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On a tactical level, the Battle of Trafalgar is one of the most analysed naval battles in history and there are many books and papers covering the battle itself. Most of the strategic analysis covers the events that lead up to the battle, explaining how and why the fleets came together. As it was the last fleet battle of the Napoleonic Wars, it's easy to assume that the British victory effectively decided the war at sea.

However, an article by Rémi Monaque (a French historian and former naval officer) suggests that there was no strategic purpose to fighting the battle -

Nelson did not save England from French Invasion. In fact, on 23 August, Napoleon, who the day before had been watching out for a sight of the combined fleet on the cliffs of Boulogne, suddenly gave up his master plan, and decided to march the Grand Armeé towards the heart of Austria...The tragedy of Trafalgar that evoked so much heroism and cost so many human lives was thus an unnecessary battle without any strategic stakes.

"Trafalgar:A French Point of View" (A Great and Glorious Victory, ed. R Harding, 2008, ch.5)

The crux of his argument seems to be that because the British and Combined Fleets had come together purely as the result of Napoleon's invasion plan, once the threat of invasion was removed, there was no longer any purpose in the fleets engaging. He dismisses the mission that brought the combined fleet out of Cadiz (supporting French forces in Italy) as "entirely secondary" and so, presumably, of no strategic value to either side.

Although the article doesn't explictly state it, I'm assuming that Monaque supposes that the alternative to battle would have been the continued blockade of the combined fleet in Cádiz (until the Spanish revolt in 1808). From a strategic point of view, would that have had the same outcome or were there stategic benefits to fighting?

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    Well, apart from more informed answer, common sense suggests that leaving the combined fleet alone would have allowed Napoleon to change his mind again at a later time. And "protect allied commerce, attack enemy commerce & supply" has been part of England (and most countries) grand strategy to make a list with (v.g., blockades of Germany during WWI and WWII). – SJuan76 Jan 25 '15 at 3:03
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    I don't know destroying the French fleet seems like a good strategy to me. – Tyler Durden Jan 25 '15 at 4:44
  • The long-term strategic effect of keeping the combined fleet bottled up in Cádiz would have been the loss of the French portion of the fleet. When the Spanish revolted against the French in 1808, the surviving French ships in Cádiz surrendered. Even at with their fleet at full strength, it would be unlikely for the French to be able to fight their way out of port and then evade/overcome the British blockading fleet. – Steve Bird Jan 25 '15 at 10:36
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    1) A French historian argues that a French defeat is unimportant. I think that we have to consider the potential bias in this argument 2) any argument which rests on the assumption that the danger of invasion was past is suspicious. Napoleon financed his government by conquest; the moment he stopped conquering, he was doomed. So I think this argument is overstated, biased and under-evidenced. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 14 '16 at 20:44
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    Even if the fleet were bottled up and neutralized, England obtained a long term strategic advantage by destroying France's Naval assets. By that point in time there were few places left where you could get trees large enough for keels, significantly raising the cost of re-arming, and years before France could rebuild a fleet. Even if Trafalgar had no impact on the current war, it would determine the course of the next war. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 15 '16 at 1:16
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In order to be strategically pointless, it must be the case that a victory the other way would have had a negligibly different effect on subsequent historical events.

Consider the possibility that as the two British columns approach the French/Spanish line of battle a fluke shot explodes the magazine on Royal Sovereign at the head of the Lee Column (think H.M.S. Hood), and setting Bellisle and Collossus ablaze, and so fouling the Lee Column that it is delayed 45 minutes arriving into the battle. In the interlude the entire Spanish and French fleet falls on the Weather column, capturing Victory and Neptune and sinking a handful of other British frigates and ships of the line, driving off the Weather Column with essentially even casualties on both sides. The French and Spanish fleet now have the weather gauge on the English fleet's Lee Column, and it is very conceivable that the English fleet withdraws to fight another day, with a modest victory having been won by the French sailors, and Nelson captured.

I think it is very conceivable that such an upset might result in formation of a Whig government in Westminster that makes peace with Napoleon, before Austerlitz.

There is no way that result is strategically pointless, and so the historical result cannot be either. The battle only seems strategically pointless because the result seems fore-ordained, but Mother Nature and Lady Luck are fickle, and in war nothing is 100% guaranteed.

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    In order for it to be strategically pointless the alternative outcomes would have had to have had a negligibly different effect on subsequent historical events. The alternatives include in addition to your indecisive outcome/small French victory the case where Villeneuve did not come out. But I have up-voted your post anyway for being interesting and a positive contribution. – Conrad Turner Jan 25 '15 at 7:25
  • Maybe negligible, but naval impressment, which many were clamoring to abolish, would seem to favor speedy action as well, since a large number in the Trafalgar force were essentially kidnapped - many couldn't swim at all, so didn't make for good, loyal long-term sailors (i.e., from a military viewpoint, were more expendable). And Britain seemed to favor pitched battle after its loss of the Am. colonies. – dwn Jan 26 '15 at 5:31
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    Wouldn't a 'strtegically insignificant battle' rather be defined as 'the battle not having taken place at all would not change the course of history'? – Ovi Apr 4 '16 at 23:05
  • Yeah, I don't think it should be compared against the total opposite of the actual result. For example, if someone asks "Was dropping atomic bombs on Japan pointless?", it should be relative to not dropping the Bombs on Japan, and not relative to Japan dropping the Bombs on the US. – user69715 Apr 8 '16 at 16:40
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No, it was important because the Spanish fleet was annihilated and a substantial chunk of French ships were captured along with numerous French soldiers. In warfare simply destroying valuable assets of the enemy, like ships, has a strategic value.

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Obviously, Not for France.It was only Napoleon´s first important lose to his plan to invade UK because the royal navy destroyed the spanish fleet that was neccesary to defeat UK. France lost his "ally" provocking a great weakness at the sea. If the spanish-french fleet combined reach to the size to the UK, after this battle the French navy was outnumbered. The British Royal Navy from 1702 -1776 had torpedoed the whole Spanish Commercial Fleet with america provocking a real economic crisis for Spain (spain received his last contact in 1776. In Trafalgar, spain lost the principal navy. So in war terms, UK sunk and defeated the naval power of French biggest ally. Therefore, the next battle, will be at land against French armies. A decisive battle that made UK unsurplused at the sea.

  • France needed Spain to defy UK and Spain needed to recover the commercial route to America that was exhausting the spanish economy. – Basque_Spaniards Apr 7 '16 at 12:21
  • For Spain was decisive, for France necessary to invade UK. – Basque_Spaniards Apr 7 '16 at 12:22
  • Not to say that spain lost any contact with america in this battle. Provocking a weakness in Spanish America. – Basque_Spaniards Apr 7 '16 at 12:24
  • At the end, the napoleonic war ended with a big disaster for spain. – Basque_Spaniards Apr 7 '16 at 12:30
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    I'm confused - the question is "Was Trafalgar pointless?" and your answer is "yes, Obviously", but you go on to explain the strategic advantages to Britain arising from the destruction of the fleet. Either the the battle was pointless (your first sentence) or it was consequential (your last sentence). – Mark C. Wallace Apr 7 '16 at 16:09
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Even though Napoleon had "broken camp" at Boulogne before the battle, Trafalgar "made sure" that this camp would stay broken. because the French (and Spanish) suffered such severe losses that the invasion of Britain was impossible for some years.

This ensured that French might would be headed east to Austria, Prussia, and ultimately Russia, after 1805; that is, away from Britain. And that Britain would be more or less able to do as she liked in western Europe, e.g. the Peninsular Campaign in Spain.

  • I'm not sure that Trafalgar made the invasion of Britain impossible. While Napoleon publicly downplayed the battle, it spurred him into a ship-building program that meant that by 1810, the French fleet was as powerful (on paper at least) as it had been at the time of Trafalgar. The British don't seem to have believed that the threat of invasion was over either. Most of the invasion defenses in southern England were constructed after Trafalgar and they kept a close eye on the invasion flotilla which remained in ports along the northern French coast. – Steve Bird Jun 14 '16 at 12:26
  • @SteveBird: Added the phrase "for some years." I"m less concerned about Napoleon's ability to invade in say, 1810, than in 1805,6, or 7. – Tom Au Jun 14 '16 at 13:34
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The famous battle of trafalgar was the one that Napoleon committed the first mistake. In quantity, The Royal navy was a bitter larger than the combined French-spanish one. However, the quality of the Spanish navy and naval officers were better than French. And it was the spanish last generation of good naval officers including a generation of basque officers (the most prominent hidtoric officers of spanish navy).

The Napoleon mistake: The Chosen Admiral. -Federico Gravina: The last great Admiral that served for Spanish navy from XVIII. Century. He was experienced in so many battles against pirates and muslims in caribe and mediterranean seas. Admired by Napoleon. -Villeneuve: French and was the understanding officer. He was not prepared and always nervous at the hour of the battle. At the end, Napoleon chose The French Villeneuve.

After the battle, france received a good hit, however, Spain lost his last great naval generation. And Furthermore, a great hit that spain will never recovered in next century. The biggest warships at the battle were: HMS Victory: 3.556 tns and 3 stories high with 104 guns (british). Santisima Trinidad: 4.902 tns and 4 stories high with 136 guns (spanish).

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    But does this answer the question "Was the battle of Trafalgar strategically pointless?" – Mark C. Wallace Apr 7 '16 at 11:48
  • While Napoleon may have initially favoured Villeneuve, that certainly wasn't the case by the time of the battle. In fact, the battle could be said to have been triggered by Napoleon attempting to replace Villeneuve with Rosily. Also most of the damage to the Spanish Navy actually happened in the years before the battle, when the navy was underfunded and it's sailors were poorly trained and given little opporunity to gain experience. – Steve Bird Apr 7 '16 at 16:44

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