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Doing Naval History

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

The following paper was presented by Rear Admiral James Goldrick at the 2019 Symposium, Expanding Naval History. You can download the paper here.

Given a topic as broad as ‘Doing Naval History’, I’ve come to realise that the best way to deal with the subject is to consider it very personally – how have I ‘done’ naval history and what have I learnt about just how to ‘do’ it. So what follows will be a personal reflection, based on my having been serious about researching and writing naval history since at least 1977, continuing my effort on a part-time basis through nearly forty years of naval service and becoming almost (but not quite) full time since my retirement from the navy. By the way, when asked how I did it by those surprised at my having had the time to publish as a seagoing naval officer and busy staff officer or commander ashore, my response has always been that I do not and never have played golf.

It’s been an advantage in my historical work to be a naval professional, just as it has been an advantage as a naval professional to be a naval historian. Each has fed the other and this gets me back to the importance of connections, as I stressed in my keynote address. But I am conscious of two things. Firstly, I have learnt more about navies from historians who have never been to sea than I have from many outstanding senior naval commanders. Intensive and extensive study and outstanding intelligence can combine to create not only the deep understanding but also the leaps of imagination which mark the work of the best historians.

On the other hand, academic historians, particularly younger ones, can suffer from what I define as the fallacy of the single cause, perhaps as a result of the way that modern PhDs tend to be a deep immersion into one detailed topic. That tight focus can create a tendency to impose a priority for a particular issue on the wider analysis without sufficient regard to the actual place of that issue within the naval whole – or, indeed, of whatever ‘whole’ is being considered. This is one of the reasons why I press younger historians not only to read as widely as they can, but also to seek any and every opportunity to visit ships and get to sea – and talk to navy people.To be fair, I think that all of us studying a subject in detail can come to think it is even more significant than we claim –so it's important to admit that each of us is contributing pieces to what is a complex, multi-dimensional jigsaw.      There’s another problem in historiography-a problem of which I became increasingly aware with my return to study of the 1914-18 war. It is particularly apparent when examining technological change and its effects on strategy and operations. Unconscious hindsight is implicit in much of what is written about the navies of the machine age - and I include my own early work in this. It is also sometimes possible to make the story too clear and too simple – indeed, I would suggest that the better the narrative, the greater the risk this happens. The problem is that, for the experienced naval person – or public servant involved in the management of the navy –this discredits some historical analysis when it is compared, consciously or otherwise, with their own knowledge of the uncertainties and confusions of aligning resources to both current and future capability. The reality is that 1914 was a foreign country from 1912 – even from 1913. But, to change L.P. Hartley’s aphorism, it is not just that they did things differently there at each time, but that they also had different things to deal with – and those different things had different relationships. This remains a reality for contemporary decision makers. 2019 is different from 2018 and 2020 will be different again.      Hindsight has other aspects. The Battle of Jutland is one example. The fact is that you cannot wargame the Battle of Jutland in a way that reproduces the situation faced by the protagonists unless you start out with a ‘North Sea Game’ that may or may not involve the fleets of either side being at sea. In other words, you may have to repeatedly run games in which the protagonists not only don’t make contact, but never can make contact because the opposition just isn’t there.For if you don’t examine the decision making of the commanders in the opening stages of the battle without factoring in this level of uncertainty, you just aren’t being fair.Contrary to much of the extended debate about who did what during the battle, the difficult bits were not when the fleets were actually in contact, but before – and after – they were in contact.      I think that naval professionals who come to naval history are often more conscious of just how important a part is played by ambiguity and uncertainty –combining to form what Clausewitz and others term ‘the fog of war’ – than those who have not had to make things work under pressure.      However, there are also potential pitfalls for the naval professional some of which I’ve fallen into myself. One is thinking that what I experienced at sea was the reality of generations previous to mine. My warning to those in my audience who are also former or present naval professionals is –don’t assume things were the same as in your time.      I suppose I have been alerted to the question of change and its significance by being young when the combat data system and data link revolution was under way, older when GPS made a profound difference to how we did things and senior when digital technology took over in so many ways –electronic charts being just one element. I realised, for example,that many of my skills and tricks on the bridge and in the CIC had been developed in an analog and paper environment and no longer had much relevance.      Ironically, my belief, by the way, is that we understand much more how things worked in ships of the sailing era such as the Victory and the Constitution than we do the dreadnoughts of the First World War. We could take a replica Constitution to sea tomorrow and I suspect work her up into a fighting machine in a couple of weeks. You could not do that with a coal burning battleship.      Let me give you an example of a startling difference between ships of the past and the recent present –a startling difference that I missed as a midshipmen but picked up nearly forty years later with the benefit of having been an XO and a CO multiple times, but also with a more open mind about change. Early in my return to researching the outbreak of the First World War, I reread a book called Years of Endurance, the recollections of Surgeon Rear Admiral John Muir. In late 1914, Muir was appointed commissioning medical officer of the brand new battle cruiser Tiger. It has long been notorious that Tiger, as with many ships rushed to completion at the outbreak of conflict, had a bad start. Not everything had been set to work properly, she had a scratch crew, and there were many early accidents, such as a boy falling to his death down the shaft of an engineering lift which had not had its barriers installed. Tiger was not even allowed to finish the very basic work up intended for her, being sent to join the Battle Cruiser Force to make up the numbers in the absence of the ships sent to hunt for Admiral von Spee after the Battle of Coronel.      I first read Years of Endurance in 1978, but it was only when I looked at it again in 2012 that I fully understood the significance of one of Muir’s reasons forTiger’s difficulties. The ship was pushed out of John Brown’s yard so quickly that she missed what was termed her ‘builder’s final clean’. In the present day, as in 1978, the picture conveyed is that the rubbish, waste materials and dirt of the final fitting out had not been removed. But there was much more to it than that.      In the primitive industrial conditions of the day, with the near-total absence of amenities for the work force, it was the practice of the dockyard personnel when fitting out a ship after launch to use the lower compartments as latrines. Muir recorded that some of Tiger’s spaces were so bad that ship’s staff could only enter them wearing oilskins and sea boots and had to be hosed down after emerging.      The battle cruiser thus sailed from the Clyde into a northern autumn, shut down for war, without this cleaning having been done. They were perhaps lucky that the only medical consequence was a mass outbreak of tonsillitis.      Technology has profoundly changed the way that we can research and write history. Digital photography is one key element – giving the ability to copy and retain hundreds if not thousands of pages of primary and secondary material. This means that we can consider that material more widely and deeply than we ever could before. Instead of taking notes leavened by expensive photo-copies or microfilm which are necessarily highly selective from the outset, we can think through and realise, as I often did, that something on page 43 was much more significant than I first thought.I’ll say that when most of your key archives are in the other hemisphere, this makes primary research a much more practicable proposition.      I will also add that we can be not only much more comprehensive but also much more accurate than historians ever were in the past. Returning to archives in 2012 and 2013 that I had last examined in 1979 and 1980, I was horrified to realise just how many transcription errors there were in material that I thought I had accurately copied by hand. The fact is that when you are transcribing, a natural editorial process takes place. Fortunately, I had never altered the meaning, but it was an important lesson. It was also confirmation to me why I had always been advised never to cite a second-hand quotation without acknowledging the intervening source.      The other point about technology is the internet. The difference this makes is just extraordinary, not just because facts can be checked very quickly, but because of the way in which connections can be established that I would never have made unassisted. Let me give you one example. Recently, the granddaughter of Admiral Jellicoe, Dr Susan Rose, a distinguished early modern naval historian in her own right, asked if I would edit and provide a commentary on a letter from Lady Jellicoe to the widowed Lady Arbuthnot just a few days after Jutland. It’s a charming letter, full of sympathy and offers of practical help. It happened to mention that a Lieutenant Commander George Hillyard had been witness to the destruction of Arbuthnot’s flagship, the Defence. A look at the Navy List would show that Hillyard was a retired officer who was on the base staff at Cromarty Firth, base of a part of the Grand Fleet. But a look at the internet shows him to have been the man who, as Secretary of the All England Club, put the Wimbledon tennis ground in its present position, invented the en tout cas all-weather tennis court, was a friend and service contemporary of King George V who had been around the world with him as a midshipman – and so on. I found that a biography had been written about him and this confirmed that Hillyard was indeed at Jutland, a guest of the captain of the battleship Centurion, which was only a few miles away from the Defence when the armoured cruiser exploded and sank with all hands.I was also delighted to discover that Britain’s National Maritime Museum not only had the papers of the Arbuthnot family, but had put the 1916 diary of Lady Arbuthnot on line – so you could read the diary of the person being written to at the time the letter would have been received. I’m pretty good at understanding the social networks of the Royal Navy, but I couldn’t have made all these connections without the internet.      As another example, I was able to identify every admiral in a 1918 picture of the flag officers of the Grand Fleet –which includes Rear Admiral Rodman of the USN and the Sixth Battle Squadron. Before the internet, I think that I would have been able to put an accurate name to no more than 14 of the 21 men in the shot that you’ll find on page 275 of After Jutland.      This is one of the benefits that have come to historians – the online material by way of documents, texts and photographs that can be accessed. To give one example, in 1978 I had one of about a dozen existing full sets of the Royal Navy’s secret staff history of the war at sea from 1914 to 1917 – written between 1920 and 1939. My Father had found them in his office in the naval base he commanded some years earlier and, in the finest naval tradition, purloined them and passed them on to me as the best and safest home. There were a dozen other sets still in existence around the world, that was it. However, in recent years, the Sea Power Centre – Australia, at the instigation of my much admired naval college classmate and colleague Dr David Stevens,has put all 19 volumes online. You can find them just by googling Sea Power Centre –Australia and looking through the site. As the staff histories were written before the British Admiralty files were weeded, they have perspectives and sometimes detail which you can’t get anywhere else. So the great thing is that they are available to all historians, not just those who can get to the naval archives or who happened to have the right parent.      Another aspect of technology – and the internet – is the way that underwater detection technology has evolved to the point that many hitherto unlocated wrecks have been identified in the past decade or so. I realised while writing After Jutland that an essential check, particularly but not only for submarines which had been lost without trace, was to go onto the Internet to check if the wreck had been discovered – and where it was – and how it had actually been sunk. The reality very often proved different to the surmise and I am delighted that Dr Innes McCartney, who has done so much to increase our knowledge about the wrecks of Jutland, is making similar efforts about submarines. Just how fast this is all moving was confirmed to me when my copy editor emailed me from the USA to ask if I had seen the previous week’s Smithsonian magazine. It announced the discovery a few months earlier of the UB 29, some sixty miles closer to Zeebrugge than the estimated position of her sinking, with evidence that she had been sunk by a mine. The point is that until now UB 29 was thought to have been the first submarine ever sunk by depth charges, on 13 December 1916 by the British destroyer Landrail. My alert editor, Aden Nichols, was working on that section of After Jutland at the time and, very impressively, made the connection and alerted me to it. A quick alteration of the text followed.      So, if you are going to do naval history, get onto the internet and use the search engines. Make time every day to google with fresh terminology and new names. You will be amazed what you find –I continue to turn up fresh material in, for example, Youtube. A recent instance was a1990 TV interview with a former head of our navy about a very controversial government decision to end fixed wing flying in the Australian navy in 1982. I had no idea the interview existed, one in which the admiral said some very interesting things.      Let me make another point about research and the use of primary sources. I mentioned in my keynote address that we all need to get out of our silos and look at the work of others. I do not share the idea that popular narrative history, for example, is not ‘pure’ and not worthy of consideration by academic historians. But I do believe that popular historians need to try a lot harder to keep up to date with the work being done by others, both academics and pure enthusiasts – I was particularly critical of Massie’s beautifully written book Dreadnought when it came out in 1991 because it cited no work that was less than 20 years old – I assessed the book in the Naval War College Review. I was amused to note that when Castles of Steel came out eleven years later, my own book The King’s Ships were at Sea was cited extensively and I was named more than once in the text. But I couldn’t help noting that my book had been in print for nearly 20 years by that time!      I also believe that those who are using secondary sources as the basis for their work need to use them with more care than is sometimes the case. Commander B.J. Armstrong, who does such great work in history with the midshipmen at the Naval Academy, has long waged a campaign to kill the letter by John Paul Jones which sets out the attributes of the ideal naval officer. That letter is a fake, one made up of whole cloth by John Paul Jones’ biographer at the turn of the nineteenth century. Admiral Sims tried to kill it nearly a hundred years ago, yet it still springs up.      There is more of this sort of thing around that we like to admit. I’ll also add something that the great naval historian Stephen Roskill impressed on me many years ago – ‘memory is a false jade’. Oral histories can be extremely valuable and I think that the Naval Institute has done a great service in assembling so many over the years, but they must not be used as authority in their own right –they need to be checked against contemporary records. I’ll add – and I believe that psychologists will back me up – that the more intelligent and the distinguished the individual concerned, the less that their individual recollections can be completely trusted. The fact is that we all revise and reorder our own memories and the smarter we are, the more likely we are to do this.      So, don’t take things on trust -go and check other sources. And that, for all of us, includes our own experience and our own memories!      Let me next sound a warning I have made before about some unwelcome effects of technology but that relates to a problem we haven’t solved. History begins now and this is a message that I continually try to give both historians and the navy. I believe that the navies of the west have already lost, perhaps irretrievably, much of what should have been recorded in the 1990s and early 2000s. We need to be pressing our navies to go back and look at what the records are for this period – before it really is too late.      Furthermore, while electronic record keeping is better than it was a decade ago, modern information systems and decision making are at a stage where construction of any kind of coherent narrative of events, let alone analysis is becoming more and more difficult. The overload of information and data is such that the navy is in danger of losing its recent past and all of us are in danger of losing any chance of achieving a coherent understanding of that past. I know that this is a concern for all our official history organisations, but I think that we need to give them our public support so that they can get the resources to fix the problem.      Historians need to be involved as early as possible, even if the initial focus is solely upon the identification and preservation of key material. In The Rules of the Game, Andrew Gordon made the point that the British flagship in the 1982 conflict in the Falklands processed over 170,000 signals in little more than ten weeks, 62,000 of which (one every 107 seconds) called for ‘flag action’. And this was before the era of command and control being conducted in ‘Chat Rooms’. Historians and the navy need to be forging effective alliances with archivists and information managers.      Finally, we need to be honest with ourselves and with each other, even when the truth is uncomfortable –and that applies particularly to old friends and allies. I’ll give you one example. The evidence is compelling that HMAS Canberra received critical damage at the Battle of Savo Island from a torpedo fired by her escorting USN destroyer, in addition to the hail of gunfire that she received from the Japanese attack group. The truth is that at Savo, no one on our side performed particularly well and there are lessons from that defeat that both the Australian and United States Navies should learn and never forget. On a closing note, I was particularly encouraged only last week to read a column in the Naval Institute’s online forum by Lieutenant Commander Frederick Cichon, United States Navy. He’s currently serving on exchange with the Australian Navy. His article was entitled ‘’Australia and the U.S. Must Prioritise High-End Warfighting” – and to support his argument he went back to the Battles of the Java Sea and the Coral Sea to show just how vital effective interoperability can be. The truth is, when I see just what went wrong, as well as what went right, my sympathy – and my admiration – for those on scene only increases. History needs to be done ‘warts and all’ – because the complete story is always so much better than the myth – and navies and nations are much better off when they know the entire truth and not some self-deluding legends which try to paint our predecessors as super-humans. They weren’t and it is because they weren’t that we can learn so much from their failures as well as their successes.

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