The peace concluded between England and France in 1802 was not of long duration, for on April 29th, 1803, war was again declared; this had been foreseen, and early in the month, great preparations were made in all the dockyards. Lord Nelson was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, and selected the Victory as his flagship, She was commissioned at Chatham, on April 9th, and on 16th May arrived at Spithead. Nelson was waiting for her, but could not get away for a few days; and such was his impatience to sail, that in answer to everyone who spoke to him on the 19th of his departure, he said, “I cannot sail till to-morrow, and that’s an age.”
He went on board on the 20th, and sailed in a violent squall of wind and rain the same afternoon, having orders to speak Admiral Cornwallis off Brest, and if necessary to leave the Victory with him, and go on a frigate. On the 22nd he was in sight of Brest, but no Cornwallis was to be seen, and after chafing for a day, his anxiety did not permit him to wait any longer, so striking his flag in the Victory, he went on board the HMS Amphion leaving the former ship to find the Admiral of the Channel Fleet, and if not required, to follow him with all speed.
Within forty hours after Lord Nelson left him. Captain Sutton met Lord Cornwallis, and was immediately permitted to resume his voyage. A few days after, the Victory fell in with the Ambuscade a French frigate, formerly an English one, which she re-captured, and on the 12th June, she anchored at Gibraltar. After watering, she left on the 15th, called at Malta on the 9th July, and on the 30th, joined the squadron of 5 line-of-battle ships, off Cape Sicie, when Lord Nelson at once shifted into her, bringing Captain T. Masterman Hardy with him, from the Amphion, Captain Sutton of the Victory exchanging.
For 18 months subsequent to this, there is no fact worth recording in the history of the Victory. During that time Lord Nelson, with a fleet that averaged 10 sail of the line, closely watched the road of Toulon, where a French fleet lay at anchor, going occasionally to Agincourt Sound, in Sardinia, for water, &c., but the French never showed any sign of moving, until the beginning of 1805, though every stratagem was tried to entice them to come out.
Spain had declared war with England on 12th December, 1804, and Buonaparte had formed a great plan for the invasion of Britain, the first step to the accomplishment of which, was to gain the command of the Channel. This could only be done by placing an overwhelming force of ships there, and by misleading the English as to his design. With this object in view, Admiral Villeneuve, who was now in command at Toulon, prepared for sea, and embarked on board his 11 ships, 3,500 soldiers.
His orders, as subsequently ascertained were, to proceed to the West Indies, effect a junction there with a fleet of 21 sail from Brest, land his troops, and if opportunity offered, ravage our colonies; then return with speed to Ferrol, where the Spaniards were to have a fleet of at least 25 sail ready to join him, and with this overpowering force, he was expected to keep our ships at bay, while the bold originator of this scheme. Napoleon, crossed the Channel himself, at the head of 170,000 men. We shall see how much easier this was to plan than to carry out.
On January 12th, 1805, well nigh worn out with watching, hoping, and fearing, his ships and their rigging rotten, Nelson left his station off Toulon, for the anchorage at Agincourt Sound, which he called his “home,” to water and refit, leaving his two frigates to watch the enemy. The fleet now consisted of the following ships:—
Victory, 104, Royal Sovereign 100, Canopus, 80, Spencer 74, Leviathan 74, Tigre 80, Superb 74, Belleisle 74, Swiftshre 74, Conqueror 74, Donegal 74.
On the 17th Villeneuve put to sea, and on the 19th January, at 2 p.m., the fleet in Agincourt Sound was electrified by the appearance of the frigates, with the welcome signal flying, “enemy is at sea.” In two hours the ships were under weigh, and made sail for the passage between Biche and Sardinia, a passage so narrow that the ships had to proceed in single line, directed by the lights of their next ahead, and led by the Victory, who took them through in safety.
Nelson had nothing to guide him as to where the French were bound, but he knew they could not be far off, and dispatched the few frigates he had to scour the coasts in search, but all to no purpose—no tidings could be obtained. A gale that arose on the 21st, and that lasted a week, blew in the teeth of the fleet as it attempted to go south, and Nelson was wild at the thought that they had escaped him. The only place his reasoning led him to suppose they could have sailed for, was Egypt, and thither he turned his ships’ heads. He arrived off Alexandria on 7th February, but found no sign of them there either; immediately he retraced his steps, and called off Malta, and here he learnt that the French fleet were dispersed and disabled by the gale on the 21st, and had returned to Toulon, scattered and crippled.
Nelson, in a letter to Admiral Collingwood, thus writes on the subject. “Buonaparte has often made his brags that our fleet would be worn out by keeping the sea; that his was kept in order and increasing by being kept in port; but he now finds I fancy, if Emperors hear truth, that his fleet suffers more in one night, than ours in a year.”
By March 12th, the British fleet, after struggling with a continuation of gales, succeeded in regaining their station off Toulon, and to their joy, saw the enemy still at anchor, and after watching them till the 27th, they proceeded to Palma Bay to get that refit they so much required, as during all this cruise, every ship had been strained to her utmost.
Villeneuve took the first opportunity to escape again, after his ships were repaired, and on 29th March ran out of Toulon roads; on the 31st he was discovered off Cape Sicie, by the Phoebe which vessel lost no time in communicating her intelligence to the Admiral, who was again on his way to Toulon; and once more the exciting chase began. The frigates, most unfortunately, lost the French ships, and could give no intelligence of their apparent destination. Again Nelson thought of Egypt, and proceeded off Sicily, sending ships right and left to get information, and on the 15th April, when off Palermo, he first heard of the evident intention of the enemy to go westward. At once he made sail in pursuit, but the fates were against him, and while the French in their passage down the Spanish coast had been favoured with easterly winds, he could get nothing but westerly gales. “I believe,” he says, “this ill luck will go near to kill me.”
It was the 4th May, before the Victory and her consorts anchored in Tetuan Bay to water and provision. Sailing the next day, they put into Gibraltar for a few hours, and learnt nothing there, but that the enemy’s fleet had passed the Straits on the 8th April, nearly a month in advance of them. Nelson at once went to Cape St. Vincent, hoping to get news, and the next day he received the first reliable information from an American brig, which was to the effect, that on the 9th April, the French fleet of 11 sail had appeared off Cadiz, been joined by a squadron of five Spanish and 2 French line-of-battle ships, and immediately resumed their voyage. He then heard from an Admiral Campbell in the Portuguese service, that their destination was the West Indies; this tallied with his own ideas, and he instantly decided on following.
- Captain W.J.L. Wharton, RN, A Short History of HMS Victory, Portsmouth, Griffin & Co,2, The Hard, Portsmouth.
History of HMS Victory – Part One
History of HMS Victory, Early Career – Part Two
History of HMS Victory, Siege of Gibraltar – Part Four
History of HMS Victory, Occupation of Toulon – Part Five
History of HMS Victory, Battle of Cape St. Vincent – Part Seven
History of HMS Victory, Blockade of Toulon – Part Eight
History of HMS Victory, Battle of Trafalgar – Part Ten
History of HMS Victory, Death of Nelson – Part Eleven
History of HMS Victory, Damage sustained by Victory – Part Twelve
History of HMS Victory, Victory again in Active Service – Part Thirteen