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.

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‘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

article-1296645-0A7733D7000005DC-926_224x423
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.

 

 

 

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.

The Suicide of Admiral Smith-Dorrien

On 5 June 1933 the body of 77-year old Rear-Admiral Arthur H. Smith-Dorrien was found in a railway cutting near Berkhamsted. He was the elder brother of the more well-known General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. He entered the Royal Navy in 1870 and retired as a Captain in 1904, being advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral on the retired list. In his ‘Instructions to my Executors, Sisters, etc.’ dated 29 December 1932 he admitted to having suffered from fits of depression, and closed with, ‘I have no fear of death whatsoever, in fact quite the contrary. I do not believe we really live till we die’. At the inquest held on Smith-Dorrien’s body on 8 June the coroner was told that he had not not gone to bed on the evening of 5 June, having complained of getting a touch of the sun the day before. A verdict of ‘Suicide while temporarily of unsound mind’ was returned. Remarkably the following letter, dated the day Smith-Dorrien died, was not mentioned. His tragic intentions were all too plain, and it is difficult to read without feeling sympathy for a man who had quite simply had enough. The letter is in a beautiful ‘picture journal’ of Smith-Dorrien’s held by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

New Lodge,
Berkhamsted,
5th June, 1933.

‘JUDGE NOT, THAT YE BE JUDGED’.

This is to certify that after seven months intense suffering with my feet, and as there seems no possible chance of my getting better, I feel there can be only one ending, and that is that I should have to be shut up. My sisters will testify how much I have suffered, and at times I have shouted the house down, and when I get this mood I know full well that I am not responsible for my actions, as anything might happen. I believe my friends and relations would rather anything should happen than a lingering death under such dreadful conditions. How I have stuck it so long I know not, and it was in order that my friends and relations would not be shocked by my actions. The roof of my mouth and throat are so sore that for the last two months I have been living entirely on milk diet. My relations would be shocked if they saw me now, in fact, there are only a few who would recognise me. I would ask anyone to put themselves in my position all this while, the long days and nights and only able to read for a short time and no exercise whatsoever.

I have no fear of death whatsoever and long to be at rest, and I pray to God Almighty that he will in His infinite mercy forgive me for all my past sins.

This I ask for Christ’s sake. Amen.

P.S. Should there be any publicity as regard what may happen I would ask that these words of mine may be made public.

‘God Save the King.’

Too Many Tweets Make a …

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

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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:

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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.

Women in Defence

The Ministry of Defence is tweeting today to commemorate #WomenInDefence:

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The factlet for 1917 runs, ‘The WAAC, WRENS and WRAF were formed. Allowing Women to work for the forces for the UK Armed Forces for the first time.’

This claim is incorrect on a number of levels. Firstly, it claims that Women’s service in the British armed forces commenced in 1917 with the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, Women’s Royal Naval Service and Women’s Royal Air Force (which actually was not created until 1918). This statement completely ignores Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (as it was then named) and Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service, both with roots stretching back to the 1880s. The latter on the outbreak of war had seventy nursing sisters stationed across the British Empire. The slogan ‘100 Years of Service’ therefore ignores the services of those nursing sisters who served before 1917, including three years of the First World War.

Even if one were to accept that the nursing services do no count, as no doubt someone may claim, then the slogan is still open to objection, implying as it does an unbroken century of service, despite the fact that the WAAC, WRNS and WRAF were all disbanded shortly after the Great War before being reintroduced for the Second World War.

I have no doubt whatsoever that women served in the British Armed Forces in other ways prior to 1917 apart from nursing. A notable, unofficial, example is James Barry. No doubt others can think of far more. Commemorating the contribution of women to our defence heritage is a laudable aim, but it would be nice if official reactions were accurate.