The Battle of Trafalgar was the most significant battle won by the British against the combined forces of the French and Spanish fleets during the Napoleonic Wars. This battle also had significant impact on the concept of navigation when it comes to the Naval Doctrine of War. This battle proved that tactical unorthodoxy could win battles; even though you might be outmanned and outgunned by your opponent you can still win battles by deviating from the old Naval Doctrine.
This battle was part of a much larger campaign called the Trafalgar campaign which included several different battles that led up to the final battle at Trafalgar.
This campaign was a long and complicated series of fleet maneuvers carried out by the combined French and Spanish fleets and the opposing moves of the British Royal Navy during much of 1805. These were the culmination of French plans to force a passage through the English Channel, and so achieve a successful invasion of the United Kingdom.
The plans were extremely complicated and proved to be impractical.
Much of the detail was due to the personal intervention of Napoleon, who was a soldier rather than a sailor. This was largely because Napoleon failed to consider the effects of weather, difficulties in communication, and the intervention of the Royal Navy. Despite limited successes in achieving some elements of the plan the French commanders were unable to follow the main objective through to execution. The campaign, which took place over thousands of miles of ocean, was marked by several naval engagements, most significantly at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.
The naval doctrine at the time dictated that both sides should line up parallel to eachother in a straight line so that they could engage in battle and bring all their guns to bear against the enemy. One of the reasons for the development of the line of battle was to help the admiral control the fleet. If all the ships were in line, signaling in battle became possible. The line also had defensive properties, allowing either side to disengage by breaking away in formation. If the attacker chose to continue combat their line would be broken as well.
This type of warfare allowed each side to fight a battle and then to disengage at any time to minimize the losses to their fleet. However with England under threat of invasion by Napoleon and his grand army, British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson needed to ensure that the British were in control of the seas. In order to do this Nelson needed to fight and win a decisive battle that would clearly establish Britain’s naval supremacy. However in order to do this he would have to make sure that the combined French and Spanish fleets actually remained in the battle long enough to win a decisive victory.
What Nelson planned on doing was instead of lining up parallel to the opposing fleet, Nelson would take his navy and charge at the enemy and deliberately cut the their battle line in two. This type of deviation from normal naval warfare in terms of navigation was unheard of at the time. Despite the risk to the British fleet, Nelson believed that this was the best way to engage the enemy fleet in the upcoming battle because it had numerous advantages. The primary advantage was that this would allow the British to cut half of the enemy fleet off, surround it, and force a fight to the end.
This is unlike normal engagements where the battle was often inconclusive due to the fact that both fleets would withdraw before a clear winner could be seen. The plan had three principal advantages. First, it would allow the British fleet to close with the Franco-Spanish fleet as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that it would be able to escape without fighting. Second, it would quickly bring on close quarters battle by breaking the Franco-Spanish line and inducing a series of individual ship-to-ship fights, in which the British were likely to prevail.
Nelson knew that the better seamanship, faster gunnery, and higher morale of his crews were great advantages. Third, it would bring a decisive concentration on the rear of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The ships in the front of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, and this would take a long time. Additionally, once the Franco-Spanish line had been broken, their ships would be relatively defenseless to powerful broadsides from the British fleet and would take a long time to reposition and return fire.
The main drawback of this strategy was that sailing the British fleet into the combined French and Spanish battle line, the British ships would be fully exposed to the enemy broadsides without the ability to return fire. In order to lessen the time the fleet was exposed to this danger Nelson would have to drive the fleet straight into the enemy battle line as fast as he could.
This was yet another departure from navigation rules of naval warfare. Nelson was also well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained, nd would probably be supplemented with soldiers. These untrained men and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform. This was in stark comparison to British gunners who were well drilled, and the Royal Marines who were expert marksmen. Another advantage that the British fleet had was that the enemy was sailing across a heavy swell, causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating these problems. Nelson’s plan was indeed a gamble, but a carefully calculated one. The battle itself started exactly as Nelson wanted it to.
The British fleet was able to successfully cut the French and Spanish battle line in half thus forcing a close quarter’s battle. Despite the huge risk that Nelson was taking his plan ended up working. Nelson scored a huge victory against the combined French and Spanish fleet. He managed to capture over twenty of the enemy ships and inflicted heavy casualties against while suffering few casualties himself. Unfortunately during the battle Nelson was pierced by a musket ball and died from his wounds before he could see the outcome of the victory.
Some argue that his loss outweighed any gains made by the British Navy. Following the battle, the Royal Navy was never again seriously challenged by the French fleet in a large-scale engagement. Napoleon had already abandoned his plans of invasion before the battle and they were never revived. This battle firmly established Britain’s naval supremacy over France. In terms of navigation, this battle was very significant. The most important thing is that it proved that following standard navigational techniques during an engagement won’t always win a battle.
The best tactic is to be unpredictable so that the enemy has to adapt to what you are doing thus giving you the tactical advantage. This is exactly what Nelson did in the Battle of Trafalgar and it paid off. He proved that sometimes in battle deviating from the norm of battle navigation is the best thing to do, and ever since navies around the world have looked to the strategies employed by Nelson. What is being done today is that naval commanders are being educated about naval history so that they can learn and even employ these types of strategies if they need to in battle.
In conclusion, the Battle of Trafalgar was a turning point in which ships would fight naval battles in terms of navigation due to the tactical unorthodoxy employed by Nelson. This battle has had long term effects and even today commanders look back and employ some of the same strategies used. The importance of this battle cannot be underestimated because not only was it the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars for the British in terms of establishing naval supremacy at the time, it was a turning point in naval warfare. Navigation would never be the same thanks to one man and one decisive battle.