The Trafalgar Campaign: Countdown to the Battle
Read Nelson's private diary from the day he
boarded Victory, to the day of the battle
Back to the Mediterranean
Villeneuve and his fleet were now blockaded in Cadiz by Vice-Admiral Cuthbert
Collingwood. But that didn't mean he didn't pose a threat. Though
some of the French ships and crew were in poor condition after the long chase to
the West Indies and back, they still outnumbered the British. And if they
escaped, they could still damage British trade convoys from the West Indies, and
stop British troops from meeting with the Russians to take back Italy.
Napoleon had given up his designs on an invasion of Britain and turned for
Austria, but the French naval threat had to be neutralised completely.
And so it was that Admiral Horatio Nelson was sent once more to his post as
Commander-in-Chief. No other officer could have the skill, knowledge and
genius required to totally annihilate the enemy.
Before leaving Merton, his paradise, Nelson knelt at his daughter's bedside as
she slept, and said a prayer for her. Elegantly dressed in full uniform,
complete with his honours and medals, he rode in a carriage to Portsmouth.
On the way there, he wrote the following prayer - somewhat brooding and
melancholy, yet also with strong undertones of his determination to do whatever
his duty demanded of him:
|Friday night at half past
Ten drove from dear dear Merton where I left all which I hold most dear
in this World to go to serve my King & Country. May the Great God
whom I adore enable me to fullfil the expectations of my Country and if
it is his good pleasure that I should return my thanks will never cease
being offered up to the Throne of his Mercy. If it is his good
providence to Cut short my days upon Earth I bow with the greatest
Submission relying that He will protect those so dear to me that I may
leave behind. His will be done Amen Amen Amen
Archive, catalogue reference PROB 1/22
It was not the first time he had foreseen his death in battle. In fact, he
hoped for a glorious death in a victorious battle. But this poignant diary
entry is different. It is not a dramatic declaration like those he had
previously made in letters to friends and family, which were probably composed
of phrases that he hoped would memorable as his 'famous last words'. This
is a private prayer to his God, and yet also a plea. He was still willing
to die in the name of his duty but, perhaps because he had found such
contentment with his wife in all but name, and his daughter, he rather hoped he
wouldn't have to.
Resting at an inn at Portsmouth, he finished dealing with other private
business. He then made his way to board the Victory, taking
backstreets so as to avoid the pressing crowds that had gathered to see their
hero. He 'embarked at the Bathing Machines', a little way from the dock,
but was still seen off by a large crowd of people. He was then rowed out
to the Victory with his Captain, Thomas Hardy. As they left, he
turned to Hardy and quietly said, "I had their huzzahs before. I have
their hearts now." That public sentiment was something he cherished.
Emma was never far from his mind, and as early as the 17th, as he stopped at
Plymouth to pick up the Ajax and Thunderer, he was writing to her:
|I intreat, my dear Emma, that you
will chear up; and we will look forward to many, many happy
years, and be surrounded by our children's children. God
Almighty can, when he pleases, remove the impediment.
My heart and soul is with you and
of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton, anon.
He wrote to her several more times after that.
On the 25th of September, he heard that the enemy had
not left Cadiz and, happily noting it in his journal, optimistically
wrote, "therefore I yet hope they will wait my arrival."
He didn't want a battle to happen without him! On the 26th he
sent the Euryalus to tell Collingwood that he was ready to take
command, and on the 28th he and Victory joined the fleet.
The Nelson Touch
Nelson explaining his plan to his captains.
Upon reaching the fleet, Nelson became occupied with setting up look-out ships,
formulating strategies, and general administration. A small squadron under
Rear-Admiral Thomas Louis in the Canopus joined on the 1st of October,
and was promptly sent back out to Gibraltar to get supplies. Louis
strongly protested, believing he would miss the battle, but Nelson assured him
that he would be back before the enemy got out. But he was wrong, and
Louis and his squadron did indeed miss the battle, to Louis' intense
Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign joined on the 8th, and on the 9th Nelson sent
him what he called the 'Nelson Touch'. This was the essence of his
strategy in the upcoming battle. Flying in the face of traditional battle
strategy, whereby a fleet would line up parallel with an enemy line and fire
broadsides on each other, normally in one-on-one encounters, Nelson's strategy
involved sailing in two columns. One would characteristically be
led by him, the other by Collingwood, and they would sail directly into the
enemy line, cutting right through it. This would decrease the enemy's
advantage of numbers, as the front ships of their line would be rendered
ineffective until they were able to turn around and re-join the battle, during
which time the British fleet would outnumber and pummel the remainder.
This is Nelson's sketch of his battle plan, which he drew while explaining it to
his captains. The thick diagonal line represents the enemy line. You
can see how hard Nelson pressed his pen into the paper while excitedly
explaining the two 'cuts' his fleet would make in the line.
You can read a more detailed explanation of the sketch at the
Maritime Museum site.
This strategy was incredibly risky. The ships at the front of the British
columns would be vulnerable to enemy broadsides and would take quite a beating
before even reaching them. Nelson placed his strongest ships, Victory
and Royal Sovereign, at the head of the columns as they would be more
able to withstand the attack, but it posed a huge risk to him personally.
But, apart from his character being unable to do anything other than lead,
he knew that his presence at the forefront of the attack would inspire his men
and boost their morale and confidence. They would have to demonstrate
nerves of steel, as they would not be able to do any effective damage and so
would be ordered to hold fire until the line was broken. Nelson's vision
was of a 'pell-mell battle', as he had earlier described it, surprising the
enemy with an all-out melee that was entirely dependent upon the superior,
faster and more accurate gunnery and higher morale of his well-trained, highly
disciplined men. He also put complete faith in his captains, telling them
to choose their own targets and trusting them not to need signals from him, as
in the confusion of a melee, signals could easily be misread or not even seen at
all. He simply said that "No captain can do very wrong if he places
his ship alongside that of an enemy." In the ensuing chaos as the
enemy line was torn apart, it would be every ship for itself. His ability to fully trust his captains had been successful at the
Nile, and it would prove to be again.
Nelson was ecstatic with the response his strategy received. He wrote to
|...when I came to explain to them
the Nelson touch, it was like an electric shock.
Some shed tears, all approved - "It was new, it was singular, it
was simple!" and, from Admirals downwards, it was repeated - "It
must succeed, if ever they will allow us to get at them!
You are, my Lord, surrounded by friends whom you inspire with
The Letters of Lord Nelson to
Lady Hamilton, anon.
And that, really, was the key. His complete faith
and confidence in his officers instilled them with the kind of
self-belief that enabled them to achieve a potential that could not be
reached by simply waiting for, and acting upon, orders from their
Nelson's favourite ship, the Agamemnon, joined
the fleet from England on the 13th having 'had a narrow escape
from capture' by a small French squadron off Cape Finisterre.
L'aimable also joined after having a similar such escape.
On the same day, Nelson wrote simply that 'Prince of Wales sailed
for England'. The Prince of Wales was a big 98-gun
ship-of-the-line, and though desperately needed by Nelson and his
outnumbered fleet, she carried Vice-Admiral Robert Calder back to
England. He was to be disciplined for his failure to everything in
his power to attack the French fleet in the indecisive Battle of Cape
Finisterre back in July, and he asked Nelson if he could take his
flagship rather than a frigate. Nelson took pity on him and
granted his requested, depriving himself of a valuable ship but allowing
a fellow Admiral to return home with some dignity.
It was of course important to keep a close eye on the
French, but Nelson wanted to keep the bulk of his fleet out of sight of
Cadiz so Villeneuve wouldn't have an exact idea of how many ships he
had. So he placed several frigates - which he had always called
his 'eyes', and valued highly - close to the harbour mouth. Rather
than have to wait for one to run back to him and tell him if the enemy
made sail, he put the Defence (74 guns) and Agamemnon (64
guns) 7-10 leagues west from Cadiz, and then Mars (74 guns) and
Colossus (74 guns) between them and him, writing in his diary,
'by this Chain I hope to have a constant communication with the
frigates off Cadiz'. He would not again make the mistake
of letting Villeneuve evade him, and on the 16th he was 'Employd
forming the fleet into the order of Sailing'. Not only
would the French fleet be unable to evade him, he would be ready for
them when they tried.
the Combined Fleet...
Admiral Villeneuve, commander of the combined fleets of
France and Spain, was not having an easy time of it. He was not
confident of success in the upcoming battle. He knew that Nelson
had joined the British fleet and, being a Nile survivor, he knew exactly
what Nelson was capable of. He also knew, from first-hand
experience, that the British possessed better guns, with less recoil,
better gunpowder, and their crews were far quicker and more accurate
with those guns than the French.
Morale within the Combined Fleet was also bad. The
French and Spanish seamen didn't get on, and would get into fights.
Even the captains argued over what to do. Villeneuve attempted to
go some way to solving the problem by mixing up the French and Spanish
ships in the line, so glory and blame would be shared equally, and
they'd be less likely to desert each other. But it didn't help
that his only real achievement had been escaping from the Battle of the
Nile with 4 ships, and even then he'd been captured later on. So
the Spanish thought him incapable of leading a major action.
Morale was extremely low.
Villeneuve received orders from Napoleon to sail for
Naples, but decided that his best chance of evading Nelson's blockade
was to wait for a favourable wind. But two days later, he suddenly
changed his mind and decided that they should sail right away.
He'd heard that Napoleon, not realising that his orders were impossible
- he didn't have much concept of naval warfare compared with that on
land - and believing Villeneuve to be a coward, was sending his
replacement. Villeneuve would rather die with honour in battle
than have his reputation destroyed by Napoleon's insistence that he was
'at 1/2 pt: 9', wrote Nelson on the 19th
of October, 'the Mars being one of the look out Ships made the
Signal that the Enemy were coming out of Port made the Signal for a
general Chase SE.'
Nelson's 'chain of communication' had worked. His
frigates had seen Villeneuve leave Cadiz, and the signal had got back to
him quickly. Still, he had to move fast to make sure the French
weren't able to get either out into the open Atlantic as they had
before, or retreat to the westwards and Toulon. He also didn't
want them to get the chance to escape back into Cadiz. To make
sure his approach was as fast as possible, he let his fastest ships go
ahead during the night, carrying a light, and 'for the Britannia
Prince & Dreadnought they being heavy sailers to take Stations as
On the 20th, he kept up the chain of communication and
continued to rely on his frigates. 'In the afternoon,'
he wrote, 'Captain Blackwood [in the Euryalus] telegraphed that
the Enemy seemed determined to go to the Westward; and that they shall
not do if in the power of Nelson and Bronte to prevent them'.
By 4am on the morning of the 21st, Nelson's fleet were standing towards
a French fleet who were manoeuvring to meet them. He was so
pleased with the chain of communication that he wrote, 'The
frigates and Look out Ships kept sight of the Enemy most admirably all
night and told me by Signals which tack they were upon.'
Villeneuve knew what Nelson's attack plan was likely to be, and the orders he
gave to his captains were similar; that they should act on their own initiative,
but ensure that they were always beside an enemy ship. But Nelson had been
instilling his captains with this ideal for months, whereas the French and
Spanish were still used to the idea of parallel lines of battle. So
Villeneuve's only option was to form the line he knew Nelson was expecting.
He planned for his line to contain three divisions, each led by separate
admirals, in pre-determined positions. But because these positions were
not the same as their order of sailing, they had to spend time trying to
manoeuvre into them. Because there was a heavy swell, but very little
wind, it took them a long time to get into position, so Villeneuve ordered them
to turn into the wind. However, this required some skill on the part of
the captains, and so the ships turned at different speeds. Faster ships
had to turn out of the line to avoid collision, creating gaps in the line, and
the reserves, which should have been to the west of the line so they could see
where help was needed, ended up at the rear. Villeneuve could only watch
as the organised, disciplined two columns of British ships marched sedately and
purposefully towards his disorganised line.
Nelson's Last Letters and Diary Entry, and
the 'Trafalgar Prayer'
With barely any wind, the approach to the enemy line was painfully slow.
All preparations for battle were made and the decks were cleared, and the men
still had time to prepare their guns, eat, and write their wills. Nelson's
cabin had been cleared and all his furniture pushed out of the way.
Kneeling on the floor, he found time to write his last diary entry, which
included what has become known as his 'Trafalgar prayer':
Monday Oct 21st 1805
At day light saw the Enemys Combined Fleet from E
to ESE bore away made the Signal for order of sailing and to prepare for
Battle the Enemy with their heads to the Southward, at 7 the Enemy
wearing in succession, May the Great God whom I worship Grant to my
Country and for the benefit of Europe in General a great and Glorious
Victory, and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it, and may humanity
after Victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet, for
myself individually I commit my Life to Him who made me, and may his
blessing light upon my Endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To
Him I resign myself and the just cause which is Entrusted to me to
amen, amen, amen.
Below is an artist's impression of Nelson praying, and a photo of his diary.
He followed this with a codicil to his will, which was witnessed and signed by
Captains Hardy and Blackwood.
|October the Twenty first one thousand
Eight hundred and five then in Sight of the Combined fleets of
France and Spain distant about Ten Miles.
Whereas the Eminent Services of Emma
Hamilton Widow of the Right Honorable Sir William Hamilton have been
of the very greatest Service to our King & Country to my knowledge
without ever receiving any reward from Either our King or Country,
first that she obtain'd the King of Spains letter in 1796 to His
Brother the King of Naples acquainting him of his intention to
Declare War against England from which letter the ministry sent out
orders to then Sir John Jervis to strike a stroke if opportunity
offered against either the arsenals of Spain or her fleets.
that neither of these was done is not the fault of Lady Hamilton the
opportunity might have been offer'd. Secondly the British
fleet under my Command could never have return'd the Second time to
Egypt had not Lady Hamiltons influence with the Queen of Naples
caused Letters to be wrote to the Governer of Syracuse that he was
to encourage the fleet being supplied with every thing should they
put into any Port in Sicily. We put into Syracuse and received
Every supply went to Egypt & destroy'd the French fleet. Could
I have rewarded these Services I would not now call upon my Country
but as that has not been in my power I leave Emma Lady Hamilton
therefore a Legacy to My King and Country that they will give her an
ample provision to maintain her Rank in Life. I also leave to
the beneficience of my Country My adopted daughter Horatia Nelson
Thompson and I desire she will use in future the name of Nelson
only. these are the only favors I ask of my King and Country
at this moment when I am going to Fight Their Battle May God Bless
My King & Country and all those who I hold dear my Relations it is
needless to mention they will of course be amply provided for.
Nelson & Bronte
In this codicil was Nelson's last attempt to get the government
to look after his lover and child upon his death, by reminding them of her
(possibly exaggerated) value during the Nile campaign. There is just a
hint of resentment in his last paragraph: 'These are the only favors I ask
of my King and Country at this moment when I am going to Fight Their Battle.'
Despite his willingness to give his life for his King and country, he probably knew his chance of success with this plea
for a return of favours was slim, as for all her
services, Emma was not his wife.
He also asked for his daughter, Horatia, to be taken care of.
But here, he keeps up the pretence that she is only his adopted daughter.
He and Emma, for appearances sake, had to pretend that they had adopted Horatia
from a Mr and Mrs Thompson - in their story, Thompson was an officer on Nelson's
ship, and Nelson wrote on his behalf, through Emma, to Mrs Thompson. After
Emma's husband died, the facade slipped - not that they had been very good at
keeping it up anyway. So Horatia had been christened with the name of
Nelson Thompson, but now, facing his possible death, Nelson wrote a strong hint
that she was, in fact, his daughter, by asking that she should drop the
'Thompson' from her name.
Two days earlier, he'd written a tender letter to her, in which
he signed himself as her father for the first time:
|Victory, October 19th 1805
My dearest Angel, I was made happy by the
pleasure of receiving your letter of September 19th, and I rejoice
to hear that you are so very good a girl, and love my dear Lady
Hamilton, who most dearly loves you. Give her a kiss for me.
The Combined Fleets of the Enemy are now reported to be coming out
of Cadiz; and therefore I answer your letter, my dearest Horatia, to
mark to you that you are ever uppermost in my thoughts. I
shall be sure of your prayers for my safety, conquest, and speedy
return to dear Merton, and our dearest good Lady Hamilton. Be
a good girl, mind what Miss Connor says to you. Receive, my
dearest Horatia, the affectionate parental blessing of your Father,
Nelson & Bronte
Finally, Nelson wrote his last letter to Emma:
|Victory, October 19th 1805, Noon,
Cadiz, E.S.E., 16 Leagues
dearest beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom. The signal
has been made that the Enemy's Combined Fleet are coming out of
Port. We have very little wind, so that I have no hopes of
seeing them before tomorrow. May the God of Battles crown my
endeavours with success; at all events, I will take care that my
name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love
as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the
Battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish
my letter after the Battle. May Heaven bless you prays your
Nelson & Bronte
October 20th. In the morning, we
were close enough to the Mouth of the Straits, but the wind had not
come far enough to the Westward to allow the Combined Fleets to
weather the Shoals off Trafalgar; but they were counted as far as
forty Sail of Ships of War, which I suppose to be thirty-four of the
Line, and six Frigates. A group of them was seen off the
Lighthouse of Cadiz this morning, but it blows so very fresh and
thick weather, that I rather believe they will go into the Harbour
before night. May God Almighty give us success over these
fellows, and enable us to get a Peace.
Nelson had hoped to be able to finish the letter after the battle. But
after the battle, it was found open, on his desk, unfinished.
Trafalgar - Nelson's Final Battle
Copyright Vicki Singleton 2013.