Nelson's celebrated strategy to break the Franco-Spanish line-of-battle in two places when he brought the enemy to action was to win him the greatest victory in the long history of war at sea. It was not achieved without loss however and its most serious disadvantage was that his own flagship Victory and those vessels immediately astern of her were subjected to a withering fire for well over half-an-hour before they were able to reply. Suffering heavy casualties as a result, it was not until just after 12.30pm. that Victory finally cut the enemy line between Bucentaure (Villeneuve's flagship) and Rédoubtable, closely followed by H.M.S. Téméraire and H.M.S. Neptune, at which point the battle began in earnest.
In the first of these stunning compositions, Thomas shows this dramatic mêlée [on the right, in the middle distance] just after Victory had broken through the enemy line and let loose her port broadside into the unprotected stern of the French flagship Bucentaure, at the same moment pouring a starboard volley into the side of Rédoubtable. Victory had approached Bucentaure's ornate but vulnerable stern so closely that the French ensign had literally hung over Victory's deck and, as Captain Hardy coaxed Victory away from a near-collision, he had given the order to open fire. Victory's port carronade, one of the largest guns in the fleet, loaded with a single 68-pound ball and a keg of 500 musket-balls, fired first and was immediately followed by the entire fifty guns of the port broadside in a rapid ripple. The impact caused Bucentaure to heel in the water from the shock whilst the devastation wrought by scores of cannon-shot and hundreds of musket-balls hurtling down the entire length of her decks summarily killed 365 men and wounded a further 219; twenty of her eighty guns were dismounted and, in an instant, the French flagship was rendered almost impotent and effectively unable to continue fighting. Virtually instantaneously, Victory crashed into Rédoubtable's port bow and, pushing her head around, brought the two ships side by side and practically touching as Hardy ordered the starboard carronade to fire. This signalled the start of the much longer duel, during which Nelson would be shot and fatally wounded from one of Rédoutable's sharpshooters, and which only ended once the Frenchman was simultaneously engaged by Téméraire and could no longer stand an assault from both sides.
Elsewhere however, as the fleets closed for action, Royal Sovereign had drawn ahead and battle was joined for her just before noon when the French 74-gun Fougueux opened fire. At 12.10pm. Royal Sovereign broke through the line behind Santa Ana, the huge 112-gun flagship of Vice-Admiral de Alava, and raked her unprotected stern with a murderous double-shotted port broadside which, it was later acknowledged, killed or wounded nearly four hundred Spanish officers and crew. Putting Royal Sovereign's helm hard over, Collingwood then ranged up the lee side of the Spaniard to deliver the coup de grâce. Simultaneously raking the Fougueux with her starboard broadside, Royal Sovereign thereupon began to pound Santa Ana in a furious engagement in which several French and Spanish vessels briefly joined before finding other targets for themselves. Within minutes of this, a more general fight quickly developed as the British ships following behind Royal Sovereign entered the fray, although the duel between Collingwood and the Santa Ana, which Thomas has depicted here [with Royal Sovereign shown as the large vessel to the left of centre], took two hours to resolve and it was about 2.15pm. before she finally surrendered.
In his second view, which has more than a hint of Turner about it, Thomas depicts the scene after the battle has finally ended at about 5.30pm., and the guns have ceased firing. The most prominent vessel shown is the dismasted hulk of the Spanish flagship Santisima Trinidad [to the left of centre], which had earlier surrendered to H.M.S. Prince, and this is undoubtedly one of the most detailed portraits of this remarkable vessel executed by any of the innumerable artists, both at the time and subsequently, who have chronicled the events of the epic victory at Trafalgar.
Santisima Trinidad ["Most Holy Trinity"] was built in 1769 as a 116-gun three-decker but had an additional gundeck added during a refit just before the battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797). Constructed from cedar and painted a highly distinctive red, she was almost 200 feet in length and carried a massive armament of 136 guns when she went into action at Trafalgar. Unquestionably the largest wooden warship ever built - although not the longest - she was an awesome sight under full sail provided the weather was fair, as her great height made her very unstable in heavy seas. Despite being slightly undermanned, she fought gallantly at Trafalgar and, at various times during the battle, engaged Victory, Téméraire, Leviathan, Neptune, Britannia, Africa and Conqueror; by the time she eventually surrendered to Prince late in the afternoon, she was completely dismasted and, more seriously, badly damaged below the waterline. Thereafter, it proved a constant battle to keep her afloat until 24th October when Collingwood, beset with problems to all the damaged ships due to the violent storm which had been raging since the evening of the 21st, ordered her to be scuttled. Had she survived, it is highly unlikely she would ever have returned to sea although the propaganda value to Britain of parading - for all to see - the largest warship in the world, lately captured by the Royal Navy, would have been incalculable.
An important naval artist of the post-Napoleonic period, Robert Strickland Thomas served in the Royal Navy, firstly on board H.M.S. Princess Charlotte (1805-1807), then in H.M.S. Brisk on the Irish Station (1811). He was invalided out of the Navy as an acting Lieutenant in 1815. His pictures are well crafted and precise, whilst also tending towards the romantic.