Monday, August 18, 2008

Jacko's Navy

I've always assumed that the British Navy of the nineteenth century - the century in which Britain built, and maintained through sea power, the largest empire in history - was one of the greatest military machines of all time. Apparently, I was misinformed. In a chapter on the 19th-century British Navy in his book Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (New York, 1991, pp. 373-400), Robert Massie effectively dispelled my impression of the Royal Navy as a sleek, well-disciplined, technologically advanced fighting force. Instead, Massie describes the pre-1900 British Navy as complacent, besotted with Nelsonian dogma, and comically obsessed with cleanliness and polish; its ship captains as an assortment of dandies, megalomaniacs, and eccentrics; and its ships' crews as a pack of half-starved boys and drunks. Massie does this to great comic effect, which I can best capture in glossary form, as follows:

Boiler: What one ship's engineer thought he had turned into, thanks to delirium tremens. The man spent all day on his back, "puffing vigorously" to avoid bursting. (p. 377)

Candle wax: Used by midshipmen to afix pieces of yarn to the backs of cockroaches. The boys would then light the yarn and set the insects to racing each other.

Cleanliness: The highest virtue in the Royal Navy. See Gunnery Practice; HMS Forte; Nightcaps; Watertight Doors

Elephant: Ship's pet on HMS Galatea (1870); brought aboard by Lieutenant Lord Charles Beresford; learned to help raise the mainsail with his trunk; apparently very happy aboard ship once he got over his seasickness.

Fanny Adams: 1) English girl who supposedly disappeared near a British cannery. 2) What British sailors called canned meat.

Gunnery practice: Avoided by most officers and crew, as firing the guns tended to dirty the ships' decks. Also discouraged by the Admiralty, which believed that fighting should occur at close range and that aimed fire was therefore unnecessary.

HMS Forte: One of the cleanest ships in Her Majesty's Navy (ca. 1870), it featured gilt and satin wood facings, "French-polished" gun carriages, and cannonballs "painted blue with a gold band around them and a yellow top." The captain wore numerous finger rings, spent hours grooming himself, and frequently took his midshipmen ashore to play cricket. (pp. 398-99)

Jacko: Name of pet baboon belonging to Captain Marryat of HMS Larne. Frequently pulled buttons off crewmembers' uniforms.

Maggot derbies: Another amusement of midshipmen. Pretty much what the name implies.

Nightcaps: Small flannel nightcaps were placed on ships' ring bolts to prevent them from becoming dirty or tarnished.

Shot-to-hit ratio: During the bombardment of Alexandria, Egypt (1881), British warships achieved a ratio of 1 hit for every 300 shots. See also Gunnery practice.

Watertight doors: Thanks to RN officers' obsession with cleanliness and "brightwork," these were usually filed and polished so intensely that they ceased to be watertight.

This is a far cry from the "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" of Nelson's age; it is, instead, the sort of navy that Gilbert and Sullivan or Monty Python would have imagined (and did imagine). It was also not the kind of navy that could survive serious competition from another industrial power. After Germany and Britain began their naval arms race in the early 20th century, the R.N., under the command of Admiral John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher, began a series of modernizing reforms. These included a greater emphasis on modern weapons (especially torpedoes and long-range guns), more gunnery training for crewmen, and the systematic cashiering of inefficient or incompetent officers. Jacky's navy was certainly more disciplined than Jacko's navy, but also much less colorful.

1 comment:


Well, quite bizarre but not that surprising - seems to be in line with a long history of absurd practices and overconfidence in naval captains and practices, i.e. "The Titanic" and what was the one ship where the men ate from lead cans and got lead poisoning? And died in the Arctic after going mad? Naval history is fascinating - I'll give you that - but rather read about it or watch it on the Discovery Channel than have lived through it!