Recently I started reading Corbin Williamson’s chapter on the early 20th century Royal Navy in The Culture of Military Organizations (edited by Mansoor and Murray). Regrettably it appears to be based solely on secondary sources, with no evidence of archival research whatsoever. Whilst flicking through I stumbled across the rather bold statement:
By 1900, conventional wisdom held that officers with specialization, especially in gunnery and torpedoes, enjoyed an advantage in achieving higher ranks. The senior leaders of World War I were almost all gunnery or torpedo specialists.Williamson, The Royal Navy, 1900-1945, pp. 324-325
The sources given are Robert Davison, The Challenge of Command, p. 6, and a chapter by Nicholas Rodger. The latter I do not have – a deficit which shall be rectified the next time I visit the British Library or an archive. Davison, on the other hand, writes, ‘Looking through the roster of the senior flag officers during the First World War, it is clear that nearly all who held high command were either gunnery or torpedo specialists, with the notable exception of David Beatty.’ No source is given. Is this the case though?
Neither Williamson nor Davison are precise as to what level they are referring to. What ranks do ‘senior leaders’ and ‘all who held high command’ delineate? Those who held certain ranks? Those who commanded squadrons or held the status of Commander-in-Chief? We will apparently never know. However, we can draw up our own roster.
During the First World War a Supplement to the Monthly Navy List was published. It gives all ‘Flag Officers in Commission, Officers in Commanding Squadrons’ (all those entitled to fly a flag or broad pendant afloat or ashore) in list form, as well as the composition of the various fleets and squadrons. In peace time this information was found in editions of the Navy List, after the seniority lists of the Royal Marines and before the ‘List of Ships and Vessels of the Royal Navy with their Officers and Present Stations’. But, during the war at any rate, the section was published separately. The National Archives has a complete wartime set under the catalogue record 359.3 ADE.
Using the service records in ADM 196 the specialisation or otherwise of the officers named can be identified. There are four categories: those who did not specialise, also known as the ‘salt horse’ officer; those who specialised in gunnery duties; those who specialised in torpedo duties; and, not mentioned by Davison, those who specialised in navigating duties. By the First World War there was a fourth specialisation – signals – but none of those on the flag list had qualified (although Allan Everett and Hugh Evan-Thomas, to name two, were recognised authorities).
I have used the Supplements corrected to 10 September 1914 (the first in The National Archives’ collection) and 1 November 1918 to show the situation at the beginning and at the end of the war. The following charts speak for themselves.
At the beginning of the war, with 54 flag officers and commodores flying their flags, the ‘salt horse’ outnumbers each other individual category. And what of the state of affairs at the end of the war, when another 20 officers were employed – an increase of more than a third?
It is difficult to see how Davison drew his conclusions. By war’s end the proportion of non-specialist officers may have shrunk in relation to the others, but they still formed the largest bloc by far! It is clear, therefore, that the advantage held by specialist officers in being employed afloat and ashore in the First World War has been over-stated.
There are, of course, caveats: the Supplements do not include members of the Board of Admiralty or heads of department in London. Nor does it include Chiefs of the Staff. Nor does my analysis break down employment by rank or differentiate between type of command. Even if, however, the vast majority of the ‘salt horse’ officers were flying their flags or broad pendants ashore or in subordinate positions (such as second-in-command of a battle squadron), it is worth pointing out that the supreme qualification for advancement was actually having flown one’s flag (for the flag officer) or being deemed worthy of flying a broad pendant (for a captain). Under the regulations they would theoretically be less likely to be retired on promotion to rear-admiral or left unemployed for so long that they would be retired for non-service. That is an investigation for another day, however.
Note: Earlier versions of these charts on Twitter showed one more gunnery specialist than torpedo, the result of a mis-reading of The Hon. Sir Somerset A. Gough-Calthorpe’s service record.
Update 15/02/2022: I recently obtained a copy of Rodger’s chapter, ‘Training or Education: A Naval Dilemma over Three Centuries.’ It does not support Williamson’s claim whatsoever.