Fact Checking

I was flicking through volume 1 of Arthur Marder’s From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow the other day and stumbled across a paragraph which alerted my sixth sense for bullshit. Referring to ‘Jacky’ Fisher’s famous ‘Fishpond’ Marder wrote (p. 87):

Two things are beyond dispute. One is that the fear of reprisal haunted those that were not in the Fishpond. Admiral H. M. Edwards remembers how ‘not being in the Fishpond, and averse to running the risk of incurring his displeasure—in case he didn’t like the cut of my jib—I took the greatest care if I spotted him in one of the Admiralty corridors of slipping down another.’

Entertaining stuff. The source is a letter from 2 June 1948. This is exactly the sort of gossip I hoped to find when I flew all the way to California to consult Marder’s papers. However, there was hardly anything from before the 1950s and I did not find this letter. But what of the claim? ‘Admiral H. M. Edwards’ is Rear-Admiral Herbert MacI. Edwards. As far as the author can tell (consulting his service record in ADM 196/44/119) he never served at the Admiralty whilst Fisher was First Sea Lord. Moreover, from 1901 to 1907 he served as Flag Lieutenant to Fisher’s ally Sir Arthur K. Wilson, nearly six years, for which he was specially promoted Commander in 1907. He then went on to serve as head of the signal school at Chatham and then Portsmouth as Superintendent of Signal Schools.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Edwards would be summoned to the Admiralty for meetings as in the latter role he was the Admiralty’s de facto signalling specialist. It beggars belief that Fisher, as the man responsible for the fighting efficiency of the fleet, would have had nothing to do with Edwards and that Edwards, with a friend in Wilson, would have had anything to fear.

As to the corridors claim, contrary to the popular belief conveyed by bad historians of Room 40 that the Admiralty was some sort of sprawling warren, with the exception of the wings of the Old Building (the quadrangle facing Whitehall) the rest of the site was comprised of long, broad corridors. The only way Edwards would be able to slip down another corridor is by heading to the lavatory.

Having at the very least cast doubt on Edwards’ claims, one has to ask what would make such a man conjure up such a bizarre story?

Details Matter

John Arbuthnot Fisher, 1904
Fisher as C.-in-C. Mediterranean.

In his book The Challenges of Command Robert L. Davison writes of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher:

Fisher had only about 6 or 7 years of sea service in the 30 years prior to taking up his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. This lack of sea service was at one point raised in Parliament by Sir John Colomb. Commons, Debates, 4th ser., vol. LXXXVI (1900), col. 339.[1]

This would be quite noteworthy if true, and, yet, as readers of this blog may anticipate, it is not. Any serious historian should recoil from such a vague figure as ‘6 or 7 years’, and also at the lack of a date in the reference. This made tracking down Colomb’s intervention a little more difficult than it should have been. Colomb, a retired officer of the Royal Marine Artillery, actually raised the issue at least twice in 1900. On 2 March he asked the First Lord of the Admiralty, George Goschen:

I beg to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty what was the length of service of each of the flag officers now serving in the Mediterranean Fleet and Channel Squadron from the date of promotion to lieutenant to the date of first hoisting their flags after promotion to flag rank; and how much of that service was spent in sea-going ships.[2]

Goschen replied:

It is impossible to give a fair account of the service of the respective admirals inquired about by a simple answer to the question. The only answer which would give a correct impression would be an enumeration of their successive important services, and that would form a list too long for a reply across the Table.[3]

During a committee on the Navy Estimates on 17 July Colomb made the speech referenced by Davison:

The present Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet had only six or seven years service afloat in thirty years. He would shut up the discussion at once if his right hon. friend would promise a Return showing the sea and shore services of the different Admirals whose flags were flying, and the amount of time they had spent at sea since promotion to lieutenants. This question was agitating the service very much. It was a burning question in every service club, and on board of every ship. He hoped the First Lord would give him the information he asked on simple matters of fact.[4]

How long did Fisher actually spend at sea in the thirty years prior to becoming Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean? This is easy to ascertain using Fisher’s service record at The National Archives, ADM 196/15/2. This type of service record was specifically used to work out an officer’s Sea Service, which along with Harbour Service was needed to qualify for promotion. Adding up the dates next to ships marked ‘S’ (for Sea Service) for his time spent in the Ocean, Pallas, Hercules, Bellerophon, Valorous, Northampton, Inflexible, Minotaur and as Commander-in-Chief on the North America and West Indies Station gives us a grand total of 3,739 days in the thirty years between his promotion to the rank of Commander on 2 August 1869 and his appointment to the Mediterranean on 1 July 1899. This works out at just shy of ten years and a quarter afloat. Even if one subtracts full pay leave (nowhere near even 10% of time spent on Foreign Service) and his month and a half at the Hague Conference before 1 July 1899 his service afloat would still be well over the ‘six or seven years’ claimed by Colomb and his service clubs, and lazily repeated by Davison over a century later. What is worse is that Davison then uses this falsehood to support his claim that Fisher’s ‘experience as a sea-going officer and his fitness for command might be regarded as suspect’.[5] Fisher receives a lot of negative treatment as a sea officer, much of it unfounded, but to base it solely on his length of service afloat is clearly a non-starter.

[1] Davison, The Challenges of Command, 10.
[2] HC Deb 02 March 1900 vol 79 c1525.
[3] Ibid.
[4] HC Deb 17 July 1900 vol 86 c339.
[5] Davison, The Challenges of Command, 10.

 

Bad Referencing

For my research I am naturally interested in all references to naval education and training. If I see a reference to a primary source given in a secondary source I always try to follow it up, not only to see if it is given correctly but also to see if there is anything else germane to my book which the author may not have considered relevant to theirs. Sometimes this does not always work out. Last week I came across the following quote in Dr. Harry Dickinson’s doctoral thesis, ‘Educational Provision for Officers of the Royal Navy 1857-1877’, pages 80-81:

There is also evidence that not only were officer numbers unsatisfactory but that the quality was poor. Testimony to the Tarleton Committee of 1872 portrayed a picture of young officers in the 1850s spending inordinate lengths of time as Midshipmen, either lacking the ability or the inclination to pass for Lieutenant. A letter to the committee of 19 March 1872 cited the cases of officers who were still Midshipmen at ages ranging from 22 to 26 years old and suggested that

it is not unreasonable to suppose that such officers are of no use to the Service even if they eventually pass, and if they are entering without intention of passing they are probably setting a bad example to younger officers.59

Endnote 59 is the same as endnote 58, which gives us:

H Vansittart Neal to Tarleton Committee. 19 March 1872. Microfilm Section, Central Library, Liverpool

Tarleton Papers Reel 5/10 MS 165

I have been carefully through Reel 5/10 twice now and there is no letter from H. Vansittart Neale, who at any rate was a relatively junior civil servant at the Admiralty who would never be expected to pass such scathing judgement on officers (and as far as I can tell was not even in the Commission Branch which dealt with officers in 1872, but in the unrelated Legal and Miscellaneous Branch).

Moving on to Dickinson’s monograph, published by Routledge as Educating the Royal Navy, we see the same in much similar form on page 62:

Neither did they produce the numbers required to properly man the fleet, indeed evidence offered to the Rice Committee later in the century suggested that over the decade from 1847, about one-third of the naval cadets entering the service were either discharged at their own request or as unsuitable.39 Even when young officers of this period remained in the Service, it was argued, the quality was often poor, with one witness noting that there were still plenty of midshipmen aged between 22 and 26 years either unable or unwilling to pass for lieutenant. ‘It is not unreasonable,’ he suggested, ‘to suppose that such officers are of no use to the Service’ and that ‘they are probably setting a bad example to the younger officers’.40

Note how the Tarleton Committee of 1872 in the text of the thesis has now become the Rice Committee of 1875. Endnote 39 gives us ‘Report of the Committee on the System of Training Cadets on Board HMS Britannia (The Rice Report), C 1154, 1875, para. 1831.’ Endnote 40 on the other hand gives us, ‘First Report of the Committee appointed to consider and arrange the Establishment at Greenwich Hospital for the Education of Officers of the Royal Navy, (The Tarleton Report), 1872.’ I have a copy of the first report of the Tarleton Committee and it is not a long document, which makes Dickinson’s curious omission of a page number not as serious as at first glance it might appear. This quotation does not appear at all in it (nor, in fact, do any quotations from anyone else). Neither does it appear in the Rice Committee’s report, nor any of the other major reports on education in the Royal Navy in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The upshot of this is that there is an important quotation (for my purposes) which has been attributed to two different sources and appears in neither. Dr. Dickinson clearly realised that something was amiss when converting his thesis into a monograph and altered the context and endnotes accordingly, but to no avail. To say that this kind of sloppiness is unfortunate is an understatement, and it is regrettable that it wasn’t caught by him, his university or his publisher. I can still quote it, but by making it clear that it is unlikely to be written by the author mentioned in the thesis, nor that it can be found in any of the sources cited by Dickinson. All in all, extremely unsatisfactory.

Death of an Unknown Naval Officer, 1874

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The Commissioner’s House (photograph possibly reversed). Photo: Nova Scotia Archives.

Whilst idly reading the Statistical Report on the Health of the Navy for 1874 today I stumbled across this rather grotesque report and accompanying commentary on a case from Halifax, northern headquarters of the Royal Navy’s North American and West Indies Station. The identity of the poor patient is unknown (according to my database he does not appear to have been a member of the Military Branch). The suggestion ‘that he had long been living freely’, carrying with it a hint of alcoholism or even sexual promiscuity, does not strike one as a satisfactory reason for what seems to be a very painful death. The account reads as follows:

 

‘From its history, its appearance, its severe and intractable form, the peculiar parts implicated, and the hard unyielding swelling of the tissues affected, its true nature and, character was rather that of “malignant facial carbuncle,” or the “malignant pustule,” than mere phlegmonous erysipelas, so called. The case was that of an officer who had lately come out from England to join the Royal Alfred on her arrival at Halifax from Bermuda, and it was while he was waiting at Halifax for the arrival of that ship that the disease began. The ship arrived on the 20th of June; he was attacked on the 17th, therefore as he did not come under my care till the 21st, I did not see him in the early stages of the attack. It began with an irritable pustule of the lower lip, which he ascribed to smoking a short pipe. There had also been a slight fissure on the lip, which he thought had imbibed some of the oil or the tobacco. The lip rapidly swelled, and the inflammation extended on the following day to the upper lip and left cheek. These symptoms were accompanied by great nervous depression and anxiety, and with considerable constitutional disturbance. He then came under the care of the surgeon of the Niobe, who admitted him into the sick quarters. The swelling and inflammation of the lips and face steadily increased, and the inflammatory action assumed an erysipelatous appearance. On the 20th, the whole left side of the head and face was enormously swollen, of a hard diffuse brawny structure, and of a dark dusky red colour, which when cut into by the bistoury gave the sensation of incising a hard fibrous tumour. The disease steadily advanced, nothing seemed to check its progress, till the whole face, head and neck were enveloped in one huge brawny dark-red swelling. Delirium with fitful intervals of consciousness set in on the 22nd, and became confirmed on the 23rd. Coma supervened on the 24th, and he died early on the 25th.’

It was reported that he was apparently in robust health previous to the attack, but that he had long been living freely, He was residing in the Commissioner’s house in the dockyard while waiting the arrival of the Royal Alfred, and as the drainage of that house was very defective, and its proximity to a mast-pond containing almost stagnant water which at times gave out the most offensive putrid-like odours, was most unwholesome, a depraved condition of health may have been induced, or even blood poisoning caused, the result of which was this malignant disease.

Thank you to Halifax Shipping News (@HfxShippingNews) for linking to the Nova Scotia Archives.

‘The Thing is too Absurd’

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The Admiralty in the mid-19th Century.

It is an article of faith that the non-Naval officers recruited to ‘Room 40’ were sometimes poorly acquainted with Naval terminology. It has been claimed by one who was there that ‘messages were sent to O.D. [Operations Division] talking about ships running in and out sometimes “athwartwise”’. This, claimed William F. Clarke, ‘lessened our reputation with the authorities’.

Compare and contrast then to this anecdote from the Royal Navy of the mid-1870s. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, Second Naval Lord from 1875 to 1877, told a commission in 1887:

On one occasion in the absence of the First Sea Lord I had to do his business, and a firm in the city wrote to say that one of their ships, the Great Queensborough, I think she was called, or the Great Queenstown, had sailed on a certain day from England for Australia, that six or eight months had elapsed, and they had no account of her, and would the Admiralty allow some ship to call at the Crozet Islands to see if there were any signs of her being ashore there, and so forth. Tho Crozet Islands are about 100° to tho westward of Sydney, Australia, and about 40 degrees to the east of the Cape. I thought that I had heard something said at the Board about ships going out. That was not my branch, and therefore I sent this matter down to the proper branch to ask for information, and for tho branch to report. Up came the paper to me, and on the back of it there was this recommendation: ‘Wolverine had orders to sight the Crozet Islands on the outward voyage; submitted whether telegraphic orders be sent to the Pearl to do tho same on her way home.’ Now that submission was made by one of the most experienced clerks of the Admiralty, and I suppose anything so silly, from a naval point of view, can hardly be believed. What he suggested was that I should tell that ship that she was to beat up nearly 3,500 miles dead to windward against the heaviest gales that blow in the southern oceans to look at the Crozet Islands. His mistake was perfectly reasonable from his point of view. How was the poor man to know that the road out to Australia was not the road home? But to a sailor’s mind the thing is too absurd.

In his evidence Hornby proposed an influx of Naval Officers at all levels of the Secretariat of the Admiralty to prevent this kind of mistake from occurring. Calling for a division between Naval work done by Naval Officers and pure administration done by the Civil Service, the former under a Naval Officer as Permanent Secretary, with Naval Officers as heads of Secretariat branches, one may see, quite clearly, a precursor to the Naval Staff.

‘A Mere Barony’: More Duff History

Rosslyn_Erskine_Wemyss,_Baron_Wester_Wemyss_by_Sir_William_OrpenIn a letter to the Times of 9 November 2016, by and large repeated in a letter to the Telegraph on 2 November 2018, Lord Lexden, the historian of the Conservative Party, wrote:

Sir, When we fall silent at 11am on Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, we should spare a thought for Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. Lloyd George instructed Wemyss, his representative at Allied HQ in France, to ensure that the armistice took effect at 2.30pm. The prime minister planned to announce it triumphantly in the House of Commons. Wemyss defied him, telephoning George V to fix the eleventh hour for the cessation of hostilities.

A furious Lloyd George withheld the £100,000 grant awarded to other service chiefs, and while they received earldoms he got a mere barony.

Quite apart from the crassness of asking us to spare a thought for Wemyss when our thoughts ought to be elsewhere at such an important hour, Lord Lexden’s final paragraph is completely incorrect. The other service chiefs at the time of the Armistice were Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Frederick Sykes, Chief of Air Staff, who was succeeded in early 1919 by Sir Hugh Trenchard. In August of that year Parliament granted sums of money to leading naval, military and air officers of the War. The largest sums were given to the Commander-in-Chiefs of the British Expeditionary Force and Grand Fleet, Sir Douglas Haig and Sir David Beatty. Each received £100,000 apiece, and also earldoms. No service chief received £100,000. Wilson and Trenchard each received £10,000 each, and were given baronetcies in December 1919, not earldoms. Sykes received a knighthood and no grant and no title. Whilst Wemyss may have felt justly slighted at not receiving a grant, his ‘mere barony’ (the same dignity Lexden holds), conferred a month before Wilson and Trenchard were given their baronetcies, and special promotion to Admiral of the Fleet in November 1919, means he is far less deserving of our thoughts than Lexden would have us believe.

 

The Admiralty Library in 1871

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The Admiralty, Whitehall, in 1850.

Apologies for the lack of writing recently – RL has intervened. Work, illness in the family, bad historians, all conspiring to distract me from this website. Whilst going through my collection because of the last mentioned excuse, I came across a docket about the state of the Admiralty Library in 1871. It may prove of interest to archive-dwellers everywhere.

On 17 November of that year the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Admiralty, Vernon Lushington, asked the Chief Clerk, Thomas Wolley, ‘to report to me confidentially upon the position, work &c of the Librarian’. This position had been formally established by order in council in 1862, when the Library at the Admiralty, Whitehall, contained ‘above 25,000 books volumes of valuable books, that above 500 books are annually presented or purchased for the same, exclusively of parliamentary papers and newspapers’. As there was ‘no established officer to compile catalogues, classify the books and papers for reference, and generally superintend the Library’, the Admiralty appointed a Librarian, with a salary of £150 a year, rising £10 a year to a maximum of £250.

In 1871 the Librarian, Mr. R. Thorburn, had an assistant, his son, paid 30s. a week. He reported that the Library now consisted of ‘upwards of 30,000 volumes’, contained in 17 rooms, ‘mostly occupied’, across the Admiralty estate. Books, parliamentary papers and Hansard were constantly added. Ten daily and 11 weekly newspapers and their contents had to be catalogued. In addition a new catalogue of the Library was in preparation, ‘which of itself is a work of great labor, making 1272 pages of manuscript’. Searches had to be made as ‘information is often requested that could not possibly be found under any given heading’. He wrote:

It is perhaps not known that the Library is a very extensive one, rich in Naval History, Voyages, and collateral subjects, and may be considered of great and increasing value for reference.

He ended his report with a plea:

In consequence of the distribution of the Admiralty Library over the several rooms and garrets of the building, more time is occupied and labor expended in searches for answers that would result in a library placed in one or more contiguous rooms.
I believe it is from this distribution of the Library that its extensive character is not generally known.

Forty years would elapse until the Admiralty Library found a proper home. In 1910 the collection was moved into the new processional arch across the Mall, now known as Admiralty Arch, and on 20 September 1911 a 100 foot reading room was given a grand opening by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna. Today the Admiralty is no more, Admiralty Arch has been sold off, the Admiralty Library broken up, and I just discovered that the successor Naval Historical Branch has made up elements of its history. But that story is for another post.