Nelson and Villeneuve at Trafalgar: 1805

VADM Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre Villeneuve

Five years younger than Nelson, VADM Villeneuve commanded the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. He was born into a Valensoles, Provence, aristocratic family and joined the French Navy when he was 15. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not resign with the onset of the Revolution, but dropped his aristocratic “de” and supported the new order. Promoted to RADM in 1796, he commanded a squadron that was part of a fruitless plan to invade Ireland.

Battle of the Nile

At the Battle of the Nile, he commanded the 80-gun Guillaume Tell, in which he escaped with another ship of the line and two frigates. Criticised for fleeing the scene of action and failing to support his leader, he pleaded, somewhat weakly, that he had no orders to do otherwise.

In 1804, the very capable VADM Latouche-Treville, who had repulsed Nelson at Boulogne, was in command of the French Fleet at Toulon. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack on 14 August and the newly promoted VADM Villeneuve replaced him, hoisting his flag in the new 80-gun Bucentaure on 19 December.

Slow to challenge Nelson’s blockade, after some prodding Villeneuve sortied from Toulon on 18 January 1805, but quickly turned back with four of his ships reporting severe storm damage. His immediate response, on 22 January, was to resign. “In reality it is utterly impossible for us to defeat the enemy when both sides are equal, indeed they will beat us when they are a third weaker than we are. Under no circumstances do I intend to become the laughing stock of Europe by being involved in further disasters,” he wrote.

Villeneuve was not replaced because evidently there was no other senior naval officer who had not offended Napoleon. He was eventually cajoled into breaking out of Toulon with his 11 ships of the line and six frigates on 30 March.


By 26 May he was in Martinique, with a small Spanish squadron in company, expecting French ships from the Rochefort Squadron and Brest Fleet to join him. This combined fleet of 40 ships would then sail to control the English Channel for Napoleon’s invasion of England.

Instructed to wait until 22 June, Villeneuve learned that Nelson was hunting for him with 10 or 12 ships, so without landing the 1200 troops that he had transported to protect French Caribbean possessions, he scuttled back to Europe with 20 ships on 11 June. During a fog-shrouded skirmish off El Ferrol with 15 British warships, Villeneuve lost two Spanish ships, but he made Corunna safely on 1 August, then retreated to Cadiz to refit and reprovision. Napoleon was furious. Villeneuve’s timidity had ruined his English invasion plans.

He sacked Villeneuve and ordered the Fleet to land the troops at Naples but before his relief arrived, Villeneuve sailed on 19-20 October. Then he heard that Nelson was nearby, so he scuttled back to Cadiz, 20 or so miles distant, about 0800, 21 October.

The Battle of Trafalgar, about 1200, 21 October 1805

The British Fleet was numerically inferior in every respect: 27 versus 33 ships, 2148 versus 2568 guns and 17,000 versus 30,000 men. Villeneuve had also correctly guessed Nelson’s strategy, but all this was still not enough to prevent his resounding defeat, with 18 of his 27 ships captured or destroyed for no loss of any British ship.

Villeneuve was captured but repatriated in April 1806. He is said to have “committed suicide” in Rennes on his return journey, with no fewer than six chest stab wounds.