The Royal Navy in 1905

(by Commander Alastair Wilson, R.N.)

On introducing A Fleet in Being we looked briefly at the state of the Navy in 1897-98, when Kipling was the guest of Captain Bayly in HMS Pelorus in the Channel Squadron, and we mentioned some of the changes which lay immediately ahead (section headed “Some General Comments in the first page, “INTRODUCTION”). These were largely due to two admirals who quickened the tempo of naval competition, Alfred von Tirpitz in Germany, and John Arbuthnot Fisher in Britain.

The year 1905, which is approximately the mid-point of the appearance of the Pyecroft stories, and the year following Fisher’s appointment as First Sea Lord, when many of his innovations were in full blast, seems a convenient intermediate stage to consider how these were affecting the fleet. It may have been gathered that Fisher in his lifetime was always, and has remained, a controversial figure. The ‘Reader’s Guide’ is not the place to discuss him in detail, and even a tentative assessment of his work is best left to our notes on Sea Warfare (1916) when they can be judged by the test of war. [In the event, Admiral Brock seems not to have commented on Fisher’s legacy in the Sea Warfare notes. This Editor would merely observe that, although it is held in some quarters that Fisher’s rivalry with von Tirpitz was a major contributory cause of the tension which ultimately led to World War I, a reading of the reports from the four Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906-1914 (Navy Records Society Naval Intelligence from Germany, Scolar Press, 2007) shows that some sections of German society were bent on war – see the ORG remarks below. If that point of view is accepted, then Fisher was, indeed, responsible for Britain’s ultimate victory at sea.] Here we merely refer to some of his changes which were reflected, directly or indirectly, in the Pyecroft stories.

The international situation

Admiral Tirpitz, with the enthusiastic backing of his Emperor, the mercurial Wilhelm II, was the driving and directing force behind the German Navy Acts of 1898 and 1900 designed to raise the efficient but modest German Navy to first-class status. With other factors, including violent anti-British feeling during the Boer War (1899-1902), a good deal of ominous Pan-Germanic literature and the German government’s refusal to consider an alliance except on terms that guaranteed Germany a free hand and the hegemony of Europe, this convinced Fisher that Germany was now the most probable enemy.

In 1898, we had nearly gone to war with France over Fashoda: now, the entente cordiale had made her a friend, if not quite an ally, and an uproarious visit of the French fleet to Portsmouth in 1905 supplied some of the background for ‘The Horse Marines’.
The material state of the Navy

Tirpitz, a brilliant naval administrator, was later described by Churchill as a “sincere, wrong-headed, purblind old Prussian”, because he completely misjudged British reaction to his navy-building. Britain had not too much objection to the grabbing of colonies in Africa and elsewhere, but the new German navy went beyond what was needed for their protection. Instead of being cowed, or at the least acquiescent, they took up the challenge, with Fisher well to the fore. Soon after he became the First Sea Lord on 21 October 1904, he set about concentrating naval strength at home. A first step was the paying off of a number of smaller ships (like Judson’s gunboat) on foreign stations, which were mainly employed in showing the flag and what was sometimes called ‘consular duty’, a comfort to merchants and missionaries, but of slender fighting value in war. Our defensive treaty with Japan in 1902, followed by her decisive defeat of the Russian fleet in 1905, enabled Fisher to recall a number of ships from the China station – in particular the two battleships which had been the two ‘ships of force’ on the China station: thereafter, until HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sent to Singapore in 1941, the China squadron consisted of cruisers. This was only the beginning of Fisher’s strategical answer to Tirpitz.

It has been said that the dominant feature of Fisher’s professional character was a love of innovation for its own sake; he was certainly responsible for many changes in ships and weapons. The most famous was HMS Dreadnought, (left), the world’s first all-big-gun battleship, laid down in Portsmouth dockyard in 1905 amid what Lord Sydenham called “spectacular secrecy”, and completed in record time, at the expense of some other ships (turrets of 12-inch guns intended for the last two pre-dreadnought battleships which were still being built were ‘borrowed’).
Her main battery of ten 12-inch guns in five turrets offered the prospect of effective gunnery at ranges much greater than those possible with the mixed armaments of existing battleships whose different rates of fire and time of flight made fire control increasingly difficult as ranges went up. Gunnery practices on a competitive basis were now very much the thing, and were well publicised.

The Dreadnought was also the first man-of-war bigger than a light cruiser to be engined with turbines, which, although making for higher speeds, converted ships’ engine-rooms from their state described on ‘Their Lawful Occasions’ (cf., page 129 – “the floor ankle-deep in a creamy batter of oil and water”) into dry, comparatively silent, shining compartments.

The 1905 Programme included, too, the first battle cruisers which, with guns and armour only slightly less than the Dreadnought’s, could do 25 knots or more. “Speed is armour”, said Fisher, in one of his less accurate obiter dicta. However, he was well in advance of most of his contemporaries in foreseeing the possibilities of aircraft and submarines – our first small Holland boat was launched in 1901 – but continued to build bigger battleships while prophesying their extinction. He was right in all regards, of course, but not simultaneously.

The first trials of oil fuel, initially in conjunction with coal, had begun in 1903; and in the same year most British warships turned grey. In home waters, ships were painted that dark shade commonly called ‘battleship grey’. On some hotter stations, lighter shades were permitted, as being cooler. Torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers remained black until after the battle of Jutland in 1916.
Naval officers and ratings

Throughout the 19th century, officers remained firmly divided into the Military and Civil branches, the Military Branch consisting of Executive Officers (‘Seaman Specialists’ since 1956) and the Civil Branch, which comprised the surgeons, paymasters, instructors, engineers, etc. The first inroad on the privileged position of the former came from the newest Civil officers, the Engineers who, starting as civilians acquired with the very early steam engines, became warrant officers in 1837 and achieved commissions for their higher ranks some ten years later, and had since continued to rise, though not in proportion to their increased responsibilities, as machines multiplied. They had rather more friends in Parliament and Fleet Street than their medical or paymaster colleagues and Fisher, always anxious to forestall grievances, had as Second Sea Lord in 1903 introduced changes to meet some of their claims. (Table II below shows that they received military-style titles at this date.)

Table I shows the titles of their ranks in 1905, together with those of the Military Branch, Medical Officers and Paymasters, and their Army equivalents.
TABLE I – Relative ranks in the Royal Navy and the British Army

Military Branch Engineer Branch Medical Branch Paymaster Branch
Admiral of the Fleet Field Marshal
Admiral General
Vice-Admiral Engineer-in-Chief Lieutenant-General
Rear-Admiral Engineer Rear-Admiral Inspector-Generalof Hospitals and Fleets Major-General
Commodore Brigadier-General
Captain (over 3 years’ seniority) Engineer Captain (over 8 years) Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and Fleets Paymaster-in-Chief Colonel
Captain (under 3 years) Engineer Captain (under 8 years) Lieutenant-Colonel
Commander Engineer Commander Fleet Surgeon Fleet Paymaster Lieutenant-Colonel, but junior of that rank
Lieutenant (over 8 years) Engineer Lieutenant (over 8 years) Staff Surgeon Staff Paymaster Major
Lieutenant (under 8 years Engineer-Lieutenant (under 8 years) Surgeon Paymaster/Assistant Paymaster (over 4 years) Captain
Sub Lieutenant Engineer Sub Lieutenant Assistant Paymaster (under 4 years) Lieutenant
Chief Gunner Chief Artificer Engineer Second Lieutenant
Chief Boatswain
Chief Signal Boatswain
Gunner, Boatswain. Artificer Engineer Conductors of Supplies
Signal Boatswain Conductors of Stores
Midshipman Clerk As above (but junior of these ranks)
Naval Cadet Assistant Clerk

TABLE II – Changes in Engineer Officers’ ranks in the Royal Navy


Pre 1899 1899 1903 New Fisher entry 1905
Vice-Admiral Engineer-in-Chief (if of V-A status) Vice-Admiral (E) The first V-A(E) was promoted in 1947
Rear-Admiral Chief Inspector of Machinery As pre 1899 Engineer Rear-Admiral Rear-Admiral (E) The first R-A(E) was promoted in 1942
Captain (over 3 years) Inspector of Machinery (over 8 years) As pre 1899 Engineer Captain (over 8 years) Captain (E) (over 3 years
Captain (under 3 years) Inspector of Machinery (under 8 years) As pre 1899 Engineer Captain (under 8 years) Captain (E) (under 3 years)
Commander Fleet Engineer As pre 1899 Engineer Commander Commander (E)
Lieutenant (over 8 years) Staff Engineer Chief Engineer Engineer Lieutenant (over 8 years) Lieutenant (E)
Chief Engineer (ranked with, but after Lieutenants (over 8 years)
Lieutenant (under 8 years Engineer (over 6 years) Engineer Engineer Lieutenant Lieutenant (E)
Engineer (under 6 years) ranked with but after Lieutenants (under 8) (under 8 years)
Sub Lieutenant Assistant Engineer Assistant Engineer (i.e., the rank of Staff Engineer was abolished and the rank of Chief Engineer was given more relative seniority) Engineer Sub Lieutenant Sub Lieutenant (E)


At the same time, Fisher introduced a new scheme of entry for officers, by which seamen and engineers would enter together as boys of 12 to 13 years, and be trained together for some years, both receiving some initial training in engineering. The engineers would then be separated for more advanced technical training, becoming virtually a specialisation like gunnery, torpedo and navigation specialists. The future, current and past titles of Engineer Officers are shown in Table II. It should be noted that since the new type of engineer officer would not be ready to serve afloat till 1910, the old system had to continue for some years to bridge the gap. (The last of the old-type engineer officers to reach flag rank retired in about 1947.)

Fisher had hoped to include Royal Marine officers in his common entry, but this did not come off, nor did his hope that entry at 12-13 would obviate the need for Instructor Officers at sea.

Naval officers had received their initial training in an old hulk since 1857: first at Portsmouth in HMS Illustrious, then in the Britannia, successively at Portsmouth, then Portland, and finally in the river Dart. (Doctor Johnson might have been interested by the fact that subordinate naval officers were accommodated in hulks some fifty years after they were abolished for convicts, but it may be doubted if this had any special significance except economy.) By the late 1890s, it had been decided, for reasons which included health, to replace the old ship with a purpose-built college ashore, and the foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII in 1902. (Kipling had visited the old Britannia during the short time he lived at Torquay in 1896.) The building was designed to hold two years-worth of cadets, but Fisher’s new scheme of officer training required a four year course, so somewhere else had to be found in short order to hold the first two years’ entries. King Edward came to the rescue, offering space at Osborne, his mother’s house: and the Royal Naval College Osborne was hastily constructed around the former stable block.

The 1905 Navy List shows a few Staff Captains and one or two Staff Commanders, survivors of the old ‘Navigating Branch’ – see the note on ‘Judson and the Empire’, page 332, line 16. It will be recalled that in the same tale (see note to page 333, line 7) Kipling confused one of these with the Admiral’s Secretary.

A Supplementary List included the names of some 150 Lieutenants who had been transferred from the Royal Naval Reserve to meet the needs of the expanding fleet. The two batches were unkindly known as “the Hungry Hundred” and “the Famished Fifty”, a jibe direct mainly at the terms of service offered them which, it was implied were so meagre that only the destitute would accept them. Among these was one Lieutenant G.B. Powell, whom Kipling had known in the Pelorus (see A Fleet in Being, note on Chapter I, Page 1, lines 12-14) and whom Captain Bayly took with him in the Aurora to the China station in 1899. Service ashore with the Naval Brigade in the Boxer Rebellion qualified him for promotion to Commander, and he retired as a rear-admiral after a career in which merit and good fortune were happily combined.
Warrant Officers

King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions specifically stated that “officers” included “commissioned officers, warrant officers and subordinate officers”, but as Kipling remarked “Herman Melville has it all in White Jacket” (The Fringes of the Fleet, page 52), and what Melville wrote there about warrant officers in the United States Navy was that:

Though these worthies sport long coats and wear the anchor button, yet, in the estimation of the wardroom officers, they are not, technically speaking, rated gentlemen. The first lieutenant, chaplain or surgeon for example would never dream of inviting them to dinner.

Marryatt’s Mr Chucks and others since had sadly noted this.

Some idea of the remarkable status of naval Warrant Officers is given by Table I, above, which shows that the senior grade (Chief Gunner, Chief Boatswain, etc.) ranked with a Second Lieutenant in the Army though the latter would normally be many years younger, with a different social background and very different prospects, while the newly-made Gunner or Boatswain ranked with but before Master Gunners and Conductors of Stores or Supplies.

They were indubitably officers and Kipling should not have brigaded them with Petty Officers, as he did on many occasions. In extenuation, it may be pointed out that they then messed by themselves and not in the wardroom, and that on promotion to warrant rank they were not given a stripe on their sleeve, but only the three buttons now worn by Chief Petty Officers. After ten years’ service, they were awarded one thin stripe, and on becoming Chief, which normally took nearly another ten years, this was exchanged for a thick stripe, in both cases in addition to the three buttons, which commissioned officers had once worn but discarded in 1891.

In other respects, too, the Admiralty were not always helpful in maintaining their prestige. For example, when warrant rank was opened to engine-room artificers in 1897, the title “Artificer Engineer” was adopted, which to most laymen sounded akin to but less grand than Chief Engine-Room Artificer who, in fact, as a Chief Petty Officer, was still a rating, and so junior to the Artificer Engineer.

Warrant rank was not attained in the ordinary course through length of service, but required a qualifying examination, including both professional and educational tests, to be passed before the candidate was 35. A seaman also needed seven years’ service at sea, technical and executive ability, and a high standard of seamanship and continuous good conduct. He was usually but not invariably a petty officer when he qualified.

Promotion to the senior rank of ‘Chief Gunner/Boatswain/Carpenter’, etc. was by selection, based largely on seniority plus an adequate standard of efficiency and conduct. Paradoxically, the rank carried a commission, but one issued by the Admiralty and not the Monarch, and the Chiefs were always understood to be included under the heading of ‘warrant officers’.

The regulations provided for promotion to Lieutenant for gallantry or exceptionally good service, but very few indeed were so favoured. Kipling met one of them during the South African War when, during a period of Boer interference with railway services, the Naval Commander-in-Chief, Sir Arthur Moore allowed him to take passage up the coast in Torpedo Boat No. 60, commanded by T.J.S. Lyne, a Gunner who had formerly been Sir Arthur’s Coxwain, when he was captain of the old Dreadnought, some ten years earlier. Not long after this, in early 1902, T.B. 60’s propeller dropped off and she would most certainly have been wrecked on a most inhospitable coast if Lyne had not contrived to sail her to Saldhana Bay under jury rig – “bonnets in a needlecase”, perhaps (see ‘The Bonds of Discipline’, page 63, line 20). He was rewarded by promotion to Lieutenant and eventually, after a notable career, retired as a Captain, the first former Boy Seaman to reach that rank in the 20th century, and became in due course Rear-Admiral (retired) Sir Thomas Lyne, K.C.V.O., C.B., D.S.O..

He was, of course, an exceptional case, and warrant officers in general could reasonably complain that whereas the boatswain, gunner and carpenter had been among the first few permanent officers in the Navy, they had long been outstripped by ‘parvenus’ like the purser, surgeon and others, and now by the engineer officers who in 1837 had been ranked with, but after, the carpenter. They could further claim that with a number of warrant officers capable of passing for lieutenant, and in some cases appointed in lieu of one, it was unfair to transfer officers from the R.N.R. over their heads.

Fisher, who had some democratic ideas (to which he would no doubt have given a freer rein had he not had to ask Government for money for shipbuilding) took an early opportunity of promoting a number of warrant officers to lieutenant. It was at least the beginning of an overdue evolutionary process. In 2009, the process is complete: all officers in the Royal Navy, however they have entered (after university, after school, from the lower deck by early selection, or from the lower deck as a senior rating (the old warrant officer, in effect)) are on a common list, and are in all respects equal as regards their opportunity for further promotion. However, lest any reader should say ‘But surely there are Warrant Officers in the Navy today’, the reply is ‘Yes, there are; their title was reintroduced in 1970: but they are today the equivalent of their counterparts in the Army and RAF’: they remain ratings, and it will be remembered that we remarked above that an old-fashioned warrant officer was an officer.

A German officer who made a Teutonically thorough study of the Royal navy at the turn of the 19th/20th century wrote of its warrant officers:

They exercise great influence on the smooth and rapid working of the service, on the cleanliness and trimness of the ship, on the efficiency of the guns, on the orderliness of life on board, etc. The careful management of the inventories and stores in their charge requires constant vigilance … They nay well be called The BACKBONE OF THE INNER SERVICE ON BOARD SHIP.

The capitals are Captain Stensel’s and are not undeserved.

After more than a century spent in discussing better ways of manning the fleet in wartime, impressment of seamen in its old form was abandoned about ten years before the Crimean War. There was difficulty in finding enough men even for that limited contest, and some trial and error followed before the Navy settled down to a scheme based mainly upon early entry for “continuous service”, plus arrangement for reserves in emergency.

Seamen Boys entered between 15 and 16½ for 12 years’ service starting at the age of 18. Re-engagement for a further ten years was needed to qualify for a pension. A certain number of adults were entered on shorter engagements, but with a liability to be called up during a subsequent period in the Fleet Reserve.

The ORG continued:

The system of advancement, including both substantive and non-substantive ratings, has been discussed in our notes of “Their Lawful Occasions” (Page 116, line 1).

We felt that the notes provided by the ORG were a bit esoteric, and so simplified them. But in this more general piece, it is not inappropriate to give a bit more detail, particularly since Pyecroft, in “Their Lawful Occasions”, on that page, rattles off a series of incomprehensible names and initials.

A sailor entered as a Boy 2nd class at the age of 15½; at the age of 16½ he became a Boy 1st class. Boy Niven (“Mrs. Bathurst”) was a Boy Seaman. At the age of 17½ he was rated Ordinary Seaman – in naval shorthand OD, or Ord. At the age of 18, he became eligible to be rated Able Seaman (AB): the sole criteria were his age, and his Captain’s assessment of his ability, based on what he was told by the man’s divisional officer, who in turn would have consulted his divisional petty officer (still known by his old title of, e.g., Captain of the Foretop). He was now an Able Seaman, Trained Man; cf. “’Op”, Yeoman of Signals, HMS Archimandrite (“The Bonds of Discipline” in Traffics and Discoveries) who had, it appears, been a “trained man in a stinkin’ gunboat up the Saigon river”.

An Able Seaman wore no badge of rank on his left sleeve, but if his conduct remained Very Good (an assessment made annually, based on any naval ‘crimes’ he may have committed) he would be awarded Good Conduct Badges at four-yearly intervals, and a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal after a total of fifteen years. His badges were indicated by chevrons, like a sergeant’s, on his left sleeve. If he had no ambition, he could remain an AB for the rest of his service (becoming a man of enormous experience in the eyes of the teenage Boys and Ords.). His pension, if he had his LS&GC Medal, would be 8s.2d. (41p) per week. When it is considered that a rural cottage or a small terraced house in a town could be rented for less than 5s a week, he was comparatively well-off – certainly in old age, before the coming of the Lloyd George pension in 1909.

Having become an AB, if he had ambition, and the necessary qualities of leadership, he could take an exam in his ship, and pass for Leading Hand, probably at about the age of 21-22. His name would be placed on a roster in the drafting office of his home division (Chatham, Portsmouth or Devonport) and he would be advanced to the higher rating when a vacancy occurred, conditional, as always, on his captain’s approval. A similar process occurred in due course for advancement to Petty Officer. In the years before World War I, with an expanding navy, advancement was comparatively rapid, so a man could be a Leading Seaman at 22 and a Petty Officer at 25-26. Promotion to Chief Petty Officer was achieved on a basis of seniority (and, as always, Captain’s recommendation). So a man might complete his career at the age of 40, as a Chief Petty Officer, and his pension then would be, assuming that he had spent ten years as a petty officer, and five years as a chief petty officer, 12s 6d. per week.

A leading seaman was still dressed in ‘square-rig’ (the traditional sailor’s uniform, introduced in 1857, whose bell-bottomed trousers were creased, in reverse, at the side) and wore a badge on his left sleeve, above any good conduct badges, of a single foul anchor: he was consequently known, informally, as a ‘killick’ (a ‘killick’ was an anchor). One of his major duties was to act as the Leading Hand in charge of an individual mess: as such he would exercise a great deal of influence on the younger sailors – he and the ‘badgemen’, or ‘stripeys’, provided a steadying influence on the teen-age lads who formed the majority of the ship’s company. (The average age of a ship’s company has barely changed in 500 years – it is about 21.) There is a sailor’s song, to be sung to the tune of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’:

Oh, I couldn’t care less for the kellick of the mess,
Or the buffer and his working party,
I’m off ashore at half-past four:
I’m Jack-my-bleedin’-hearty.

Petty Officers wore ‘fore-and-aft’ rig (trousers creased front and back, normally, with a jacket and peaked cap), and a badge of two crossed anchors: they messed separately. Chief Petty Officers were a similar uniform, but in place of the two crossed anchors, they wore three gilt buttons on the cuff of each sleeve. They, too, messed separately. And whereas ordinary sailors performed all the chores in their mess (as directed by the leading hand), Petty Officers and Chief Petty officers had a messman to do them.

While he was advancing up the ladder of military command, he was, at a different pace, advancing in his specialist qualification. In Pyecroft’s case, he was a Torpedoman. The Torpedo branch had been initiated by Jackie Fisher in 1872, and was responsible not only for torpedoes, but for all things electrical – initially only lighting and searchlights, but by 1905 including ventilation fans, etc. – and mines. In 1905, there were only two seaman sub-specialisations, Gunnery and Torpedo, and there were three degrees in each: the basic qualification was Seaman Gunner, or Seaman Torpedoman: the next step up was Leading Torpedo Operator (LTO), or, in the Gunnery branch, a further subdivision into Gunlayer 2nd class, or Quarter’s Armourer 2nd class: at the top of the tree was the Torpedo Instructor (TI) or Captain of the Gun 1st class. In ‘Their Lawful Occasions’, Pyecroft suggests he is both LTO and TI (to use another Gilbertian analogy, he was like Poo-ba in ‘The Mikado’, Lord High Everything Else).

He wore the badge of his sub-specialist qualification on his right arm, or, when he became a chief petty officer, on both lapels of his jacket.

The ORG remarked that, in ‘Their Lawful Occasions’ – the most truly naval of all Kipling’s navy-based tales – Kipling tells how “Pyecroft and Morgan, standing easy, talked together of the King’s Service as reformers and revolutionists” (Page 129, lines 2-4). In our notes on that sentence we remarked:

The era 1900-1910, was indeed one of reform in the Royal Navy, with Admiral Sir John Fisher leading. When this tale was written, he had scarcely got into his stride. He had, as we have seen remarked elsewhere, given the Mediterranean Fleet a good shake-up, and now, as Second Sea Lord, he was about to start on officers’ training and an improvement of the sailor’s lot, but the dust did not really start to fly until he became First Sea Lord in 1904.

It is unlikely that Pyecroft and Morgan, as ratings, would have discussed what ‘Jackie’ might do in strategic, material and operational terms. And they might have been dubious about his lower deck reforms – the British sailor, then particularly, but still to a degree, is a conservative (small ‘c’) person. But Fisher was prescient: forty years earlier, life on the lower deck, though uncomfortable to our 21st century eyes, was as good as, and better than, much comparable employment. The sailor got paid and fed regularly: the diet, though monotonous, was nourishing and plentiful (it has been calculated that the ration-scale gave 3000 calories per day): his job was secure: and at the end of 20 years service, he received a non-contributory pension: all this in the 1860s.

But by the end of the century, as trade unions began to make their mark, and labour unrest became a major feature of the British industrial scene, the Services had to ensure that the ‘taint’ did not spread to Britain’s ‘sure shield’. So Fisher’s reforms were timely, and Kipling may have been reflecting the first stirrings which he might have heard in 1897 and 1898.”

It must be acknowledged that the Navy was somewhat slow in keeping pace with both the standard of comfort and the increasingly liberal spirit of the time. As regards the former, this was certainly true by the standards of middle-class Edwardians, but it reflected pretty accurately the standard of living (though probably not the aspirations) of the class from which sailors were drawn: and it was certainly better than life in a slum tenement. However, the Navy was emphatically not democratic: for very good reasons when at sea, instant obedience was demanded of every man, from the Captain downwards: this rubbed off, for less good reasons, when in harbour. So there was no difference between the alacrity with which you obeyed an order to “let go that lashing – now!” and “Right, I want you to scrub out that corner of the mess, it hasn’t been done for weeks”. One primary difficulty in making improvements was, as ever, financial, accentuated by the need to meet the German challenge. (’Twas ever thus! Samuel Pepys, two and a quarter centuries earlier, said words to the effect that, in peace-time, the life of a virtuous sea-officer was one continuous battle against the Lords of the Treasury.)

A second difficulty, so far as advancement to commissioned rank was concerned, was that until the general standard of education in the country advanced, few candidates from the lower deck could hope to compete with youths of their own age who had been privately educated, in meeting the dual demands of the Navy for both adequate learning and power of leadership (the former was particularly necessary in the new, highly technical, navy of the era).

What the country was prepared to grant towards general welfare is shown by the fact that although in 1890, after trial of a pilot scheme in Devonport, it was agreed that the increasingly uncomfortable and insanitary accommodation in the Home ports should be replaced by barracks ashore, allocation of funds for bricks and mortar was so limited that not until 1903 could men from the old hulk Duke of Wellington, one of the last screw first-rates, march into the Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth: the barracks at Chatham were not completed until 1909.

The tempo of Fisher’s reforms thus was limited by competing factors and circumstances generally, but by 1905 he had made an advance on a broad front that extended to comfort, diet, pay and allowances and greater equality of opportunity. Progress was sometimes uneven, and was occasionally shadowed by the stokers’ ‘mutiny’ in Portsmouth Barracks incidentally alluded to in ‘The Horse Marines’ (it was something of a storm in a teacup, rather than a deep-seated, deeply-felt, serious grievance). But the Service was geared to absorb a few setbacks and they were soon lost in the general advance. It was not British discipline that cracked under the strain in 1914-18.


©Alastair Wilson and P W Brock 2009 All rights reserved