Commodore Horatio Nelson boarding the Spanish first rate ship of the line, the San Jose, at the Battle Cape St Vincent in 1797. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1. Battle was not the main cause of death
It has been calculated that, during the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France 1793-1815 – also known as the ‘Age of Sail’ – sailors were far more likely to die of disease or shipwreck than they ever were in fleet battle. Only 6.3 per cent of British sailors’ deaths in this period were caused by enemy action, rather than disease or accident (81.5 per cent) or shipwreck (12.2 per cent).
Fleet battle was not normal in relation to other British naval activity; most of the time the ships sat at anchor or patrolled windswept horizons in the constant toil of blockade. Life was dull. Sailors cleaned, painted and sewed. In terms of the day-to-day life of a sailor, which was lived in the cold, dark decks of a man of war, these years were very long indeed. Routine and discipline were therefore as important as cleanliness for the efficiency of any ship.
2. Sailors would rarely experience more than one battle
A sailor in the Royal Navy in 1805 would have served aboard one of 136 ships of the line - that is to say ships of 50 guns or more - or one of 160 cruisers; he would have been one of 114,012 sailors entered into British ships’ books. He could have been stationed in the North Sea, English Channel, Western Approaches, eastern or western Mediterranean, the Windward or Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, the East Indies or somewhere off the coast of North America.
Such a sailor would have been very lucky indeed to witness one battle, let alone more. Officers, especially talented ones, were more likely to witness fleet battle because they had a greater chance of being sent to trouble zones, and yet only three senior naval officers witnessed as many as three fleet battles in this period: Horatio Nelson, Cuthbert Collingwood and Edward Berry.
Portrait of Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott. Only three senior naval officers witnessed as many as three fleet battles in this period, one of which was Horatio Nelson. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
3. Sailing warfare was chaos
In a naval battle in the ‘Age of Sail’, seascapes were shrouded by so much gun smoke that, in the midst of battle, visibility beyond a few feet was all but impossible. Confusion begat chaos, well-laid plans disintegrated, and random acts tipped battle one way or another.
This was the nature of sailing warfare. Incidents of friendly fire were common. Wind and swell, tide and current, light and dark, were all capable of ruining the best plans. The ships’ rigs were so vulnerable to damage that a single lucky shot could cripple any warship. The sudden death or injury of a ship’s officers could bring a crew to a standstill and the sudden death or injury of a large portion of the crew could bring the officers to standstill: neither could work without the other and both were vulnerable. As a rule, nothing ever went to plan.
4. The sails of a relatively small warship could block out two acres of sky
A 74-gun, two-decked warship, the spine of the line of battle, contained a crew of more than 600 men and 1,200 tons of food. Cows, pigs, goats, sheep and fowl of numerous types berthed alongside the men. The ship would have been propelled by sails that blocked out two acres of sky, and those sails were worked by 25 miles of rigging. Her 74 guns produced more firepower than Napoleon’s artillery at the 1805 battle of Austerlitz. And that was just one relatively small ship. Some of the largest contained crews of 1,200 men or more and displaced at least 3,000 tons − that is roughly twice as much as a standard 74-gunner of the 1790s.
Now consider a fleet of warships. At Trafalgar in 1805 we know that the British fleet consisted of approximately 17,000 men in 27 ships mounting 2,148 cannon. The combined Franco-Spanish fleet was larger still, with some 30,000 men in 33 ships mounting 2,632 guns.
At the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, a major naval battle between the British Navy and the combined fleets of France and Spain, the British fleet consisted of approximately 17,000 men in 27 ships. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
5. Not every officer would do his duty
The most famous naval signal was that flown before the battle of Trafalgar by Horatio Nelson: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. Yet British naval history – including the battle of Trafalgar – is full of examples of captains and fleet officers not doing their duty.
Captain Anthony Molloy was court martialled after the battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794 for 'failing to do his utmost to engage the enemy' and was never employed again. Vice Admiral Bridport was strongly criticised within the navy for his failure to press his victory at the battle of Groix a year later, even if the public saw him as a hero for capturing three ships in that battle and for a career of sustained success.
Jervis was furious with the conduct of Admiral Sir Charles Thompson at the battle of St Vincent, and Captain John Williamson was dismissed after the battle of Camperdown for failing to bring his ship into action. Nelson was deeply unimpressed with the behaviour of Captain Davidge Gould at the Nile for failing to use his initiative and support his fellow captains as ordered in a battle which, more than any other, is so heavily linked with the idea of a ‘band of brothers’.
Admiral Hyde Parker was blacklisted by the Admiralty and never employed again after the battle of Copenhagen, while Captain Edward Berry blazed away ineffectively at both Trafalgar and San Domingo and was quickly retired from the active list. At Trafalgar, several officers, including Nelson’s third in command, Rear Admiral the Earl of Northesk, performed, according to the words of Edward Rotherham, Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood's flag captain ‘notoriously ill’; and Vice Admiral John Duckworth never received the hereditary peerage he expected after the Battle of San Domingo.
Dr Sam Willis is a historian, archaeologist and broadcaster and one of the world's leading authorities on maritime and naval history.