, the sequence of marches, their length, rallying points for the columns to meet up, surprises and lightningattacks, possible enemy movements…
are always those who wish to diminish the achievements of this man
of genius, and certain writers, "Napoleonic" historians
and others, delight in arguing that Napoleon’s dictation was a deliberately
staged performance that the Emperor had been planning for some weeks.
It is hard to see how that could diminish this staggering feat;
on a starting line nearly 900 km long and lines of operation extending
Emperor gives fair warning to
Talleyrand, quoting Napoleon, told the Austrian ambassador, Cobentzel:
"If ever a man owed his country and his emperor a great duty, it is you, Ambassador. Your alone of your country know France; you alone of your country know that the Emperor of France desires peace; you know that there is not a single soldier in the départements of the Rhine; alone of your country you know that we have not called up a single reserve and that we only mustered the first battalions at the expense of the second battalions… If you convey the full force of these truths to your master, and if it is true that he has been dragged into this conflict, it will be impossible for him not to see that he is being drawn into war despite himself, and then peace will prevail. If, on the other hand, your master wants war, well, you will have done your duty; he will not be dragged against his will. But tell him that he will not be celebrating Christmas in Vienna; not that you do not possess a large and powerful army, but urgent orders for the movement of three hundred thousand men can only come from one head; a cabinet can only move slowly on such things."
August 28, in
Austrian Emperor did not yet know it, but he would not be "spending
The soldiers making up what by its half-turn to the east became and remained the "Grande Armée" were not unhappy at the new turn of events: they would not have to cross the Channel.