A Great Line Can Always Be Improved

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by Mike Keeler

Take, for example, the Battle of Trafalgar, fought 206 years ago this week.  Horatio Nelson had been ordered to find and destroy a combined fleet of Spanish and French ships, to prevent Napoleon from invading England.  On October 21, 1805, Nelson encountered the enemy as they sailed from the port of Cadiz in southwestern Spain into Cape Trafalgar.  He ordered his 27 massive ships into two parallel columns, and sailed them straight at the center of the enemy’s line of 33 ships.  It was an unorthodox and risky perpendicular attack plan, completely at odds with standard naval warfare.  Succeed or fail, it was going to result in massive destruction and carnage.  And everybody knew it.

 So what does one say to frightened sailors at a time like this?  Nelson hastily scribbled a message, “England confides that every man will do his duty,” and handed it to his signal man, John Pasco.  But there was a problem.  England’s signaling system of the day used just 10 flags, numbered 0 through 9, and assigned a 3-flag code to any word.  In this way, signalers had a basic “signal vocabulary” of several dozen common words, which they would run up one 3-flag word at a time.  Unfortunately, the word “confide” was not in that vocabulary, which meant that Pasco would have to spell that word out letter by letter.  Pasco suggested an alternative, and Nelson, pressed for time, agreed.  Pasco then took about 4 minutes to run the message up the mizzen mast.

 Just moments later, Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory slammed across the middle of the Franco-Spanish line, starting what would be the world’s greatest naval battle until the Battle of Midway.  By slicing through the enemy line perpendicularly, Nelson was able to fire point-blank into their bows and sterns, with cannonballs and grapeshot ripping through the length of their ships.  This created profound devastation and loss of life.  Both the French and Spanish flagships were utterly ruined, and half their fleet was destroyed.  In a matter of minutes, over 16,000 of Napoleon’s sailors lost their lives.

It was, perhaps, the greatest moment in English military history.  Most of Nelson’s ships survived and only 1,587 English sailors were lost.  Because of this victory, England would rule the seas for the next century.

But Nelson would never see it; he had been killed in the opening minutes by a French sniper.  He was brought back to England and laid in state for three days.  10,000 soldiers then escorted him to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he was laid to rest.  In later years, King George IV’s Square would be renamed Trafalgar Square, and at its center a 170-foot tall monument would be raised.

Today, if you go there, you can see the great hero standing atop Nelson’s Column, looking out at the nation he defended.  On the four sides of his column are scenes from his career.  And inscribed on the base is his defining legacy.  It’s the phrase taught to every English child.  It’s beautiful, memorable, and alliterative.  It’s the last, haunting message of British Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson (as copy-edited by Lieutenant John Pasco).

“England expects that every man will do his duty.”