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Battle of Trafalgar
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Battle of Trafalgar @ National Geographic Magazine
By Simon Worrall
Art by Justin Sweet
With a daring naval maneuver at Trafalgar 200 years ago this month, Admiral Lord Nelson led his outnumbered British fleet against France and Spain—and perished victorious.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

As Lt. Paul Nicolas stood on the forward edge of the poop deck of H.M.S. Belleisle, a 74-gun ship of the line, the only thing he could think of was lying down. It wasn't that he was tired. But he was only 16 and new to the ship. Now he was about to get his first taste of battle. It was shortly after midday on October 21, 1805, near Cádiz in southern Spain. As Belleisle plowed slowly toward the enemy, Nicolas could see a crescent-shaped line of 33 French and Spanish ships stretching for miles along the coast from Cape Roche in the north to Cape Trafalgar in the south.
Belleisle's crew was in boisterous spirits. They'd been waiting more than two months to have a go at Johnny Crapaud, as they called the French. The gunners had chalked "Victory or Death" on their cannon. Earlier that morning the ship's band had played patriotic tunes like "Hearts of Oak" and "Britons, Strike Home!"
William Hargood, Belleisle's captain, ordered the crew to lie down as the first incoming shots tore through the rigging. A young recruit near Nicolas was decapitated by a cannonball. Blood and body parts spattered the deck. Nicolas would have given his eyeteeth to lie down, but he was second in charge of a detachment of marines, and as an officer he had to stay on his feet. So he moved next to John Owen, a junior lieutenant, who was slightly older. Years later, Nicolas would write that Owen's spirit "cheered me on to act the part it became me."
It also cheered him that across the water he could see the towering outline of H.M.S. Victory, the 100-gun flagship of the British fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson. Nicolas had never met Nelson. But like everyone in the Royal Navy, he knew the stories—how Nelson had taken a Spanish ship, then used it to board and capture a second one; how he had lost his arm leading a nighttime raid on Tenerife; how he had annihilated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay seven years earlier. With Nelson in command the outcome was certain. Earlier that morning Nelson had run signal flags up Victory's mast spelling out the words "England expects that every man will do his duty." The whole fleet had cheered.
But it was going to be a bloody fight. Not like the textbooks, where the fleets lined up side by side and bludgeoned it out with broadsides. Nelson wanted what he called a "pell-mell battle." He had split the fleet of 27 British ships of the line into two columns and ordered them to sail straight at the enemy line, cutting it in two places, like a pack of wolves running at a herd of deer.

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