Earlier today I was reminded of a quote concerning the Admiralty war room at the outbreak of World War One. It can be found in Nicholas Lambert’s 2005 article ‘Strategic Command and Control for Maneuver Warfare’ (Journal of Military History). The quote is from the diary of Captain Philip W. Dumas, about to take over as Assistant Director of Torpedoes, and according to Lambert it reads:
The scene was wild thousands of telegrams littered about and no-one keeping a proper record of them. [Director Operations Division Arthur] Leveson shrieking—a disheveled looking man—and the only person with his head screwed on the right way seemed to be [Assistant Director Operations Division Philip] Vyvyan.
There are a couple of things wrong with this. Vyvyan was called Arthur, not Philip, and was Assistant to the Chief of the Staff, not Assistant Director Operations Division (that was that other notorious diarist Herbert Richmond). But what is most surprising is the description of Leveson as ‘a dishevelled looking man’. On referring to the Dumas diary it is very difficult to see how Lambert could have possibly read that last word as ‘man’. In fact it looks very much like Dumas calls Leveson ‘a dishevelled looking jew’. The reader can judge for themselves:
One thing is for certain, and that is that ‘man’ does not appear in that sentence, whilst it would appear from a look at his writing that the j, e and w match that word letter for letter. If anyone else has another suggestion I am more than happy to hear it. Quite why Lambert felt the need to be so creative one can only imagine.
Leveson can of course mean ‘Son of Levi’, but in this case Dumas was wide of the mark: Arthur Leveson’s parents had married in 1860 in the Parish church of Savenake, Wiltshire, and his father Edward had become a Freemason in 1857.
As to Dumas, his diary is informative but one can tell he had an unpleasant side. On 4 August we find him writing ‘there is a notice in Prince Louis’ office that no telephone message is to be sent to his house because he has German servants though it doesn’t say so’. The German-born Admiral His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg was First Sea Lord at the time, and despite having been a British subject for over 40 years at this point was accused of holding pro-German sympathies. The innuendo in Dumas’ writing is as thick as a knife.
Sadly, this is completely misleading. The ‘entrance exam for the Royal Navy’ is ridiculously vague. In the 1850s there were seven types of officer one could enter the Navy as (Military Branch, Masters’ line, Accountant, Medical, Engineer, Naval Instructor, Chaplain). This is to ignore the entry requirements for the lower deck. We will presume that the reference is to Naval Cadets of the Military Branch, the boys who were destined to one day command ships and fleets, and also the most numerous class of officer. Now to establish the entry requirements, which were divided into academic and medical, for two entrance examinations, not the one stated in the tweet.
The academic requirements from 1849 to 1857 remained the same, and exceedingly short (and also covered the medical!):
They must be in good health, fit for Service, and able to write English from dictation, and must be acquainted with the first four Rules of Arithmetic, Reduction, and the Rule of Three.
In 1857, with the introduction of a training ship (forerunner to today’s Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth), the requirements became more involved:
To write English from Dictation, and in a legible hand.
To read, translate, and parse an easy passage either from a Latin or French author.
N.B.—The aid of a Dictionary will be allowed for these Translations.
And to have a satisfactory knowledge of
The leading facts of Scripture and English history.
Modern Geography, in so far as relates to a knowledge of the principal Countries, Capitals, Mountains, and Rivers. To be able to point out the position of a place on a map when its Latitude and Longitude is given.
Arithmetic, including Proportion, and a fair knowledge of Vulgar and Decimal Fractions.
Algebra, including Fractions.
The First Book of Euclid to Proposition XXXII. inclusive.
Candidates above the age of 14, in addition to the Examination required for those between the ages of 13 and 14, must have a knowledge of:
The use of the Globes, with correct definitions of Latitude, Longitude, Azimuth, Amplitude, and the other Circles of the Sphere.
Vulgar and Decimal Fractions.
Algebra, including Simple Equations.
The First Book of Euclid.
A practical knowledge of the Elements of Plane Trigonometry, and its application to the Numerical Solution of Easy and Useful Problems.
As Drawing will prove a most useful qualification for Naval Officers, it is recommended that Candidates for the Service should be instructed therein.
Now, what did Naval Cadets who went through the ordeal say? The Honourable Edmund Fremantle was ‘asked to write a few lines of dictation’. Cyprian Bridge realled, ‘We had to write from dictation about a passage which in print would probably have taken up some twenty or thirty lines’. Evelyn Wood (who later left the Navy for the Army and became a Field Marshal) had to listen to a ‘half page from the Spectator’ and write it down.
This myth probably stems from Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher who claimed ‘all the entrance examination I had to pass was write out the Lord’s Prayer, do a rule of three sum and drink a glass of sherry!’. No mention of chairs, and he also had to do maths and drink!
The medical strictures were simple all through the 1850s. As we have seen, from 1849 to 1857 the candidate had to ‘be in good health, fit for Service’. In the 1857 regulations this became:
The candidate must be in good health and fit for the Service, that is, free from impediment of speech, defect of vision, rupture, or other physical inefficiency.
In 1851 it had been decreed that ‘The Medical Examination is to be conducted by such Naval Surgeon as the Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth may direct.’ Now let us see what the various memoirists made of it. Cecil Sloane-Stanley recalled ‘I was made to cough and jump and perform various athletic movements for the doctor’s edification in a state of complete nudity’. The Honourable Victor Montagu had to undress and ‘was put through various exercises’. And then we come to James Gambier.
If the medical examination had not been a farce, of course I should never have got into the Service, for I was so short-sighted that I knew no one across a dinner-table. But the examining doctor, a beetle-browed, frowsy old Scotchman, satisfied himself in respect of our sight by spreading out his fingers within about ten inches of our noses. Then he jammed a finger alternately into each ear and, roaring in the other, asked if we could hear. I said I could hear quite plainly. After this he banged each boy separately in the back, and then, producing from a cupboard a thing like a fog-horn, listened to our breathing. Finally he started us all racing round the room and skipping over the backs of chairs—an amusing spectacle—all of us naked as we were born. That ended the examination, and we were pronounced fit to serve the Queen.
That Gambier was accepted despite severe short-sightedness suggests that the surgeon was less than competent, which may explain the jumping and hither and thither he and other candidates were subjected to.
There was no single entrance examination for Naval Cadets. It did not necessarily involve writing out the Lord’s Prayer, nor jumping over chairs, neither of which at the same time, nor was it confined to anything like these two activities. Could a candidate be made to do either of them? Evidently so. Was it the norm or was it prescribed? Evidently not. Quite interesting, but also quite misleading.
The problem with this tweet is that it is inaccurate on two important counts:
The rank of Mate was replaced by that of Sub-Lieutenant on 16 April 1861. The change was made in an order in council of that date concerning relative rank, and then promulgated in circular No. 462 of 7 May 1861. Sadly the original paperwork on the introduction of the rank does not seem to have survived in Admiralty papers at The National Archives, although there is a May 1861 docket concerning who had been given commissions as Sub-Lieutenant by that point.
The change from a single ¼-inch stripe of braid to a ½-inch stripe of lace was made on 26 March 1863 in an Admiralty memorandum (No. 32. E.) of that date (copy in TNA, ADM 1/5832). This is when Lieutenants, Commanders and Captains ‘shipped an extra ring’.
Neither of these events took place on 16 May 1863 as the tweet claims. As the saying goes, ‘A lie is half way around the world while the truth is putting on its trousers.’ The tweet by @OnthisdayRN is surely no lie, but it certainly has gained traction whilst the truth no doubt will not. The account owner must be aware of their error by now but has not moved to correct it. Certainly the Captain of Britannia Royal Naval College, Jolyon Woodard, should have been aware of the inaccuracy of the tweet after yours truly pointed it out, yet chose to endorse it by replying to it.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir William H. May, whose career in the Royal Navy spanned nearly fifty years, wrote in his privately-printed memoirs:
I was promoted to Lieutenant in August, 1871. At that time lieutenants just promoted were generally three or four years on half pay before getting a ship, and the half pay was 4s. a day at the average age of 22. Luckily, Lord Clanwilliam, who was just about to turn over the command of the Hercules to Captain William Dowell, recommended me to fill a vacancy there was for lieutenant, and I was duly appointed after having been only four months on half pay.
May had actually been promoted on 7 September 1871, not in August. He spent two days short of seven months on half pay between appointments upon promotion, not four. And then we move onto his claim regarding the half pay of other Lieutenants. In 1871 forty were promoted. Three did not serve in that rank and retired. 17 carried on in their new rank straight away. Of the others, no one was kept on half pay longer than 14 months—nowhere near May’s ‘three or four years’.
I’ve pointed out before (on this site, and elsewhere) the perils of relying on memoirs, but this is a particularly inaccurate passage by anybody’s standards.
For his actions at the Bombardment of Shimonoseki in Japan on 6 September 1864 Midshipman Duncan G. Boyes, Royal Navy, was awarded the Victoria Cross. The relevant part of the despatch of his Commander-in-Chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Augustus Kuper, read:
Mr. D. G. Boyes, midshipman of the Euryalus, who carried a colour with the leading company, kept it with headlong gallantry in advance of all, in face of the thickest fire, his colour-sergeants having fallen, one mortally, the other dangerously wounded, and was only detained from proceeding yet further by the orders of his superior officer. The colour he carried was six times pierced by musket balls.
On 22 September 1866 he and two others were presented with the V.C. in a ceremony on Southsea Common. However, less than five months later, on 9 February 1867, Boyes and Midshipman Marcus McCausland of H.M.S. Cadmus were tried by court-martial. The charges preferred were:
Disobedience of Commander-in-Chief’s Standing Order, by breaking into the Naval Yard at Bermuda after 11 p.m., they having been previously refused admittance at the gate by the Warder, on account of their not being furnished with a pass.
The sentence is short: ‘Prisoners pleaded guilty, and adjudged to be dismissed from Her Majesty’s Service.’ Some commentators smell conspiracy in Boyes being court-martialled for what the Times not so long ago called a ‘midsjudged prank’ (21 July 1998). What no one has until recently noticed is that Boyes was already on thin ice. Referring to his service record we find that less than two weeks before he was presented with his Victoria Cross he was deprived of three months’ time towards being examined in the rank of Lieutenant, and in December he lost another three. His partner in crime, McCausland, had already lost eleven months’ seniority. Another fact not remarked upon is that McCausland was restored to the Service less than six months later. He was killed fighting slavers off the East Coast of Africa in 1873. For whatever reason Boyes received no similar second chance. Instead he moved to New Zealand and committed suicide in 1869.
On 10 January 1912 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, minuted on a paper regarding the proposed installation of electric light at the Royal Marine Light Infantry’s depot at Portsmouth:
No question of electric light.
Let a hundred incandescent burners be issued and warn the men that if they break them they will be the sufferers.
Report to me upon the experiment.
It will reveal a very low standard of discipline and intelligence if the Royal Marines could not be trusted with incandescent burners. They are not school boys, and their Officers ought not to give colour to the suggestion. A decent educated self-respecting lot of men will use with care what is designed for their comfort.
Whether the Marines at Forton Barracks ever got electric light is unknown. After the First World War, with the amalgamation of the Light Infantry and Artillery the Portsmouth Division moved to the latter’s barracks at Eastney. In 1927 Forton was recommissioned as H.M.S. St. Vincent, a training establishment for boys. Ironic in light of Churchill’s 1912 reference to school boys.
Taken from First Lord’s Minutes Vol. I at the Admiralty Library.
On 17 April 1885 Captain Lewis A. Beaumont, Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty (then the Earl of Northbrook), wrote to Admiral Sir Alfred P. Ryder, then on half pay:
The name of the Admiral to succeed Sir George Sartorius as Admiral of the Fleet will not appear in the London Gazette of to day because the Queen has not yet approved, or rather her approval has not yet reached the Admiralty.
I believe you will think the selection a good one.
On 1 May Ryder was gazetted an Admiral of the Fleet, dated 29 April. His reaction has not been recorded, but he presumably believed the decision to be ‘a good one’.