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 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.

 

 

 

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A Naval Officer at Cambridge

Wilmot Fawkes as Vice-Admiral
Sir Wilmot Fawkes as a Vice-Admiral.

In his memoirs, Thirty-six Years at the Admiralty, Sir Charles Walker, at one time head of the branch in large part responsible for manning the Royal Navy, sought to illustrate the stagnation of the Navy around 1870 on account of the congestion in the various ranks of the Fleet, which was to some extent remedied (or altered) by the introduction of a universal system of compulsory retirement in that year.

Half-pay was of frequent occurrence, even for the junior ranks, and I recollect the late Admiral Sir Wilmot Fawkes telling me that, on his being specially promoted to lieutenant for passing his examinations with credit, he was relegated to half-pay for two years. He took the opportunity of going to Cambridge University.

This is not quite true. Fawkes (of the same family as the notorious gunpowder plotter) was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 19 November 1867. He remained on half pay until 1 April 1868, when he was appointed to the ironclad Prince Consort for service in the Mediterranean. He served there for the whole of the ship’s commission, which ended on 20 October 1871. He then went on seven week’s full paid leave before returning to half pay, where he remained until October 1873 (which is an interval of almost two years, but not quite). Walker’s claim that Fawkes went on two years’s half pay on promotion is therefore false.

I already knew that Fawkes had at some point attended St. John’s College, Cambridge (it is mentioned in his Times obituary), where he had been a Fellow Commoner (a student who ate in the common room but did not attend on a scholarship or an exhibition, therefore someone of means). Thanks to David Underdown (@DavidUnderdown9), who pointed me towards the ACAD database, I now know that Fawkes matriculated (joined) in Lent Term 1872. So not, as Walker claimed, right after promotion, but over four years later. Sadly, it is not known when Fawkes left Cambridge. Thanks to the same catalogue we see that two of his brothers also studied there, as well as his uncle (another Fellow Commoner).

If we look at the service records of three other officers who joined the Navy with Fawkes in September 1860 (Arthur C. B. Bromley, Sir Reginald N. Custance, Sir Arthur D. Fanshawe) it would appear that he was unique in having any half pay at all in his early Lieutenant’s service, let alone the opportunity of exploiting it by attending the University of Cambridge. If a historian wants an example of a junior officer having to languish on half pay in this time, he will have to look elsewhere.

A Case of Bad Memory

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Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield.

In November 1888 Ernle Chatfield, Midshipman, was appointed to the sloop Cleopatra, which had just commissioned for duty on the South East Coast of America Station. He recalled in his memoirs of her Captain:

Captain Archibald Musgrave was an elderly, grey-bearded man with a large growth on the back of his neck.

Chatfield went on to recount how on Christmas day the ship was taken aback without warning, keeled over, and on account of the First Lieutenant’s swift response the ship keeled over in the other direction:

The Captain, flung off the poop, struck his bad neck against a bolt and was carried away insensible to his cabin. He soon recovered, but I think the blow eventually killed him as he died at Monte Video in the following year.

Lord Chatfield can not have thought too much of Musgrave, as several of his details are wrong. His name was Archer John William Musgrave, not Archibald. He had entered the Royal Navy in 1855 and, in spite of losing a year’s seniority as a Midshipman, he had managed to obtain a haul down promotion to the rank of Commander at the age of 28, and promotion to Captain at the relatively early age of 37. He then had to wait over five years for a command, that of Rapid, before being given command of the Cleopatra in 1888. He was not elderly, being only 46 at the time, although if he was as grey-haired as Chatfield says then he may be forgiven for assuming it. Where Chatfield is especially inaccurate is in claiming Musgrave died in Montevideo in 1889. On 10 August 1891 he was superseded at his own request (Chatfield had left the ship in February 1890), and was invalided on 21 August for ‘Lipomata’, the growth on his neck. He returned to Britain on 21 September and was invalided, his ailment being ‘beyond control’. He then presumably went abroad for his health, and he died in Pau, France, on 20 May 1892, 13 days after his fiftieth birthday. His widow, Louise Elizabeth Innes Musgrave, was awarded a pension of £90 a year. In highlighting Captain Musgrave’s sad story, Chatfield might have gotten the facts right, a record which is now corrected.

Captain Musgrave’s service records are in ADM 196/14/461 and ADM 196/37/282.

‘The worst Golfer in England’

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Sir John D. Kelly in the 1920s.

In August 1933 Captain Thomas H. Binney gave up command of H.M.S. Hood in the Home Fleet. His immediate superior, Rear-Admiral William M. James, commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron, wrote of him, ‘I have used the highest marking throughout, because I do think that Captain Binney is an exceptional officer.’ He then went on to go into detail about Binney’s success in command of the Hood in the wake of the Invergordon Mutiny.

Then the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet passed judgement. We have already seen how blistering Sir John D. Kelly could be in writing about his subordinates. In this instance he was by and large positive, yet still couldn’t resist some amusing observations and also a back-handed compliment at Rear-Admiral James:

Though I have the highest opinion of Captain Binney, I should not have marked him quite so superlatively throughout.

Exuberance is, however, one of the pleasant idiosyncracies of his reporting officer.

A first-rate Captain of a ship. His leadership had made a vast difference in the Ship. Though there was a lot of back-lash to make up, she has paid-off a thoroughly efficient fighting unit of my Fleet. On account of the back-lash aforesaid, I do not consider that HOOD reached the pinnacle that she should have in a further six months under his Command.

A delightfully loyal, most thorough and most reliable Officer.

He is active and young for his years, though I believe him to be the worst Golfer in England.

His sense of the ridiculous is not readily apparent but, may be, it is latent in him.

I recommend him most strongly for promotion to and employment as a Rear-Admiral, and think he is likely to go far in the higher Ranks.

Dudley North

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Admiral Sir Dudley B. R. North.

For my latest article I am researching those officers who applied to qualify in War Staff duties in 1912. One of these officers (of whom there were a greater number than one might suspect according to the current literature on the subject) was Lieutenant Dudley B. R. North (1881 – 1961). Reading through his service record of confidential reports in ADM 196/91 at The National Archives, one immediately notices that a whole page is taken up by one typescript piece of paper containing one report. This covers the period 1932 to 1933, when North served as Chief of Staff to Admiral Sir John Kelly, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet.

If one were to believe Peter Gretton’s disingenuous entry on North in the [Oxford] Dictionary of National Biography, ‘There his tact and courtesy combined well with the unconventional attitude of Kelly’. However, Kelly’s report on North of 1933 paints a very different picture. It can only be called ‘harsh but fair’. It is to be wondered, however, that his reasonable advice was not taken at the end of the report. Rather than be given a seagoing command to prove his worth he remained on shore for over a year, before being given command of the Royal Yachts for nearly five years. If those in authority had never intended seriously employing him afloat again then he should have been retired on promotion to Vice-Admiral in 1936.

In November 1939, apparently thanks to the influence of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, he was appointed Flag Officer Commanding North Atlantic, where in 1940 he was made a scapegoat for the failure of an Anglo-Free French assault on Dakar following the passage of a Vichy French cruiser force through his command. North was later officially absolved of any blame. Given Kelly’s report below, however, one can only conclude North should never been near a seagoing command, in which case he could not have been unfairly blamed.

He is certainly not brainy: is slow in the up-take and poor on paper. In most cases his Minutes are the merest platitudes. He is very long-winded which, to one of an impatient disposition, is sometimes irritating.

Hyper-critical rather than constructive and, in mind, stolid rather than imaginative. Many of his ideas are old-fashioned, and, though he has not exhibited this to me, I know him to be strongly opinionated, if not pig-headed. He has an excellent conceit of his own abilities, the cause of which is not apparent.

He had been much too long away from the Fleet, and suffered accordingly. Though he is most popular among his contemporaries, he has an astoundingly restricted acquaintance of Officers junior to him. This may be due to the above reason or to the fact that ‘people’ or his juniors, as such, do not interest him.

‘Chief of Staff’ is, definitely, not his metier; not, at any rate, my Chief of Staff, for he can put very little into the pot that I cannot put there, and in greater measure. He has, perforce, acted largely as a voice-pipe between my Staff Officers and myself, and as the voice-pipe was liable to become choked with extraneous matter, I have frequently been impelled to go, surreptitiously – so as not to hurt his feeling – direct to the mouthpiece, in order to arrive at exact information, and in a concise form.

Though I would hesitate to describe him as a weak character, he is certainly neither a strong nor a forceful one.

Socially, he can be quite amusing, but he cannot be depended upon to make himself pleasant as, on occasions, he sits through a party and scarcely ‘utters’.

On the other hand, he has many good qualities. His manners are pleasant and easy: he is a gentleman. He can be amusing. He is very ambitious. He has a good knowledge of Tactics. He is very diligent and gives of his best. I should judge him to be much liked by the Staff under him.

I feel very strongly that, having been promoted to Rear Admiral on the recommendation of several of his senior Officers, he should be tested in a Sea Command – not as an Admiral Superintendent, for which, in my opinion, he is not fitted – and, dependent on his success, promoted to Vice-Admiral. As I may be entirely wrong in my judgement of him – otherwise than as my own Chief of Staff – I feel that he should be given a hearing in another Court.

It will be remembered, moreover, that the post of Chief of Staff is by no means ever man’s ‘meat’. If I may be allowed a reference to myself: though I may or may not have succeeded reasonably in commanding a Squadron or Fleet, there is no doubt whatever in my mind that I should have an execrable Chief of Staff: a fact that I recognised so well, some years ago, when offered tentatively a similar post, that I refused it.

Finally, I am entirely convinced that he does not possess the qualities for the highest Commands, and should assess him as being what the present First Sea Lord described as ‘a One-job-man’.

One of our Records is Missing

tnapicAs some of you know I’ve been working on transcribing a First World War diary for some time, and am currently tidying up the text and filling in some gaps before a final push to get it published. One of the jobs is to make sure that every person mentioned has a little note explaining who they were: name, rank, years of death and birth. To that end, on my last visit to The National Archives at Kew I collected as many service records as possible. However, I’ve only just finished cataloguing them in the past week (on which more in due course), and have found quite a few glaring omissions, one of which I found just this morning.

One of the officers who needs a note is Commander Frederic Gerald Stuart Peile, who served as navigating officer, Commander (N), of the dreadnought battleship Emperor of India in the Grand Fleet from September 1914 to December 1915, in which capacity he is mentioned in the diary. Normally his service record in the ADM 196/4# series would be expected to have his date of death. So I plugged in Frederic Peile into my laptop search engine and nothing came up. ‘Bother’, thought I. I tend to always be in a rush at archives, so It is always possible that in my haste I may have missed a record or two. Just to be sure, though, I checked the The National Archive’s Discovery catalogue. There was no mention of his ADM 196/4# service record.

I therefore proceeded to the index in ADM 196/57. Peile is mentioned there. Plenty of his term mates from his 15 January 1895 entry to H.M.S. Britannia are listed in the relative section of ADM 196/46. So where is Peile? Was his page just missed when the records were microfilmed, or when they were digitised? Or was his entry trashed, as occasionally happens. Time to inquire of the Discovery team at Kew, who will hopefully supply answers, and also the record.