- Hordern, Marsden
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Just over 50 years ago, on the even of the sesqui-century anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the London Times published an elegant four-page facsimile of its November 7, 1805 edition. The centre pages of the edition (1955) of The Times features news about army movements and political developments on the Continent, and the back page is all advertisements. Most people already know a lot about the battle itself and Nelson’s death, but one can read here much about what was going on behind the scenes. The immediacy of the despatch sets it apart from accounts published in many books.
The prestigious British newspaper, with its Royal Coat of Arms, gives some support to Napoleon’s dictum that “England is a nation of shopkeepers“. Although this dramatic news gets front page exposure it is only given second column space – after a column of paid advertisements!
Collingwood’s despatch is an insight into his character and his intimacy with Nelson, and the date it reached London is a commentary on the speed of communications now and then. After the sailors stopped fighting, friend and foe began their own battle with nature and Collingwood sensibly shifted his flag into HMS Euryalus (frigate – Captain Blackwood RN). There he remained, rolling and pitching in the rising gale, with wounded and dying men and ships all around him, waiting for casualty lists and damage reports from his captains. And there he sat, jammed into a chair in Blackwood’s cabin, drafting his report to his masters at the Admiralty. His despatch is a restrained account, written in superb English, by a sensitive man at a traumatic moment in his life.
It was vital to inform the Admiralty quickly of a victory which affected the whole strategy of the war, and Collingwood sent this despatch in the schooner HMS Pickle. Her young captain, Lieutenant Lapenotiere, clapped on all sail for Falmouth and, at 1 am on 7 November 1805, after a land journey few of us can contemplate today, he beat on the Admiralty’s door with this despatch in his hand. Lord Barham was shaken from his sleep and, after poring over it until 5 am, sprang into action.
He first sent a messenger off to Windsor to tell the King. It must have been a cold, dark and long horse-ride for that young man. Barham then wrote a despatch to Collingwood, appointing him to the Mediterranean Command and investing him with all the powers Nelson had held. He rushed it to Plymouth and sent it off in HMS Acasta. And, as the French still had the Rochefort Squadron in the Mediterranean and ships at Toulon which might attack Collingwood’s wounded fleet, Barham ordered all ships-of-the-line in Portsmouth and Plymouth to put to sea and reinforce Collingwood.
An extract of Collingwood’s despatch to the Admiralty reporting Nelson’s victory and death follows.
Collingwood’s second despatch (having first reported the conduct of the action at Trafalgar, and the circumstances of the death of Lord Nelson, the Commander in Chief):
Euryalus, off Cadiz, Oct 24, 1805
In my letter of 22nd, I detailed to you, for the information of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, the proceedings of his Majesty’s squadron on the day of the action, and that proceeding it, since which I have had a continued series of misfortunes; but they are of a kind that human prudence could not possibly provide against, or my skill prevent.
On the 22nd, in the morning, a strong southerly wind blew, with squally weather, which, however, did not prevent the activity of the Officers and Seamen of such ships as were manageable, from getting hold of many of the prizes (thirteen or fourteen), and towing them off to the westward, where I ordered them to rendezvous round the Royal Sovereign, in tow by the Neptune: but on the 23rd the gale increased, and the sea ran so high that many of them broke the tow rope, and drifted far to leeward before they were got hold of again; and some of them, taking advantage of the dark and boisterous night, got before the wind, and have, perhaps, drifted upon the shore and sunk; on the afternoon of that day the remnant of the Combined Fleet, ten sail of ships, who had not been much engaged, stood up to leeward of my shattered and straggled charge, as if meaning to attack them, which obliged me to collect a force out of the least injured ships, and form to leeward for their defence; all this retarded the progress of the hulks, and the bad weather continuing, determined me to destroy all the leewardmost that could be cleared of the men, considering that keeping possession of the ships was a matter of little consequence, compared with the chance of their falling again into the hands of the enemy; but even this was an arduous task in the high sea which was running. I hope, however, it has been accomplished to a considerable extent; I entrusted it to skilful officers, who would spare no pains to execute what was possible. The Captains of the Prince and Neptune cleared the Trinidad and sunk her. Captains Hope, Bayntun, and. Malcolm, who joined the fleet this moment from Gibraltar, had the charge of destroying the four others. The Redoubtable sunk astern of the Swiftsure while in tow. The Santa Anna, I have no doubt, is sunk, as her side was almost beat in; and such is the shattered condition of the whole of them, that unless the weather moderates I doubt whether I shall be able to carry a ship of them into port. I hope their Lordships will approve of what I (having only in consideration the destruction of the enemy’s fleet) have thought a measure of absolute necessity.
Have taken Admiral Villeneuve into this ship; Vice Admiral Don Aliva is dead. Whenever the temper of the weather will permit, and I can spare a frigate (for there were only four in the action with the fleet, Euryalus, Sirius, Phoebe, and Naiad; the Melpomene joined the 22nd, and the Eurydice and Scout the 23rd) I shall collect the other flag officers, and send them to England, with their flags, (if they do not all go to the bottom), to be laid at his Majesty’s feet.
There were four thousand troops embarked, under the command of General Contamin, who was taken with Admiral Villeneuve in the Bucentaure. I am,
(signed) C. COLLINGWOOD