The Flags of the World/Chapter 5

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The Flags of the World
Chapter 5

[ 127 ]

CHAPTER V.

Flags as a Means of Signalling—Army Signalling—the Morse Alphabet—Navy Signalling—First Attempts at Sea Signals—Old Signal Books in Library of Royal United Service Institution—"England expects that every man will do his duty"—Sinking Signal Codes on defeat—Present System of Signalling in Royal Navy—Pilot Signals—Weather Signalling by Flags—the International Signal Code—First Published in 1857—Seventy-eight Thousand different Signals possible—Why no Vowels used—Lloyd's Signal Stations.

We propose in this, our final chapter, to deal with the use of flags as a means of signalling; a branch of the subject by no means wanting either in interest or in practical value.

The flags used for army signalling are only two in number if we consider their design, though, as each of these is made in two sizes, the actual outfit consists of four flags. The large size is three feet square, and the smaller is two feet square; the larger sizes are clearly more visible, but on the other hand the smaller save weight and consequently labour; and with good manipulation and clear weather their messages can be followed by observers, with ordinary service telescopes, up to a distance of twelve miles or so. The poles are respectively five feet six inches long and three feet six inches, and the flags themselves are either white with a blue horizontal stripe across the centre, or wholly blue. Only one flag is used at a time, the first being used when the background is dark and the second when light, so as to ensure under all circumstances the greatest visibility.

The person sending the signals should hold the flag pointing upwards to the left, and with the pole making an angle of about 25°, with an imaginary vertical line passing down the centre of his body. The signals are based upon the dot and dash system of Morse. The dot or short stroke is made by waving the flag from the normal position to the corresponding point on the right hand, while for the dash or long stroke the flag is waved till the head of the pole nearly touches the ground.

The Morse alphabet is so constructed that the letters of most frequent occurrence are represented by the shortest symbols, and no letter requires more than four of these for its expression, while figures are all represented by five signs. [ 128 ]

The letters of the alphabet are thus represented:—

A · —
A (æ) · — · —
B — · · ·
C — · — ·
D — · ·
E ·
F · · — ·
G — — ·
H · · · ·
I · ·

J · — — —
K — · —
L · — · ·
M — —
N — ·
O — — —
O (œ) — — — ·
P · — — ·
Q — — · —
R · — ·

S · · ·
T —
U · · —
U (ue) · · — —
V · · · —
W · — —
X — · · —
Y — · — —
Z — — · ·
Ch — — — —

The following code is adopted to represent figures:—

1 · — — — —
2 · · — — —
3 · · · — —
4 · · · · —
5 · · · · ·

6 — · · · ·
7 — — · · ·
8 — — — · ·
9 — — — — ·
0 — — — — —

A space about equal in length to the dash is left between each letter, and a time interval of about three times the duration between each word. This alphabet, once learned, it is evident can be utilized in many ways. Steamers, by means of short and long whistles, can spell out messages to each other; seamen, across a harbour, can communicate by waving their arms; prisoners by opening and shutting their hands. It is also utilised in the light-flashes of the heliograph, in telegraphy again, and in various other directions.

Classes are held at the School of Army Signalling at Aldershot, and from thence the knowledge permeates the Army and the Auxiliary Forces.[1] The requirements are steadiness, intelligence, quickness of eye-sight and of action, and the power to spell correctly; and it takes a man from fifteen to twenty days, at five hours drill a day, to learn the alphabet and the proper manipulation of the flags. The standard of efficiency is ten words a minute with the large flag or sixteen with the small. If our readers will take the trouble to count the letters in the first sixteen words in this present sentence they [ 129 ] will find that they are sixty-nine in number, and they will further find, if they take the additional trouble to translate these letters into Morse, that it will take 105 dots and 60 dashes to do it. Our readers will probably then go on to conclude that as it takes one hundred and sixty-five motions of the flag, plus sixty-eight intervals between the letters to signal these sixteen words, a speed of ten words a minute is a very creditable performance either for the sender to work off or for the receiver to read.

Besides the ordinary spelling out of the words, various arbitrary signs are used, thus a continued succession of dots · · · · · · is used to call attention to the fact that a message is going to be sent, and a series of dashes — — — — — — means that it is finished. G means "go on," R is a request to "move more to the right" and L to "shift a little to the left"; B means "use the blue flag," and W "use the white flag," K.Q is "say when you are ready," F.I means that figures are coming, and F.F indicates that the figures are finished. Those who have to receive the message may see that the background behind the transmitter is not quite satisfactory for the due observation of the flags, and they may then flash back H or O, meaning either "higher up" or "lower down," as the case may be, and in case of any misunderstanding, they will signal I.M.I, which means "please repeat," and as soon as all is clear, they will signal R.T, meaning "all right."

As our man-of-war's-men are also instructed in this system of signalling, communication can be established during an expedition between the ships and the troops on shore. The signal for communication is a white pendant with two black X.X on it. Should this special flag not be forthcoming, the X.X — · · — — · · — (see code of letters) is flashed at night or waved by the flag by day, and as soon as the preparative dots · · · · · · have been acknowledged, the message is dispatched. When the message is of a general character, nothing more need be done, but when it is intended for a particular vessel, the communication is preceded by the special sign apportioned to that vessel.

Though the Morse system has its place, as we have seen, in the drill of our blue-jackets, it does not altogether meet naval requirements. A man waving flags on board ship would be a scarcely conspicuous enough object, and intermediate vessels in a squadron would block out all view of him from those farthest off, hence naval communications are ordinarily made by means of flags exhibited from the mast head or other clearly visible position. Instead of one flag being used, our men-of-war have over forty, and these are all conspicuously distinct from each other. The messages are not spelt out, as in land operations, but the flags are used in various combinations, and the meaning of the signal is found by reference to a [ 130 ] code-book. These flags, it is arithmetically evident, can be transposed and grouped in some thousands of different ways, and the code-book contains questions and answers to meet the very varied requirements of naval service, and the special signal hoist for each.

The first real attempt at sea-signalling was made during the reign of Charles II., when a series of signs of the most arbitrary character was devised, consisting for the most part of flags hoisted in various parts of the ship, and altering their significance as their locality was changed. The system was a very cumbrous one, and in 1780 Kempenfeldt, the Commander of the ill-fated Royal George, improved to some extent upon it, but even then the result was not very brilliant. Lord Howe, in 1792, could only make a total of one hundred and eighty-three signals. As yet, however, it had never struck anybody how much simplicity and advantage would be gained by employing numbered or lettered flags, and then using them in the thousands of combinations that such a system rendered possible. It is stated by various authorities—and even authorities have a way of copying from each other—that flags were numbered for the first time about the year 1799, but in the Library of the Royal United Service Institution may be seen "An Essay on Signals, by an Officer of the British Navy," bearing the date 1788.[2] The flags were numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0, and they are represented in our illustrations by Figs. 287, 288, 289, 290, 291, 292, 293, 294, 295, and 296. It will be seen that they are all of a very clear and distinct character. When such a number as 444 was required, it would appear to be necessary to have three flags like Fig. 290—the No. 4 of the series—but to avoid this multiplication of identical flags, a red triangular flag called a decimal, a white triangular called a centenary, and a blue triangular called a millenary, were used, and these were placed as required before the unit to be repeated. By this plan 444 would be expressed by the yellow flag, the No. 4, having below it the red and white pennants. Sometimes these flags really meant numbers, and then the required number was hoisted, plus a yellow swallow-tailed flag. Thus in answer to "How many guns does she carry?" if the response should be fifty, the five and the nought flags, Figs. 290 and 296, plus the swallowtail or cornet, as it is technically called, would be hoisted, while the same five-nought signal, without the cornet, would signify "whole fleet change course four points to starboard."

If we want to find the English equivalent of some German word, we turn to the German-English half of our dictionary, but if we [ 131 ] required the German equivalent of our English word, we should refer to the English-German part of the book, and signal codes are in like manner divided into flag-message and message-flag. By the system we are at present discussing, we should find by referring to the flag-message half of our book, that the three flags 7, 3, 6, meant, "recall cruisers," while 8, 3, 6, signified "sprung a leak." On the other hand, if we wished ourselves to send such an order we should turn to the message-flag half of our code book, and under the heading of "Cruisers," find all the references that could concern the management of such vessels until we presently found "Cruisers, recall—7, 3, 6," and then at once proceed to hoist those particular flags. Only fourteen flags, the ten numerals, the three pennants, and the cornet, suffice for sending many hundreds of messages, but the anonymous author adds, "exclusive of this arrangement, I would propose to have the most current signals in battle made with one flag only, and these should be used on the day of battle only. A similarity between these and the flags used as the numerical signals ought as much as possible to be avoided." Figs. 279, 280, 281, 282, 283, 284, 285, and 286, are illustrations of some of these. The striking design of the rising sun signifies "engage the enemy." Fig. 280 is an order for "close action." Fig. 281 is an instruction to "invert the line of battle by tacking," while Fig. 282 is a direction to "force the enemy's line." It is needless to particularise them all, suffice it to say that each and all are of stirring significance. Many minds were at work on the urgent problem of an adequate system of sea-signalling, and numerous plans, therefore, were suggested. It does not appear that the one we have just referred to as an example of these endeavours to solve the difficulty was ever adopted.

The official "Signal Book for the Ships of War," compiled by the Admiralty in 1799, and afterwards amplified in 1803 by Admiral Sir Hope Popham, is of immense interest, as it was introduced into the Navy for the first time in the fleet of Nelson, and it was therefore the code of Trafalgar. In the copy preserved in the Library of the Royal United Service Museum is written, "this is a copy of the signal book by means of which the battle of Trafalgar was fought." All signals are by numbers. In the book in question, those given have been pasted over others, but some of those underneath are still visible: thus the flag that once represented one here stands for five, and the flag that heretofore was three is now seven. "If the Admiral"—an instruction in the book says—"should have reason to believe that the enemy has got possession of these signals, he will make the signal for changing the figures of the flags. The figure, which by the new arrangement each flag is to represent, is to be immediately entered in every ship's signal-book," and it is [ 132 ] evident that one of these transpositions has been made here. The ten flags of the code are represented in Figs. 269, 270, 271, 272, 273, 274, 275, 276, 277, and 278. It is very difficult to say really how the flags were arranged for the world-famed "England expects that every man will do his duty," as the numerical significance of the ten flags was so often changed during the exigencies of war. The book we have referred to makes Fig. 270 stand for 1, Fig. 278 for 2, Fig. 275 for 3, Fig. 273 for 4, Fig. 269 for 5, etc.; and while it declares that it was by this code Trafalgar was fought, we have no evidence as to who wrote this statement. It may have been the authoritative statement of some one at the time in full possession of the facts, or a mere surmise added a dozen years afterwards by some irresponsible scribbler. On turning to the "Naval History" of James, Vol. IV., p. 34, we read "there is not, that we are aware of, a single publication which gives this message precisely as it was delivered. The following is a minute of the several flags, as noted down on board more than one ship in the fleet." He then proceeds to give them, and the arrangement that he follows is that of our illustration, his 1 being Fig. 269; 2, Fig. 270; 3, Fig. 271; 4, Fig. 272; 5, Fig. 273; 6, Fig. 274; 7, Fig. 275; 8, Fig. 276; 9, Fig. 277; and 0 Fig. 278. If he may be accepted as a reliable authority, "England" was expressed by the flags 2, 5, and 3; "expects," by 2, 6, and 9; "that," by flags 8, 6, and 3; "every," by flags 2, 6, and 1; "man," by 4, 7, and 1; "will," by 9, 5, and 8; "do," by 2, 2 and 0; and "his," by 3, 7, 0, those being the code numbers assigned to those words in the vocabulary. This necessitated eight distinct hoists, one group of flags for each word, but singularly enough the code contained no signal for "duty," so that it was necessary to spell this out letter by letter, making four hoists more, flag 4 being for "d"; 2 and 1 for "u"; 1 and 9 for "t"; and 2 and 5 for "y." As given in one or two French historical works the signal is equally short and expressive: "L'Angleterre compte que chacun fera son devoir." The story of Nelson's signal is best told in the words of the Victory's Signal Lieutenant, Pasco, the officer who received Nelson's orders to make it. "His Lordship," Lieutenant Pasco says, "came to me on the poop, and, after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, said, 'Mr. Pasco, I want to say to the fleet "England confides that every man will do his duty."' He added, 'You must be quick,[3] for I have one more to add, which is for "close action."'[4] I replied, 'If your Lordship will permit me to substitute "expects" for "confides" the signal will soon be [ 133 ] completed, because the word "expects" is in the vocabulary, and "confides" must be spelt.'[5] His Lordship replied in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, 'That will do, Pasco, make it directly.' As the last hoist was hauled down, Nelson turned to Captain Blackwood, who was standing by him, and said, 'Now I can do no more. We must trust to the Great Disposer of all events, and the justice of our cause; I thank God for this great opportunity of doing my duty.'" And Great Britain that day did not call upon her sons in vain, nor was the appeal to the God of Battles unheard, though the rejoicing of victory was turned into mourning at the loss of him who had so nobly done his duty in the nation's service.

In the Royal Navy of the present day, a special code, requiring forty-five different flags, is employed. Figs. 254 to 267 inclusive, are examples of some of these.[6] This code, we need scarcely say, is of a confidential nature, and is not published anywhere for all the world to study. The Commercial code of International signals being now recognised by the principal maritime States of the world, is, by Queen's regulations, made use of by our men-of-war when communicating with foreign war-ships, or with merchant vessels whether British or foreign. The signal codes of the Royal Navy, when not actually in use, are kept in perforated metal cylinders, so that in case of capture of the vessel they may at once be thrown overboard. In the Library of the Royal United Service Institution may be seen the Signal book of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake, with bullets attached to it for the purpose of sinking it. In the confusion incidental to the capture of the vessel by H.M.S. Shannon,[7] it fell into the hands of the Britisher. Besides these regulation signals of the American Navy, a second set, supplied to privateers, was also captured, marked "Strictly confidential. The commanders of private armed vessels are to keep this paper connected with a piece of lead or other weight, and to throw the whole overboard before they shall strike their flag, that they may be sunk." This also, instead of going to the bottom of the Atlantic, may be seen within half a mile of Charing Cross.

Landsmen have a notion, remembering possibly that Nelson went into action with the signal for close action flying, that when a signal is made it is to be instantly obeyed, but the present system of signalling is on somewhat different lines. The hoisting of a signal on the flag ship is preparative. The ships leading the other columns repeat the signal, hoisting their colours three-quarters of [ 134 ] the way up the mast. The other ships each hoist their "answering pennants" to show that they have seen and understood the order. Then when the repeating ships notice that all the other vessels have answered, they hoist the signal right up as an intimation to the Admiral that this is the case. Then it is that on the Admiral's ship the signal is hauled down, thus giving the executive order for its purport to be obeyed, so that the signal is cautionary of what is coming, and the manœuvre is only executed when to the eye no instructions at all are to be seen. The answering pennant has vertical stripes—red, white, red, white, red.

Fig. 268 is the flag used by any vessel that wishes to communicate with a coastguard station, or hoisted when one coastguard station wants to send a message to another. Thus when Beachy Head has any notification to make to the neighbouring post away down at Burling Gap, the first thing to be done is to hoist at the masthead Fig. 268. When the men on duty at Burling Gap see this they hoist the answering pennant, meaning "all right, talk away," and then the arms of the Beachy Head semaphore work vigorously, or the gay signal flags flutter in the breeze and send their message across the downs.

War vessels signal to each other at night by means of the Morse system of short and long flashes,[8] and all the large steamship lines have night signals peculiar to themselves, thus the night signal of the Orient Line is red and blue lights burnt alternately. Any vessel seeing this, knows that they are dealing with this special Line and similarly report themselves, and after this due introduction proceed to dot and dash to their heart's content.

The last two rows of flags on plate XXIII. are signals for pilots. These are either the two flags standing for P. and T. in the International Signal Code, a system we have yet to deal with, or it may be a single flag, the special pilot flag of each nation. Fig. 297 is the pilot flag of the Argentine Republic; Fig. 298, that of Brazil; Fig. 299, that of Ecuador. Fig. 300 is the pilot flag of Greece; 301, that of Japan; and 304, that of Spain. France, Mexico and Chili all adopt a flag like Fig. 278, a white flag with broad blue border, while Great Britain, Fig. 104, Germany, Fig. 302, Belgium, Fig. 303, Denmark, Fig. 305, Holland, Fig. 306, Sweden, Austria-Hungary, Italy, all fly the national flag of the country with a broad white border to it. Russia takes the Jack, Fig. 215, for the same purpose, and places this [ 135 ] white band around it, while the United States of America takes the star-bestrewn azure canton from the national flag, Fig. 146, and similarly surrounds it with the broad band of white.

Penalties are recoverable, as they clearly should be, if any ship uses or displays signals which may be mistaken for either pilot calls or signals of distress.

The United States uses flags for its weather signals at the various meteorological stations. A violent storm is prognosticated by a red flag with a black centre. A red pennant signifies "storm approaching station," while a yellow pennant signifies "call at station for special information." A plain white flag betokens fine weather and a plain blue one rain or snow, and there are various combinations of other flags that indicate direction, intensity, velocity and so forth. It is evident that this employment of flags could be made a very valuable one.

Another instance of its use with which we are acquainted, is at the London office in St. Paul's Churchyard of the Draper's Record, one of the largest in circulation of any trade paper in the world. The citizen of London may see displayed from its roof by private enterprise the whole of the forecasts issued by the Meteorological Office, viz., the 11 a.m., the 3.30 p.m., and the 8.30 p.m. for the South of England, which officially includes St. Paul's Churchyard. A white flag is hoisted for clear weather, a blue one for rain, while local showers are prognosticated by a flag half blue and half white. Changeable weather is indicated by a flag like Fig. 267, and a coming fog by a yellow flag with black ball in its centre, like Fig. 258. Snow is foretold by a flag like Fig. 278, and squally weather by a swallow-tailed flag, having its upper half black, and the lower white. A plain red triangular flag is used to indicate temperature; when this is hoisted above other flags, it indicates rising temperature; when placed below, falling temperature; and when omitted we are to conclude that things are stationary. Thus the red flag, then below it the white one, and then the blue hoisted together, would mean that we might expect warmer weather, at first fair, but succeeded by rain, while the blue flag above the red would indicate that wet weather was before us, and a fall of temperature.

At the 1894 meeting of the National Rifle Association at Bisley a system of this kind was inaugurated, in order to give those in camp an idea of the weather that might be expected for the ensuing twelve hours, the hoisting of a blue flag indicating fine weather or moderate wind, a red one foretelling stormy weather or strong wind; green, pointing to unsettled weather or gusty wind, and a yellow flag indicating thunder or rain storms. For shooting purposes a knowledge of the strength of the wind is very valuable. [ 136 ]

The development of a code of flag signals seems to have exercised a great fascination on many minds, and the result has been that until the general adoption of the International code things had got into a somewhat chaotic state. Some systems had many excellent points in them, while others broke down under the strain of practical use. In some cases, too, the claims of patriotism influenced the choice, it being difficult for an Englishman or an American to believe that the scheme of a Frenchman or German could possibly be better than the home-grown article.

The systems best known in this country are the Admiralty codes of 1808, 1816, and 1826, Lynn's in 1818, Squire's in 1820, Raper's in 1828, Philipps' in 1836, Eardley Wilmot's in 1851, the code of Rogers, the American, in 1854, the French code of Reynolds in 1855, and the system devised by Marryat in 1856, all being superseded by that of the Board of Trade.

The International code of signals was prepared and first published in April, 1857, in accordance with the views and recommendations of a Committee appointed by the Lords of the Privy Council. Three members, Admiral Beechey, Captain Robert Fitzroy, and Mr. J. H. Brown, the Registrar-General of Seamen, were named by the Board of Trade; one member, Admiral Bethune, by the Admiralty; an elder brother, Captain Bax, was appointed as a member by the Trinity House; Mr. W. C. Hammett and Captain Halstead were the members named by Lloyds; while the Liverpool Shipowners' Association, and the General Shipowners' Society, each, by the nomination of a member, had a voice in the discussion.

After a deliberation of more than a year, the examination of the thirteen then existing codes and due attention to any practical suggestion made to them, a mature and valuable scheme was promulgated. Eighteen flags in all, viz., one burgee, four pennants, and thirteen square flags, were employed, and these represented the consonants of the alphabet. These are depicted in the three upper rows on plate XXIV. Figs. 307 to 324, the letter it stands for in the code being placed by each flag. These flags are combined in various ways, either in twos, threes, or fours, and are always read downwards, thus Fig. 325 must be read B.D.T.F; if we read it the reverse way, as F.T.D.B, it would have an entirely different significance.

Of the two-flag signals we have three varieties. Should the burgee, Fig. 307, be uppermost it constitutes what is termed an attention signal; thus the hoisting of B.D signifies, "What ship is that?" If the upper flag be a pennant C.D.F. or G it is a compass signal; thus G.F means west-north-west-half-west. If a square flag be uppermost it is an urgency signal; thus, N.C signifies "am in distress," or N.J "am driving, no more anchors to let go." [ 137 ]

Signals made with three flags are not classified according to the upper flag; they relate to subjects of general inquiry or communication of news. In the lower portion of Plate XXIV. we have given five examples of these. Fig. 330, flags B.P.Q, asks "Do you wish to be reported?" while the hoisting of P.D.S, see Fig. 332, replies, "Report me to Lloyds' Agent." Fig. 333, H.V.F, asks, "Do you want assistance?" while Fig. 334, G.B.H, enquires, "Has any accident happened?" Fig. 331, made up of flags V.K.C, gives the reassuring answer to both enquiries—"All safe." As weather signals, we find "barometer rising" indicated by G.F.W; "barometer falling" by G.H.B; and "barometer standing," by G.H.C. Fine weather is prognosticated by the group H.M.S; a breeze off sea is foretold in the combination H.S.V; and a breeze off land by H.S.W.

Signals composed of four flags are divided into different sections again, according to the form of the uppermost flag employed. If this upper flag be either of the pennants C.D or F, it indicates that the signal is what is called vocabulary. If the upper be the burgee—the letter B of the code—it is a geographical signal; thus, any vessel beating up channel and seeing Fig. 325, made up of B.D.T.F, hoisted from a lighthouse, would, even if uncertain before, know their position, as this signal is the one specially assigned to the Eddystone. Fig. 326, the letters B.D.P.Q, signifies that the vessel flying it hails from the port of London, while B.F.Q.T. is Edinburgh, and so on. All names of ships are expressed by four letters, thus N.V.B.Q is the code signal (Fig. 327) of the steamship Germanic; M.N.D.L (Fig. 328) that of the Hesperus; and Fig. 329, made up of G.R.C.T, is the special grouping assigned to H.M.S. Devastation. All these names are recorded in the Shipping List, so that two vessels passing each other in mid-ocean are able at once to determine each others' names if within sighting distance of the flags run up. Should we see a stately liner coming to port, flying M.T.L.Q, we recognise that it is the Australia of the great Peninsula and Oriental Line, but if she runs up L.H.T.B then she is the Orient Company's boat Orotava. Some names occur frequently, thus other Australias, belonging to various owners, are distinguished by the code signals R.L.H.V, J.T.G.K, M.P.F.C, M.Q.N.G, M.T.W.D, W.F.T.N, etc., etc. Figs. 355, 356, 357, 358, 359 are all code signals of various Australias. While the Peninsular and Oriental Company has also a Victoria, K.M.Q.F., they have no monopoly of the name. There are numerous other boats of that popular designation, but even when vessels have the same name no two vessels ever have the same code letters assigned to them. Other Victorias, for example, are differentiated, as W.Q.M.N., L.S.H.R, K.P.G.Q, M.K.C.H, M.S.P.B, M.Q.C.J, L.D.F.H, T.R.B.N, K.J.H.P, T.D.R.F, etc., etc. Figs. 350, 351, 352, 353, [ 138 ] 354 are all Victorias; and Figs. 360, 361, 362, 363, 364 are the flag-signals of various Britannias. Our readers will see at once how distinctive they are. Figs. 335 to 349 inclusive are the special flags of well-known steamships of the Peninsular and Oriental, the Orient Line, and the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique.

Should the vessel be a yacht, it is the Aline if she shows the flags P.W.N.D; the Star of the Sea if her signal is T.N.B.H; but if it is the Meteor we shall be aware of the fact from her hoisting the four flags L.C.T.P. The flag signal of the Valkyrie is L.F.M.G.

Applications for the allotment of a code-signal, for the purpose of making ships' names known at sea, should be made, if of the United Kingdom, to the Registrar General of Shipping, Custom House, and, if belonging to a Colony, to the Registrar at the port to which the vessel belongs. If a ship to which this International Code Signal has been alloted is reported wrecked, lost, or sold to a foreigner, and her register is in consequence cancelled, the signal letters allotted to her are also cancelled, so that if the ship is afterwards recovered or re-purchased from foreigners, either in her original or some other name, new signal letters will be necessary, and the owner must make application anew for another allotment, as the signal letters the vessel originally bore may have been in the interval re-allotted.

The flags to be hoisted at one time never exceed four, and it is an interesting arithmetical fact, that, with these eighteen flags, never using more than four at a time, over seventy-eight thousand different combinations can be made. With these flags, only using two at a time, 306 different arrangements can be made, while by using three at a time we get 4,896 possibilities, and by using four at a time, we can make 73,440 changes; a total in all of 78,642 variations made from these simple elements. Marryat's code, prior to the introduction of the International, being the one most in use, twelve out of its sixteen flags were, to save expense, incorporated in the new code. Their significance was, however, entirely changed. Marryat's flags, too, were numerals, while the International code, as we have seen, has its flags named after the letters of the alphabet.

Proposals are in the air to add eight new flags to the code, the X, Y, and Z, and the five vowels, since it is held that even the great number of combinations now possible may in time not suffice. The reason for the absence of the vowels is a somewhat curious one. Directly vowels are introduced we begin to spell words, and it was found that amongst the thousands of combinations possible, would be presently included all the profane, obscene, and otherwise objectionable four-letter words of the whole world. To hoist D.B.M.N could offend no one's susceptibilities, but to [ 139 ] run up the signal D.A.M.N in response to an enquiry is quite another matter, and it must be remembered that as this code is used by all civilised nations, a word that is merely meaningless in one country might be most offensive in another. An English Captain might hoist as a necessary signal J.A.L.P. or F.L.U.M. and see no possible objection to it, but "jalp" or "flum" might to the people of some other nationality carry a most atrocious significance.

It is a practical necessity that all connected with the sea should understand the use of the International code, therefore, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty require that all Royal Naval Reserve men who act as Masters or Mates of ships should be instructed in its working, and the Board of Trade makes like requirements from all candidates for Masters' or Mates' Certificates. Its International character is a most valuable feature, as by its use two captains, say a Dane and a Greek, or a Russian and a Spaniard, who, on the quay, could not comprehend a word of each other's language, can at sea, by this common flag-language, come to a perfectly clear understanding of each other's need, or impart any information required. It is the only code used at the signal stations around our coasts. Lloyds' have thirty-three of these signal stations at Dover, Beachy Head, Lundy Island, Dungeness, Flamborough Head, St. Catherine's Point, North Foreland, and other conspicuous points on our line of ocean traffic, and abroad again at Aden, Ascension, Gibraltar, Bermuda, Honolulu, Suez, Perim, Malta, Teneriffe, and elsewhere, and here too, the International is the only code recognised.

This "Lloyds," that we may see daily referred to in the newspapers, is a Corporation that, amongst other marine business, distributes shipping intelligence. A Mr. Edward Lloyd, in the seventeenth century, kept a coffee house in Tower Street, which in time from the daily gathering there of merchants, captains, and others interested in marine affairs, became a centre for shipping and underwriting news and business. In the year 1692 it was moved to Lombard Street, and in 1774 the coffee supplying part of the business was abandoned and rooms were taken in the Royal Exchange. During the wars with Napoleon, the Government was often indebted to the Committee of Lloyds' for the earliest information of important events all over the world. Lloyds' has its agents in every port, and by its complete organisation and the potent aid of the telegraph, the shipping business of the world is brought day by day before us. Vessels spoken far out on the ocean are reported by the vessel that spoke them immediately on its arrival at any port. Thus a sailing-vessel journeying from London to Vancouver may be five months or more before it touches land, [ 140 ] but during that time it is sighted by other vessels from time to time, and these report having seen it, and that all was well on board. So the mother knows that her son, who is parted from her by thousands of miles of ocean, has got thus far in health and safety; and the owners of the vessel learn that their venture has so far surmounted the perils of Cape Horn and the other dangers of the deep. The good ship is drawing nearer at each report to the end of her long voyage, and on arrival at last off Vancouver, as the land is sighted, the signal flags run up once more to the masthead, the news of her coming is flashed across continent and ocean, and the London newspaper of the next morning contains the brief notification that far exceeds to anxious hearts all else of interest its broad pages may contain.

Familiarity, though it may not necessarily breed contempt, dulls the sense of the wonder of it all, and yet how marvellous it is! We have before us the Standard, that came into our hands about seven o'clock this morning, and we find from it that yesterday the Glenshiel had arrived at Hong Kong, that the Arab, from Cape Town, had just put in at Lisbon, that the Sardinian, from Quebec, had reached Moville, that the Circassian was safely at New York, that the Orizaba, speeding on to Sydney, had at 2 a.m. passed the desolate shores of arid Perim, that the Danube, from Southampton, had at 6 a.m. entered the harbour of Rio Janeiro. Of this, and much else of the same tenor, may we read in a space of a quarter-column or so of the paper as we sit at breakfast and see pass before us a panorama of world-wide interest and extent; and to accomplish this result, the flags we have figured have been a potent factor.

 

Though we have covered much ground, it must have been patent to all readers who have thus far companioned us that much detail was necessarily omitted, unless our book had to grow to the dimensions of an encyclopædia. It would probably, for instance, take some fifty figures or so to give all the distinctive flags of the various government departments, official ranks, etc., of a single Great Power. We trust nevertheless that while our labours have been by no means exhaustive, they have been instrumental in showing that there is much of interest in flag-lore, and that an increased knowledge and appreciation of our subject may be one result of our pleasant labours, and prove full justification for our work.


  1. Each spring and summer our Volunteers have long-distance practices. From the account of one of these now before us, we see that the line extended from Reculvers on the north coast of Kent, to Aldershot, a distance of over one hundred miles, messages from one point to the other being rapidly and accurately transmitted by signalling parties on the various eminences, such as Beacon Hill, Gravelly Hill, Box Hill, and St. Martha's Hill, between the two extremities of the line.
  2. One may see here, too, the signal book of James, Duke of York, dating about 1665, by means of which most of our sea-fights with the Dutch were conducted, and also the code introduced by Kempenfeldt.
  3. The Victory at this time was somewhat less than a mile and a half from the enemy's line.
  4. The signal for "close action" was flags 1 and 6. All flag signals are always read from above downwards; 6 and 1 would mean something entirely different to 1 and 6.
  5. "Expects," it will be seen, is expressed by one hoist of flags, while "confides" would have necessitated the pulling up and hauling down of eight distinct sets.
  6. Special hoists are also used for special purposes, thus the display of the yellow flag, with a black ball on it, is an intimation that torpedo practice is going on.
  7. June 1st, 1813.
  8. This system was introduced by Captain Columb in 1862. On one occasion, during heavy weather, from a steamer fifteen miles off shore he sent a message through a station on the Isle of Wight across to Portsmouth, and received his answer back in thirteen minutes! This was altogether too good to be gainsaid or shelved, and the system was speedily adopted.