Trafalgar is one of the most famous British battles of all time, right alongside the Battle of Hastings and other pivotal moments in the history of the British Isles. While most people know of the story of Admiral Lord Nelson, here is a first-hand account of the battle from the perspective of Captain Frederick Hoffman, who was aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant, an 84-gun ship of the line (one which could hold its own in a formation of battleships).
The following is chapter 16 of Captain Frederick Hoffman’s “A Sailor of King George”:
In a week’s time we formed one of the squadron, and shortly after were joined by fourteen sail of the line under Lord Nelson. The salutation was heartfelt and most gratifying. The dispositions of the fleet were soon made, and as they were as simple as possible, there could be no mistake. A cordon of frigates were ordered to repeat signals to us from the one nearest the shore, whilst we kept nearly out of sight of the land, and all our ships’ sides were ordered to be painted yellow with black streaks, and the masts yellow. We now mustered twenty-seven sail of the line, four frigates, and a schooner, and were waiting impatiently for the joyful signal from the frigates that the enemy were coming out of harbour. On the afternoon of the 20th of October, 1805, our longing eyes were blessed with the signal. We cleared for quarters and were in high spirits. At daylight we had the felicity to see them from the deck, and counted thirty-three sail of the line and three large frigates. They extended in line ahead.
We answered with alacrity the signal to make all sail for the enemy, preserving our order of sailing. The sails appeared to know their places and were spread like magic. The wind was very light, and it was nearly noon before we closed with the enemy. We remarked they had formed their ships alternately French and Spanish. All our ships that had bands were playing “Rule Britannia,” “Downfall of Paris,” etc. Our own struck up “Britons, strike home.” We were so slow in moving through the water in consequence of the lightness of the wind that some of the enemy’s ships gave us a royal salute before we could break their line, and we lost two of the band and had nine wounded before we opened our fire. The telegraph signal was flying from the masthead of the Victory, “England expects every man to do his duty.” It was answered with three hearty cheers from each ship, which must have shaken the nerve of the enemy. We were saved the trouble of taking in our studding-sails, as our opponents had the civility to effect it by shot before we got into their line. At length we had the honour of nestling His Majesty’s ship between a French and a Spanish seventy-four, and so close that a biscuit might have been thrown on the decks of either of them. Our guns were all double-shotted. The order was given to fire; being so close every shot was poured into their hulls, down came the Frenchman’s mizzen-mast, and after our second broadside the Spaniard’s fore and cross-jack yards. A Spanish three-decker now crossed our bows and gave us a raking broadside which knocked away the fore and main top-masts, the main and fore-yards with the jib-boom and sprit-sail yard, part of the head, and killed and wounded twenty-two of the men. One midshipman was cut literally in half. This was the more provoking as we could not return her the compliment, having full employment with those we first engaged.
We were in this situation about half-an-hour, when the Spaniard called out he had struck, but before we could take possession of him, a French ship of eighty guns with an admiral’s flag came up, and poured a raking broadside into our stern which killed and wounded forty petty officers and men, nearly cut the rudder in two, and shattered the whole of the stern with the quarter galleries. She then in the most gallant manner locked her bowsprit in our starboard main shrouds, and attempted to board us with the greater part of her officers and ship’s company. She had rifle-men in her tops who did great execution. Our poop was soon cleared, and our gallant captain shot through the left thigh and obliged to be carried below. During this time we were not idle. We gave it to her most gloriously with the starboard lower and main-deckers, and turned the forecastle guns loaded with grape on the gentleman who wished to give us a fraternal hug. The marines kept up a warm and destructive fire on the boarders. Only one man made good his footing on our quarter-deck, when he was pinned through the calf of his right leg by one of the crew with his half-pike, whilst another was going to cut him down, which I prevented, and desired him to be taken to the cockpit. At this period the Bellerophon, seeing our critical position, gallantly steered between us and our first French antagonist and sheeted her home until she struck her colours. Our severe contest with the French admiral lasted more than half-an-hour, our sides grinding so much against each other that we were obliged to fire the lower deck guns without running them out.
At length both ships caught fire before the chest-trees, and our firemen, with all the coolness and courage so inherent in British seamen, got the engine and played on both ships, and finally extinguished the flames, although two of them were severely wounded in doing so. At length we had the satisfaction of seeing her three lower masts go by the board, ripping the partners up in their fall, as they had been shot through below the deck, and carrying with them all their sharp-shooters to look sharper in the next world, for as all our boats were shot through we could not save one of them in this. The crew were then ordered with the second lieutenant to board her. They cheered and in a short time carried her. They found the gallant French Admiral Magon killed at the foot of the poop ladder, the captain dangerously wounded. Out of eight lieutenants five were killed, with three hundred petty officers and seamen, and about one hundred wounded. We left the second lieutenant and sixty men in charge of her, and took some of the prisoners on board when she swung clear of us. We had pummelled her so handsomely that fourteen of her lower deck guns were dismounted, and her larboard bow exhibited a mass of splinters.
After she cleared us another Spanish three-decker drifted nearly on board of us. We received her fire, which shot away the gaff. We returned her salute with interest, and her foremast went about four feet above her deck. We cheered and gave her another broadside, and down came her colours. We manned the jolly boat—the only boat that we thought would float—to take possession of her, but she had not proceeded more than a few yards when down she went, leaving the fourth lieutenant and her crew paddling like sea nondescripts. Having no boat that would float, four of the seamen jumped overboard to rescue those who could not swim, and they all regained the ship. Mr. C., the lieutenant, was nearly drowned, and had it not been for a black man, who took him on his back, he must have sunk. (This man he never lost sight of and left him a handsome legacy when he died.) We were drifting like a pig upon a grating, and as helpless as a sucking shrimp, when the signal was made to repair damages. We soon cut away all that was useless, and in twenty minutes we were under topsails as courses, and top-gallant-sails as topsails.
The carpenters had cobbled up one of the cutters, in which I was sent on board the Royal Sovereign to report our condition and to request the assistance of one of the fleet to tow us, as in consequence of our rudder being so much shattered by shot it was rendered unserviceable. The Defiance was ordered to take us in tow; we shortly afterwards made the signal, that we were able to renew the action. The enemy’s fleet were making for Cadiz. Nineteen sail of their line of battleships had surrendered, and one, the Achille, had blown up. The explosion she made was sublime and awful; a number of her crew were saved by the Pickle schooner. The wind still continued light, and the signal was flying to renew the attack. In about twenty minutes we were again in the rear of the enemy, who appeared to have had enough of it, as they had neared Cadiz, and all the prizes except four seventy-fours were making for the harbour. This was owing to their having so few of our men on board them, and to our not being able, in consequence of the loss of boats, to take out the prisoners. We gave them some parting salutes. There were so many of us in a crippled state it was thought prudent to haul to the westward, as the swell was throwing us towards the shore, and the sky had all the tokens of a gale of wind from the west-south-west. The signal was out to prepare to anchor if necessary. The Royal Sovereign, which had only her foremast standing, with four other ships of our fleet, had already anchored.
The Santissima Trinidada, one of the Spanish prizes, went down in consequence of having received so many shot between wind and water. Her crew were taken out by our frigates and she was scuttled. She was the largest ship and had four regular tiers of guns, mounting in the whole one hundred and thirty-six. About 7 p.m. the wind began to freshen from the westward. The signal was made from the Royal Sovereign for all those ships that could carry sail to proceed to Gibraltar. About 9 p.m. the wind increased to a heavy gale, and the ship which towed us was obliged to cast us off. We fortunately had been able to fix the quarter tackles to the ring-bolts of the rudder before the gale came on. The night was passed in much painful anxiety, and we expected every time we wore to strike on the rocks of Cape Trafalgar. Providentially the wind drew more round to the north-east, and at daylight we weathered the Cape and about noon anchored at Gibraltar. We found the four prizes with several of our fleet lying there, and we were congratulated most cordially on our having escaped a lee shore, as they had given us up as lost.
I must retrograde a little here and relate a few occurrences which took place during the action, and of which I was an eye-witness. We had hoisted our colours before the action in four different places, at the ensign-staff, peak, and in the fore and main top-mast shrouds, that if one was shot away the others might be flying. A number of our fleet had done the same, and several of the enemy followed our example. The French admiral’s ship who so gallantly attempted to board us had his flag hoisted in three places. One of our men, Fitzgerald, ran up his rigging and cut away one of them and placed it round his waist, and had nearly, after this daring exploit, reached his ship, when a rifleman shot him and he fell between the two ships and was no more seen. The principal signalman, whose name was White, and a captain of one of the guns on the poop, had his right great toe nearly severed from his foot. He deliberately took his knife and cut it away. He was desired to go below to the doctor. “No, sir,” was his reply; “I am not the fellow to go below for such a scratch as that. I wish to give the beggars,” meaning the enemy, “a few more hard pills before I have done with them.” Saying this, he bound his foot up in his neck-handkerchief and served out double allowance until his carronade was dismounted by the carriage of it being shattered to pieces. He then hopped to another gun, where he amused himself at the Frenchman’s expense until the action ceased.
We had fought on nearly empty stomachs. At the time we began the action it was dinner time, i.e. twelve o’clock; a small proportion of cheese had been given out and half allowance of grog. During the latter part of the action the captain, who was lying on a cot in the purser’s cabin, sent for me. On entering the cockpit I found fourteen men waiting amputation of either an arm or a leg. A marine who had sailed with me in a former ship was standing up as I passed, with his left arm hanging down. “What’s the matter, Conelly?” said I to him. “Not much,” replied he; “I am only winged above my elbow, and I am waiting my turn to be lopped.” His arm was dreadfully broken by a grape-shot. I regret to mention that out of sixteen amputations only two survived. This was in consequence of the motion of the ship during the gale. Their stumps broke out afresh, and it was impossible to stop the hæmorrhage. One of them, whose name was Smith, after his leg was taken off, hearing the cheering on deck in consequence of another of the enemy striking her colours, cheered also. The exertion he made burst the vessels, and before they could be again taken up he died.
When I was sent on board Admiral Collingwood’s ship during the action I observed a great anxiety in the officers’ faces. It immediately occurred to me that Lord Nelson had fallen, and I put the question to one of the lieutenants, who told me he was mortally wounded and that he could not live long. Thus gloriously fell in the arms, and on the deck, of Victory, as brave, as intrepid, and as great a hero as ever existed, a seaman’s friend and the father of the fleet. The love of his country was engraven on his heart. He was most zealous for her honour and welfare, and his discernment was clear and decisive. His death was deservedly and deeply felt by every man in the fleet. I must not omit that when the Commander of the French fleet, Admiral Villeneuve, was brought alongside us instead of the Victory, he was informed it was not Nelson’s ship. “My God,” said he, “you are all Nelsons!”5
On mustering our ship’s company after we were tolerably in order, we found we had twenty-six killed and fifty-eight wounded, the captain included, who, as soon as we arrived, went on shore. We sent our wounded men to the hospital, and began to refit. Our rudder was unshipped, or rather the wreck of it, to be spliced. On the fourth morning, at daylight, during a fog, we were not a little astonished at finding ourselves bombarded, and the shells and shot flying fast and thick amongst us. We had taken the precaution of keeping our guns towards the enemy shotted, but fortunately for us and for those people who were amusing themselves in the enemy’s gun-boats, the fog was so dense that we neither could see them or they us. However, we fired as nearly as we could judge in the direction from whence their shells came, and I presume we must have done some execution among them. After our second broadside all was silent. We had only a few ropes shot away and one man wounded. The shells fell either short or over us on shore, where they did no injury. The shot were the most destructive. After this freak, which might have proved serious, we had additional guard boats during night.
The Governor, General Fox, sent an invitation to all the officers of the fleet requesting their company to a ball at the Government House. I understood it was well attended, and the ladies very amiable. I, having received a wound in the left hand, which was painful, did not attend. Before we sailed we had several dinner-parties and made excursions to St. George’s and other caves. One afternoon I had been rambling with another brother officer over the Rock, when, as we reached the O’Hara Tower, we were overtaken by a thunder-storm. As we stood in the tower, which, as Paddy would say, is no tower at all, we saw the thunder-clouds descend under us, and could distinctly see the lightning. It was to us a novel and awful scene. We soon removed from our position, as the small building under which we had taken shelter had been formerly struck by lightning, and we began to be apprehensive of its second visit. In descending we started two large baboons, who appeared as much surprised as we were. We soon lost sight of them among the rocks. It is strictly forbidden to use fire-arms or to destroy anything on the Rock. We also saw a few red-legged partridges, which were not very shy, and some large lizards. The officers of the garrison gave a horse race on neutral ground, and invited the Governor of St. Roch with his staff. He came with a numerous retinue. Flags of truce were stuck up beyond the Gibraltar limits, and we were at liberty to go nearly as far as the nearest Spanish fort. It was a singular coincidence to see us shaking hands and offering cigars to men whose duty it was an hour before to shoot us. Everything went off very pleasantly except with the poor, distressed horses, who had to run over deep sand. After the Spanish Governor and his officers had partaken of a plentiful collation under a large marquee, they took their departure, and we gave them three cheers. We at length received our rudder from the hands of the dockyard mateys. They had made a good job of it, and it answered admirably.
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