The Impact of Trafalgar: What Was the Real Significance of the Battle?

Feb 2019
873
Serbia
The Battle of Trafalgar is, at least in popular memory seen as the romantic decisive engagement that saw Britain decisively victorious and their enemies utterly crushed, ruining the invasion plans of Napoleon once and for all, but is this really the case?

After the battle extensive propaganda was made covering the triumph and Nelson's death. Romanticizing the event heavily with the action off Cape Ortegal seen as a ''completion'' of sorts. However looking at the developments that followed I'm not convinced that the battle was so ''decisive''.

First the question of the battle ending the threat of invasion. Looking at the state of the French and British fleets it seems to me that the invasion wasn't possible to begin with, at least in 1805. Britain was surrounded by large fleets, most notably in the Channel and the North Sea, the 33 Franco-Spanish Ships of the Line and the 8 smaller ones likely weren't enough to carry out an invasion. Furthermore Napoleon didn't abandon the idea of invasion. In 1807 he began to rebuild his fleet, investing many 10s of millions of pounds in ports such as Antwerp, by 1813 or so his fleet was more than rebuilt, numbering about 80 ships with a few dozen more under construction. Napoleon most certainly did not give up on the navy after Trafalgar.

The battle did not cripple the French navy either, as seen by the growth of the French and British fleets and many actions all over the world, no battle could compare in size to Trafalgar but still, there were battles. So much so that in late 1805, only a few months after Trafalgar 2 French squadrons left Brest, one headed for the Indian Ocean and the other to the Caribbean, the latter would conclude in the Battle of San Domingo which was in no way unimportant to the security of the British colonies in the region.

My question is: What was the real significance of Trafalgar? It was certainly a morale boosting event and a moral symbol of British naval superiority, but was its strategic effect really so great? The loss of over 20 French Ships of the Line was by no means minor, but was it inflated and romanticised into something that presents it as something far more decisive than it really was?

What do you think? Do you have any counter arguments to this? And if so, what do you think of Trafalgar's significance?
 
Apr 2014
395
Istanbul Turkey
It is not just ships but loss of so many veteran French and Spanish crews that crippled French Navyand Spanish naval efforts in future so bad. You can always construct a new fleet in time if you have resources (Napoleon was constructing a 99 ship of line navy by 1813) but trained seamen , naval officers and crews are harder to replace. French navy's morale took a considerable hit. (some French POWs held in England were unable to believe almost all Combined Fleet sunk) And after Trafalgar French Navy never tried to break out British naval blockade in large scale (except some doomed blockade running missions of a few frigates that sortied to high seas like Caribbean or Indian Ocean to reinforce isolated French garrisons there) Compared to Royal Navy , French Navy remained inexperienced due to inability to sail en masse and unable to find crews to man their ships (especially ships of line since after Trafalgar several battles like Battle of Santa Domingo , destruction of Cecily Squadron at Cadiz , Basque Roads were fought and British were victorious in each of them) French overseas trade just dried out due to British naval blockade and their inability to compate Royal Navy on open seas. Trade , customs revenue and income dried up across entire Europe and therefore economic and morale advantages passed to Britain despite Napoleon's hegomony over Europe.
 
Sep 2016
1,285
Georgia
What was the real significance of Trafalgar? It was certainly a morale boosting event and a moral symbol of British naval superiority, but was its strategic effect really so great? The loss of over 20 French Ships of the Line was by no means minor, but was it inflated and romanticised into something that presents it as something far more decisive than it really was?
Defeat at Trafalgar led to establishment of Continental System in 1806 by Napoleon. That essentially doomed his Empire.
 

nuclearguy165

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
4,783
Ohio, USA
Defeat at Trafalgar led to establishment of Continental System in 1806 by Napoleon. That essentially doomed his Empire.
Not really. The CS was started because there was really no other way to defeat Britain in a prolonged war (although it obviously had fatal side effects in terms of European commerce and diplomacy and was practically unworkable and thus not worth it) and that didn’t hinge at all on Trafalgar since Napoleon had before since abandoned plans to invade Britain. Even with 20 extra ships, Napoleon never would have achieved the superiority in the English Channel and North Sea that he needed to invade Britain. Trafalgar’s main effect was psychological.
 
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Sep 2016
1,285
Georgia
Not really. The CS was started because there was really no other way to defeat Britain in a prolonged war (although it obviously had fatal side effects in terms of European commerce and diplomacy and was practically unworkable and thus not worth it) and that didn’t hinge at all on Trafalgar since Napoleon had before since abandoned plans to invade Britain. Even with 20 extra ships, Napoleon never would have achieved the superiority in the English Channel and North Sea that he needed to invade Britain. Trafalgar’s main effect was psychological.
Than why did Napoleon organize a camp at Boulogne ? The camp was established by Napoleon in 1803 and continued until 1805. This was where he assembled the Army of the Ocean or Armée des côtes de l'Océan to invade Britain.

There was no other way to defeat Britain after 1805, because Napoleon completely failed in his attempt of invading Britain.

Not to mention, that Napoleon already had idiotic Egypt campaign on his record. So this is nothing new for a ,, Corsican Monster ''.
 
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May 2017
1,160
France
But this defeat hinds another problem.If Villeneuve defeats Nelson,the "big army" has the possibility to pass the channel and to invade England;but the Russians and the Austrians invade France….And the troops must go back ?
 

Maki

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
3,566
Republika Srpska
But this defeat hinds another problem.If Villeneuve defeats Nelson,the "big army" has the possibility to pass the channel and to invade England;but the Russians and the Austrians invade France….And the troops must go back ?
Didn't Napoleon abandon his plans for an invasion of the UK even before Trafalgar?
 
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Feb 2019
873
Serbia
It is not just ships but loss of so many veteran French and Spanish crews that crippled French Navyand Spanish naval efforts in future so bad. You can always construct a new fleet in time if you have resources (Napoleon was constructing a 99 ship of line navy by 1813) but trained seamen , naval officers and crews are harder to replace. French navy's morale took a considerable hit. (some French POWs held in England were unable to believe almost all Combined Fleet sunk) And after Trafalgar French Navy never tried to break out British naval blockade in large scale (except some doomed blockade running missions of a few frigates that sortied to high seas like Caribbean or Indian Ocean to reinforce isolated French garrisons there) Compared to Royal Navy , French Navy remained inexperienced due to inability to sail en masse and unable to find crews to man their ships (especially ships of line since after Trafalgar several battles like Battle of Santa Domingo , destruction of Cecily Squadron at Cadiz , Basque Roads were fought and British were victorious in each of them) French overseas trade just dried out due to British naval blockade and their inability to compate Royal Navy on open seas. Trade , customs revenue and income dried up across entire Europe and therefore economic and morale advantages passed to Britain despite Napoleon's hegomony over Europe.
A couple of points:

From what I've read Napoleon aimed for 150 ships, not 99.

Trained officers were something that was denied by the British blockade, this was also present at Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleets didn't get enough time at sea to practice and train.

A minor point but almost none of the combined fleet sunk, almost all ships were captured with some going down in the storm that followed and on a few the captured crews overwhelmed the British and took the ships back.

French trade was swept from the sea and the ports were blockaded as soon as war was declared in 1803, way before Trafalgar and I would argue that it was this blockade that sealed France's fate.

There were several sorties of the French fleets, notably at Toulon though almost nothing came of them as the ships withdrew to port without bringing on a battle.
 
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Feb 2019
873
Serbia
Didn't Napoleon abandon his plans for an invasion of the UK even before Trafalgar?
Not necessarily. The plans were ended due to the outbreak of the 3rd Coalition and the Army of England was moved away from the Channel coast, this was before Trafalgar. However he didn't give up the idea of invading Britain even after Trafalgar.
 
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May 2017
1,160
France
I don t understand why the allied didn t win this war.The English could debark in Belgium,and the Austrians had just to retreat-instead of stationing in Ulm-in the direction of the Russians,and after joining them,waiting for the entrance of Prussia in the war.