On 17 January 1805 the French fleet at Toulon, commanded by Pierre Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, escaped. Nelson was fraught with anxiety not knowing its whereabouts, ‘I am in a fever…God send I may find them’ (Hibbert, page 336). Nelson frantically searched for the French fleet at Sardinia, Naples and Alexandria. He was relieved to discover on 19 February 1805 that it had returned to Toulon owing to adverse weather.
Napoleon, however, was still intent on invading Britain and ordered the 27 ships under Admiral Ganteaume’s command at Brest to escape and attack the British fleet blockading the port of Ferrol, thus freeing the French and Spanish ships there. These ships were then to sail to Martinique in the West Indies to join Villeneuve’s fleet, which had escaped from Toulon again on 30 March 1805. However, Ganteaume was unable to break through the naval blockade of Brest. Villeneuve’s squadron en route to the West Indies did manage to pick up some Spanish ships from Cadiz. If Ganteaume did not arrive in Martinique, Villeneuve’s original orders were to cruise off the Canary Islands intercepting English convoys before returning to Cadiz. Six French and Spanish ships were already in Martinique, where they were joined by Admiral Missiessy’s fleet which had escaped from Rochefort. Napoleon’s plan was to unite these fleets, which would then comprise 40 French ships, 20-30 Spanish ships and 12 frigates. This flotilla would be directed to Ushant off Brittany to surprise the British fleet there, before sailing to Boulogne to collect Napoleon’s troops.
News of Napoleon’s audacious plan reached London in April 1805, but it could not be quickly communicated to Nelson off Toulon. With Admiral Ganteaume unable to escape the blockade and informed that Nelson was in pursuit of Villeneuve’s fleet in Egypt, Napoleon altered his plans. He ordered Villeneuve to spend one month in the West Indies capturing all the British colonies before sailing to Ferrol to join 15 Spanish ships there. The joint force would then proceed to Brest to defeat the British squadron blockading Ganteaume’s fleet. This was to ask a lot of Villeneuve. He was expected to fight the British fleet in Brest alone, despite having crossed the Atlantic twice and having been weakened by a month’s war in the West Indies. Moreover, Nelson was in pursuit of Villeneuve in the Atlantic. Rather than battling Nelson in the West Indies, Villeneuve opted to return to Europe, reaching the port of Vigo after an inconclusive battle fought in fog with a British squadron commanded by Sir Robert Calder on 22 July 1805.
Nelson's missing admiral's journals
Nelson discovered in early May 1805, whilst off Cape Trafalgar, that Villeneuve’s fleet had sailed to the West Indies. He pursued it with great vigour even though he was 31 days behind them. Nelson reached Barbados on 4 June and was notified by General Brereton, the general commander of St Lucia, that the French fleet had sailed south towards Trinidad. Instead it had sailed north towards Martinique, where Nelson believed it had gone. Nelson thus missed the opportunity of fighting the French fleet. He sailed back to Europe, reaching Gibraltar on 20 July 1805. It was the first time he had set foot on land for nearly two years and he was mortified at ‘not being able to get at the enemy’ (Hibbert, page 338).
Nelson arrived at Portsmouth on 19 August 1805 and returned to Merton on 22 August not knowing that Villeneuve’s fleet had sailed from Vigo on 13 August 1805 and had arrived at Cadiz on 20 August 1805. Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, in command of a small blockading naval squadron off Cadiz, notified the Admiralty that the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was there.
Battle of Trafalgar