Trafalgar

Perhaps the most notable naval battle in history is that of Trafalgar, where the most famous naval officer, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, reaffirmed the British predominance on the high seas. The queen of the oceans would hold this position for another two hundred years.

Surprising as it may seem, both Copenhagen and Aboukir were more revolutionary in tactics than Trafalgar, but Trafalgar was the nail that sealed the coffin. At Aboukir and Copenhagen Nelson pioneered a maneuver where he sailed between the land and the enemy fleet while it lay at anchor, demolishing their line of battle without much opposition (at Copenhagen he did it despite the shore fortifications protecting the enemy fleet), but at Trafalgar, the French and Spanish were ready for the tactic, they had better ships and a larger fleet, yet Nelson’s superior training, sailing and gunnery won the day.

In part it was the mystique of the British navy and that few of the French captains were comfortable facing Nelson. Another aspect to the victory was that, unlike Napoleon’s admirals, Nelson simply set his course and doggedly pursued it. The short form of the battle is that Nelson approached the Combined Fleet in two columns, which he planned to intersect at two points, sail behind and smash the way he had at Aboukir. This was expected by his opponents, but he sailed up to and through the line without firing while the Combined Fleet wasted its shot. The first broadside tore apart the Combined Fleet and then the battle devolved into close range gunnery duels which favored the British.

Likewise, it is probably a good thing for the British that Trafalgar was so decisive, since Nelson died in it and while there were other capable officers in the fleet, there was not necessarily another Nelson.

One of the recurring themes in the history of warfare is that sometimes simply acting–setting a course and sticking to it–is what is best. Of course prudence requires you to know when to cut your losses.

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