Lord Nelson's final campaign to bring the French fleet to action and annihilate it proved both long and frustrating. From the moment he hoisted his flag in Victory in May 1803, he devoted all his waking hours to the task that lay ahead of him and shortly before the fateful encounter almost two-and-a-half years later, he wrote this potent maxim that could usefully serve as his epitaph:
'The business of the English Commander-in-Chief being first to bring an enemy's fleet to battle on the most advantageous terms to himself; and secondly to continue them there until the business is decided'.
It was written in response to the news that Admiral Villeneuve, the French commander, had managed to combine the Spanish fleet with his own to bring a formidable thirty-three ships under his control against Nelson's total of twenty-seven. To compensate for this serious lack of numerical superiority, Nelson had evolved his celebrated plan to break tactics - and activated it as soon as the opposing fleets sighted each other off Cape Trafalgar on the morning of 21st October 1805. With the British ships formed into two columns, Nelson himself led the Weather Division in Victory whilst Vice-Admiral Collingwood, his second-in-command, spearheaded the Leeward Division in Royal Sovereign, 100-guns.
As the fleets closed for action, Royal Sovereign drew ahead and battle was joined just before noon when the French 74-gun Fougueux opened fire. At 12.10pm. Royal Sovereign broke through the line but it was another half-hour before Victory was able to do the same and, in the meantime, she was subjected to a withering fire which caused fifty casualties and peppered her sails with holes. Peering into the smoky inferno ahead of him, Captain Hardy coaxed Victory under the stern of Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure where there was so little room to manoeuvre that, as Victory passed along the Frenchman's starboard side, it seemed that the two flagships would collide. Without a moment's hesitation, Hardy ordered a broadside from Victory's larboard (port) guns which raked Bucentaure with devastating effect. Within minutes Victory, with Téméraire close behind her, was engaged in a tremendous struggle with Bucentaure and Rédoutable, the most dramatic result of which was Nelson himself being shot and mortally wounded by a sharpshooter in one of Rédoutable's fighting tops. Even this could not affect the outcome however and the Battle of Trafalgar remains, arguably, the most decisive victory in the history of war at sea.
This work is after a painting by Clarkson Stanfield commissioned by the members of the United Services Club and exhibited at the R.A. in 1836.