England or Nelson
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Nelson and His Navy - England or Nelson?

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There has been a long held belief that Nelsons famous signal at Trafalgar: - 'England Expects that Every Man will do his Duty' was first intended to read: - 'Nelson Confides that...etc'. How true is this to the facts? Recent research by Colin White of the 1805 Club has shed new light on the topic.

At about 11.30 in the morning of 21st October 1805, as the British fleet was sailing into action against the Combined Fleets of France and Spain, the flagship, HMS Victory, hoisted a nine-word signal. Although by far the most famous in naval history, it has been misquoted and misunderstood ever since.

The misquotation started immediately. Nelson actually signalled - 'England expects that every man will do his duty'. But a number of British ships recorded the wording in their logs as 'England expects every man to do his duty'. This version proving so persistent that it appears on Nelsons Column and around his tomb in St Pauls.

It is well known that Nelson first intended to signal the more trusting word 'confides' (has confidence) than the mandatory 'expects'. However the idea has also arisen that he intended to say 'Nelson confides' as well. The story originates from William James's 'Naval History' published in 1822 where, quoting 'an officer' he says that 'Lord Nelson remarked that he must give the fleet something by way of a fillip. After musing awhile, he said, 'Suppose we telegraph that "Nelson expects every man to do his duty?" The officer whom he was then addressing, suggested whether it would not be better, "England expects &c". The two stories have been mixed up ever since. So what is the truth?

Those actually present during the signal were frigate Captain Henry Blackwood and signal Lieutenant John Pascoe. Both of them have left personal records of what actually happened. Piecing these together the actual sequence of events and words appears to have been: -

  1. Nelson first requested Pasco to make the signal, 'England confides that every man will do his duty'. Nelson added 'You must be quick for I have one more to make'.
  2. Pasco then suggested replacing the word 'confides' with 'expects' as this was in the code book but confides must be spelt out. Nelson replied 'That will do, Pasco, make it directly'.
  3. Nelson then went up to Blackwood and commented 'I'll now amuse the fleet with a signal'. Whilst he continued speaking to Blackwood the signal was made.

From the original account sit is clear Nelson always intended to say 'confides' but he also always intended to say 'England'.

A longer version of this article was first published in 'Trafalgar Chronicle 1998', the annual journal of the 1805 Club.

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