Christopher Bullivant: Battle of Trafalgar Anniversary – ‘England expects everyman will do his duty’

HMS Victory

By Military Historian Christopher Bullivant

Decisions made by Nelson two hundred and sixteen years ago today almost certainly cost him his life and changed the perception, forever, of the message he wanted to give to the sailors under his command and to the country he loved.

The original ‘band of brothers’ – the captains of the British ships about to attack the combined French and Spanish fleets on 21st October 1805, were at a meeting on ‘Victory’ the day before the battle. They had persuaded Nelson not to be first into battle but to allow HMS Temeraire to lead; with Victory second in the column attacking that morning. 

Captain Harvey, on Temeraire, was about to overtake Victory when Nelson changed his mind, telling Harvey to return to his second position thereby ensuring his own death by fire from sharpshooters in the rigging of the French ship ‘Redoubtable’ when Victory cut into the Franco Spanish ‘ships of the line’  (battle ships).

At about the same time as ordering Harvey ‘back into line,’ Nelson ordered his ‘flag officer’ to send the following message to the fleet using a system of flags draped between the masts of Victory:


For reference ‘confides’ was a nineteenth century word meaning ‘has confidence.’

The flag officer requested that the words ‘Nelson’ and ‘confides’ be changed because they needed to be spelled using individual flags for each letter. Nelson was losing interest because of the nearness of the enemy said ‘okay, get on with it’ so the flag officer changed ‘Nelson’ for ‘England’ and ‘confides’ for ‘expects’ because the latter could be flown with a single flag.


However, many in the fleet were outraged upon receiving the message as many Scots, Irish and Welsh seamen were also onboard the 27 British ships. Everyone also thought it was understood that they would ‘do their duty,’ they did not need to be ‘told’ to do it.

Turner: Painting The Fighting Temeraire

When the enemy fleet, under the command of French Admiral Villeneuve met the British fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson off Cape Trafalgar, Nelson was outnumbered with 27 British ships of the line to 33 allied ships including the largest warship in either fleet, the Spanish Santisima Trinidad.

To address this imbalance, Nelson decided to sail his fleet directly at the battle line’s flank, hoping to break it into pieces. Villeneuve had worried that Nelson might attempt this tactic but, for various reasons, had made no plans in case this occurred.

The plan worked almost perfectly. Nelson’s columns split the Franco-Spanish fleet in three, isolating the rear half from Villeneuve’s flag aboard Bucentaure.

The injured vanguard sailed off while it attempted to turn around, giving the British temporary superiority over the remainder of their fleet. The ensuing fierce battle resulted in 22 enemy ships being lost, while the British lost none.

Unfortunately, Nelson was shot by the French musketeer and died shortly before the battle ended. Villeneuve was captured along with his flagship Bucentaure and attended Nelson’s funeral while a captive on parole in Britain. The senior Spanish fleet officer, Admiral Federico Gravina, escaped with the remnant of the Franco-Iberian fleet (a third of what it had been in number of ships) and he died of wounds sustained during the battle five months later.

Two ‘oddities’ readers may enjoy, firstly the ‘fighting Temeraire’ painting by Turner on the reverse of £20 notes does not accurately illustrate Temeraire’s journey to the breakers yard on the day it was painted, from life, by Turner.

The ship had been turned into a ‘hulk’ (de-masted and guns removed) long before its transfer. Turner painted the masts just to create a more interesting painting.

Secondly, people often refer to ‘third rate’ as a derogatory term whereas the third rate ships in the navies of the world were, by far, the best and most useful type of ship afloat. They had upwards of 64 guns and manned by about half the number of sailors necessary to man a ‘first rate’ ship of 100+ guns. There were twenty ‘third rate’ ships  out of twenty seven ‘ships of the line’ at the battle of Trafalgar, illustrating in spades, the importance of their role.

The importance of Trafalgar can’t be expressed too strongly, it destroyed Napoleon’s hope of invading the U.K. and led him into attacking Russia thereby fighting on two fronts, a battle strategy which resulted in both his and another dictator’s downfall a hundred and forty years apart.

The British victory confirmed the naval supremacy Britain had established in the 18th Century and was achieved in part through Nelson’s departure from prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy.


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