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Two reasons stand out for the ease of that victory: morale and better gunnery. Many of the Combined Fleet's crews, especially on the Spanish ships, were hastily pressed landsmen who had never been at sea. Many had been sick with yellow fever, which had ravaged the southern coast of Spain from 1801 to 1805. "It was like Manchester United playing a second division team riddled with injuries and self-doubt," says David Cordingly, a British naval historian. "The opposition never really believed they could win. So morale collapsed early in the battle."

Then there was the Nelson factor. "His very name was a host of itself," wrote the future king George IV, who served with Nelson as a young man. "Nelson and Victory were one and the same to us, and it carried dismay and terror to the hearts of our enemy."

Trafalgar was one of the last great sea battles of the age of sail. The next time the British fought on this scale in the Atlantic, it was between steam-powered dreadnoughts in World War I. This year England marked the bicentennial of the battle with an International Festival of the Sea. But Trafalgar holds very different meanings for the three nations who met off Cádiz. For the Spanish, Trafalgar was, and is, a glorious defeat. There is even a street in Madrid called Trafalgar.

Yet the battle was the beginning of the end for Spain's empire in South America. "The loss of captains like Federico Gravina, Churruca, and Alcalá Galiano was significant for Spain," says José González-Aller, a Spanish naval historian in Madrid. "After that, we lost the hope of continuing to be a great naval power."

Napoleon's only comment on a debacle that resulted in more than 8,000 casualties was: "A storm has occasioned us the loss of a few ships, after a battle imprudently fought."

A few months later the man responsible for that loss, Admiral Villeneuve, locked himself in his room in a hotel in Rennes, Brittany, and after a lunch of chicken and asparagus washed down with a bottle of Médoc, stabbed himself in the heart with a table knife.

"Trafalgar is still a deep wound," says Remi Monaque, "always bleeding in the heart of the French."

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