There were two admirals at Trafalgar desperate for death in battle The physically waning Nelson who wanted glorious victory or Westminster Abbey and had to settle for St Pauls; and Villeneuve rattled by Napoleon’s incessant demands and insults and the threat of being sacked, saw the only way out was in a battle he was sure he would lose and death. As we know he didn’t get it ,not immediately.
Although Villeneuve had predicted Nelson’s tactics he had done little to counteract them. Yet months before in the Meditterean and in the West Indies ,Villeneuve had given Nelson the slip so often that our Hero would cry “The devil’s children have the devil’s luck”.
But in the end Villeneuve on the brink of fulfilling Napoleon’s plan of getting Nelson out the way and the Channel free for the invasion ,baulked. And from then on the devil’s luck deserted him. They had of course met before,when Villeneuve was the only French officer to escape with a small squadron from another of Nelsons great victories, the Nile.
The story of the battle has been told many times and should be told many more. In the end the superior British ships and their vastly superior gunnery benefited from Nelson’s design of a pell mell battle.
Villeneuve came to Britain as a prisoner of war in the Age of Reason. His was no Stalag experience but he was the guest of Viscount Sidmouth. He even attended Nelson’s funeral. In April 1806 he was exchanged for four British captains.
On arriving in Paris he was ordered to report to Napoleon. The one time aristocrat had had enough. While staying in the Hotel de Patrie on the Rue des Foulons he locked his door. He was found with five stab wound to the chest and a sixth with the table knife still stuck. This was no clean cut samurai death,this was death by six rather feeble but obviously heartfelt cuts. He was buried without military honours and to this day there is some speculation that Napoleon may have been involved in the death. As it was jested , Napoleon had the good fortune that many of those who displeased him killed themselves to save him the trouble.
But unlike those in business,public service or government who today almost wear their failure with brazen pride ,soldiers have a higher code. As Villeneuve wrote to his wife,”I have reached the point where life is a source of shame and death a duty…What good fortune I have no child to inherit my dreadful legacy and to be burdened with the weight of my name.” One weeps at the nobility of such sentiment.
One of the reasons that Villeneuve surrendered was because he was shocked at the huge casualties (450 out of 800) his flag ship the Bucentaure was suffering as it was pummelled repeatedly by Nelson’s column. It is a shame that on that day off Cape Trafalgar those glorious gunners missed the noblest Frenchman of them all.