"England expects..."

"England expects that every man will do his duty" was a signal sent by Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson from his ship HMS Victory as the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) was about to commence. Trafalgar was the decisive naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. It gave the United Kingdom control of the seas, removing all possibility of a French invasion and conquest of Britain.

Signals during the battle

As the British fleet closed with the opposing combined fleets of France and Spain, Lord Nelson signalled all the necessary battle instructions to his ships. However, aware of the momentousness of events to come, Lord Nelson felt that something extra was required. He instructed his signal officer, Lieutenant John Pasco, to signal to the fleet the message "England confides that every man will do his duty" as quickly as possible (that is, "England trusts..."). Pasco suggested to Nelson that expects be substituted for confides, since the former word was in the signal book, whereas confides would have to be spelt out letter-by-letter. Nelson agreed to the change.

Thus, at 11:45 on October 21, 1805 one of the most famous naval signals in British history was sent.

The signal was relayed using the numeric code devised by Sir Home Popham. This code assigned the digits 0 to 9 to ten signal flags. These flags in combination represented code numbers which were assigned meaning by a code book, distributed to all Royal Navy ships and weighted with lead for disposal overboard in case of capture. The code numbers were hoisted on the mizzen-mast, one after another, with the "telegraph flag" also being flown to show that the signals employed Popham's code. The word "duty" was also not in the code book and had to be spelt out, so the whole message required twelve "lifts". This is believed to have taken about four minutes. A team of four to six men, led by Lt Pasco, would have prepared and hoisted the flags.

The message "engage the enemy more closely" was Nelson's final signal, sent before a single English cannon had been fired at the enemy . This message was signalled using flags 1 and 6. Nelson ordered this signal hauled up and left. It remained up until shot away during the battle.

After the battle

The phrase has become extremely well-known in Britain as a result of Lord Nelson's fame and the importance of the Battle of Trafalgar in British history. Generations of British schoolchildren have been taught about Trafalgar, alongside other seminal moments of British history such as the Battle of Hastings, Magna Carta, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Blitz. The phrase is known so widely in Britain that it has entered the British popular consciousness. Today "England expects…", as an abbreviated version of the phrase, is often adapted for use in the media, especially in relation to the expectations for the victory of English sporting teams.

Almost immediately, the signal began to be misquoted. A number of ships in the fleet recorded the signal as "England expects every man to do his duty," (omitting "that") and this version became so prevalent that it is recorded around the base of Nelson's Column, on his tomb in St. Paul's Cathedral, and on the memorial built in 1807 by his friend and agent, Alexander Davison. However, the Victory's log and the accounts of signal officer John Pasco and Henry Blackwood (captain of the frigate Euryalus), both present at the preparation of the signal, agree on the form given here.

The signal is still hoisted on the Victory at her dry dock in Portsmouth on Trafalgar Day (October 21) every year, although the signal flags are displayed all at once, running from fore to aft, rather than hoisted from the mizzen-mast in the order actually used in the battle.

Similar signals

Nelson's famous signal has been imitated in other navies of the world. Napoleon ordered the French translation, La France compte que chacun fera son devoir, to be displayed on French vessels. Also, before the Battle of Tsushima, Japanese Admiral Togo signaled to his fleet The fate of the Empire depends upon today's battle: let every man do his utmost.

References in popular culture

  • In chapter 43 of Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens wrote: ..."as the poet informs us, England expects Every man to do his duty, England is the most sanguine country on the face of the earth, and will find itself continually disappointed."
  • In Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman says:
For England Expects -- I forbear to proceed:
'Tis a maxim tremendous, but trite.
  • England Expects is the name of a BBC One television drama.


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