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Trafalgar, Battle of


Subject History » Military History

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631168485.1994.x


(21 October 1805) On 25 May 1804, Napoleon abandoned the idea of a surprise crossing of the Straits of Dover by the Boulogne flotilla without the support of a fleet. He revived the old ancien régime plan of bringing together the Toulon, Brest and Spanish fleets to gain temporary superiority in the Channel. On paper, these forces should have been equal to the task but the calculation was purely numerical. The Spanish navy had always been short of seamen; since 1792, its timber supplies from the Baltic had been cut off, and it had not cast a single naval cannon. The French fleet had been disrupted by a medical disaster and the effects of the Revolution. The death of Admiral La Touche-Tréville (20 August 1804) led Napoleon to place Villeneuve in command of the Toulon squadron. The plan was for the Toulon squadron to draw the British fleet towards the West Indies before hastening back to combine with the Brest fleet. It was hoped that the Channel would then be clear. The British, however, had adopted their now customary policy of close blockade of Brest, which rendered the escape of the Brest fleet problematic. The British Mediterranean fleet under Nelson could not, however, so readily close Toulon. When Villeneuve sailed, Nelson thought he was making for Egypt, and so lost time in searching to the eastward. The poor state of the French ships and crews rendered their voyage slow; ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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