''Nelson's Signal''

  • The Napoleonic War
  • 2 mins

By Crusader1307

A time honored piece of English Naval Flag History, “Nelson's Signal” was a series of Naval Pinafore Banners set by Royal Naval Admiral Horatio Nelson – at The Napoleonic Wars Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The famed Signal to his Fleet was England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty”.


The use of Pinafore or Pennant Flags to communicate Orders and Messages to other Ships was ancient by Nelson's time. The primary purpose was to communicate with other Ships in a Fleet. Conversely, Ships at Sea could use a basic “language” to communicate with accepted “Flag Speak” regardless of the National Language spoken.


In Wartime naturally, a “secret” or “Fleet Language” was spoken to convey Orders and Tactics. These Flag Signals were placed on the top most portion of a Mast (not to exceed a lower height of 75-feet), for visibility. Subsequent Orders and messages were likewise arrayed on other Mast Poles.


Nelson's main battle plan was to Spearhead his Fleet straight into the main French Line. As such, he ordered his Commanders to adopt a similar Tactic, expecting them to perform as one would expect an “English” Sailor to in battle (hence his Signal “England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty”.


The Flag Code was based on a numeric identifier which placed a number for every letter or skip for every word. This was based on the number of letters of the alphabet double for syllables and such). Numbers were used in a similar fashion. A Code book was used by The Flagman responsible for setting and responding to the sent or received signals.


The “Nelson Signal” became a well known piece of Royal Naval History. It was used in both World Wars as a popular and patriotic phrase. It was also used as a recruitment tool during Wartime as well. It is still flown today for ceremonial purposes in The Royal Navy.