Everyone knows of Admiral Nelson's signal before Trafalgar, 'England expects that every man will do his duty'. Less well known is the reaction of Admiral Collingwood, who was a more experienced sailor and would also prove to be a hero of the day. On seeing the signal, he remarked, 'I do wish Nelson would stop signalling. We all know perfectly well what is required of us.'
Sympathy for Collingwood increases when one learns that Nelson's signal required thirty-one flags in twelve three-flag hoists. To display it in one go, it would have had to be hoisted sequentially from the tops of the main, fore and mizzen masts and the gaff, and then down the starboard and port sides of each of the three masts.
In the event Nelson's signal was displayed in a rapid succession of eleven separate hoists to the mizzen masthead (in order to be most visible to the fleet astern). Each hoist had to be kept flying until all the ships had hoisted acknowledgements. Frigates were stationed along the line to windward to relay signals to ships further away, and then relay back their acknowledgements.
When one further learns that the the Fleet's code books had been revised just before the battle as it was believed the ciphers had been compromised, the potential for confusion was considerable. It is remarkable that the signal was read and acknowledged by the fleet within four minutes. I doubt it could be texted quicker.
Brevity makes Royal Naval signals something of an art form. Amongst my favourites is an exchange between the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable. After being attacked by a Japanese kamikaze aircraft, Formidable signalled, 'Little yellow bastard'. Indomitable, carrying the flag of Admiral Vian, replied, 'Are you referring to me?'