“Engage the Enemy More Closely” — Trafalgar and the Death of Nelson

In Spain I deviated momentarily from the Immortal Memory Trail to visit Santiago de Compostela and Salamanca, the latter a university center and site of one of Wellington’s important Peninsular War victories.  Both locations were featured in Bernard Cornwall’s Richard Sharpe novels.   Cornwall also places Sharpe at Trafalgar aboard the fictional HMS Pucelle, although I wish he hadn’t.  O’Brian has the good sense not to have Jack Aubrey at Trafalgar, even though O’Brian has Aubrey frequently reminisce about fighting with Nelson at Cape St. Vincent and the Nile, and Aubrey proudly wears the Nile Medal on his dress uniform.

In my drive from Salamanca to Gibraltar, the highway took me within 25 miles of Cape Trafalgar.   I thought of driving to the spot, but the Trafalgar battle took place ten miles offshore and seeing the changing sea gives you little sense of a battle (unlike the unchanging topography of a land battlefield).

Trafalgar was a quintessential Nelson victory and it’s too bad that he didn’t have a chance to bask in the admiration he would have received had he lived.  The Royal Navy’s Fighting Instructions mandated rigid adherence to an unbroken line of battle and demanded that individual captains give the commanding admiral tight control over all ship movements.  At Cape St. Vincent in 1797, then Captain Nelson had deviated from the Fighting Instructions and broken the line.  At Copenhagen in 1801, as a subordinate admiral, Nelson had (literally) turned a blind eye to the instructions of his commanding admiral and exercised the initiative that led to victory.  When he commanded the Royal Navy squadron at the Battle of the Nile (Aboukir Bay), Nelson fought a somewhat unorthodox night action that destroyed Napoleon’s hopes of using Egypt as a springboard for conquering India.

Nelson intended to follow in that tradition at Trafalgar.  In his plan for battle, Nelson planned to deviate from the Fighting Instructions from the beginning, approach the combined French and Spanish fleet in two columns, break the French line, and then depend upon English gunnery and individual ship captains’ initiatives to gain a victory.  He could do so because the Royal Navy had built up operational excellence and an indomitable fighting spirit over several decades of hard-won experience.  Many of Nelson’s captains shared his decades-long experience at sea and had themselves fought single-ship actions where they made independent command decisions.

I’ve read many descriptions of the Trafalgar battle and to me they all describe the successful deployment of Nelson’s fleet in two columns, the slow sail under fire towards the combined Franco-Spanish line of battle, and the breaking of the line, first by the column headed by Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign and then by the column headed by Nelson in the Victory.  After that the battle seems to have devolved into individual or multiple-ship melees, most of which ended in the surrender or destruction of a French or Spanish ship.  Nelson’s final signal, “Engage the enemy more closely,” flew during this phase of the battle until the signal flags were shot away.

Collingwood never gets all the credit he deserves for his role at Trafalgar, and there will be more about him in a later blog.   I’ll introduce him now, however.  Like Nelson, Cuthbert Collingwood led from the front.  He began his career about the same time as Nelson and their paths intersected often. Like Nelson, Collingwood began his combat experience in North America during the American Revolution.  They captained their respective ships at Cape St. Vincent.  Although alike in their choice of careers and their success in the Royal Navy, they differed markedly in temperament.  Collingwood was sober, phlegmatic, and calm.  I like his reported response on seeing Nelson’s “England Expects” signal.  “I do wish Nelson would stop signaling.  We all know what we have to do.”  Because of wind and position, Collingwood broke the enemy line about an hour ahead of Nelson and his actions contributed significantly to the overall victory.


Spot on the Victory’s Quarterdeck where Nelson was felled.

Back on the Victory, Nelson paced the quarterdeck with his Flag Captain as the Victory took on four ships, including the 140-gun Santisima Trinidad.  About 45 minutes after joining battle, a French sharpshooter in the fighting top of the Redoubtable found Nelson in his sights and shot him at the spot now marked by a plaque on Victory’s deck. Nelson was taken below to the cockpit of the Victory, where the surgeon quickly determined that the wound was mortal.  Nelson’s death was well-chronicled and Devis’ painting displayed on Victory is the most famous rendition of it.  Nelson lived for several hours, though, long enough to learn that the fleet had gained a magnificent victory.IMG_3539.CR2

Nelson’s famous flag signal.


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