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Posted on Jan 7, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Revisiting Nelson and Trafalgar

By Luis Reis

Only one more major event occurred after the Battle of the Nile, before the Grand Final at Trafalgar. This time, April 1801, the conflict took place at a far northern site, at Copenhagen. Like the French at the Nile, the Danes decided to fight at anchor, drawn up in front of their capital city, Copenhagen. In many ways their position was much stronger than Aboukir Bay. They were in home waters and could take advantage of the shoals of the area. Unlike the French they had full warning of the enemy approach. They were close to their own shore batteries, normally almost invulnerable to attack by warships. There were no mistakes in anchoring, or in leaving a navigable gap between the ships and the shore, or in having large numbers of men ashore. The Danes had chosen to draw their ships up in a line on the west side of King’s Deep channel, instead of using them to block its north and south entrances. The British approach was thus difficult but not impossible for an admiral of Nelson’s calibre.


Nelson was given a squadron of 11 two-deckers and 6 frigates, specially chosen for their shallow draught. Nelson sailed south by an offshore channel and anchored at the south end of the Middle Ground shoal on 1 April. He then waited for a southerly wind to carry him up the King’s Deep alongside the Danish line. British knowledge of the area was sketchy. That night, Nelson sent Captain Thomas Hardy out in a boat to take soundings round the Danish position. Despite his reputation for making headlong and risky attacks, Nelson was meticulous on this occasion.

On 2 April around 9.30am the ships began to weigh anchor and set sail on a southerly breeze. The tactics of the Nile, engaging the enemy from both sides, were not feasible in these waters but Nelson still intended to concentrate his attack on two Danish ships at the southern end of the line. Apart from that, each of his ships was to engage the first of the enemy that it came to; the next one would pass it and go on to the next in the enemy line.

The battle was not a foregone conclusion and in the early afternoon the Danish fire was still heavy. Admiral Parker, thought things were going badly and hoisted the signal “discontinue the action”. The signal lieutenant informed Nelson of the message and the Admiral ordered that it be acknowledge but not obeyed or repeated to the other ships of the squadron. Nelson’s ships where nevertheless prevailing and at 2.30pm he offered a truce to give the Danes a chance to remove their wounded men ashore, and Nelson used the time to move some ships from position of danger. Bomb vessels were brought up to where they could shell the city, which was not yet exposed to attack. A fourteen-week truce was eventually agreed and news arrived soon after the battle that the unstable Czar Paul of Russia had been murdered. With his death, the Northern League collapsed.

The Battle of Copenhagen illustrated some well-established features of the Nelson technique. It was not the first time he had been insubordinate but it was by far the most famous. It showed his tactical awareness and his quick appreciation of weaknesses in an enemy position. His offer of truce to allow the Danes to remove their wounded may reflect a humanity which conflicts with his aggression elsewhere but the situation was more complex; Nelson had no personal hatred for the Danes and civilian casualties would have been caused had the affair gone any further. The battle confirmed him as a popular hero and brought more rewards. He was raised in the peerage to his final title of Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe.

In May 1803, as war with the French resumed, Nelson was given command of the Mediterranean fleet, with his flag in the Victory. It was on the command of this ship that Nelson fought his last battle. The events that took place on 21 October 1805 are well known. Trafalgar was perhaps the most famous sea battle ever fought. It was the only one of Nelson’s three great actions which took place in the open sea, against ships which were sailing rather than at anchor. It gained dramatic effect because of the death of Nelson and because it was the last in the long series of major battles, going back over a century, between Britain and France. As a victory it has notable statistical significance; it was the only great battle in which large numbers of ships were captured despite the victors’ considerable numerical inferiority. It also confirmed the superiority of British seapower for a further century.

HMS Victory as she sits today at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard in
England – the oldest commissioned warship in the world

For the war as a whole it had rather less significance. Napoleon had already abandoned his invasion plans, so it did not alter the real balance of power in the way that the Nile had done. It did not end the naval war, which continued for almost another ten years, nor it destroy the French navy. The French soon built new ships and remained an intermittent threat to British sea power for the rest of the nineteenth century. In some ways the legend of Trafalgar was greater than the reality but its long-term effect on public opinion and on naval tradition was decisive.

Luís Reis

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