New College of the Humanities

The Court-Martial of Sir Robert Calder

Oliver Warner questions whether Calder's reprimand for his action with the French in 1805 was just.

On July 22nd, 1805, Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, with fifteen ships of the line under his command, met the Combined Fleets of France and Spain, led by Admiral Villeneuve, off the north coast of Spain, and fought an action. Because of the disparity between the opposing forces, which amounted to five ships of the line in Villeneuve’s favour, the result was so creditable to Calder that he considered he had gained a famous victory.

The day had ended with two Spanish ships in Calder’s possession, light casualties in the British force, and only one of his own vessels, the Windsor Castle, too much damaged to resume her place in readiness next day. Calder was elated, so much so that he wrote home anticipating honours and awards, and putting in a word with those in authority in favour of his nephew.

Such elation, though natural, was misguided. Calder had been detached from Admiral Cornwallis’s main fleet in order, first, to intercept Villeneuve should he make for the latitude of Cape Finisterre on his way back to Europe from the West Indies, and then to maul him so badly, at whatever cost to himself, that his fleet would not be fit for any further part in Napoleon’s plan for the invasion of Britain, though Calder was not told this in so many words.

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