The Suicide of Admiral Smith-Dorrien

On 5 June 1933 the body of 77-year old Rear-Admiral Arthur H. Smith-Dorrien was found in a railway cutting near Berkhamsted. He was the elder brother of the more well-known General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. He entered the Royal Navy in 1870 and retired as a Captain in 1904, being advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral on the retired list. In his ‘Instructions to my Executors, Sisters, etc.’ dated 29 December 1932 he admitted to having suffered from fits of depression, and closed with, ‘I have no fear of death whatsoever, in fact quite the contrary. I do not believe we really live till we die’. At the inquest held on Smith-Dorrien’s body on 8 June the coroner was told that he had not not gone to bed on the evening of 5 June, having complained of getting a touch of the sun the day before. A verdict of ‘Suicide while temporarily of unsound mind’ was returned. Remarkably the following letter, dated the day Smith-Dorrien died, was not mentioned. His tragic intentions were all too plain, and it is difficult to read without feeling sympathy for a man who had quite simply had enough. The letter is in a beautiful ‘picture journal’ of Smith-Dorrien’s held by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

New Lodge,
Berkhamsted,
5th June, 1933.

‘JUDGE NOT, THAT YE BE JUDGED’.

This is to certify that after seven months intense suffering with my feet, and as there seems no possible chance of my getting better, I feel there can be only one ending, and that is that I should have to be shut up. My sisters will testify how much I have suffered, and at times I have shouted the house down, and when I get this mood I know full well that I am not responsible for my actions, as anything might happen. I believe my friends and relations would rather anything should happen than a lingering death under such dreadful conditions. How I have stuck it so long I know not, and it was in order that my friends and relations would not be shocked by my actions. The roof of my mouth and throat are so sore that for the last two months I have been living entirely on milk diet. My relations would be shocked if they saw me now, in fact, there are only a few who would recognise me. I would ask anyone to put themselves in my position all this while, the long days and nights and only able to read for a short time and no exercise whatsoever.

I have no fear of death whatsoever and long to be at rest, and I pray to God Almighty that he will in His infinite mercy forgive me for all my past sins.

This I ask for Christ’s sake. Amen.

P.S. Should there be any publicity as regard what may happen I would ask that these words of mine may be made public.

‘God Save the King.’

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Too Many Tweets Make a …

WWIIOn 27 July Dan Snow, well-known TV personality, published a startling tweet on Twitter:

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The validity of the comparison to one side, Snow’s figures were completely and utterly wrong. If we ignore the vagueness of ‘1914’ and take the British declaration of war against Germany as our starting point, the historian is blessed with detailed figures presented to Parliament by the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1919. At the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 648 warships, as well as 12 in the Auxiliary Patrol, and 97 other auxiliary vessels, which gives a total of 757. At the Armistice the Royal Navy had 1,354 warships, 3,727 vessels in the Auxiliary Patrol Service, and 570 auxiliary vessels, for a total of 5,651. Not much more, one notes, than the figure of 5,300 claimed for 1914!

Snow subsequently claimed that the figure came from the ‘historical branch guys at Dartmouth’, i.e. Britannia Royal Naval College. One can hardly blame the man for accepting their total if he was referring to archival staff at the college. It is staggering however that they gave him such wildly inaccurate information in the first place. Later that day Snow was gracious enough to post a correction, using an image provided by me:

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But as one can see, its nominal reach was minuscule compared to the original: 15 retweets and 69 likes as opposed to 311 and 543 respectively. Given that Snow has 190,000 followers it is more than likely that thousands of people will have seen the incorrect figure of 5,300 ships, posted in the early afternoon. By the same token it is fair to assume that fewer will have seen his correction tweeted at 11.22 at night.

This little episode reinforces my belief that any historian, be they popular, amateur, or academic, has a responsibility to be as accurate as possible. This does not apply just to Snow (who should have double-checked his information before publishing it) but whoever gave him the figure in the first place. How many people will now have that figure of 5,300 imprinted on their brain, ‘because the guy off the TV said it’? Even if it is one, that is one too many.

Corrected: Lamentable lapse in grammar spotted by Jonathan Boff.