Royal Naval Museum



Battle of Trafalgar Conference

Held at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Friday 14th – Saturday 15th October 2005

The French Perspective - Contre Amiral Rémi Monaque, Toulon, France

To French ears, the name Trafalgar always has a gloomy sound. In common language an unexpected, unjust and grievous event is still known as “un coup de Trafalgar”. In the French navy, the battle has been, if not completely ignored, at least remembered only for the death of Nelson, who spared no love for our nation, and for the heroism of our crews, sacrificed in unequal combat. Raised in this spirit, I was somewhat hesitant to undertake the research I am about to present to you.

Nelson did not save England from French invasion. In fact on the 23rd of August, Napoleon, who the day before had still been watching out for a sight of the combined fleet on the cliffs of Boulogne, suddenly gave up his master plan, and decided to march the Great Army towards the heart of Austria. He was at this time unaware that Villeneuve had since 15th August abandoned his course towards the mouth of the English Channel, and decided to turn back to Cadiz. When Villeneuve decided to sail out of Cadiz on the 18th of October, he was under new orders, sending him to the Mediterranean.  The tragedy of Trafalgar that evoked so much heroism and cost so many human lives was thus an unnecessary battle without any strategic stakes.

The lecture asks how this came about and goes on to consider the forces present - the quality of the men, Nelson’s ingenious tactics and the mistakes  historians have made in their analysis of what constitutes the “Nelson Touch”, the quality of ship construction and maintenance and British superiority in artillery. This brief overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the participating fleets allows us to draw the following conclusions. A British fleet, though slightly smaller in numbers, but homogenous and well trained, with correctly composed crews and far superior artillery, commanded by a prestigious and charismatic leader, is facing a Franco-Spanish fleet, heterogeneous by nature, untrained with largely improvised crews, placed under the command of an Admiral overwhelmed by pessimism. Under such conditions, everything pointed to a fast and easy victory for the British. However, fierce combat was needed before they could win through their enemy.

The lecture then considers the battle itself , the fate of the men, concluding that in total, barely a third of the Frenchmen men who fought in the battle ever saw France again, while the fate of the Spanish men was less cruel, as the losses of the battle and the storm were not increased by the suffering and disappearances caused by captivity, and then considers the fate of the three commanding Admirals.

The final part of the lecture looks at the lessons of Trafalgar and concludes that Trafalgar was hardly Nelson’s finest moment of glory. In this unnecessary battle, brought on by a desperate enemy’s near-suicidal initiative, he benefited of a considerable margin of superiority. This does not, obviously, lessen the greatness of his sacrifice or the nobility of his last moments. He will continue to be seen in international maritime history as the greatest naval personality of all times. Certain traits in his character, recently emphasised in British historiography, will, however, remain obstacles for uniform admiration among us French: his blind hatred and pronounced disrespect for our nation, his lack of cultivation and narrow-mindedness, his lasting desire to annihilate the enemy that left little place for other sentiments. Nevertheless, the great man has left a legacy of useful lessons to give all the seafarers of the world something to think about. These include:

  1. The organisation of naval command must be simple and clear.
  2. The importantce of a practical training at sea and therefore a selection process favouring young people with naval sense and an aptitude for leadership. In this respect, Nelson is a stunning example of precocious detection of outstanding talent.
  3. The success of inculcating a team spirit, or “band of brothers”. The English Admiral had a skill of making his thoughts known and shared by his subordinates, besides trusting them.
  4. Courage, sense of honour and love of one’s country were powerful motives that invigorated the fighters of all three nations. But we cannot count on surges of heroism to win a battle. Progressive, rational and realistic preparation is indispensable. This is pe

Back to top