Horatio Nelson (1st Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronté), K.B., as a Vice-Admiral, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, oil on canvas, painted probably about 1800. (1760-1802). Painting is in the Terracotta Room, No. 10 Downing Street, London. The diamond encrusted decoration seen on the Admiral's hat, presented by Ottoman Sultan Selim III, was called a "Plume of Triumph," and contained a rotating clockwork centerpiece. The medals at the Admiral's neck are for the Battles of St. Vincent (1797) and the Nile (1798). Among other decorations, Nelson is wearing the red riband (just visible at the bottom of the picture) and the star (lower right) of the Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath, of which Admiral Nelson was a Knight Companion (K.B.).
Today is the anniversary of the naval battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805 off of the Atlantic coast of Spain, near Cape Trafalgar. In this greatest naval battle of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, a British fleet of 27 ships of the line, commanded by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, destroyed a Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships of the line, commanded by Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve.
Nelson died winning the splendid victory that he never, ever doubted his fleet would win. The French and Spanish possessed some splendid ships -- overall, they probably had better ships than the British. But the earlier purge of the very royalist French Navy officer corps by the republican revolutionaries and the enforced confining of the French Navy to port by the British blockade ensured that French crews and admirals, with some exceptions, were just not the equal of the experienced and well-trained British. The then-allied Spanish Navy suffered from similar troubles. Moreover, and fatally, the Franco-Spanish crews knew their limitations and were all too aware that they lacked the British tradition of victory at sea.
All through his reign, Napoleon tried hard to build a strong navy and invested vast sums and much personal attention in this effort; and to some extent, he succeeded in overcoming the years of naval neglect that characterized the last years of the Bourbon monarchy and the chaos on top of neglect brought by the revolutionary First Republic. From the moment Napoleon took power, he oversaw a vast material reconstruction and expansion of the French Navy, seeing to the construction of building yards, harbors and bases, and hundreds of ships.
But the French Navy's problems were not as much material as moral. Napoleon really tried to improve the conditions, training and doctrine of his naval personnel; but, in general, the landlubber Emperor never understood the morale and training limitations of his sea service (let alone the constraints at sea imposed by weather, tides and geography) and never found an admiral who could transcend them. Consequently, the French and their Spanish allies entered any sea battle half-beaten before a shot was fired.
Although Trafalgar was decisive, its effects were more transient than usually recognized. The British victory temporarily abated the threat of a French invasion of Britain, to the extent this peril was then a real one. (It is even possible that Admiral Sir Robert Calder's earlier, tactically indecisive encounter the previous July with the French off Cape Finisterre was more strategically decisive in terms of blocking an invasion). But the French fleet Nelson destroyed was only one of Napoleon's fleets, and the French Navy in fact ended the Napoleonic Wars stronger in terms of ships than it had been at the time of Trafalgar. Had Napoleon really cared to, he could have resurrected the invasion threat, with possibly greater chances of success, at any time from about 1808 through the time he invaded Russia in 1812.
The moral and economic effects of the British victory were possibly greater: it enabled the British to temporarily make their continental blockade tighter, and in the near term possibly decided waverers in various European courts in favor of supporting British measures against France and her allies. But the decisive battles of 1805 were on land, and were French victories (Ulm and Austerlitz). The outcome of the Napoleonic wars was decided in 1812-13, by events in Russia and Germany, and was only secondarily (but strongly) affected by British sea power.
Still, the British won a great victory at Trafalgar, and the memory of the battle, and of Admiral Nelson -- who deserves his place as Britain's greatest naval hero -- set the pattern that navies of all powers sought to emulate for almost 200 years.