Nelson’s Trafalgar sketch discovered in scrapbook

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The sketch contains lines showing the wind direction at Trafalgar. Photo: NMRN.
The sketch contains lines showing the wind direction at Trafalgar. Photo: NMRN.

All great military tacticians plan their campaigns carefully, but only very rarely do those plans survive.

Now a sketch showing Admiral Lord Nelson’s proposed route to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar has been discovered.

The sketch was tucked inside the pages of a scrapbook for more than 200 years. It was discovered by Nelson historian and biographer Martyn Downer.

Nelson was killed during the battle off the south-west coast of Spain on 21 October 1805, although it resulted in a triumph for Great Britain against her Napoleonic enemy.

The sketch sits alongside an address leaf bearing Nelson’s signature and is dated 5 September 1805, during his last days in England.

It shows his plan to split his fleet into three divisions to destroy the enemy coming out of Cadiz Harbour. The lines show the wind direction, which Nelson used to sail faster and therefore gain an advantage.

Commenting on the discovery, Downer said: ‘This fragment of pencil sketch is simultaneously a very intimate and vivid artefact, giving us an exceptional insight into Nelson’s thinking and planning ahead of the battle.’

He added: ‘Its survival is quite remarkable, having been hidden away between the pages of a young lady’s scrapbook for the best part of 200 years.

After it was sold at auction, the scrapbook was donated to the National Museum of the Royal Navy. It will be available to view in a permanent exhibition in the museum’s refurbished ‘ Victory Gallery’ from next spring.

This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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