‘Lessons Learnt’

Admiral Sir William James.

In 1962 Admiral Sir William James, former Room 40 handler, Naval Assistant to First Sea Lord, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff and Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth (among many other appointments) wrote a rather remarkable letter to The Naval Review:

SIR,-In his letter under ‘Lessons Learnt’ (N.R., July, 1961, p. 314) Captain Roskill says that ‘in the case of the Official Military History series the Government decided that, as most of the sources used were confidential and likely to remain so for many years, the author’s references should be printed only in a specially prepared edition’. It might be inferred that, in thirty or forty years time, these sources will be released for study by historians or biographers and provide material for new books on the war. I do not think that this will happen. I do not think that these confidential sources will ever see the light. If in forty years time the Admiralty announced that all documents covering the two world wars were now open to inspection I do not think there would be a single caller.
I say this because, whilst interest in the personalities of the statesmen and commanders of the armed forces, and in the general course of major campaigns and battles, remains constant (normal education includes campaigns and battles from Caesar to Wellington and will eventually include the two world wars), interest on the lower level, the detailed conduct of a war at headquarters, soon wanes and eventually fades altogether. This fading today is accelerated by the advent of the atomic age. When the methods of waging war and the weapons were more or less static Admiralty confidential records might be of some use when another war broke out, but methods are now changing so rapidly that Admiralty officers would be wasting their time if they sought guidance in confidential records of earlier wars.
The most cogent reason for doubting whether release forty years hence would cause a flutter is that books about both world wars now fill a good sized library. Nearly every one of the men who were responsible for the Grand Strategy and the overall conduct of the campaigns have given full accounts of their stewardship. Sir John Fisher’s [sic] autobiography and letters (recently published by Professor Marder), Churchill’s account of his period at the Admiralty, Lord Wemyss’s autobiography, Jellicoe’s autobiography and the biography of Admiral Oliver leave little untold about the higher direction of the Kaiser’s War. Churchill’s ‘Second World War’, Cunningham’s autobiography and Horton’s biography leave little to be told about the higher direction of Hitler’s War. And for both wars there has been a flood of
books, historical and autobiographical, covering every phase. Full-length books have been written about every minor engagement and about the war service of individual battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines.
What, then, it is fair to ask, can there be in the confidential records that might in thirty or forty years be of interest to anyone? This is not in any sense a criticism of the Admiralty practice of interning documents. There are many reasons for not releasing for inspection records of the conduct of a war on the departmental level. But in these interned papers there can only be titbits for a historian or biographer
and people who have lived through thirty years of the atomic age will not have any interest in these titbits.

This is perhaps indicative of the Stone Age mentality of history at the time, but given how much paper work James himself must have filled out in the Grand Fleet and at the Admiralty during the war alone it beggars belief that he thought none of it would have been useful. Fortunately for people like me, and I suspect many readers, there has been more than that ‘single caller’ and a lot more than mere ‘titbits’ still waiting to be found in the archives sixty years after release.

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