‘At that time’

William Henry May - Full Dress
William May in later years.

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.

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The Case of Duncan Boyes

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.

‘I believe you will think the selection a good one’

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Ryder as an Admiral.

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’.

When Historians Mislead: Part II

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H.M.S. Vernon, the home of torpedo training, in 1896.

In a chapter in Naval Leadership and Management 1650-1950 (Boydell, 2012) Dr. Mary Jones makes the following claim (pages 170-171), concerning the Edwardian Royal Navy:

Torpedo lieutenants were not as highly regarded as gunnery lieutenants, being thought too independent of mind:‘good, but lacking in tact and judgement, difficult to employ with others.’ was the sort of confidential report that appeared for torpedo officers.

Echoing my earlier post in this series, this would be damning if true. Sadly for Dr. Jones, her claim is rather undermined by the fact that the officer in question, Thomas W. Kemp, was not a torpedo lieutenant but a captain, and crucially was not and never had been a torpedo officer. Yet she sees fit to damn the treatment of one of the three (at that time) principle specialisations in the Military Branch of the Navy. This isn’t even a confidential report in the normal sense, but a report on Kemp made after he went through the Royal Naval War College at Portsmouth in February-May 1908 (for the record his last confidential report before attending the college, from Rear-Admiral H. S. F. Niblett in January 1908, was ‘Of sound judgement, slow but sure. I should be glad to see Captain Kemp appointed to any ship under my orders’). As in my previous post, this illustrates the dangers of relying on one example to make a point.

No doubt I will be thought churlish. But when one is paying £60 for a book the reader who is spending that much is understandably likely to place a great deal of faith in its content, and can reasonably expect a certain level of accuracy.

When Historians Mislead: Part I

HMS HINDUSTAN-1-DARTMOUTH-HMS BRITANNIA TO RIGHT-TB
Hindostan and Britannia at Dartmouth.

Part of a series on bad history.

In The Rules of the Game Andrew Gordon wrote of what he mockingly calls the ‘Dartmouth battery farm’, the Britannia training establishment at Dartmouth, ‘many would have echoed the bleak comment that “there is no period of my life that I look upon with less pleasure than I do the time I spent in the Britannia”’.

This would be damning if true. Thousands of Naval Cadets passed through the training ship system between 1857 and 1905. Would they all have ‘echoed the bleak comment’ quoted by Gordon?

Apparently not. Vice-Admiral Henry Fleet recalled ‘the Britannia days afforded a good deal of pleasure and happiness’. Admiral Sir Frederic Fisher (Lord Fisher’s younger brother) enjoyed ‘a delightful year’ in the ship. Admiral Sir Charles Dundas of Dundas wrote ‘Those of us who joined the Navy in the seventies still nurse warm recollections of the training ship’. Admiral Sir Edward Kiddle reminisced, ‘My years there were very happy ones.’ There are many more positive recollections of the ship which I could quote, but four is enough. So far, in dozens of memoirs, I have not discovered a view of Britannia anywhere near as negative as the one above.

And what of the original source of Gordon’s claim? The quote was taken from the memoirs of Captain the Honourable Sir Seymour Fortescue. What Gordon neglects to mention is that during his time in the Britannia from 1869 to 1870 Fortescue managed to contract not just scarlet fever but small pox, at the same time, and by his own account suffered accordingly. This little fact is located on the same page. What was Gordon thinking? Did he actually think that Fortescue’s unique experience was representative of the Britannia experience as a whole? Or did he think it was a great line to impress and shock the reader? Or did he actually just not read that part of the page? In any case, his assertion is both wrong and misleading. Reader beware.

‘300 Admirals and Captains for 19 Warships’

NLISTOn Twitter recently I came across a 2013 blogpost written by historian J. D. Davies entitled ‘The Journalist’s Guide to Writing About the Royal Navy’. The advice therein seems to be pretty good. However, the opening seemed a bit odd. Davies writes:

Inspired by the consistently dreadful coverage of naval matters in the British media, as highlighted by such recent stories as ‘300 admirals and captains for 19 warships’ (thank you, the Daily Fail) and the announcement of the closure of the shipbuilding yard at Portsmouth.

For whatever reason, in his post he does not actually address the ‘300 admirals and captains for 19 warships’ claim, so I thought I would devote a stray half an hour of my time to the subject.

So where did the Daily Mail allegedly (Davies provides no source for the quote) get its figure of 300 from? By referring to the Navy List (now known as the Navy Directory) for 2013 it is not difficult to see from where it was obtained. If one adds up all officers of the ranks of Captain, Commodore, Rear-Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Admiral (not including Admirals of the Fleet, nor medical branch officers with their Surgeon X titles) one gets very near to 300 – by my count 299.

This is misleading, however, as these ranks do not differentiate between the three (dare I say it) principle branches of the Royal Navy: Warfare, Engineering and Logistics. Simply put, warfare officers are the ones who take charge of ships and command fleets. If one trawls through the alphabetical list of active officers to identify their branch then the situation becomes more complicated. By my count there were 156 Warfare branch officers in the rank of Captain and above: one Admiral, four Vice-Admirals, 17 Rear-Admirals, 28 Commodores and 106 Captains, or half the total. The only admiral to be employed (and thus have his branch specified) was the First Sea Lord, at the time Sir George Zambellas.

By comparison the Engineering Branch had two Vice-Admirals, seven Rear-Admirals, 17 Commodores and 78 Captains.  Logistics had one Vice-Admiral, no Rear-Admirals (somehow), eight Commodores and 21 Captains.

In August this year the Warfare branch officially had 20 Rear-Admirals and above, 30 Commodores and 100 Captains. Engineering had ten Rear-Admirals and above (one of whom is now Second Sea Lord), 20 Commodores and 90 Captains (a surplus of ten over requirements!). Logistics had no Rear-Admirals and above, ten Commodores and 20 Captains. The surplus in Engineering aside, the proportions have remained roughly the same even if the total number has shrunk ever so slightly.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether 150 Warfare branch officers of the rank of Captain and above is required. Clearly the Navy and the Ministry of Defence believe so. Regardless of how many warships are in the fleet, it clearly will not be the lot of every Captain command one in that rank. Looking at the Royal Navy’s website there would appear to be only six Captains currently employed in command of warships afloat, the rest being commanded by Commanders and below (in August the Navy had 400 Warfare branch commanders, 30 more than required).

Accuracy, not Brevity

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Smith-Cumming as Captain R.N. (Retired)

If one looks at Christopher Andrew’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (subscription required) for Sir Mansfield G. Smith-Cumming, the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, we find the following covering his early service in the Royal Navy:

After entering the training ship Britannia at the age of thirteen, he began his career afloat as acting sub-lieutenant on HMS Bellerophon. He served in operations against Malay pirates during 1875–6 and in Egypt in 1883. He suffered, however, from severe seasickness and in 1885 he was placed on the retired list.

I realise that brevity is of great importance in notices like this, but this is taking it too far. Smith (as he was until 1889) did not begin ‘his career afloat as acting sub-lieutenant’. He began his career in the Royal Navy as a Naval Cadet when he joined the training ship Britannia at Dartmouth in January 1872, in the same term as a number of boys who went on to flag rank, and one term ahead of John Jellicoe. After the standard four terms (two years) at Dartmouth he passed out with a second class in study, which allowed him six months’ sea time out of a possible twelve towards the rating of Midshipman, meaning he had to wait six months before being promoted. He joined the corvette Modeste in January 1874 which went out to the China Station. He was rated Midshipman on 20 June. He is noted as being with a naval brigade from 3 December 1875 to 5 January 1876. This was a brigade landed in Malaya during the Perak War. Smith was later granted the Perak Medal (although I have been unable to ascertain what the nature of this medal was). The crew of Modeste was relieved in May 1877 and he returned home in the troopship Tamar. After foreign service leave he was sent to join the ironclad Bellerophon, flagship on the North America and West Indies Station, where he remained until November 1878. Between May and June 1878 he was lent to the sloop Sirius, and on 20 June of that year he passed his seamanship examination for the rank of Lieutenant, becoming an Acting Sub-Lieutenant. He attained 605 marks out of a possible 1,000, and was given a third class certificate.

So, Smith-Cumming enjoyed four years of service at sea before he ‘began his career afloat’, which perhaps might be better represented in his ODNB entry. At a later point I will go into the rest of his brief career on the active list of the Royal Navy.

Sources consulted:
The National Archives, Kew.
ADM 13/216.
ADM 196/20/123.
ADM 196/39/377.