What Place For Naval History at the Military Table?

A very quick post this, just with a few comments on the lack of prominence of naval history in the wider military history field.

In recent decades, military history has seen a shift away from focusing extensively on the manoeuvres of battles or the decisions of generals, and instead looked to the individual soldier, sailor or airman, the agents ultimately responsible for the success or failure of battles. Whereas previous military history often recorded their participation for context, it rarely specifically analysed it in isolation. Recent military history, however, has diversified, in particular in the 21st Century, and there has been a renewed historical interest in the experience of such individuals. This renewed interest was begun by John Keegan’s seminal The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, which helped bring the topic into the mainstream of military history. However, this trend had in fact originated much earlier, and as a concept the analysis of professional combat experience can be traced backed to Ardant du Picq’s Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle, work interrupted by the author’s death in combat in 1870. After the Second World War, such an approach was revisited, most notably by S.L.A. Marshall in his pioneering study Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War.

Such renewed interest in the field of combat studies, and the well-publicised work of Marshall, has produced several excellent studies of the Second World War in recent years, most notably John Ellis’ The Sharp End of War: The Fighting Man in World War II and Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War. While the preponderance for the study of the global conflicts is understandable given their cultural significance, it is unfortunate that the focus of this field remains predominately the era of the two World Wars. Even Bourke’s 1999 An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare focused on American, Australian, and British servicemen in the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam conflict, a comparison Richard Holmes also made in Acts of War.

However, such the vast majority of such scholarship focussed on on the Army; there has been very little analysis of the other combat arenas of air and sea. In regards to naval warfare, Keegan’s The Price of Admiralty: War at Sea from Man-of-War to Submarines, Ronald Spector’s At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Warfare in the Twentieth Century and The Face of Naval Battle: The Human Experience of Modern War at Sea, edited by John Reeve and David Stevens, are the only real meaningful contributions to this field. Indeed, Reeve himself has addressed the ‘veil of invisibility’ that is drawn over the face of naval battle due to a lack of scholarship into the many factors that distinguish it from other combat environments.

Why then is this the case? As Reeve has argued,

Sailors have traditionally lived in somewhat segregated coastal communities and, beyond these, on the seas and as transients in foreign lands; in other words, they dwell on the fringes of their domestic societies. They have not always gone to war in the same massed and demonstrable way as soldiers, nor have they always re-entered society in a similar fashion. Theirs is but a partially visible and somewhat distinct sub-community and society is conditioned to their regular absence. Unsurprisingly, their stories of war penetrate society less readily. (Reeve, Introduction, pp 8-9.)

The Royal Navy may have occupied the same physical space as the rest of society, but mentally they were very different. Even when on land, they were still very much all at sea, with land-based establishments labelled as if ships. The Royal Navy’s distinct way of life, culture and language were inclusive for those in the service, but exclusive for those beyond it, who could not penetrate the mentalities and jargon easily. A night on the town was known as a “run ashore,” telling a story “spinning a dit” and a host of other idiosyncratic terms.

Furthermore, because of the nature of naval service, men served in entire naval communities at sea, far away from the civilian environment. They were not based in the community in the same way the other services were, and were often away from the UK on extensive deployments lasting up to six months. As mentioned, even shore bases were, and still are, designated as ships and have the appearance of sealed communities due to armed guard, gates and other security measures. Additionally, the submarine service have a culture of secrecy that means they naturally aren’t open with members of the public. This means such barriers between the navy and the civilian world have not been broken down in the same way as the other services.

It is, however, salutary to see the MoD encouraging a greater rapport between the Royal navy and the public – the Battle of the Atlantic memorial events, and the visits of ships to major cities, such as HMS Illustrious to London last month. The UK has a long a proud naval tradition, and it is good to see that greater efforts are being made to help the public connect with that. This is an important first step, and one that will hopefully see greater academic rigour and study of the Royal Navy’s past and future role and strategy in UK defence.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What Place For Naval History at the Military Table?

  1. I am not entirely convinced that naval history hasn’t embraced elements of the so-called cultural turn and widened its focus away from a technologically deterministic view. You only have to look at the work Brian Lavery to see that there has been some attempt to examine the the culture of the navy. Yes it is difficult due to their deployed nature to do this but I suspect if we were to dig more into the field of maritime history we would see more examination of this relationship. Laura Rowe at Exeter has done some interesting morale in the Royal Navy while Maryam Philpott has worked on the experience compared to the RFC. I also think authors such as Andrew Gordon have used broader historical conceptions to examine traditional areas.

    Now air power history…

    • An interesting point, Ross, thanks for commenting.

      What this post was meant to highlight though was not so much the lack of naval history, but more the lack of naval history from the increasing trend of writing military history from an individual perspective. This field is dominated by land warfare and the titles I quoted. You are, however, quite right to note that aviation is also neglected. It seems whereas land warfare will attract many new books on a regular basis, naval and aviation combat rely on the same sources, normally numbering in the single figures.

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