“Under spreading ensigns moving nigh, in slowJohn Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
But firm battalion.”
One of history’s most memorable moments occurred on 21st October 1805 when the Battle of Trafalgar was about to commence. For those – there may be one or two – who don’t know the circumstances of this historic conflict, this was a great naval battle between the forces of the British Royal Navy and the combined French and Spanish fleets. For the more scholarly among us, it was part of the War of the Third Coalition (August to December 1805), itself part of the Napoleonic Wars that raged from 1805 to 1815. Napoleon was intent on invading England with his Grand Armeé, and to do this he needed to have control over the English Channel. The French and Spanish fleets assembled at Cadiz in Spain, and set sail northwards to achieve this aim.
They didn’t count on a couple of annoying facts; firstly, that the Royal Navy was fairly determined to prevent this from happening, and secondly, that this Royal Navy fleet was under the extremely able command of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson aboard the Victory, and he was not about to let some pesky foreigners invade his beloved country. The outcome was no foregone conclusion: the 27 ships of the British fleet were up against a stronger force of 33 enemy ships of the line, and the Royals were heavily outgunned. Battle commenced, fast forward a day, and 22 of the French and Spanish vessels were sunk or sinking; the battered but unbowed British had lost none. The reason for the overwhelming victory was Lord Nelson’s unique vision: naval battles of that era were normally fought by opposing sides using a standard tactical orthodoxy: they would engage each other in parallel lines, and simply blast away, the better gunners and greater firepower winning the day. Not Nelson. He sailed directly through the opposition fleets with his vessels in two perpendicular lines, and confused them completely. As Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s second in charge aboard the lesser known vessel Royal Sovereign, said to his officers: “Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter.” He was right.
Nelson did not survive the battle, as is well known. There were very light winds on the day of the engagement, so ships were under fire from the opposition for lengthy periods of time. Nelson was picked off by a musket-firing sharpshooter perched on the mizzentop of the French Redoubtable. Nelson was resigned to his fate, grumbling, “They finally succeeded, I am dead.” Sadly, he was right, but his name and fame live on in history, his statue resplendent on a column above the eponymous Trafalgar Square in London. The aspect of the battle that lives on as the memorable moment referenced in the opening line is the recollection of the famous signal that Lord Nelson sent out just prior to the engagement. The wording has become embedded in the English psyche, and many battle leaders have sought to emulate it on the eve of subsequent battles; arguably never quite reaching the same level of motivation and history-generation.
“England expects that every man will do his duty” was flown from the masthead of the Victory, and that is the phrase taught to every scholar who soaks up English history. Although, oddly, that is not what Nelson actually asked to be flown. When he was standing on the bridge of the Victory addressing the officer in charge of signals Lieutenant John Pasco, he said, “Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet ‘England confides that every man will do his duty’ and he added, “You must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action.” In those days prior to radio, messages had to be flown by flags from the masthead, and these sequences of coloured squre cloths had to be read from the decks of all the ships in the fleet. Pasco replied, “If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the confides for expects the signal will soon be completed, because the word expects is in the vocabulary, and confides must be spelt.” Nelson nodded, and ‘England expects…’ has gone down in history, but there is no Pasco Square in London or anywhere else, sadly.
International maritime signal flags are still flown to communicate with ships, and there is an International Code of Signals that sets the codes. Each colourful flag represents both a letter and an individual meaning: for instance, the V for Victor flag, a red diagonal cross on a white background, when flown alone means ‘I require assistance’. Radios don’t always work. As Pasco pointed out, spelling ‘confides’ would have required an extra eight flags instead of the one that was in their code for ‘expects’. Learning all the permutations is tricky. I have one happy memory of my time at Naval College in Gordon’s Bay when the ever-patient Commander Wilkinson was testing us on flags. He looked up at the hastily assembled message flying on the flagpole and said quietly to the hapless signaller, “Midshipman, you have just started World War Three.”
At Waterfront Charters the naval traditions of Admiral Nelson live on in more peaceful times. The Girdlestone family who founded the company and run it today are direct descendants of the famous Admiral, and as such you can understand their passion for all things nautical. Safety, professionalism and perfection are their basic tenets; they may not fire cannons at passing French galleons, but you can bet they expect every employee to do their duty!