As the Battle of Trafalgar commenced, Horatio Nelson famously signalled the English fleet that “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Actually that message arose only due to a last-minute conference on the flagship, as signal officer John Pasco recalled after the battle:

His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, ‘Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY,’ and he added, ‘You must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action.’ I replied, ‘If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the word expects for confides, the signal will soon be completed, because the word expects is in the vocabulary, and confides must be spelt.’ His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, ‘That will do, Pasco, make it directly.’

The days of such clear language are over — in an August 1939 letter to the London Times, A.P. Herbert wrote:

Alas, the strong silent Services have been corrupted, too. If Nelson had to repeat his famous signal today it would probably run thus:–

England anticipates that as regards the current emergency personnel will face up to the issue and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation-groups.

Grunt Work

During World War I, one of the worst jobs in the French army was that of wirecutter, the scout deputed to cut through the wire entanglements set up by the enemy, often unprotected in exposed positions. To improve his chances, the army introduced this one-man tank. From Popular Science Monthly, May 1917:

The device is made to resemble a cannon which it is hoped will be considered by the enemy to be broken and discarded. It is provided with slits and larger openings through which the scout may see and get air. The wheels, though apparently rusty and old, are smooth-running and noiseless, and the legs of the scout, moving cautiously at the rate of perhaps one-half inch per minute during critical times, resemble the drooping muzzle of the gun — or it is hoped that they will.

“It is also considered among the possibilities that the device will be of service when it is necessary for a bold and death-defying dash to be made through showers of shrapnel into the teeth of the foe. But this is problematical since the device is not made for rapidity of movement.”

Warm Words

Future president Herbert Hoover published a surprising title in 1912: An English translation of the 16th-century mining textbook De Re Metallica, composed originally by Georg Bauer in 1556. Bauer’s book had remained a classic work in the field for two centuries, with some copies deemed so valuable that they were chained to church altars, but no one had translated the Latin into good modern English. Biographer David Burner wrote, “Hoover and his wife had the distinct advantage of combining linguistic ability with mineralogical knowledge.”

Hoover, a mining engineer, and his wife Lou, a linguist, spent five years on the project, visiting the areas in Saxony that Bauer had described, ordering translations of related mining books, and spending more than $20,000 for experimental help in investigating the chemical processes that the book described.

The Hoovers offered the 637-page work, complete with the original woodcuts, to “strengthen the traditions of one of the most important and least recognized of the world’s professions.” Of the 3,000 copies that were printed, Hoover gave away more than half to mining engineers and students.

The Pied Piper of Saipan

Marine private Guy Gabaldon was 18 years old when he took part in the invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands in June 1944. In order to secure the island, Gabaldon began to go on “lone wolf” missions, using his smattering of Japanese to convince enemy civilians and troops to give themselves up.

“Immediately after landing on Saipan I decided that I would go off into enemy territory to fight the war as I saw fit,” he wrote in his 1990 memoir Saipan: Suicide Island. “I always worked alone, usually at night in the bush. I must have seen too many John Wayne movies, because what I was doing was suicidal.”

“My plan, as impossible as it seemed, was to get near a Japanese emplacement, bunker or cave, and tell them that I had a bunch of marines with me and we were ready to kill them if they did not surrender. I promised that they would be treated with dignity, and that we would make sure that they were taken back to Japan after the war.”

He must have been stupendously persuasive, because he captured 1,500 Japanese single-handed — including 800 on a single day in July. “When I began taking prisoners it became an addiction,” he wrote. “I found that I couldn’t stop — I was hooked.”

Gabaldon earned a Navy Cross for his efforts, and Jeffrey Hunter played him in the 1960 film Hell to Eternity. “The heroes are still over there,” he told the Chicago Tribune at the film’s opening. “Those who gave their all are the heroes.”

Top Secret

The Treaty of Berlin was drafted in secrecy, so its framers were astonished to find it published in the London Times. Journalist Henri de Blowitz at first refused to reveal his source, but at last relented near the end of his life. Well before the congress started he had attached a confederate to the clerical staff, but the man felt he was being watched, so the two could not dare to meet or talk. Finally de Blowitz noticed that they wore hats of the same type and color, and he hit on a plan of “childish simplicity.”

De Blowitz was staying at the Kaiserhof. Each day his confederate went there for lunch and dinner. The two never acknowledged one another, but they hung their hats on neighboring pegs. At the end of the meal the confederate departed with de Blowitz’s hat, and de Blowitz innocently took the confederate’s. The communications were hidden in the hat’s lining.

“Only twice were we forced to put off the communication till the following day,” de Blowitz wrote in his 1904 memoir. “Once, however, we had a scare.”

“One of my English colleagues, on leaving the dining-room, made a mistake and took my friend’s hat. Without looking at each other we felt, as he wrote me next day, that we turned pale. If the colleague in question had kept the hat, he might have discovered the third article of the treaty, which had been adopted at the previous day’s sitting, and also a hint of the difficulties that had arisen between Russia and England on the question of the boundaries of Bulgaria, and very disagreeable consequences for my friend might have been the result. Fortunately, on reaching the door, the Englishman put on the hat, which dropped over on his nose. He laughingly took it off and replaced it on its peg. I had risen to take the hat from him, but sat down again. I breathed freely, and my friend must have done the same.”

Sudden Stop

Anthropologist George Bird Grinnell’s The Fighting Cheyennes (1915) describes “perhaps the only attempt to disable a railroad ever made by Indians.” A Cheyenne named Porcupine relates that in late summer 1867, after an embittering loss to U.S. soldiers in frontier Nebraska, his band witnessed “the first train of cars that any of us had seen. We looked at it from a high ridge. Far off it was very small, but it kept coming and growing larger all the time, puffing out smoke and steam, and as it came on we said to each other that it looked like a white man’s pipe when he was smoking.”

“Not long after this, as we talked of our troubles, we said among ourselves: ‘Now the white people have taken all we had and have made us poor and we ought to do something. In these big wagons that go on this metal road, there must be things that are valuable — perhaps clothing. If we could throw these wagons off the iron they run on and break them open, we should find out what was in them and could take whatever might be useful to us.”

They lay a stick across the tracks, which was enough to upset a handcar that appeared that night, and the Cheyenne killed the two men who had been working it. Encouraged, they used levers to pull out the spikes at the end of a rail and bent it a foot or two in the air. Presently they spotted two trains approaching and sent a party to assail the first one.

“When they fired, the train made a loud noise — puffing — and threw up sparks into the air, going faster and faster, until it reached the break, and the locomotive jumped into the air and the cars all came together. After the train was wrecked, a man with a lantern was seen coming running along the track, swearing in a loud tone of voice. He was the only one on the train left alive. They killed him. The other train stopped somewhere far off and whistled. Four or five men came walking along the track toward the wrecked train. The Cheyennes did not attack them. The second train then backed away.”

The Cheyenne would shortly be driven out of that country, but they relished this victory. “Next morning they plundered and burned the wrecked train and scattered the contents of the cars all over the prairie,” Porcupine relates. “They tied bolts of calico to their horses’ tails, and galloped about and had much amusement.”

“Evils of Railroads”

A canal stockholder’s argument against railways, from the Vincennes, Ind., Western Sun, July 24, 1830:

He saw what would be the effect of it; that it would set the whole world a-gadding. Twenty miles an hour, sir! Why, you will not be able to keep an apprentice-boy at his work: every Saturday evening he must take a trip to Ohio, to spend the Sabbath with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets. All local attachments must be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. Veracious people will turn into the most immeasurable liars; all their conceptions will be exaggerated by their magnificent notions of distance. ‘Only a hundred miles off! Tut, nonsense, I’ll step across, madam, and bring your fan!’ ‘Pray, sir, will you dine with me to-day at my little box at Alleghany?’ ‘Why, indeed, I don’t know — I shall be in town until twelve. Well, I shall be there; but you must let me off in time for the theatre.’ And then, sir, there will be barrels of pork, and cargoes of flour, and chaldrons of coals, and even lead and whiskey, and such like sober things, that have always been used to sober travelling, whisking away like a set of skyrockets. It will upset all the gravity of the nation. If two gentlemen have an affair of honour, they have only to steal off to the Rocky Mountains, and there no jurisdiction can touch them. And then, sir, think of flying for debt! A set of bailiffs, mounted on bomb-shells, would not overtake an absconded debtor — only give him a fair start. Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-scarum whirligig. Give me the old, solemn, straightforward, regular Dutch canal — three miles an hour for expresses, and two for jog-and-trot journeys — with a yoke of oxen for a heavy load! I go for beasts of burthen: it is more primitive and scriptural, and suits a moral and religious people better. None of your hop-skip-and-jump whimsies for me.

Public Servant

During the War of 1812, the Declaration of Independence hung in the office of Stephen Pleasonton, an auditor in the State Department. When word came that the British might march on Washington, Secretary of State James Monroe ordered Pleasonton to safeguard the department’s important books and papers, so Pleasonton ordered linen bags made and began filling them with documents.

As he was doing this, Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr. passed through the building and remarked that the alarm was unnecessary; he did not believe that the British planned to attack the city.

“Had he followed the advice of the Secretary of War, an irreparable loss would have been sustained,” noted the New York Times in 1905. “For the papers which Mr. Pleasonton had placed in the coarse linen bags comprised the secret journals of Congress, then not published; the correspondence of Gen. Washington, his commission, resigned at the close of the war; the correspondence of Gen. Greene and other officers of the Revolution, a well as laws, treaties, and correspondence of the Department of State, from the adoption of the Constitution down to that time.”

Pleasonton had the bags carted to a grist mill on the Virginia side of the Potomac. As he was leaving his office, he caught sight of the Declaration hanging on his wall. He took it down, cut it out of its frame, and carried it away with the other papers.

Feeling that even the grist mill was too vulnerable, Pleasonton removed the bags a further 35 miles to Leesville, where he stored them in an empty house. “Worn out with his labors, Mr. Pleasonton states in a letter, he retired early to bed that night and slept soundly. Next morning he was informed by the people of the little tavern where he had stayed that evening that they had seen during the night, the same being the 24th of August, a large fire in the direction of Washington, which proved to be the light from the public buildings, which the enemy had set on fire and burned to the ground.”

Wind Power

From a 1773 letter from Ben Franklin to Barbeu Dubourg:

When I was a boy, I amused myself one day with flying a paper kite; and approaching the bank of a pond, which was near a mile broad, I tied the string to a stake and the kite ascended to a very considerable height above the pond while I was swimming. In a little time, being desirous of amusing myself with my kite, and enjoying at the same time the pleasure of swimming, I returned, and loosing from the stake the string with the little stick which was fastened to it, went again into the water, where I found that, lying on my back and holding the stick in my hands, I was drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner. Having then engaged another boy to carry my clothes round the pond, to a place which I had pointed out to him on the other side, I began to cross the pond with my kite, which carried me quite over without the least fatigue and with the greatest pleasure imaginable. I was only obliged occasionally to halt a little in my course and resist its progress when it appeared that, by following too quick, I lowered the kite too much; by doing which occasionally I made it rise again.

“I have never since that time practiced this singular mode of swimming, though I think it not impossible to cross in this manner from Dover to Calais. The packet boat, however, is still preferable.”

Field Work

baden-powell butterfly

In 1891, Robert Baden-Powell wandered the mountains of Dalmatia with a butterfly net and a sketchbook. If he was accosted by one of the forts in the area, he would show his drawings to the soldiers and explain that he was hunting a particular species, and they would send him on his way.

In fact he was working as an intelligence officer for the British government. “They did not look sufficiently closely into the sketches of butterflies to notice that the delicately drawn veins of the wings were exact representations, in plan, of their own fort, and that the spots on the wings denoted the number and position of guns and their different calibres”:

baden-powell fort

The large dots denote the locations of the fort’s main guns, and the smaller show field artillery and machine-gun emplacements.

“Fortunately for us, we are as a nation considered by the others to be abnormally stupid, therefore easily to be spied upon,” he wrote in his 1915 memoir My Adventures as a Spy. “But it is not always safe to judge entirely by appearances.”