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.

 

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