The First Shots


H.M.S. Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1803. On the day of the battle of Trafalgar, just over two hundred years ago, there was a big sea-swell running off Cape Trafalgar (the extreme south-westerly point of Spain), but very little wind. Consequently, though Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet sighted the combined Franco-Spanish fleet at 6 am, it took all of six hours before the opposing lines of battleships got close enough for cannon fire.

The moment chosen for the painting is at about 12:20, when the first ranging shots were fired from the French flagship, the Bucentaure, at Nelson’s 100-gun flagship Victory. Victory was followed by a line of other battleships, but this particular viewpoint glances diagonally through the gap in the British line between Victory and her next battleship astern, the Temeraire, and through that gap we see three of the accompanying lesser vessels, from left to right the frigate Sirius, the schooner Pickle, and the frigate Euryalus.

In the ensuing battle, Nelson’s 27 battleships secured an overwhelming defeat of the 33 enemies, though at the cost of Nelson’s own life – he was shot at the height of the battle.

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