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MIKE KEELER: A Matter of One Simple Word

On a grim morning such as this, perhaps folks in England can take heart that today is also an anniversary.

217 years ago, England was engaged in an existential war with Napoleon. On October 21, 1805, a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships sailed out of Cadiz, headed for England, in what looked like a prelude to invasion. They had made it out to a place called Cape Trafalgar, where they were met by an English fleet commanded by Horatio Nelson.

Standard naval warfare dictated that Nelson would attack the enemy in parallel, coming alongside them and hitting them broadside. Instead, Nelson developed a risky perpendicular plan, in which his 27 ships would form into two columns and sail straight into the center of the enemy’s line of 33 ships. It was completely unorthodox, and, 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 signalman, 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 a 170-foot tall monument would be raised at the center.

Today, if you go there, you can see the great hero standing atop Nelson’s Column, looking out over 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.”

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