Today an unorthodox approach paid off.
War in Europe had raged since the century had begun, as Napoleon Bonaparte turned the passions of the French Revolution toward the complete domination of continental Europe. The War of the Third Coalition aligned Austria, Portugal, Russia, and Britain against Napoleon and a wash of client states across Germany and Italy. Things weren’t going well: French and Bavarian forces effectively captured an entire Austrian army during the Ulm Campaign and a final battle on October 13th. On the ocean, a different battle was aligning as the Austrians surrendered, as the navies of France, Spain, and Britain maneuvered their way off the south-west coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar.
When Admiral Lord Nelson sent the flag signal to begin the attack at 11:45 am on this day in 1805, he sent his 27 ships into an unorthodox approach to his enemy’s 33 ships. Standard procedure was to line up facing one another in two rows and try to blow the hell out of one another (infantry would fight similarly until the machine gun changed things in WWI). Ships also needed to keep in sight lines to communicate and coordinate with one another. Nelson’s plan was to slice directly into the enemy line and divide it in two, then engage one side in close-up ship-to-ship combat, with his ships operating independently. By 1:30, the engagement was all but over, the Franco-Spanish fleet losing 22 ships without a single British loss…except may men, including the Admiral, who took a bullet through his spine. Less than two months later, Napoleon would go on to win the Battle of Austerlitz and force peace with his enemies. But Nelson had destroyed the Emperor’s naval threat.
Individuals have been challenging the Conventional Wisdom for a long time.