Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre de Villeneuve was born in 1763 to an aristocratic
family at Valensoles in Provence France and died in shame and suicide after terrible naval
defeats and charges of cowardice in 1806.
Villeneuve joined the French Navy at the age of 15 in 1778, quickly gaining rank and prestige
while serving in the West Indies. During the French revolution he did not resign his Naval
Commission as many of his aristocratic peers did and instead dropped the "de" from his name
and openly supported the rebellion, earning him the rank of Captain in 1793.
Villeneuve was promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1796 shortly after his first meeting with
Napoleon and was given command of a portion of the Egyptian Expedition Fleet. It was during
the disastrous Battle of Abu Qir in 1798 that Villeneuve first faced Admiral Horatio
Nelson. Sometimes called the Battle of the Nile, it is one of the most disastrous
confrontations in French Naval history. The French fleet was practically wiped out by Nelson's
strategic maneuvering in the shallow waters near the Nile River delta.
Villeneuve's flagship, the Guillaume Tell, and the Genereux were the only
French warships to escape the battle, although he was criticized for not supporting the head of
the French line and for fleeing the action. Villeneuve defended himself by saying that his
deceased commander, Brueys, had "foreseen the case where he could call the van to the support
of the centre or rear if these were attacked, but he had put down no article which would take
the ships of the rear to the help of the vanguard, because the thing was impossible and he
would have divided his squadron without being able to take any advantage from it." Simply
put, he had no orders clearly saying to move in support of the vanguard, so he did not.
Analysis indicates that if he had moved to the head of the fleet, he may have captured the
British ship Culloden, and prevented other British ships from entering the bay.
In 1804 he was named Commander of the fleet in at Toulon and ordered to form up with a
Spanish Coalition Fleet and sail to the West Indies in an effort to draw Admiral Nelson and
the Royal Navy out of European waters. He was then to make every speed home, in secret, so
that he could join up with the remainder of the Coalition Fleet near Britain and land an
invasion force while Nelson was otherwise disposed. It was Napoleons grand plan to finally
end the conflict between the two nations with himself as Emperor over all of Europe.
Unfortunately, Napoleon didn't realize the great fear that Villeneuve harbored from his earlier
encounter with Nelson in Egypt. Villeneuve was publicly critical of Napoleon’s plan but
accepted the order anyway and was successful in leading Nelson to the West Indies as planned
and in returning east without alerting the British. After a brief skirmish with an English
squadron off the coast of El Ferrol Spain, led by Sir Robert Calder, he deliberately
disobeyed orders and headed south to Cadiz, dooming Napoleons invasion efforts and
potentially changing the course of history for all of Western Europe. Had he returned in
support of the Coalition Fleet, the British Navy in home waters would have been greatly
outnumbered and it's likely the invasion would have been successful.
Surprisingly, Villeneuve wasn't immediately replaced as commander for such an action of
cowardice and insubordination, probably only because there was no officer in the fleet
qualified for command at the time. Villeneuve's luck wouldn't hold though. He ordered the
fleet to port at Cadiz where they would regroup. Due to Villeneuve's disobedience, Napoleon was
forced to change plans and sent orders to Villeneuve in Cadiz to attack Naples and hold the
Preparations were being made to follow through with the attack on Naples when Villeneuve
received word that an officer was enroute to replace him. Seizing on the delay afforded by a
mechanical failure of the replacement’s carriage, Villeneuve again disobeyed orders and
ordered the fleet launched. He made his way west to the Atlantic in what many believe was a
full fledged nervous breakdown. He seemed unable to reconcile his cowardice and his fear of
Ironically, Villeneuve's fleet ran straight into Nelson’s as the latter returned from his West
Indies goose chase of the former. The fleets met and the result was the Battle of Trafalgar
in 1805. Despite poor decisions that would seem to indicate cowardice, Villeneuve showed
great personal courage if not strategic aptitude during the battle. He ordered a line to
be formed, but the untrained crews and poor winds wouldn't allow for proper maneuverability and
the end result was an arc with many large gaps. Villeneuve remanded control to the individual
Captains and the resulting lack of communication spelled the doom of the Coalition Fleet. The
battle was a near complete loss and Villeneuve was captured by the British.
Villeneuve was released after a short Gentleman’s Imprisonment and returned to France, there
to await his fate and word of the Emperor’s dissatisfaction. It would seem that Villeneuve's
cowardice and mental instability finally caught up with him in 1806, and while staying at an
inn in Rennes he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the heart. Again, irony was laid heavy on Villeneuve's shoulders as he outlived the man he so feared, Horatio Nelson, by a year. Nelson had been wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar, where Villeneuve had received no wounds despite standing at the forecastle the entire battle, and died in 1805.