‘England expects every man will do his duty’: Trafalgar Day, Naval Commemoration and National Identity

‘England expects every man will do his duty’: Trafalgar Day, Naval Commemoration and National Identity

This week, Rowan Thompson (Northumbria University) examines the relationship between ‘British’ naval commemoration and national identity.

In the aftermath of clashes between white supremacist protestors – consisting of neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and members of the Klu Klux Klan – and antifascist demonstrators over plans to remove the statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Afua Hirsch published an article in The Guardian in which she described Admiral Horatio Nelson as a ‘white supremacist’ and that argued that Nelson’s Column should be the next statue to be pulled down.[i] Underpinning Hirsch’s argument is the fundamental failure of many within British society to either confront, or have a very selective reading of, the past. She points to the fact that the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University still remains, as does a monument to the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. Much of the response in the press and on social media often amounted to little more than ad hominem attacks on Hirsch herself. Yet amidst this, there were some common – and somewhat more cogent – themes that emerged in response to Hirsch’s article. Categories of nation and national identity, the relevance, importance and construction of the past for contemporary society and the politics and politicised nature of national commemoration. Andrew Lambert addressed some of these themes in his response to Hirsch and warned that pulling down Nelson’s Column ‘would rip the heart out of British identity, and begin a bonfire on our history that would not end until everything that is different, unique and important had been consumed, leaving nothing but universal platitudes. Changing the past is far more dangerous than understanding it.’[ii]

Toppling Statues.png

‘Toppling Statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next’, The Guardian, 22 August 2017

Similar debates were played out in the coverage of the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005, where categories of nation and national identity were also evident. For example, on the other end of the political spectrum to Hirsch’s article, The Sun suggested that bicentenary celebrations ‘reminded us of what made this country great’ and that ‘we must never be afraid or ashamed to salute our national heroes’. The same newspaper also took particular issue about the decision to play down the Trafalgar element in the son et lumiere re-enactment event in favour of a ‘red’ versus ‘blue’ naval battle. The Daily Mail also took offense to this and reminded the ‘panjandrums of political correctness that at Trafalgar the Reds did not fight the Blues – the British beat the French, resulting in the creation of the greatest navy and arguably the most beneficial empire in history’.[iii] Conversely, The Guardian felt that ‘Celebrating the carnage of Trafalgar is obscene’.[iv] However, while there are clearly contemporary tensions surrounding the commemoration of Trafalgar, these debates are not particularly new. Indeed, the commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson has a long and distinguished pedigree in British civic life.

Trafalgar Day was first held by the Navy League on 21 October 1895 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson. The Navy League, founded in 1895 with the raison d’être of securing ‘as the primary object of national policy “the Command of the Sea”’, used Trafalgar Day to construct both naval and national identity.[v] Trafalgar Day provided the League with a platform to impress upon state and society the importance of sea power. The day was about keeping Britain’s rich naval heritage – and status as an island nation – relevant to society in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. In commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar, and in memory of Nelson, wreaths were annually placed at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – displayed centrally was the Navy League’s wreath with the inscription, and Navy League motto, ‘Keep Watch’. Alongside the wreaths on Nelson’s Column, a wreath would also be placed at the foot of Nelson’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Flown at Trafalgar Square and on Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, was Nelson’s famous signal ‘England expects every man will do his duty’. Although Nelson’s Column was constructed in 1843 there appears, as Marianne Czisnik notes, ‘never to have been any regular habit of celebrating Trafalgar Day outside the Royal Navy’ until the Navy League’s celebration of Trafalgar Day in 1895. ‘This’, Czisnik remarks, ‘was the beginning of a tradition’.[vi]

Although the first display was relatively small, this did indeed mark the beginning of a tradition which became central to the Navy League. Celebrations the following year were on a much larger and grander scale – The Spectator estimated that over half a million people must have seen the decorations on Nelson’s Column.[vii] The Times noted that Trafalgar Day celebrations in 1896 were marked by ‘an extraordinary manifestation of public interest and of patriotism’. The same newspaper reported that its organisation was ‘in large measure due to the Navy League’, but also believed that the celebrations represented ‘widely-spread enthusiasm for a great hero of the past’ and was the ‘outward symbol of the Imperial spirit of the British people’.[viii] As the Navy League itself explained, ‘in initiating Trafalgar Day the object sought for by the Navy League was, not triumph over former foes, but recognition of the principles of duty and courage personified in the life and death of Nelson – a legacy of example for the present and future generations of the English-speaking people’.[ix]

The Navy League’s construction and use of the past was highly politicised and, at times, strongly contested. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that it would be ‘unchivalrous to exult over a beaten foe’, suggesting the Navy League name Nelson’s birthday ‘Nelson Day’.[x] George Bernard Shaw, whose sentiments have been echoed by Hirsch over a century later, also opposed Trafalgar Day, arguing that rather than decorating Nelson’s Column, the League might be best advised to pull it down.[xi] In 1896, The Navy League noted that there had been ‘one or two unsympathetic letters in the Press’ surrounding Trafalgar Day celebrations. ‘To the writers of them’, the League responded, ‘to those who would forget Trafalgar and erase its lesson from the nation’s heart, we can say nothing. They are beyond reminders and reproofs.’[xii]

The legacy of Trafalgar and Nelson is still evidently linked to notions of Britishness and national identity, yet while this legacy is clearly an enduring one, it is also contested and conflicted. Many of the same issues the Navy League faced from 1895 in its commemoration of Nelson and Trafalgar still have resonance today.


[i] ‘Toppling Statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next’, The Guardian, 22 August 2017.

[ii] ‘Britain’s foremost naval historian: Nelson’s Column must stand in place’, Washington Examiner¸ 24 August 2017.

[iii] Mark Connelly, ‘Trafalgar: Back on the map of British Popular Culture? Assessing the 2005 Bicentenary’ in Holger Hoock (ed), History, Commemoration, and National Preoccupation: Trafalgar 1805-2005 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 90.

[iv] Ibid., p. 92.

[v] ‘The Objects of the Navy League’, The Navy League Journal, December 1895, p. 1.

[vi] Marianne Czisnik, ‘Commemorating Trafalgar: Public Celebration and National Identity’ in David Cannadine (ed.), Trafalgar in History: A Battle and its Afterlife (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 143.

[vii] ‘News of the Week’, The Spectator, 24 October 1896, p. 2.

[viii] ‘Trafalgar Day’, The Times, 22 October 1896, p. 4.

[ix] ‘The Navy League and Naval Celebrations’, The Times, 7 June 1898, p. 12.

[x] ‘Nelson Day’, The Times, 20 October 1897, p. 12.

[xi] W. M. Hamilton, The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889-1914 (New York: Garland, 1986), p. 146.

[xii] ‘Trafalgar Day’, The Navy League Journal, November 1896, p. 131.

Rowan Thompson is a PhD Candidate in history at Northumbria University. He is currently working on a thesis entitled: ‘The Peculiarities of British Militarism: The Air and Navy Leagues in Interwar Britain’. He would be happy to be contacted to discuss any of the issues raised in the blog at rowan.thompson@northumbria.ac.uk. You can also follow him on twitter @rgethompson91

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