Fact Checking

I was flicking through volume 1 of Arthur Marder’s From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow the other day and stumbled across a paragraph which alerted my sixth sense for bullshit. Referring to ‘Jacky’ Fisher’s famous ‘Fishpond’ Marder wrote (p. 87):

Two things are beyond dispute. One is that the fear of reprisal haunted those that were not in the Fishpond. Admiral H. M. Edwards remembers how ‘not being in the Fishpond, and averse to running the risk of incurring his displeasure—in case he didn’t like the cut of my jib—I took the greatest care if I spotted him in one of the Admiralty corridors of slipping down another.’

Entertaining stuff. The source is a letter from 2 June 1948. This is exactly the sort of gossip I hoped to find when I flew all the way to California to consult Marder’s papers. However, there was hardly anything from before the 1950s and I did not find this letter. But what of the claim? ‘Admiral H. M. Edwards’ is Rear-Admiral Herbert MacI. Edwards. As far as the author can tell (consulting his service record in ADM 196/44/119) he never served at the Admiralty whilst Fisher was First Sea Lord. Moreover, from 1901 to 1907 he served as Flag Lieutenant to Fisher’s ally Sir Arthur K. Wilson, nearly six years, for which he was specially promoted Commander in 1907. He then went on to serve as head of the signal school at Chatham and then Portsmouth as Superintendent of Signal Schools.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Edwards would be summoned to the Admiralty for meetings as in the latter role he was the Admiralty’s de facto signalling specialist. It beggars belief that Fisher, as the man responsible for the fighting efficiency of the fleet, would have had nothing to do with Edwards and that Edwards, with a friend in Wilson, would have had anything to fear.

As to the corridors claim, contrary to the popular belief conveyed by bad historians of Room 40 that the Admiralty was some sort of sprawling warren, with the exception of the wings of the Old Building (the quadrangle facing Whitehall) the rest of the site was comprised of long, broad corridors. The only way Edwards would be able to slip down another corridor is by heading to the lavatory.

Having at the very least cast doubt on Edwards’ claims, one has to ask what would make such a man conjure up such a bizarre story?

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.

 

Death of an Unknown Naval Officer, 1874

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The Commissioner’s House (photograph possibly reversed). Photo: Nova Scotia Archives.

Whilst idly reading the Statistical Report on the Health of the Navy for 1874 today I stumbled across this rather grotesque report and accompanying commentary on a case from Halifax, northern headquarters of the Royal Navy’s North American and West Indies Station. The identity of the poor patient is unknown (according to my database he does not appear to have been a member of the Military Branch). The suggestion ‘that he had long been living freely’, carrying with it a hint of alcoholism or even sexual promiscuity, does not strike one as a satisfactory reason for what seems to be a very painful death. The account reads as follows:

 

‘From its history, its appearance, its severe and intractable form, the peculiar parts implicated, and the hard unyielding swelling of the tissues affected, its true nature and, character was rather that of “malignant facial carbuncle,” or the “malignant pustule,” than mere phlegmonous erysipelas, so called. The case was that of an officer who had lately come out from England to join the Royal Alfred on her arrival at Halifax from Bermuda, and it was while he was waiting at Halifax for the arrival of that ship that the disease began. The ship arrived on the 20th of June; he was attacked on the 17th, therefore as he did not come under my care till the 21st, I did not see him in the early stages of the attack. It began with an irritable pustule of the lower lip, which he ascribed to smoking a short pipe. There had also been a slight fissure on the lip, which he thought had imbibed some of the oil or the tobacco. The lip rapidly swelled, and the inflammation extended on the following day to the upper lip and left cheek. These symptoms were accompanied by great nervous depression and anxiety, and with considerable constitutional disturbance. He then came under the care of the surgeon of the Niobe, who admitted him into the sick quarters. The swelling and inflammation of the lips and face steadily increased, and the inflammatory action assumed an erysipelatous appearance. On the 20th, the whole left side of the head and face was enormously swollen, of a hard diffuse brawny structure, and of a dark dusky red colour, which when cut into by the bistoury gave the sensation of incising a hard fibrous tumour. The disease steadily advanced, nothing seemed to check its progress, till the whole face, head and neck were enveloped in one huge brawny dark-red swelling. Delirium with fitful intervals of consciousness set in on the 22nd, and became confirmed on the 23rd. Coma supervened on the 24th, and he died early on the 25th.’

It was reported that he was apparently in robust health previous to the attack, but that he had long been living freely, He was residing in the Commissioner’s house in the dockyard while waiting the arrival of the Royal Alfred, and as the drainage of that house was very defective, and its proximity to a mast-pond containing almost stagnant water which at times gave out the most offensive putrid-like odours, was most unwholesome, a depraved condition of health may have been induced, or even blood poisoning caused, the result of which was this malignant disease.

Thank you to Halifax Shipping News (@HfxShippingNews) for linking to the Nova Scotia Archives.

‘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.

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

Vernon
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.