‘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.

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