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Posted on Mar 19, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Battle of Trafalgar

By Nicky Nielsen

Nelson’s plan of action, which he had dubbed “The Nelson Touch” was not immediately apparent to the French fleet until around 9.00 o’clock. The French admiral Villeneuve who was positioned aboard his flagship Bucentaure, later wrote: “[…] I was able to make out that their fleet was formed in two columns, of which one was heading directly for my flagship and the other toward the rear of the Combined Fleet.” Nelson’s plan was simple, yet ingenious: He had arranged his 27 ships-of-the-line into two columns, The Weather Column, which would be lead by himself onboard the Victory and the Lee Column which would be lead by his old friend Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, onboard the Royal Sovereign. The British Navy would be facing 33 French and Spanish ships-of-the-line, divided into four squadrons. Nelson’s plan was to drive the two columns of British ships in between the battle line of the Combined Fleet, rendering them unable to assist each other or cooperate during the battle.


Detail showing the plan of attack

As the battle drew nearer Nelson wandered around the quarterdeck dressed in his Admirals frockcoat, covered with medals and distinctions. The ship’s surgeon Dr. William Beatty was concerned about Nelson’s safety and pointed out, to the ships Chaplain Alexander Scott, that Nelson would be an ideal target for enemy snipers during the engagement. The Chaplain told Beatty that advising Nelson on safety measures, was never a good idea. The admiral had a history of reckless daring and Scott told Beatty that suggesting to Nelson such a cowardly act as not wearing full uniform during battle, would most certainly result in great anger on Nelson’s part. Cocky and confident as always, Nelson told his friend Captain Hardy, that “he [Nelson] would not be content with capturing less than twenty sail of the Line […]”.

At 11.56 a.m. on the 21st of October, 1805, Nelson ordered a signal to be hoisted into the mast of the Victory. As the message spread to the other ships of the British fleet, cheers erupted from officers and crew alike. The message from Nelson to all of his troops was: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” As the opening shots of the battle was fired by the French 74-gun ship-of-the-line Fougueux at Collingswood’s lee division, Nelson’s encouraging signal was replaced by the last signal sent from the Victory during the battle: “Engage the enemy more closely”. The coloured flags would remain at the topgallant mast of the Victory until French cannon fire shot them away in the course of the day.

At 12.20 p.m. all of the British ships were locked in combat with their French counterparts. The Victory fought alongside the Redoutable. The two ships were blasting each other apart at point-blank range with canons, hurled grenades and musket fire. Admiral Nelson and Captain Hardy were, in the word of Dr. Beatty: “in conversation [on the quarterdeck] while the enemy kept up an incessant raking fire.” A cannonball hit the quarterdeck and a splinter from the woodwork tore the buckle of Captain Hardy’s shoe. Nelson stopped and remarked with a smile: “This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long. “ And Admiral Nelson was right.

At 1.25 p.m. the French sergeant Robert Guillemard climbed the Redoutable’s mizzen top carrying his sniper musket. He was surveying the decks of the British ship looking for a target. Suddenly, through the thick haze of smoke that enclosed both ships, he spotted a figure he took to be Admiral Nelson. Sergeant Guillemard survived the battle and later wrote: “From what I had heard of Nelson I had no doubt that it was he. He was surrounded by several officers, to whom he seemed to be giving orders.” The sergeant, however, could not take proper aim with the constant movement of the ship, due to the rising waves and the constant canon fire. He simply aimed at the group of officers surrounding Nelson and fired a shot that would fly directly into the history books. He writes: “All at once I saw great confusion on board the Victory: the men crowded round the officer whom I had taken for Nelson. He had just fallen, and was taken below, covered in a cloak. The agitation shown at this moment left me no doubt that I had judged rightly, and that it really was the English admiral.”

The moment Nelson fell on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory

As Nelson fell on the quarterdeck, a musket ball having entered through his shoulder and shattered his spine, he covered his face in a handkerchief so that the sailors would not see their admiral being carried below and lose heart. Down below, Dr. Beatty was working frantically to save the lives of the dozens of wounded and dying men. He did not realize that Nelson had been brought down until one of the wounded men called: “Mr. Beatty, Lord Nelson is here. Mr. Beatty, the admiral is wounded.” As Dr. Beatty rushed to Nelson’s side, the Admiral looked sadly up at him and said: “Ah, Mr. Beatty! You can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live: my back is shot through.” As Beatty examined Nelson he realized that the Admiral was right. Nelson described a feeling of rushing blood inside his chest and a lacking ability to breathe. Dr. Beatty, although he did not admit this to Nelson’s face, concluded that the musket ball had torn through the Admirals chest and left severe internal bleedings before lodging in the Admiral’s spine.

As Dr. Beatty worked to save Nelson’s life the Chaplain Alexander Scott came below. It was he who had earlier told Beatty not to alert the Admiral to the dangers of enemy snipers. Now the Chaplain wrung his hands in grief and cried “Alas, Beatty, how prophetic you were!”

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