History Royal Navy UK

Battle of Trafalgar : England expects that every man will do his duty

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought by the British against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies on 21st October 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars. But why is it so important and still remembered to this day?

Each year on the 21st October a ceremony is held on board HMS Victory, the oldest commissioned war ship in the world, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

It was a time when Britain’s wealth, prosperity and status as a nation on the world stage was guaranteed by the sailors of the Royal Navy. A battle which defined the Age of Sail and which sealed British dominion of the seas for a hundred years.

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Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson was 47 when he died. He joined the Royal Navy aged just 13.

Twenty-seven British ships led by Admiral Lord Nelson who was aboard HMS Victory defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships under the French Admiral Villeneuve in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships overall, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic war, conclusively ending French plans to invade England.

The ceremony remembers the loss of the country’s most famous naval leader and the lives of men on both sides who perished in the fierce battle.

The day starts with the daily naval ceremony of ‘Colours’, as the White Ensign of the Royal Navy and the Union flag are hauled up, followed shortly afterwards by the flag sequence indicating Nelson’s famous message to the Fleet that:

“England expects that every man will do his duty”.

Nelson’s final signal, as the mighty ships of the line of the Royal Navy and the combined Franco – Spanish Fleet clashed was “Engage the enemy more closely”.

The British victory spectacularly confirmed a naval supremacy that had been established during the eighteenth century, a status that was kept until the Second World War almost 150 years later. Although Nelson was killed in battle, he was not forgotten for securing Britain’s future as a world super-power: London’s famous Trafalgar Square was named in his honour, and his statue on Nelson’s Column, finished in 1843, towers triumphantly over it.

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HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Currently used as the flagship of the 1st Sea Lord.

 

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