By Martin Robson
In this story, first published in the ‘WARSHIPS IFR Guide to the RN 2014/15’, Martin Robson takes a tilt at answering this question. He asks ‘What is the point of naval history? Is it to provide a rich framework through which contemporary Naval debates can be viewed or is there something more there? Must it always say something about the World we live in today while also addressing the one we hope to inhabit in the future? They seem obvious questions but they are not always easy to answer.’ Martin Robson is the author of three volumes in the History of the Royal Navy series, a collaboration between the National Museum of the Royal Navy and publisher I.B. Tauris.
Whether it is viewing events from a fresh perspective, accessing new material or myth busting (itself an art not as practiced as often as it should be) the first job of the historian is to inquire, to critique. There are a number of areas where this has helped to provide a more balanced or accurate picture of events.
To pick one example, the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805 did not in reality save the British Isles from a French invasion. More important in that regard was a tactically indecisive action fought by Sir Robert Calder Off Cape Finisterre on July 22 that year, which prevented the numerically superior combined Franco-Spanish fleet entering the English Channel[i].
Instead, needing to repair and with sickly crews, the Combined Fleet under the command of Rear Admiral Pierre Villeneuve headed south. That was a decisive strategic outcome. Should we replace Trafalgar Day with ‘Calder’s Action Day’? Certainly not, but it does remind us of Julian Corbett’s eternal truth that decisive fleet battle is only a means to an end. This is crucial, as writing about naval history that focuses on tactics and operations misses the point. History with an understanding of ends, ways and means provides highly relevant examples for: contemporary debates.
In other words, it provides the content and some indication of the context for thinking strategically about the world around us today. For example, Corbett’s ‘England in the Seven Years’ war[ii]: A Study in Combined Strategy’ was about how Pitt the Elder had balanced British commitments to Europe with a desire for overseas operations. Published in 1907, Corbett’s book revealed its author’s keen eye for contemporary defence debates within the Army, Navy and the Committee of Imperial Defence about safeguarding British interests on a global scale, including those vested in Europe.
Such interests were intrinsically linked. This had also been recognised by Sir Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies at the start of the 1793-1815 wars with France. Dundas looked not just to destroy French naval power in Europe to allow for the expansion of British trade overseas. The very process was a zero-sum game, for expanding Britain’s overseas interests would forever prevent the French from restoring their naval power. This would be due compensation for British involvement in a European war. Hence, to understand British success in the 1793-1815 period involves exploring the linkages between finance, banking, insurance, world trade and a host of other areas of ‘national interest’ (and their links to the maritime environment and the operations of naval forces).
The linkages between these areas have long been known, and herein lies the problem with the focus on the ‘great events’ of naval history – usually battles – to the detriment of wider perspectives. Here it is academia that has led the way; it is no coincidence that one of the most senior professorships at the University of Cambridge is the Vere Harmsworth Professorship of Imperial and Naval History. Casting an eye across the scene-today it could be assessed that in a general sense academic naval history is in decent shape.
It certainly could be better, but it could also be much worse. So, what of the subject itself and how is naval history viewed by the Royal Navy? For a service that thrives on tradition and a keen sense of history, a common complaint is that, with the pressure of deployment and training – in other words, doing the job – there is little time for a thorough grounding in not just what the Royal Navy has done, but how it has contributed to the development of wider British and global history. A common complaint among junior officers is that there is not enough time either in their day jobs or through naval training and education programmes for the right type of naval history.
Not the regurgitation of myths and hero-worship, but serious assessment of the historical record and, as a matter of course, frankly and openly exploring some of the Navy’s darker days and failures. Recent developments have, however, been positive. A long mooted First Sea Lord’s Reading List, is a start as are initiatives to add packages of highly relevant historical case studies to a number of courses. Informal linkages between academia and the Royal Navy already exist at many levels; academia is integral to the success of Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) and the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC).
Many academics outside those environments work closely with the RN. While there are many in academia who will champion the Royal Navy, what might be needed within the RN is more people to overtly champion what serious academic history can do for the Senior Service.
[i] The battle of Cape Finisterre was inconclusive and both admirals, Villeneuve and Calder, claimed victory. Calder was relieved of his command, court-martialled, and sentenced to be severely reprimanded for his failure to renew the battle on 23 and 24 July. Villeneuve in command of the combined Franco-Spanish fleet failed topush on Brest. Instead, the Fleet retired to refit at Vigo, Spain then slipped into Coruña, and on 15 August decided to make for Cadiz. The decision to make for Cadiz ruined all hopes Napoleon had for an invasion and landing in England.
[ii] Seven Years’ War, (1756–63) was the last major conflict before the French Revolution to involve all the great powers of Europe. Generally, France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain on the other. The war arose out of the attempt of the Austrian Habsburgs to win back the rich province of Silesia, which had been wrested from them by Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48). But the Seven Years’ War also involved overseas colonial struggles between Great Britain and France, the main points of contention between those two traditional rivals being the struggle for control of North America (the French and Indian War; 1754–63) and India.