On the eve of the First World War the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, wrote to the Permanent Secretary, Sir W. Graham Greene:
Importance is attached to revival of singing in the Fleet. A good song-book should be prepared and issued, together with leaflets of the words. An officer in each ship should organize the singing and take an interest in it in addition to his other duties. Captains should arrange that there is a ship “singing” not less than once a month throughout the year. Half the programme should be choruses from the song-book and the other half the music hall turns which are now popular. It is desirable that the men should sing together, and that everyone should join. The Vice-Admirals and Rear-Admirals commanding should take an interest in these “singings,” and money can be provided for a small prize, say a silver wreath, to be awarded by the Vice-Admiral to the best ship in the squadron or on the station each half-year. Part singing should also be encouraged where possible; but this is much more difficult to organize. The ordinary ship’s singing should become a regular part of the routine, and should be carried out as unquestioningly as if it were a gunnery or torpedo practice.
I wish to receive constructive proposals.
Greene’s response, and any subsequent action, are regrettably unknown. It would be interesting to know what sort of songs Churchill had in mind, but the mixture of prescribed songs and “popular” music is an interesting one.
In a recent CIMSEC podcast on the subject of leadership Professor Andrew Lambert of King’s College London discusses the career of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham:
He was so determined not to be a junior officer on somebody else’s ship that when in his very early twenties he was given command of a very small torpedo boat he made sure that he was the best torpedo boat commander in the Navy so no flotilla commander would release him back into a big ship. He then moved on destroyer command, and he managed to hold one destroyer command for four years which was absolutely unprecedented. He did not serve on a big ship under another captain from his early twenties until he was the captain of the big ship. Nobody else ever did this. Nobody. But Cunningham got away with it because he was that good.
Cunningham was not in his ‘very early twenties’ when he was given command of T.B. 14 in May 1908: He was 25 (four months and six days to be exact). The reference to a four year long destroyer command is incorrect in a number of respects. It was not ‘absolutely unprecedented’ as a cursory glance at an October 1915 Navy List and service records show. Vice-Admiral Geoffrey Mackworth commanded the destroyer Ferret from October 1911 to March 1916 as a Lieutenant-Commander and Commander for five years and five months. Captain William B. Mackenzie (a) commanded the Bulldog as a Lieutenant-Commander from November 1911 to July 1916 for four years eight months. I saw several more just under the four year mark and I gave up less than a quarter of the way through the list of ships.
Of course, however, Cunningham did not just command the same destroyer for four years. He commanded the vessel in question, Scorpion, for just under seven years (2,517 days according to his service record).
Now we come to Professor Lambert’s assertion that ‘nobody else’ avoided serving under another captain at sea until they themselves became the captain (we have already eliminated the lower boundary of ‘very early twenties’). Now, to be clear, my research ends by and large at 1919 and anything beyond that is what I have picked up along the way. So I had to rack my brain for destroyer officers. The only only I could think of offhand was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Tovey, who distinguished himself in command of the destroyer Onslow at Jutland. Cunningham last served under another captain in 1908 in the armoured cruiser Suffolk and his first command of a big ship was Calcutta in 1926. Tovey left the Amphion in 1914. Whilst he spent considerably more time ashore on account of appointments at the Admiralty he too would never serve under another captain again. He took command of the Rodney in 1932. Their periods between serving in a big ship and commanding a big ship are remarkably similar:
Cunningham: 18 years 13 days.
Tovey: 17 years eight months five days.
To sum up:
Cunningham was not in his ‘very early twenties’ when he was given his first command.
He did not hold one destroyer command for four years.
Holding a destroyer command for four years was not ‘absolutely unprecedented’.
‘Nobody else’ managed to leave the big navy and not return to it until they were in command simply is not true.
Apparently pointing these errors out constitutes ‘manufactured outrage’. The reader can decide whether that is a fair accusation.
Cunningham service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/47/82. Mackenzie service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/45/248. Mackworth service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/45/53. Tovey service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/49/257.
Winston Churchill is popularly supposed to have instituted a policy of ‘Aerial Policing’ over Iraq in 1920, whereby air power was used to suppress insurgency rather than a more expensive ground-based solution. BBC News claims ‘It was a policy Churchill had first mused on in the House of Commons in March 1920, before the Iraqi uprising had even begun.’
The policy actually goes back eight years. On 31 March 1912 Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote a minute for his colleagues concerning the ‘Situation in Somaliland’, the British colony on the Coast of Africa:
In a few years time when aeronautics have developed the question of dealing with this fellow will become a reasonable proposition. It is purely a question of expense. He is not worth a 4,000,000l. expedition. But if 200,000l. or 300,000l. would do the work, as it may easily do in the near future, I should be quite ready to approve the expenditure. We must be certain of our tackle, however.
First Lord’s Minutes Vol. I. 1911-1913.
This ‘fellow’ is presumably a reference to the leader of the Somali Dervishes, Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, ‘the Mad Mullah’, who had already been harassing the British for over a decade. Fast forward eight years and many skirmishes later (including one where Adrian Carton de Wiart lost an eye) to 1920, and a flight of Royal Air Force Airco DH.9As is popularly supposed to have helped crush the Mullah’s revolt at the same time air power played a part in suppressing the Iraqi revolt.
Followers on Twitter may know that I do not have much time for the late Lieutenant-Commander Peter Kemp, onetime head of the Naval Historical Branch. In a 1966 article entitled ‘War Studies’ for the RUSI Journal he referred to the Historical Section of the Naval Staff which had been formally created after the First World War. Kemp wrote:
As a result of pressure from the Secretariat, the Section was reduced to two officers, was to be constituted only on a temporary basis, and was to be dissolved as soon as a Staff History of the last war was completed. The two officers concerned were not to be paid salaries, but would be employed on ‘piece rates,’ a small sum (£50) to be given them on the completion of each section of the war history. This iniquitous arrangement continued until 1927 when, one day, the First Sea Lord (Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty) happened to meet one of the two officers of the Section in an Admiralty corridor and remarked on his ragged clothes. The whole sordid story was laid bare, and Lord Beatty, in addition to lending the officer concerned enough money to pay his debts and buy a new suit of clothes, directed such a blast at the Admiralty Secretariat that the Historical Section was at once put on a more permanent and properly salaried status. ‘It is deplorable,’ wrote Lord Beatty, ‘that a great Government Department should treat two such valuable officers in such a niggardly fashion . . .I shall take the matter up with the Chancellor of the
Exchequer. It seems to me that professional and technical history is of the greatest importance and I personally see no finality to this work.’
Like many a historian before and since Kemp declined to give a source for an explosive claim, which falls apart on a number of levels. The idea that Beatty would personally appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for salaries or allowances is utterly ludicrous. For matters affecting staffing the Board would have to approve the Admiralty Secretariat writing to the Treasury Secretariat for additional funding to be made available. The notion that Beatty, a sailor and not a politician, would talk to the Chancellor and directly obtain funds is simply wrong.
And, of course, it can not and is not true. The Historical Section of the Naval Staff first appears in the Navy Estimates in 1921. That year it had five ‘Temporary Assistants’ earning £400 to 600 a year. In 1922 the number of staff of the Section rose to six: a Commander on £1,103 a year, a Lieutenant-Commander on £866, and four Temporary Assistants on £350 to £500 a year. In 1923 the number remained the same, except the sums changed. The Commander was now retired and obtained £400 in addition to his retired pay. The Lieutenant-Commander earned £3 less, and the four Temporary Assistants were now given £315 to £450 per annum. In 1924 the number of Temporary Assistants was reduced to three at the same range of salaries. The pay of the Commander was increased to £500 and that of the Lieutenant-Commander decreased by another by a tiny amount again, this time to £861. 1925 saw the strength of the Section remain at five, although the pay of the Lieutenant-Commander was yet again reduced, to £823 this time. In 1926 the lower limit of pay of the Temporary Assistants was raised from £315 to £360, and our long-suffering Lieutenant-Commander’s pay sank to £795. In 1927 it was lowered to £792, but otherwise the staffing and pay of the Section remained exactly the same.
Under the Training and Staff Duties Division in the Estimates there was ‘Provision for preparation of Monographs, &c., for the Staff College.’ The sums provided in the Estimates were not inconsiderable: 1923, £700; 1924, £1,200; 1925, £1,800; 1926, £1,000; 1927, £600; 1928, £150. This amounts to £5,300 over five years, in addition to the salaries of the staff of the Historical Section.
The amount of money involved casts doubt on Kemp’s story of a man in rags wandering the Admiralty accepting alms from the professional head of the Royal Navy. The records at The National Archives, of course, may tell a different story, but the Navy Estimates strongly suggest that Kemp’s tale is a fantasy.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.