The Greatest Naval Victory in the history of the world.

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader will be lifting his glass today to toast Admiral Lord Nelson and the hearty tars of the Royal Navy as he celebrates the 204th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

On this day in 1805, Lord Nelson led the fleet into combat against the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar. By the end of the day the Franco-Spanish force was destroyed or driven to port. Any hope Napoleon had for invading Britain was dashed that day. The battle also resulted in about 100 years of complete naval supremacy by Britain over the seas of the world.

The late and very lamented hero of the hour:

Lord Nelson.

Nelson’s plan called for the fleet to be divided into two columns. The two columns would be sailed (under tremendous fire) into the Franco-Spanish line in a way that would bisect that line in two places.

You can see the plan in the illustration above. Or if you prefer you can click here for a nicer antique rendering of a similar image.

Before the battle Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, flew the following signal:

England expects that every man will do his D - U - T - Y.

And over the course of the day, every British sailor did his duty.

This last painting hangs in your Maximum Leader’s living room. (In case you cared.)

Of course, Nelson was killed by a sniper during the battle.

After the battle thousands of posters celebrating the victory were posted over the whole of the British Isles.

Your Maximum Leader has a similar poster that he needs to put up in his redesigned office. He wishes that he had a photo of it, because it is much cooler than the one depicted above.

Nelson’s body was preserved in rum and returned to a joyful nation who interred the hero in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Nelson’s Tomb St.Paul’s

Your Maximum Leader hopes that all you Anglophiles (and lovers of the fruits of the Anglo-Western tradition that we continue to enjoy in the US) will remember the great service done on behalf of civilization by Lord Nelson and the men of the Royal Navy over two hundred years ago.

Carry on.


I would argue that Trafalgar was only the third greatest naval victory in the history of the world. I’d have to put Salamis and Lepanto ahead of this one.

And if I were to make a top five list, it might go like this:

Tsushima / That time I dunked Chris Bailey off the coast of Florida (Tie)

I have to agree that you can make a compelling case for Salamis and Lepanto. Both of those do have the element of “lose this battle and western civilization will be lost.” (That element was not present at Trafalgar.) At some level you are just splitting hairs between all of these, except Tsushima. Tsushima was a great victory, but I’m not sure it qualifies to be on this list. Really now, the Japanese Navy beating up on the Russian Baltic Fleet?

Robbo said:

Well, if it comes to putting the bitch-slap down, I think Trafalgar is actually closer to Tsushima than Salamis, Lepanto or Midway. Remember that the Royal Navy had been thrashing the Frogs with increasingly spectacular results for twenty-odd years by then and that the Frogs were thoroughly frightened of them. All Villenueve wanted was to get away so that he could go help with Boney’s invasion.

Salamis, Lepanto and Midway all had about them the element of the good guys being the underdogs (whether this was warranted or not), and surprise on the part of the losers at getting so thoroughly kyboshed. Nelson set out to do exactly what he did: crush the French. And everybody (including the French) knew that this was exactly what Nelson was going to do if and when he caught them.

Eric said:

… as a fan of British Naval History, you should do a post on why the Brit officers have to carry their swords in their hands instead of using a frog like every other branch of the British military…

Fear and Loathing in Georgetown said:

I’m sorry for being late to the discussion, but nobody seems to have mentioned Actium. Give Agrippa is due.

Fear and Loathing in Georgetown said:

That’s “his due”

All in all I must completely agree with Robbo. The Brits had been defeating the French (and everyone else) for at least 20 years prior to Trafalgar.

Trafalgar is greater than any of the prior British victories over the French (and everyone else) by orders of magnitude. It was an arse-whupping on a scale that is still hard to fathom.

I’d have to give more thought to the matters of Lepanto, Salamis, and Actium. I’d have to check the facts, because I admit I can no longer recall them without assistance; but I seem to think that the Turks and Persians respectively left the battles cowed but continued to make war. Actium, I seem to remember, was sort of evenly matched.

I think Midway was the great equalizer of the Pacific. It knocked the Japanese down to a level comparable with the US. At least until the US war effort got fully ramped up.

FLG - No one gives Agrippa his due… Except you and me of course…

F&LinG is right, I think in mentioning Actium. It pretty much decided which way the second half of the Roman millennium was going to go. Greater world-historical significance than Tsushima, certainly. Which is why I jokingly called it a tie with the time I dunked my cousin. Tsushima was a masterful battle (on the part of the Japanese) and was not unimportant - it was the first time since before Lepanto that a western navy was defeated in a standup battle. It would be on any top ten, I think. Just maybe not top 5.

Of course, that gets you into the typical problem with top five lists - are you listing the most important, or the best? In order of historical importance, you’d have to go Salamis, Lepanto, Actium, Midway, Trafalgar.

Midway and Trafalgar, as devastating as they were, were not exactly decisive. Without Midway, the US would have still ended up producing nearly twenty times as many carriers as the Japanese, and won the war. It might have taken longer - but still. And as was pointed out, the British (except for the single exception of the period around the American Revolution) had been kicking French tookus for quite some time; and had Nelson not been able to force battle and corncob Villenueve so thoroughly the French still would have not been able to invade England. (the only believable counter-factual would have to involve a British incompetent seeking battle with the French and losing as decisively as the French actually did.) So, history wasn’t exactly at a turning point. Trafalgar just confirmed British Naval Superiority. (In a particularly awesome manner, to be sure.)

History would have been seriously different if Themisticles had lost at Salamis, or if Don Juan of Austria had lost at Lepanto, or if Mark Antony had become the first Roman Emperor.

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