Lord Nelson Can Teach Us Lots About Strategy

This is an extended case example of strategic thinking. This example comes from a military victory in the 1800s.  The Battle of Trafalgar is an excellent illustration of strategy principles applied to organizations. As you read this case example, think about how Lord Nelson did external analysis, analyzed his own organization and capabilities, set a focus, and created conditions for strategy implementation. [i]

During the engagement at Trafalgar, on October 21, 1805, the Royal Navy annihilated the greatest threat to British security for 200 years, but lost Britain’s national hero, Lord Nelson, in the process. The battle transcended the usual approach to these types of battles; it also guaranteed Britain’s control of the oceans and the basis of her global power for over a century.

The Battle of Trafalgar was a naval engagement fought by the British Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies, during the War of the Third Coalition (August–December 1805) of the Napoleonic Wars (1796–1815). [ii]

Twenty-seven British ships led by Admiral Lord Nelson (aboard HMS Victory) defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships under the French Admiral Villeneuve (Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve) in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just West of Cape Trafalgar, near the town of Los Caños de Meca. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the war, conclusively ending French plans to invade England.

By 1805 Nelson was already a national hero, and considered an accomplished naval commander. His unique approach to battles ensured that every engagement he fought was an opportunity to solve major strategic problems, and his many successes ensured he was the only contemporary rival to Napoleon. Bonaparte agreed keeping a bust of Nelson in his private quarters.

In 1803 the Peace of Amiens- a temporary armed truce between Britain and France- broke down, and for nearly two years British strategy rested on the defensive, waiting for the French navy to make the first move. Late in 1804, however, Spain joined the war as a French ally, giving Napoleon the ships he needed to challenge Britain.

To do so, Napoleon needed to ensure that the Royal Navy would not be able to disrupt the invasion flotilla, which would require control of the English Channel.

The main French fleets were at Brest in Brittany and at Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. Other ports on the French Atlantic coast harbored smaller squadrons. France and Spain were allied, so the Spanish fleet based in Cádiz and Ferrol was also available.

The British possessed an experienced and well-trained corps of naval officers. By contrast, some of the best French navy officers had either been executed or had left the service during the early part of the French Revolution. Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve had taken command of the French Mediterranean fleet following the death of Latouche Treville. Napoleon had more competent officers, but they had either been employed elsewhere or had fallen from Napoleon’s favor.

Napoleon’s naval plan in 1805 was for the French and Spanish fleets in the Mediterranean and Cádiz to break through the British blockade. They would clear the English Channel of Royal Navy ships, ensuring a safe passage for the French invasion barges.

Nelson joined the British fleet off Cadiz in late September, 1805. His very presence encouraged his men. The challenge was clear. If the enemy put to sea, Nelson wanted to be able to annihilate them completely, ending the need for Britain to stand on the defensive.

On September 16, Napoleon gave orders for the French and Spanish ships at Cádiz to put to sea, join with seven Spanish ships of the line then at Cartagena, go to Naples and land the soldiers they carried to reinforce his troops there, then fight decisively if they met a numerically inferior British fleet.

The prevailing tactical orthodoxy at the time involved maneuvering to approach the enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engaging broadside in parallel lines. Before this time, the fleets had usually been involved in a mixed mêlée. One reason for the development of the line of battle system was to facilitate fleet control; signaling in battle was easier if all the ships were in a line. The line also allowed either side to disengage by breaking away in formation; if the attacker chose to continue, their line would be broken, as well. This strategy often led to inconclusive battles, or allowed the losing side to minimize its losses; Nelson wanted a conclusive action and therefore changed the prevailing strategy.

Nelson’s solution to the challenge was to cut the opposing line in three. Approaching in two columns, sailing perpendicular to the enemy’s line, one towards the center of the opposing line and one towards the trailing end, his ships would break the enemy formation into three, surround one third, and force them to fight to the end. Nelson hoped to cut the line just in front of the French flagship, Bucentaure; the isolated ships in front of the break would not be able to see the French flagship’s signals, hopefully taking them out of combat while they reformed.

The strategy had three principal advantages[iii] First, the British fleet would engage with the Franco-Spanish as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that they would be able to escape without fighting. Second, it would quickly bring on a mêlée and frantic battle by breaking the Franco-Spanish line and inducing individual ship-to-ship actions, in which the British were likely to prevail. Nelson knew that the superior seamanship, faster gunnery and better morale of his crews were advantages. Third, the strategy would bring a decisive concentration on the rear of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, which would take a long time. Additionally, once the Franco-Spanish line had been broken, their ships would be relatively defenseless against powerful broadsides from the British fleet, and it would take them a long time to reposition to return fire.

The main drawback of attacking head-on was that as the leading British ships approached, the Franco-Spanish fleet would be able to direct broadside fire at their bows, to which they would be unable to reply. To lessen the time the fleet was exposed to this danger, Nelson had his ships make all available sail, yet another departure from the norm. He was also well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform. The Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell, causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating the problem. Nelson’s plan was indeed a gamble.

Nelson instructed his captains, over two dinners aboard Victory, on his plan for the approaching battle. Nelson ordered the ships of his fleet to be painted in a distinctive yellow and black pattern (later known as the Nelson Chequer) that would make them easy to distinguish from their opponents.

Nelson was careful to point out that something had to be left to chance. Nothing is sure in a sea battle, so he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” In short, circumstances would dictate the execution, subject to the guiding rule that the enemy’s rear was to be cut off and superior force concentrated on that part of the enemy’s line.

Admiral Villeneuve expected Nelson would use an unorthodox attack strategy, stating specifically that he believed—accurately—that Nelson would drive right at his line. But his long game of cat and mouse with Nelson had worn him down (Nelson pursued Villeneuve for almost two years prior to October 1805).

It took most of October 20 for Villeneuve to get his fleet organized; it eventually set sail in three columns for the Straits of Gibraltar to the southeast. That same evening, Achille spotted a force of eighteen British ships in pursuit.  The fleet began to prepare for battle and during the night, they were ordered into a single line. The following day, Nelson’s fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line and four frigates were spotted in pursuit from the northwest with the wind behind it. Villeneuve again ordered his fleet into three columns, but soon changed his mind and ordered a single line. The result was a sprawling, uneven formation.

At 5:40 a.m. on October 21, the British were about twenty-one miles (34 km) to the northwest of Cape Trafalgar, with the Franco-Spanish fleet between the British and the Cape. About 6:00 a.m., Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle.

At 8 a.m., Villeneuve ordered the fleet to turn about and return to Cádiz. This reversed the order of the allied line. The wind became contrary at this point, often shifting direction. The very light wind rendered maneuvering virtually impossible for all but the most expert seamen. The inexperienced crews had difficulty with the changing conditions, and it took nearly an hour and a half for Villeneuve’s order to be completed. The French and Spanish fleet now formed an uneven, angular crescent, with the slower ships generally to leeward and closer to the shore.

By 11 a.m. Nelson’s entire fleet was visible to Villeneuve, drawn up in two parallel columns. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour. Villeneuve was concerned at this point about forming up a line, as his ships were unevenly spaced and in an irregular formation. The Franco-Spanish fleet stretched nearly five miles (8 km) long as Nelson’s fleet approached.

As the British drew closer, the British Commanders could see that the enemy was not sailing in a tight order, but rather in irregular groups. Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants.

Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned. The enemy had nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to Nelson’s 17,000 men and 2,148 guns. The Franco-Spanish fleet also had six more ships, and so could more readily combine their fire. There was no way for some of Nelson’s ships to avoid being “doubled on” or even “trebled on”.

11:45 a. m., Nelson sent the famous flag signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”

As the battle opened, the French and Spanish were in a ragged curved line headed north. As planned, the British fleet was approaching the Franco-Spanish line in two columns (See Figure 2). Leading the northern, windward column in Victory was Nelson, while Vice Admiral Cuthbart Collingwood in the 100-gun Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column. The two British columns approached from the west at nearly a right angle to the allied line.

All the ships were moving extremely slowly, because the winds were very light during the battle, and the foremost British ships were under heavy fire from several of the allied ships for almost an hour before their own guns could fire.

At noon, Villeneuve sent the signal “engage the enemy”, and the ship Fougueux fired her first trial shot at Royal Sovereign. Royal Sovereign had all sails out and, having recently had her bottom cleaned, outran the rest of the British fleet.

The second ship in the British lee column, Belleisle, was engaged by L’Aigle, Achille, Neptune, and Fougueux; she was soon completely dismasted, unable to manoeuvre and largely unable to fight, as her sails blinded her batteries, but kept flying her flag for 45 minutes until the following British ships came to her rescue.

As Nelson’s Victory bore down on the enemy line she had to endure heavy fire from the allied line, without being able to reply. Round shot came smashing through the flimsy bow of the ship, killing and wounding the men on the upper deck.

At 12.35pm the concave enemy line allowed the Victory to open fire. Soon afterwards the Victory ran right under the stern of the French flagship, the Bucentaure, and fired a double shotted broadside that made the enemy ship shudder, and killed or wounded over 200 men. Admiral Villeneuve was the only man left standing on the quarter deck.

The Redoutable then blocked Victory’s way through the enemy line, and Nelson was immobilised on a ship fighting three opponents in the middle of the combined fleet – but he had administered the decisive stroke. Villeneuve was trapped on a crippled ship, and the Franco-Spanish centre was reduced to chaos, lacking the leadership to meet the British.

A general mêlée ensued and, during that fight, Victory locked masts with the French Redoutable. The crew of Redoutable, which included a strong infantry corps (with three captains and four lieutenants), gathered for an attempt to board and seize the Victory. A musket bullet fired from the mizzentop of Redoutable struck Nelson in the left shoulder, passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and lodged two inches below his right scapula in the muscles of his back. Nelson exclaimed, “They finally succeeded, I am dead.” He was carried below decks.

Victory’s gunners were called on deck to fight boarders, and she ceased firing. The gunners were forced back below decks by French grenades. As the French were preparing to board Victory, Temeraire, the second ship in the British windward column, approached from the starboard bow of Redoutable and fired on the exposed French crew, causing many casualties.

At 13:55, Captain Lucas, of Redoutable, with 99 men (out of 643) and severely wounded himself, surrendered. The French Bucentaure was isolated by Victory and Temeraire, and then engaged by HMS Neptune, HMS Leviathan, and Conqueror; similarly, Santísima Trinidad was isolated and overwhelmed, surrendering after three hours.

The French-Spanish ships were overwhelmed as more and more British ships entered the battle. The British took 22 vessels of the Franco-Spanish fleet and lost none.

As Nelson lay dying, he ordered the fleet to anchor, because of a pending storm. However, when the storm blew up, many of the severely damaged ships sank or ran aground on the shoals. Surgeon William Beatty heard Nelson murmur, “Thank God I have done my duty”; when he returned, Nelson’s voice had faded, and his pulse was very weak. He looked up as Beatty took his pulse, then closed his eyes. Nelson’s chaplain, Alexander Scott, who remained by Nelson as he died, recorded his last words as “God and my country.” Nelson died at half-past four, three hours after being hit.

HMS Victory made her way to Gibraltar for repairs, carrying Nelson’s body. Nelson’s body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the trip home to a hero’s funeral.

At 2.15pm Villeneuve surrendered. The genius of his opponent, the power of the Royal Navy and the failure of his lead squadron to come to his aid had doomed his effort.

The cost of victory was high. Some 1,700 British were killed or wounded, with 6,000 enemy casualties and nearly 20,000 prisoners. Many of those lives, as well as Villeneuve’s flagship, were lost in the storm that followed the battle. Nelson’s overwhelming triumph over the combined Franco-Spanish fleet ensured Britain’s protection from invasion for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars.

Vice-Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner aboard his flagship and taken back to Britain. After his parole in 1806, he returned to France, where he was found dead in his room during a stop on the way to Paris, with six stab wounds in the chest from a dining knife. It was officially recorded that he had committed suicide.

Nelson became – and remains – Britain’s greatest naval war hero, and an inspiration to the Royal Navy, yet his unorthodox tactics were seldom emulated by later generations.  The British Government named London’s famous Trafalgar Square in honor of Nelson’s victory.  The statue of Lord Nelson in Bridgetown, Barbados, in what was also once known as Trafalgar Square, was erected in 1813.

We can see many strategy lessons from Lord Nelson that apply to organizations.

The disparity in losses has been attributed by some historians less to Nelson’s daring tactics than to the difference in fighting readiness of the two fleets. Nelson’s fleet was made up of ships which had spent a considerable amount of sea time during the months of blockades of French ports, while the French fleet had generally been at anchor in port. However, Villeneuve’s fleet had just spent months at sea crossing the Atlantic twice, which supports the proposition that the main difference between the two fleets’ combat effectiveness may have been the morale of the leaders.

One leadership lesson of the Battle of Trafalgar, one that transcends time and technology, is for commanders to establish a clear combat doctrine for their subordinates. Nelson’s greatest talent was his ability to convey such a principle to his subordinate admirals and captains. Because of his battle doctrine, Nelson flew no fleet tactical signals, and none was expected, during the fighting at Trafalgar. In fact, when Nelson sent his now-famous signal “England Expects that Every Man Will Do His Duty” in anticipation of the battle, Collingwood is said to have responded dryly that he wished the commander would make no more signals, for they all understood what they were to do.

General Stanley McChrystal, in his Leadership Lessons From Afghanistan, stated lessons from Lord Nelson. First, develop a foundation that gives you credibility.  In the years before Trafalgar, Nelson required that before his officers could become sea captains (commanders of a ship), they had to start their service as midshipmen. This experience meant that they had to learn how to do everything tactical and technical on deck, from the cannons to the rigging. They came to know every inch of the vessel. In other words, they had to be masters at it before they led it. This experience taught the captains about the ship’s capabilities. Moreover, it gave them important credibility in the eyes of their subordinates.

The case is a clear illustration of the four success criteria for an effective strategy:

External Analysis (Nelson’s knowledge of the French Navy’s weaknesses);

Internal Analysis (Nelson’s knowledge of his Navy’s capabilities);

Focus (A simple set of goals);

Quality Implementation (Well-trained Navy officers; allowed his commanders to use their judgment; unambiguous time when to execute).


[i] Despite the British victory over the Franco-Spanish navies, Trafalgar had negligible impact on the remainder of the War of the Third Coalition. Less than two months later, Napoleon decisively defeated the Third Coalition at the Battle of Austerlitz, knocking Austria out of the war and forcing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Trafalgar meant France could no longer challenge Britain at sea, Napoleon proceeded to establish the Continental System in an attempt to deny Britain’s trade with the continent. The Napoleonic Wars continued for another ten years after Trafalgar.

[ii] This information is from:  (a) Battle of Trafalgar 1805, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/battle-of-trafalgar;  (b) Battle of Trafalgar, https://www.britishbattles.com/napoleonic-wars/battle-of-trafalgar/ ; (c) Best, Nicholas (2005). Trafalgar – The Untold Story of the Greatest Sea Battle in History. London: The Orion Publishing Group; (d).http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/trafalgar_01.shtml(e) Willis, Sam (2013). In the Hour of Victory – The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson. London: Atlantic Books Ltd.

[iii] A grand strategy is often defined as encompassing resources that a state can focus – military, economic, political, cultural – to further its own interests in a global landscape.  Grand strategies may be informative for organizational strategies.  Here are a few references:  J.L. Gaddis (2018)  On grand Strategy.  New York, New York: Penguin;  W. Murray, R.H. Sinnreich, and J. Lacey (eds) (2011).  The Shaping of Grade Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press;  L. Freedman (2013)  Strategy: A History.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; A. Codevilla and P. Seabury (2006).  War: Ends and Means. Second Edition.  Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books.  B.H.L. Hart (1991).  Strategy.  Second revised ed. edition.  New York, New York:  Plume.


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