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Essay: To what extent were British naval tactics the deciding factor in the Battle of Trafalgar?

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  • To what extent were British naval tactics the deciding factor in the Battle of Trafalgar?
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The Battle of Trafalgar was a naval engagement fought by the British Royal Navy and combined allied French and Spanish fleets during the War of the Third Coalition in the Napoleonic Wars on the 21st of October 1805 (British Battles, c2019)1. Argued by most historians to be the most decisive naval battle in history (This Day in History, c2019), the outcome of the battle resulted inthis proposition can largely be attributed to the unrivaled, British naval dominance for the next hundred years resulting from the battle; no fleet contested Britain’s naval supremacy until World War 1. Moreover, the British fleet only had 27 ships of the line at the Battle of Trafalgar compared to the combined fleet’s 41, yet the discrepancy in lost ships captured between the British and allied fleets heavily favoured the British with 17 captured French and Spanish ships compared to no British losses (Nelson, Trafalgar, c2019). Details of the Battle of Trafalgar in terms of ordnance, ship numbers, formations, and outcome of the battle remain well documented and indisputable. However, a controversy exists between historians as to what deciding factor permitted a smaller British fleet to utterly crush a much larger enemy with so few casualties. Historians such as Charles Ekins have backed the assertion that tactics allowed Admiral Nelson the means to defeat a predictable, stronger fleet. On the other hand, historians such as John Terraine have asserted that “the ‘Nelson touch’ never really lay in a system of tactics, formations or theoretical propositions.” (Terraine, 1976) Admiral Nelson himself contended that “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”. (Moore, 2017) In reality, more impactful factors such as quality of ships, wind, quality of crews, specifically fire rate and accuracy, skill of commanding officers, and the British culture of aggressiveness and expectation of victory ultimately led to the British victory of the Battle of Trafalgar. this paper contends that although tactics were a factor, they were not decisive in the outcome of the battle of Trafalgar.

There are three main factors which determined the significance of the Battle of Trafalgar. Firstly, the necessity of trade to Britain’s economy must be understood. Sailing ships were tasked with the movement of people, trade, exploration, and colonization. Some nations, especially especiallyEconomies including Britain’s, relied on trade and colonies because for subsistence as Britain was not self-sufficient in food or raw materials (Mather, 2014). In order to protect and maintain economic dominance at sea, military dominance was required due to competition. Another factor contributing to the significance of Trafalgar stems from the necessity for additional ships in the Royal Navy. The value of an individual first-rate ship of the line was colossal as the resources and time dedicated to the construction were economically draining. For instance, the HMS Victory took 6 years to build out of 6,000 trees, not including the 10 years of sea trials before being commissioned (Cavendish, 2009). Britain had been blockading France for 10 years at the time of Trafalgar without respite, which Braszak describes as “Ruinous to the ships” (Braszak, 2002). Britain began to have an inadequate supply of well-built ships – far fewer than Britain’s requirements to maintain a universal blockade. Consequently, most dockyards were fashioned for repairs, rarely building new ships. Britain needed a decisive battle to capture multiple enemy ships and commission them into the navy to maintain the depleting blockade. Finally, the significance of the Battle of Trafalgar was tied to the threat of a land invasion. The French admiral Villeneuve was returning to Europe from an expedition to the ‘New World’ to maintain order in the French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. (Lambert, 2004) In addition to hearing of the large French naval movement towards the English Channel, the British Admiralty received news that Napoleon was amassing his ‘Grande Armée’ on the French coast. The Admiralty understood that if the ‘Grande Armée’ was to combine with the French fleet, a land invasion of Britain would be imminent. For this reason, the British admiralty needed a decisive battle to cripple the French fleet, therefore preventing a land invasion of Britain. (National-Archives, Invasion Scare, 2005) Through the Battle of Trafalgar, the land invasion threat was eliminated. Trade dominance was assured for the next hundred years, and Britain commissioned received an excess of 19 captured ships on the line. (Augustyn, 2019)

British ships were superior in design to both the French and Spanish and gave the British an edge in battle. Ships in the 1800s’ were universally comprised of taught composite oak planks laid over a keel, held in place by decks. Ships were equipped with an assortment of masts and sails for propulsion and stability — hence the name of the era, “Age of Sail”. All ships were designed empirically by shipwrights. There were no blueprints which meant some nations were more adept in the craft than others. According to Rickard, “Nelson could safely assume… any British ship was the superior of a French or Spanish ship.” (Rickard, 2002). In the National Archives, officer letters to the admiralty consistently differ from Rickards view, often praising the enemy (National-Archives, 1809). However, N.A.M Rodgers suggests that officers had a “vested interest” (Rodger, 2004) in portraying the enemy as formidable as possible because of both the monetary reward and honour gained would be greater. Therefore, officer accounts written to the Admiralty were often misleading due to exaggeration. Technological advantages of British ships also prove their superiority over the French. The British employed unique innovations in their ships such as the gunlock in the Battle of Trafalgar which would not be seen in the French Navy for the next 30 years who according to Snow used a match, described as a “more primitive method” (Snow, 2018). The gunlock permitted much more accurate firing due to the more predictable discharge of the gun. British ships also used copper plated bottoms of their ships to reduce drag from barnacles. During the battle, the British were at a numerical disadvantage butand the superior craftsmanship and technology of the British fleet was important to decisive in the outcome. Although through the better-quality ships of the British were, the purpose instituted for them became easier to sail and more efficient, better quality ships were not the decisive in the Battle of Trafalgar, but they did c ontribute to the British making up their numerical deficit in comparison to the French fleet.

I would argue that Tactics were also not thedid not prove decisive factor in the Battle of Trafalgar. When it came to tactics, most ‘ship of the line’ naval engagements fought in the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ followed a common pattern. As Bennet states, fleets practiced“tactical orthodoxy” (Bennet, 2004), a method of naval fighting dating back a hundred years; Aa line of ships – hence the name ‘ship of the line’ – sailed astern of one another. they would sail towards another line of ships similarly arranged on the same tack. The two lines would position themselves side by side, exchanging broadsides until one side would retreat or surrender. The Battle of Trafalgar was an exception to this tactical rule, with Lord Nelson forming two lines of ships instead of one and sailing them at a 90 degree angle to the towards a perpendicular French fleet. Historians including Charles Ekins argue the approach was “unusual but decisive” (Innes, 1912) and provided a surprise tactic that the allied fleet couldn’t anticipate, providing an advantage to the British that directly chiefly led to victory. In contrast, Naval treaty writer, John Clerk of Eldin, advocates that the tactic had already been used by Rodney at the Battle of the Saints, during the 1782 Antilles campaign, by Howe during the Glorious First of June (1794), and by Duncan at Camperdown (1797) (González-Aller, 1989). A tactical innovation did indisputably come out of the Battle of Trafalgar as both Nelson and Collingwood’s flagships led the British lines into the French. (Grove, 2015) This was unprecedented as before, flagships would situate themselves in the middle of the line for protection. The importance of issue with this is the fact that the flagships were always the most heavily armed and largest ships of the fleet. By locating the largest ships at the front, Nelson maximised the damage output of his fleet. Although the tactics Nelson employed did not conform with most naval engagements of the time, it would be naïve to assume the allied fleet could not anticipate it. Regardless of what formation each side devised, a key component to execute any naval attack lies in the ability to use the wind to one’s advantage.

The battle of Trafalgar began at dawn with clear skies and a light wind. Forming two squadrons, according to a British eyewitness, the British ships to the west were “swelling”, suggesting that the wind might die at any time. Therefore, an immediate attack was necessary to ensure the best possible odds. An attack could only be initiated by sailing ships when they had the ‘weather gauge’, a term used for a fleet upwind of its opponent. The advantage of having the ‘weather gauge’ comes with the security of being able to decline any upwind attack as square-rigged ships cannot face more than seventy degrees into the wind. Nelson held the ‘weather gauge’ and was therefore able to advance downwind forcing the combined fleet to meet his attack. Regardless of the tactic chosen, little or no wind spells death for an attacking fleet; maneuvering capability would be reduced, no forward propulsion, disorderly formations. Unfortunately, as the battle commenced, the wind died down to a point where Nelson’s flag ship HMS Victory closed slowly with the allied fleet, under continuous fire and unable to return fire herself. Collingwood’s ship HMS Royal Sovereign led the second column and caught a stronger wind to the south, propelling him forward faster than the rest of the fleet. Collinwood broke through the allied line first and was immediately engaged by four allied ships. In the course of the battle, Collingwood engaged a total of eight allied ships. An effective and organized opposing fleet would have completely ripped apart a fleet attacking in such light wind conditions and positions. The wind helped the allied fleet at the beginning of the battle, since they were able to deliver multiple broadsides into an enemy unable to respond. The tables turned when Britain broke through the allied line. British ships were now capable of delivering broadsides from both sides of the ship into their neighbors whilst the allies were occupied with maneuvering and repositioning in light wind conditions. Mathew Beard stresses that due to a “breakdown in communication and a lack of wind, many the (allied) ships were out of range for most of the battle”. The wind prevented the vanguard and rear of the allied line from relocating to support the portions of their line that had been cut by the English. Nelson himself warned his captains in his memorandum to “be ready to receive their Twenty Sail of the Line” if the allied ships were to relocate and support their cut line. Although Villeneuve anticipated Nelson’s tactic, the wind prevented the allied vanguard from supporting the rest of the line. As a consequence, the British were able to destroy the main body of the allied fleet piecemeal. Now we turn to the truly decisive factor in the british victory. The fact that the british fleet survived the initial approach phase of the battle The matter can only be attributed to the slow rate and inaccurate allied fire.

Paramount to winning any naval battle in the Napoleonic Wars was the ability to speedily load and fire the great guns. Technologically, with the exception of the above mentioned firing mechanism Naval cannon were identical across all navies. Sizes of cannon were classified according to weight of shot, a two or three deckd ship of the line might carry 18 or 24 pounders on the upper deck and 36 pounders on the lower gun decks. Some of nelsons ships like the victory also had short barrelled from long barrelled eight pounders to the heaviest 68-pound carronades on Nelson’s Victory. The process of reloading an 18 pounder could take at least 6 men. The gun crew for a 36 pounder?/, the Each seaman filled a designated role in the reload process, from swabng, loading andto running out a two-ton piece of cast bronze. Rapid reloading was highly valued by the British, driving the Admiralty to create the Article XXXV in the Regulations and Instructions of 1745. Directed to every Royal Navy Captain, the article states that ‘…he is to discipline the ship’s company frequently in the exercise of the great guns and small arms, to render them more expert in time of battle, and to set down in his journal the times he exercises them’. The ability to fire faster than the opponent was key to the British success in the Battle of Trafalgar since every volley would damage the enemy ships integrity, personnel, cannons, and significantly reduce enemy morale. The British were at a significant disadvantage in terms of striking power compared to the allied fleet. Striking power can be calculated as the total ‘weight of broadside’, which is the sum of the weight of every loaded cannonball capable of being fired from the fleet. As Mark Adkin calculates, the “Total weight of Broadside was 19.5 tons for the English. Total weight of Broadside was 27.5 tons for the allies.” Therefore, the combined fleet had a significant offensive advantage over the English. The English had to make up their deficit through rate of fire. G.L Newham affirms that Nelson’s second in command, Collingwood “was accustomed to tell them (the crew), that if they could fire three well-directed broadsides in five minutes, no vessel could resist them; and, from constant practise, they were enabled to do so in three minutes and a half.” The French and the Spanish were considerably slower than the English due to the combined fleets being blockaded in port for months without training. The combined fleet was only able to fire one broadside every four to five minutes. Nelson stated that he sought a “pell mell battle”, which is a close-range, chaotic fight won through superior British gunnery, rather than not necessarily tactical advantage achievd through manuevering. In order to justify Nelson’s aggressive tactics, one must understand the British naval culture.

Undoubtedly, the British took the initiative in the Battle of Trafalgar, sailing directly towards the combined fleet. Tactics simply were not the driving factor of the attack. The confidence to launch a “mad perpendicular attack” greatly contributed to the decisive victory. In fact, virtually every naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars between the British and the French was instigated by the British. On a global scale, Britain was a maritime nation and aggression was necessary to avoid a French land invasion. If the British navy could not prevent an invasion, the bitish army was unlikely tocould not repel the invader. Britain also needed to maintain extensive trade routes and colonies stretching from the New World, to Indo-China, relying on the Royal Navy’s ability to swiftly and effectively protect such a vast network. Clowes calculates that during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain captured 634 French ships compared to the France’s 143. This culture of aggression in the navy, according to Lord William Laird Clowes permitted Britain to command such a vast empire. N.A.M Roger agrees with this assertion, stating that “British officers encountered opponents who expected to be attacked, and more than half expected to be beaten.” Britain was consistently capturing and sinking French ships, lowering the French navy’s morale and creating an attitude of expected defeat.

The reason for France’s timidity when confronting the British stemmed from the French desire to preserve as many ships of the line as possible given France’s much smaller battle fleet compared to Britain’s. The British had 136 Ships of the Line in 1805, compared to France’s 41. The French would rather try to escape, losing a few ships in the process than risking the entire fleet, which would impact their smaller navy tremendously. The Battle of Trafalgar was no exception to this French mindset. Before the battle, the French fleet led by Villeneuve attempted to retreat to the port of Cadiz, but quickly realized Nelson’s fleet would intercept them before reaching port. Recognizing his fleet could not escape, Admiral Villeneuve set up a hasty line of ships astern, perpendicular to where the approaching British fleet would arrive. Sombrely expressing the attitudes of the captains under his command before the battle, Villeneuve stated that “none to them will decide to put themselves at risk with brave determination”. The admiral himself went into the battle half expecting to be beaten, revealing the devastating effect of Britain’s culture of aggression on the French navy. Contrary to the Villeneuve’s and the French navy’s diffident attitude, N.A.M Rodgers argues the execution of British Admiral John Byng in 1757 by the Royal Navy sparked “a culture of aggressive determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries”. Byng had led a fleet during the Battle of Minorca, tasked with relieving a garrison on the island. Byng was confronted by a superior French fleet and retreated. Upon his return to England, Byng was court martialled and accused under the 12th Article of War for failing to “do his utmost” to relieve the garrison. The penalty for breaking the 12th Article was death, resulting in Byng being publicly executed on his own quarterdeck. N.A.M Rodgers asserts that the legacy of the execution of Byng was an absolute understanding for the next hundred years within the Royal Navy that retreat in the face of the enemy could mean death. In Voltaire’s novel Candide, he satirically references Byng’s execution by writing “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”. Paragraph? Another large incentive for the British fleet in attacking the French, was prize money. Upon capturing an enemy ship, every member of the crew would receive a ‘cut’ of prize money. The captain would receive a tremendous sum, 3/8 of the captured ship’s value. The remainder would be split among the rest of the crew; a member of the crew could earn more than a year’s wages from one captured vessel. The zest the crew would fight with was in large part due to the monetary reward affiliated with victory. Whatever the individual motivation, the Royal Navy could not be matched in its aggression. Dominating the battle of Trafalgar was no exception. Regardless of tactics, the fervour of the attack, the passion and the morale with which the British executed the assault, evoked a desperation in the French which arguably “won them the battle before a cannon was fired.” Aggression alone was not sufficient. Skilled seamanship was also necessary.

Skill of British commanding officers played a crucial role in the Battle of Trafalgar. Officers were tasked with directing the crew in most actions they performed. Superior officers allowed for superior tactics and manoeuvres. Without officers, ships of the line would cease to function, let alone fight an enemy. The better the officers, the better the ship. To ensure the best possible commanding officers, the Royal Navy practiced meritocracy. Essentially, the only way to progress through the ranks of the Royal Navy was through excellence and recognition. Contrary to the British army, (and the French and Spanish navies for that matter) it was forbidden in the Royal Navy for noble families to purchase a commission. Allen Lane stresses that “The officers of the Royal Navy were both professional and veterans of war”. Even British admirals came from the middle class including both Nelson, and Collingwood. Aspiring officers would have to pass a lieutenant’s exam in front of a board of senior captains. The French and the Spanish navies did not follow the British example. Being an officer was associated with status and class, only available to rich nobility, independent of experience. Villeneuve and the Spanish Admiral Gravina both bought positions in their respective navies. Furthermore, Spain and France even allowed the purchaseof petty officer commissions. These individuals that were more directly involved with operating the ship to be bought. As a result, the French and the Spanish had less capable officers, leading to a generally poorer quality fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar compared to the British. Vargas Ponce, A Spanish naval historian of the time confirmed that “Gravina had risen to power through royal favours and did not have the steadfastness” necessary for a man of his rank. Furthermore, Vargas Ponce suggests that when “truth reveals our history, it would show the affable, officious Gravina as one of the causes of the moral decadence in the Spanish Navy”. Vargas Ponce proposes that the lack of proper leadership as the reason for a dysfunctional navy. Without a proper system of management over a ship through its officers, no coordinated attack could take place. For the British, quality officers permitted the fleet at Trafalgar to work the ships at maximum efficiency. Tactics were not decisive, on the contrary, a decisive factor was the dedication and skill displayed by British officers. Put simply, French officers could not match the British.

In conclusion, the battle of Trafalgar was a necessity for the British. British trade was being contested, the Franco-Spanish fleet was on course to converge with the ‘Grande Armée’, and Britain was in dire need of fresh ships. The British fleet did use tactics as a mean to attack the French, sailing in two columns, launching perpendicularly at the French however, question arises as to whether Nelson’s tactics themselves contributed to the victory? Had it been the French who had used the exact same tactics as the British, the French would have been indisputably pulverized due to an inability for the columns to return fire before they crossed the enemy line. In my opinion, any capable British admiral could have led an equally decisive victory over the French. Factors that extended beyond mere planning and tactics such as the wind conditions, the expectation of British sailors to win, and superior fire rate of the British would have led to a similar outcome. All in all, overshadowed by other key factors, tactics did not play a vital role in the Battle of Trafalgar.

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