Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Battle of Trafalgar

"England expects every man to do his duty."

—Nelson's signal.

T HE morning of October 21 dawned. It was one of the most important days in the history of the world, for on it, England won her greatest naval victory, and lost her greatest sailor, Lord Nelson.

The sun never rose on a grander scene. Thirty-three French and Spanish ships stretched in a long line covering five miles of sea, off the coast of Spain between Cadiz and Gibraltar. In the distance behind them, Cape Trafalgar was dimly visible in the brightening light against the eastern sky. Towering among the Spanish ships, was the Santissima Trinidad, with her 130 guns, the largest warship afloat, a gleaming mass of red and white. She had escaped the British at Cape St Vincent; she was not going to escape them again. The French and Spanish flagships were there in the midst, Villeneuve being in command of the whole.


Nelson Before Trafalgar.

The sea was very calm, the lightest of breezes ruffled its surface from time to time, while a long Atlantic swell rolled at intervals towards the straits.

Some ten miles away was the British fleet, numbering twenty-seven ships. It lay in two long columns. At the head of one was Admiral Collingwood on board the Royal Sovereign; at the head of the other was Lord Nelson, the hero of the Nile and Copenhagen, on board the Victory. He had come on deck soon after daybreak,—a "homely figure, slender, stooping, boyish—boyish still in spite of so many battle scars, with the careless hair lying low on his forehead." The empty sleeve of his right arm, his sightless eye, the weather-stained uniform, the orders shining on his breast—all spoke of faithful service to his country. to-day he was to complete that faithful service, by the surrender of his life.

Afraid lest the glitter of his medals should make him too great a mark for his foes, it was suggested to him to remove them.

"In honour I gained them," was the proud answer; "in honour I will die with them."

His plans for the battle had been made long ago. All through the moonless night, his signals had been flashing across the dark waters. He knew the position of the enemy's fleet. The order for sailing had been given, and the decks were being cleared for action, when Nelson withdrew to his cabin. There he was found a little later on his knees, writing, and this is what he wrote: "May the great God whom I worship, grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet. For myself, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is intrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen."

The British fleet was heading direct for the foe when Nelson next came on deck. It was about half-past eleven, when flags from the mast-head of the Victory, spelt out to the slowly moving ships Nelson's famous signal—"England expects every man to do his duty." It is said that a shout of approval greeted the admiral's message.

"I can do no more," said Nelson. "I thank God for this great opportunity of doing my duty."

On sailed the British ships in two lines, a mile apart, led by Nelson and Collingwood. They were sailing at right angles to the enemy's line, intending to cut it in two at two points. Nelson's old plan, of arranging for two English ships to attack one French, was at work. The French and Spanish flagships were in the middle of the line, and against them Nelson and Collingwood directed their course.

It was just after noon when a very tempest of shot was poured on to the Victory from eight great battleships around her. Nelson was pacing the deck, with his old friend and comrade Captain Hardy. Suddenly a shot passed between them. Both men started and looked at one another.

"This is too warm work to last long, Hardy," he said, smiling.

The Victory moved on amid tremendous fire. Her sails were riddled with shot, her topmast was falling; but still her guns were silent till, suddenly, she discharged at the French flagship a deafening crash of cannon-balls, which struck down 400 of her men and put twenty guns out of action at once. Moving on her way with dignity, she next attacked a French ship, the Redoubtable. Fiercely raged the battle now along the line. Fiercely fought French and Spanish, none more bravely than the Redoubtable herself. Nothing could exceed the valour of the French on board the little ship, now fighting for her life between the Victory and the Temeraire. With half her masts gone, her hull shot through and through, twenty of her guns out of action and more than half her crew dead or dying, she fought on, with a heroism worthy of victory. It was a shot from her, that killed England's greatest admiral.

He was pacing the deck with Hardy, when quite suddenly he fell, mortally wounded, with his face to the deck.


"They have done for me at last, Hardy," he exclaimed, as the captain picked him up. "My backbone is shot through."

It was true. The shadow of death had been over him all day.

"God bless you, Blackwood," he had said to one of his officers, before the action began; "I shall never speak to you again."

They carried the wounded man below. Bravely he covered his face and medals with a handkerchief that his sailors might not recognise him.

Few stories in history are more pathetic, than this one of the death of Nelson, in the hour of victory. Faithfully every word that fell from the lips of the dying man, has been recorded, until every child now knows the details of those last sad moments.

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