Updated: Oct 21, 2022
October the 21st is the anniversary of one of the most significant battles in European history. It is easy to understand how the events at Trafalgar have been overshadowed by Waterloo and then the military events of the 20th century and as such, the celebrations of October 21st have gradually evaporated from the public consciousness. Yet, the sacrifices of the men who fought that day are still honoured by the Royal Navy and other institutions, the day when Vice Admiral Lord Nelson announced the famous line "England expects every man to do his duty!"
The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21st 1805. The French fleet was commanded by Napoleon to take control of the English channel in order to allow for the land invasion to begin. The British Navy had effectively blockaded the French forces and a confrontation was inevitable. The French and Spanish combined fleet set sail from Cadiz in Southern Spain and the two fleets lined up for battle off Cape Trafalgar.
It was widely understood by the seamen of both sides of the conflict that a British victory was almost certainly inevitable. this was not a view that Napoleon shared. In the end, the tactics Nelson employed and the scale of his victory were to have far reaching consequences.
Before Trafalgar, sail battles were carried out by two fleets lining up alongside each other and pounding with cannons until submission. Effectively, numbers of available cannons and crew became the deciding factor. The British Navy developed the edge over the French in terms of speed reloading cannons but the French had the edge in the arms race of building larger ships with more broadside cannons.
You may note in the image above that there are some ships that share the same name. It was considered bad luck to change the name of a ship so when ships were captured and put to use the name remained unchanged. When a ship was lost to the enemy the name was allocated to a new ship of the fleet as it was pressed into service. You can probably spot that there were two ships named "Swiftsure", "Achille" and "Neptune" on the day of the Battle.
Nelson decided to change the nature of confrontation completely and instead of lining up to trade blows with the combined French and Spanish fleet, he split his ships into two lines and directed them to sail head first toward the enemy and split the enemy line. The tactic meant the majority of the French guns would not be able to train their sights on the enemy but also meant the lead ships of the British lines would be dealt horrendous treatment.
The two lines led by Nelson's flagship "Victory" and "Royal Sovereign" withstood the barrage and pierced the line as planned. The 33 ships of the Franco Spanish line lost their advantage over the 27 Ships of the British fleet and the battle became a series of close hand bitter battles between individual ships entangled together. The fog of war was as such that many accounts on both sides talk of ships crews being utterly unaware of the events unfolding beyond their own individual struggles. Many French ships struck colours unaware that support was close at hand, lost in the smoke.
The British did not suffer the loss of a single ship compared to the humiliating loss of 22 for the Franco Spanish. They also suffered 4,395 killed, 2,541 wounded and 7,000–8,000 captured while the British casualties were registered as 458 dead, 1,208 wounded. In the end it was the greater experience, training and discipline of the British crews that won the day. Although easily overlooked once so far removed by history, it was clear that the men of the British line held their leader in high regard and trusted in his decisions. Nelson's famous message was originally supposed to read "Nelson expects every man to do his duty" but he was convinced to provide a more patriotic message. Nelson himself paid the ultimate price. Refusing to cower out of sight from the enemy he directed the battle from the deck of his ship, falling to a fatal shot from a French musket. He died on the lower decks of his ship, but not before he had directed his fleet to victory and then to safety from the storm that followed.
The British Royal Navy would enjoy unchallenged dominion over the waves until the second world war, almost 150 years later. Nelson has entered into folklore as the most significant figure in British Naval history. Trafalgar Square was commissioned in London as a memorial to the victory, with the centre piece a grand monument to Nelson himself.
The Day of Commemoration
in 2005, on the 200th anniversary the British Navy performed an International Fleet review, the Navy equivalent of a Fly by, but events to commemorate the battle are usually a more muted affair.
The Royal Navy commissioned officers hold an annual Trafalgar Mess on the night of the 21st of October. Speeches after dinner are held in the "immortal memory of" those that fell alongside Nelson.
Across Britain Sea Cadet units hold local parades on the Sunday nearest the 21st October and specific events are held in Birmingham (at the feet of the oldest stature of Nelson in the country) and Edinburgh the Nelson Monument is decorated with Nelson's famous flag message.
Gibraltar also hosts Trafalgar days events. Most of the fallen from the battle were buried in a cemetery on Gibraltar. A religious service is held on the anniversary in what is now known as Trafalgar Cemetery.
Small services of commemoration take place in other places across the world. The steersman of the HMS Victory is buried on the Isle of Man and a parade and church service take place on the 21st October.
the town of Nelson in New Zealand (named after the Vice Admiral) usually hosts a parade of local school children from Victory Primary School in Trafalgar Square. Beyond the school, square and town name itself, many streets are named after crew members of the HMS Victory.
The Australian town of Trafalgar in Victoria hold an annual ball and festival around the anniversary date
Possibly the best and definitive source for the events of the Battle of Trafalgar was compiled by David Howarth in his book Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch. Published by Fontana and can often be purchased online in a double pack along with Waterloo : A near run thing by the same author.
The Nelson Touch was originally a phrase he employed in private letters but has become known as a phrase that encapsulates his leadership style.