It is one of history’s great scenes. Nelson, the heroic leader, struck down at the moment of his greatest triumph. The Battle of Trafalgar, which had just started, will confirm the Royal Navy’s mastery over the oceans of the world for the next hundred years. The wounded admiral clings to life down on the orlop deck of the Victory, for just long enough to learn of the completeness of his enemy’s defeat. “Thank God I have done my duty,” he murmurs, and then he dies.
Many accounts of the battle end at this point, but life is rarely so straightforward. Command of the fleet passed from Nelson to his deputy, Vice-Admiral Collingwood, although he himself had been badly wounded in the leg, and his flagship, the Royal Sovereign, was a dismasted wreck. Much of his fleet was hardly in better shape. Many Royal Navy ships, and most of their French and Spanish prizes, were severely damaged and all were drifting towards the Spanish coast. Over one and a half thousand of his men were casualties, while those who had survived were now exhausted from a day of heavy fighting. To make matters worse, as darkness approached, a storm came roaring out of the west, seemingly determined to drive both victors and vanquished onto the rocks. The gale was to last for the next three days.
One prize was lost even before the storm hit. The prize crew in charge of the French ship Achille had been battling a major fire since her capture. As sunset approached, they abandoned their hopeless task. Those on board were taken off, and shortly after dark she exploded and sank. On all of the remaining ships, desperate crews worked into the night to restore some order. The dead where pitched over the side with little ceremony, pumps were manned to keep battered hulls afloat and men struggled to replace and repair badly damaged masts and rigging. Many vessels were so badly dismasted that little could be done at sea, and they were taken in tow by less badly damaged ships. All of this took hours of organising. Meanwhile the storm gathered in strength, and the coast of Spain grew closer.
As the storm reached its fiercest, tow ropes started to part, releasing helpless ships to the mercy of the sea. This was the fate of the prize Fougueux, wrecked on the first night. Virtually all on board, French and British alike, perished. The Algésiras suffered a similar fate. Her British captors returned control of the ship to her original crew when it was clear that they alone could not save her. Despite the combined efforts of both nationalities, she too was driven ashore. The Monarca attempted to anchor, but the force of the storm was too much and she was dragged onto the rocks too. Most of those on board where drowned.
As if battling the weather was not enough, Collingwood still had to deal with the enemy. The fleet had been blown close to the Spanish naval base at Cadiz, and on the second morning after the battle the few Franco-Spanish ships to have escaped capture at Trafalgar came out. They braved the dreadful weather in an attempt to recapture some of the lost prizes. Two ships, the Santa Ana and the Neptuno were retaken, but the attackers lost two of their own ships to the storm. In a further tragedy, the threat of renewed battle caused some of the prizes to be cut adrift as the ships towing them rushed to meet this new threat. One, the French flagship Bucentaure, was wrecked on the coast with the loss of almost nine hundred men.
Not every ship lost was driven onto the lee shore. Two ships sunk out at sea, when the exhausted crews working their pumps could no longer keep the rising water at bay. This was the fate of the Redoutable, which had fought so bravely against the Victory, and the gigantic Spanish flagship Santisima Trinidad. Although attempts were made to take off their crews, the mountainous seas and awful weather made this exceedingly difficult, and many of those on board went down with them. The final losses came on the third day of the storm, when three more prizes were scuttled by their captors as too badly damaged to save. These were the Intrépide, the San Augustin and the Argonauta. Fortunately for those on board, the weather had moderated enough by then for them to be taken off.
Although all the British ships that had fought at Trafalgar managed to limp into Gibraltar when the storm finally abated, they were only able to bring in four of the prizes taken in the battle. Apart from the two recaptured ships, the rest had all been destroyed, in most cases with dreadful loss of life. Such was the destruction of the storm, that bodies and wreckage was being washed ashore near Cadiz for weeks afterwards. Far, far more men and ships were lost in the storm after Trafalgar, than were lost in the battle itself.