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Nelson and Trafalgar

4 mins read
Detail from J M W Turner’s 1822 painting of Trafalgar. Nelson had sought the battle for two years, and he knew full well what the outcome would be.
Detail from J M W Turner’s 1822 painting of Trafalgar. Nelson had sought the battle for two years, and he knew full well what the outcome would be.

Nelson may have been history’s greatest admiral, and Trafalgar its greatest naval victory. But the concept of ‘genius’ sometimes applied to great commanders – as if it were some innate characteristic – is too simplistic.

Genius is created by the interaction of individual, personal experience, and military context. Nelson and Trafalgar can only be understood as the consummation of a new way of naval warfare developed over several decades by Britain’s Royal Navy. It involved mastery of sailing by a professional officer corps of the highest quality. It involved relentless drilling in gunnery until crews could load and fire at two or three times the rate of their enemies. It involved the testing and refining of a new tactical doctrine that overturned the naval practice of two centuries.

Admiral Horatio Nelson, detail from a 1799 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott.
Admiral Horatio Nelson, detail from a 1799 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott.

Nothing at Trafalgar was entirely new, except that the war machine had been brought to an absolute peak of perfection, and the new method was applied more completely, more uncompromisingly, than ever before. Nelson and Trafalgar were the finishing point of a revolution in naval warfare.

Nothing quite like it had ever happened before; and nothing quite like it would ever happen again. Just as generals fantasise about their own ‘Cannae’, so admirals fantasise about their own ‘Trafalgar’. But history does not work like that. There were very particular things that made Nelson and Trafalgar possible. So great was the British advantage that the French and Spanish crews were beaten men before the guns opened fire.

So great was it that all attempt at manoeuvre was eschewed. No deception or cunning were employed. Of subtlety, there was none. The British ‘charged’ headlong into the enemy line and engaged ship-to-ship at point-blank range, the opposing vessels often laced together by collapsed masts, spars, rigging, and sails, until the enemy vessels had been reduced to blasted hulks and heaps of bodies.

It took this form because the disparity in fighting power was so great that the British admiral knew that he needed to do no more than enable his captains to lay their ships alongside those of the enemy; this was all, and then his work was done.

The Battle of Trafalgar (1836) by William Clarkson Stanfield. The artist has chosen to depict the duel between HMS Victory, HMS Temeraire, and, between them, the French ship Redoubtable.
The Battle of Trafalgar (1836) by William Clarkson Stanfield. The artist has chosen to depict the duel between HMS Victory, HMS Temeraire, and, between them, the French ship Redoubtable.

So Nelson was not a model for admirals everywhere: he was the embodiment of a particular military system at a particular moment in military history. Nor was Trafalgar a model for naval victory for all time: it was made possible by circumstances peculiar to European naval warfare in 1805.

Our special this time takes a close and critical look at both the career of Horatio Nelson and his greatest and final victory.

This is an extract from a special feature on Nelson and Trafalgar, from the latest issue of Military History Matters. Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

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