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Nelson’s amusing signal: England expects that every man will do his duty

Posted in Architecture, Conservation, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, London, Ships, War on Thursday, 18 July 2013

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This edited article about the British Museum originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 341 published on 27 July 1968.

Last signal before Trafalgar, picture, image, illustration

Nelson's last signal at Trafalgar: England expects that every man will do his duty.

The British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, is the most popular museum in Britain. Every year it attracts about 1,500,000 visitors. It is probably the oldest museum in the world, having been officially created in 1753, and it contains Britain’s largest collection of treasures. Displayed in the enormous galleries, several of which are 100 yards long, are priceless exhibits from many countries: huge Greek sculptures, Egyptian mummies, proud bronze heads from Africa, ceremonial masks from New Guinea, precious jewels and rare stamps.

Some of the most fascinating items are in the Manuscript Saloon. Here, for example, is one of the four original copies of Magna Carta, the death warrant for the Earl of Essex, signed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601; Scott’s Antarctic Journals, written on his last polar expedition of 1910-1912, and five exhibits which vividly recall one of England’s most glorious naval victories – the Battle of Trafalgar.

The first of the five is Admiral Horation Nelson’s secret Memorandum explaining his battle tactics. Nelson dates the quarto pages: Off Cadiz. October 9, 1805. Then, concentrating with only his left eye (he lost the sight of his right eye in 1794) and holding his quill pen in his left hand (his right arm had to be amputated after a wound in 1797), he sets out his imaginative plan for defeating the enemy. In bold, impulsive handwriting he instructs the captains of his fleet to approach the centre of the long line of enemy ships at right-angles, in two parallel columns, and surprise them by concentrating the attack on the middle and rear of their line.

Next is Nelson’s personal logbook. Like an ordinary school exercise book, it consists of 24 plain white pages which Nelson’s secretary, John Scott, has divided into vertical columns with red ink for the Admiral to write down, twice a day, the barometric readings, the state of the weather and direction of the wind. The last entry, on page 10, is made at 8 p.m. on October 20, 1805, the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar. Sitting in his cabin, under a swinging lantern, Nelson records the wind as: WNW.

By the following morning it had dropped. The Atlantic, off Cape Trafalgar in southern Spain, was calm. Nelson, a short, slim, fairhaired man aged 47, was pacing the quarterdeck of the Victory before dawn. As the sun rose he saw about 10 miles to the east a long line of French and Spanish warships, 33 in all, heading north. Nelson’s fleet numbered 27. He hoisted signal flags putting into action his battle plan, as outlined in his Memorandum. The British fleet formed two columns a mile apart.

Very slowly, with every sail set, and the fading breeze behind them, Nelson’s ships moved at right angles towards the enemy line. The advance lasted all morning. Bands on the ships played rousing music.

Just before noon, Nelson remarked: “I will amuse the Fleet.” He suggested to Captain Hardy sending the signal: NELSON CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. Hardy said that perhaps “England” ought to be substituted for “Nelson.” Then the signals officer pointed out that “expects” would be quicker than “confides” because it required fewer hoists of flags. So the famous signal, ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY, fluttered up the rigging of the Victory. The British sailors, standing by their guns, gave three cheers.

Soon afterwards the battle opened with a broadside from the French ship Fougueux. By 1 p.m. the Victory was in the thick of the fight. The British shattered the enemy line. Rigging and masts came crashing down. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out as sailors with swords swarmed from ship to ship. A choking fog of gunsmoke hung everywhere.

Nelson was walking with Hardy on the Victory’s quarterdeck when he suddenly collapsed, gasping: “My backbone is shot through.” The Admiral had been hit by a musketeer high in the rigging of a nearby French ship, the Redoubtable.

Gently, Nelson was carried below. He knew he had only a few hours to live but insisted on being told how the battle was going. After hearing that 14 or 15 enemy ships had been captured, he murmured weakly: “Thank God, I have done my duty.”

The story is taken up by the third exhibit at the British Museum: the Logbook of the Victory. In it, Thomas Atkinson, the ship’s Sailing Master (the officer in charge of navigation), writes: Partial firing continued until 4H. 30M. when a Victory having been reported – To the Right Honourable Lord Viscount Nelson K.B. and Commander in Chief – he then Died of his Wound.

In another showcase at the Museum is an extraordinary exhibit: a box of shiny polished oak, about 2 inches by 1¬Ω inches. Made from a splinter of the Victory’s timber knocked off by an enemy shot during the battle, it contains whisps of Nelson’s hair.

Lastly there is a letter to Lady Hamilton, begun by Nelson on October 19, in which he writes:

My Dearest beloved Emma.

May the God of Battles crown my endeavours with success . . . I hope that I shall live to finish my letter after the Battle . . .

On the final page is a tragic note added by Lady Hamilton: This letter was found open on His Desk (aboard the Victory) and brought to Lady Hamilton by Capn. Hardy. Oh miserable wretched Emma. Oh glorious and happy Nelson.

Other museums have relics of Nelson, of course. The actual coat he was wearing when mortally wounded is displayed (with its shot-hole) at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Nelson’s body is in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the five exhibits at the British Museum tell the story of Trafalgar eloquently.

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