wisdom to win

 Wisdom to Win
search bar left
search bar right

The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy


The Battle of Trafalgar (1805)


Famous for...


1. British successThe Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

A crushing defeat of the French and Spanish fleets on 21st October 1805 by the British navy led by Horatio Nelson (pictured right)

His battleship, Victory, is now in Portsmouth harbour in southern England.


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

This was Nelson’s message (signalled by flags) to his fleet just before the battle:


3. Nelson’s heroic death 

He did say to one of his officers (Thomas Hardy):“Kiss me, Hardy”.

But his actual dying words were:

“Thank God I have done my duty” and finally... 

“God and my country”


Where did it happen?

Near Cadiz and Cape Trafalgar off the coast of south-western Spain.


Nelson’s other victories


1797 Battle of Cape St. Vincent

(defeating the Spanish fleet).


1798 Battle of the Nile 

(defeating the French).


1801 Battle of Copenhagen

Where Nelson:

  • defeated the Danish-Norwegian fleet.
  • famously ignored an order to stop fighting by turning his blind eye to his telescope.


Key people at Trafalgar


Horatio Nelson

Leader of the British fleet.

 The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

Cuthbert Collingwood (pictured right)

Nelson’s deputy.


Pierre Villeneuve

Leader of the French and Spanish fleets in the flagship, Bucentaure.


The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

Thomas Hardy (pictured right)

Captain of Nelson’s flagship, Victory.


Ships in battle

Nelson had 12 ships (against 16 of the enemy).

Collingwood had 15 (against 17) .


The battle plan

Two simultaneous attacks:

  • Nelson against Villeneuve, the French leader in the Bucentaure in the enemy's centre. 
  • Collingwood against the enemy’s rear.


Key events


11.30 am (approx.)

Nelson sends the signal:

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


11.50 amThe Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

Villeneuve  (pictured right) shows his flag and Nelson immediately heads for his ship, Bucentaure.


12.10 pm

Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign attacks the Spanish ship, Santa Ana.


The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

12.35 pm

After being under heavy fire for half an hour, Victory (pictured right) fires its first shots.

Victory's route is blocked and is forced to crash into the French ship, Redoutable.


1.15 pm

Nelson shot and carried below deck.

He covers his face and medals to conceal his fate from the enemy.


1.30 pm

The Redoutable surrenders.


2.15 pm

Villeneuve surrenders after the Bucentaure is destroyed.

The Santa Ana surrenders to Collingwood.

Collingwood's ship, the Royal Sovereign, is badly damaged after two hours fighting.


3.30 pm

Hardy (captain of the Victory) tells Nelson about the British victory.

Nelson reminds him to anchor the fleet.


The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

4.30 pm (approx)

Nelson dies with Hardy and asks “Kiss me, Hardy” as a sign of affection (pictured right in Daniel Maclise's painting).



What was the battle like?

Extremely dangerous and bloody with killed or wounded:

  • 1,700 British
  • 6,000 French and Spanish

Flying everywhere, killing and maiming people, were:

  • cannon balls (Britain's weighed 32 pounds ,France's 36).
  • musket balls.
  • broken timber (from the wooden ships).

Sailors lost their guts, legs, or arms.

Nelson was splattered with the blood of his decapitated secretary, John Scott.


Why Nelson won – the 6 C’s

(see also Horatio Nelson).


1. Charisma

His men loved him because of his:


a) courage

Nelson led from the front and lost in battle his

  • right arm (amputated without anaesthetic).
  • right eye.


b) energy and positive thinking


  • was optimistic.
  • always attacked the enemy (see point 2).


c) charm

He made everyone he met feel important.


d) enormous confidence and self-belief

Nelson was driven to be a hero by the insecurity caused by his:

  • boarding school.
  • mother’s death (at the age of 9).


e) brilliant leadership

See point 2.


2. Competence

He was a brilliant and revolutionary strategist who:


a) always attacked

Nelson attacked the enemy with daring and speed (to maximize confusion)

At Traflagar, this was very risky because the wind wasn't strong.


b) tried new tactics

He rejected the old idea of attacking in a single line parallel with the enemy.

At Traflagar, he attacked the enemy's centre and rear.


c) delegatedThe Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

He effectively delegated authority to people he knew the best and trusted like:

  • Cuthbert Collingwood (his deputy).
  • Thomas Fremantle, pictured right (captain of the Neptune).


d) listened to and involved his men in decision making

Collingwood said that Nelson “did nothing without my counsel”.



3. Communication

He was a great speaker with a talent for inspirational phrases like:

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

Nelson clearly informed all his commanders (see point 4) what he intended to do and what he wanted them to do.


4. Comradeship

He created effective teams and surrounded himself with brilliant officers like:The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

  • Collingwood.
  • Thomas Hardy.
  • Eliab Harvey, pictured right, (captain of the Temeraire which escorted the Victory) The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

The Temeraire was the subject of a famous painting, pictured right, by the English artist, J.M.W. Turner.



5. Commitment

Many men were involuntarily press ganged into the navy

But Nelson still inspired super-human effort from them – how?


a) character

This won his men's trust and respect.


b) fair treatment

(with strict discipline).


c) good pay and food 

Nelson never neglected people's physical needs.


d) excellent training and gunnery

The British guns and gunpowder were better than the enemy's

The British gunners were also trained to be much quicker (firing three broadsides in at least five minutes).


e) recognition

He gratefully rewarded and recognized other people’s achievements (never taking credit for them).


f) accepting full responsibility

(for what he did without blaming others).


g) effective communication

Nelson clearly communicated everyone’s aims in battle


h) empowerment

He gave his officers and men the responsibility to carry out his battle objectives, because he had total confidence in them (unlike the French commander, Villeneuve).


6. Conscience

Nelson was a moral paradox, deeply vane and ambitious but a selfless servant of God, his country and his men.

He was never hypocritical and stayed true to his values.



Results of Trafalgar

 The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy

1. Hero worship

Nelson became a national hero, leading to the construction of Nelson’s Column, pictured right, in Trafalgar Square, London (named after the battle).


2. Empire

Trafalgar gave Britain:

  • control of the world’s seas.
  • the ability to expand its empire.


Best book

Tim Clayton and Phil Craig, Trafalgar (2004)


Key quotes (by Nelson)


England expects that every man will do his duty (pre-battle message).


May humanity after victory be the predominant feature of the British fleet (pre-battle diary entry).


Thank God I have done my duty (last words).


Life with disgrace is dreadful. A glorious death is to be envied.


Other key quotes

The Battle of Trafalgar - Nelson, Leadership and Strategy


Britannia’s god of war.

(description of Nelson)

- Lord Byron, pictured right, the English poet.


He valued life only as it enabled him to do good and would not preserve it by any act he thought unworthy,

- Admiral Collingwood (describing Nelson).

Free Newsletter
Enter your name and e-mail address to receive our free newsletter with analysis of business issues and new business books