Accuracy, not Brevity

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,
5th June, 1933.


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:


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.

Women in Defence

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


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.

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.


William Charles St. Andrew St. John

This morning I stumbled across a 7 September 1915 letter from Sir George A. Callaghan (Commander-in-Chief at the Nore) to Sir Frederick T. Hamilton (Second Sea Lord). In it Callaghan warns that perhaps a Lieutenant-Commander St. John should not have been given command of the Chatham Detention Quarters on account of his age (62). He did however recommend St. John being given the rank of Acting Commander and given charge of a new camp of huts. He goes on:

St. John was my lot in Britannia & retired 37 years ago! He is an excellent chap & it would soothe his feelings at being done out of his Detention Command if he was made Acting Commander.

The officer in question, the gloriously named William Charles St. Andrew St. John, had retired from the Navy on 4 July 1877, having only been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 30 January of that year. At this point he had been retired almost four times as long as he had originally been in the Navy (ten years)!

Evidently Callaghan thought St. John was up to the job despite his long absence from the Naval Service, and his thoughtfulness shines through in this letter to Hamilton, who was responsible for appointments. Suffice it to say St. John was given his Acting Rank.