“When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottom boats and his Grande Army, he was told, ‘There are bitter weeds in England.’” – Winston Churchill
There was certainly one bitter weed, and he had already sacrificed one arm and his sight in one eye defending his country. His name was Horatio Nelson, Vice Admiral of the British Navy, and this week (Oct. 21) in 1805 he led the most important naval victory in British history when the 27 line-of-battle ships under his command defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet of 33 “flat-bottomed” ships under the command of French Admiral Pierre Villeneuve at the Battle of Trafalgar.
In ensuring a British victory, Nelson not only prevented France’s Emperor Napoleon from invading Britain with his 130,000-man “Grande Army,” Nelson also ensured a “Pax Brittanica,” in which British naval supremacy, which would last for the next 100 years, gave Europe, and much of the British Empire, a measure of stability not previously enjoyed.
To be sure, Nelson did not defeat Napoleon — that would take another battle a decade later (at Waterloo in the Netherlands) — but he did prevent Napoleon from becoming master of Europe. Napoleon had long considered Britain the chief obstacle to his controlling the European continent, and had thought that if he could command the English Channel just long enough to send an invasion fleet from Boulogne to the English coast, his Grande Army would easily destroy any defending army the British could muster. The only thing in his way was the British Navy, which for years had been watching Napoleon’s every move and had engaged in a quasi-blockade of every port in Europe in which French warships were docked.
Finally, frustrated and impatient, Napoleon ordered Villeneuve, whose ships were off Spain’s coast at Cadiz, to “break out” of the blockade and sail for England, but near Cape Trafalgar off the Spanish coast Nelson was waiting, and his battle instructions to his crew were very simple. “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
Four hours of cannon, musket fire and bloody hand-to-hand combat later, their duty was done and the battle won. Eighteen badly damaged French and Spanish ships had surrendered, a nineteenth had been destroyed, and Villeneuve had been captured.
And Nelson was dead. Just before the battle ended he was mortally wounded by a French sniper, but he died knowing he had been victorious. His last words were, “Thank God I have done my duty.”
To this day Nelson is considered the greatest naval officer in British history, and in 1849 a monument to him, the Nelson Column, was erected in the heart of London — at a place now called Trafalgar Square.