When Historians Mislead: Part I

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.

Too Many Tweets Make a …

WWIIOn 27 July Dan Snow, well-known TV personality, published a startling tweet on Twitter:


The validity of the comparison to one side, Snow’s figures were completely and utterly wrong. If we ignore the vagueness of ‘1914’ and take the British declaration of war against Germany as our starting point, the historian is blessed with detailed figures presented to Parliament by the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1919. At the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 648 warships, as well as 12 in the Auxiliary Patrol, and 97 other auxiliary vessels, which gives a total of 757. At the Armistice the Royal Navy had 1,354 warships, 3,727 vessels in the Auxiliary Patrol Service, and 570 auxiliary vessels, for a total of 5,651. Not much more, one notes, than the figure of 5,300 claimed for 1914!

Snow subsequently claimed that the figure came from the ‘historical branch guys at Dartmouth’, i.e. Britannia Royal Naval College. One can hardly blame the man for accepting their total if he was referring to archival staff at the college. It is staggering however that they gave him such wildly inaccurate information in the first place. Later that day Snow was gracious enough to post a correction, using an image provided by me:


But as one can see, its nominal reach was minuscule compared to the original: 15 retweets and 69 likes as opposed to 311 and 543 respectively. Given that Snow has 190,000 followers it is more than likely that thousands of people will have seen the incorrect figure of 5,300 ships, posted in the early afternoon. By the same token it is fair to assume that fewer will have seen his correction tweeted at 11.22 at night.

This little episode reinforces my belief that any historian, be they popular, amateur, or academic, has a responsibility to be as accurate as possible. This does not apply just to Snow (who should have double-checked his information before publishing it) but whoever gave him the figure in the first place. How many people will now have that figure of 5,300 imprinted on their brain, ‘because the guy off the TV said it’? Even if it is one, that is one too many.

Corrected: Lamentable lapse in grammar spotted by Jonathan Boff.

The Countess Mountbatten and I

CountessMountbattenViâ Twitter I’ve just learned of the death of the Countess Mountbatten at the age of 93. She was the eldest daughter of Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, murdered by the I.R.A. in 1979. She herself was injured at the same time, and one of her sons, her mother-in-law, and another child were killed. Her husband and other son were also injured in the attack.

I contacted the Countess three years to ask her for her help. Her paternal grandfather, who died two and a half years before she was born, was Admiral of the Fleet the Marquess of Milford Haven, First Sea Lord from 1912 to 1914. My research into the Military Branch officers of the Royal Navy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led me to conclude long ago that I had to consult every significant body of naval papers in the U.K. The papers of Milford Haven (until 1917 styled Prince Louis of Battenberg) are in the possession of the Hartley Library at the University of Southampton, which institution did not, and still does not, allow the photography of documents—only (in 2014) photocopying. When one is travelling hundreds of miles at great expense to study archival documents time is literally money. The Milford Haven papers are extensive, and to go through them would take time which I simply never have.

To this end, I wrote to the Countess to ask if she could possibly intercede on my behalf with the Hartley Library in order to obtain a special dispensation for me to photograph the Milford Haven material. I realise this was something of a forlorn hope, and also extremely conceited, but one has to try all avenues to emulate what Matthew Seligmann called Arthur Marder—‘a tenacious scholar’. Not too long afterwards I received a handwritten note from the Countess lamenting the fact that I had not included a phone number or an email address with my letter—this from a 90-year old!—and she would be only too happy to try on my behalf when she next saw someone from the University of Southampton, by coincidence not too far away. I was then asked to telephone the Countess by a secretary, who informed me that despite her representations the library would not deviate from its policy. Three years later this is still the case.

Years pass. Last month I visited the University of California, Irvine, to consult the papers of the afore-mentioned Arthur Marder, courtesy of a generous grant from the Society for Nautical Research. At the fantastic special collections there (photography allowed, staff extremely helpful) I discovered a large tranche of photocopies from the Milford Haven Papers, along with a covering letter from an archivist at the Earl Mountbatten’s home, Broadlands, which reveals that the Milford Haven papers had been discovered in four boxes in 1968, two each found in a separate cellar. I took 320 photographs of this material—under the current Hartley Library regime I would have have had to pay 50p a scan, by the staff, which translates to £160. Photocopying, by the staff, is charged at a rate of 50p a page up to 50 pages.

It had been my intention to write to the Countess and inform her about my good fortune in finding this alternative source for her grandfather’s papers, and also to update her about the state of my research, which she had been kind enough to wish me the best of luck with. When I spoke to her three years ago this month I had had nothing published. In the past year I have had four pieces appear in print, and will be presenting a paper at the United States Naval Academy in September, which will have benefited from insight I have gained from the Milford Haven material. I kept putting off writing to her, a prevarication I completely despise myself for. As long as I research naval history this failure will haunt me, and quite rightly.