BOOK REVIEW – The Challenges of Command: The Royal Navy’s Executive Branch Officers, 1880-1919

Robert L. Davison. The Challenges of Command: The Royal Navy’s Executive Branch Officers, 1880-1919. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. 288 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History 

The Challenges of Command surveys the executive branch officer corps of the Royal Navy from the last part of the Nineteenth Century through the close of the First World War. In the process, Robert Davison focuses his analysis on the broader societal and technological setting of the period that acted upon the Royal Navy and argues that the service’s response was, in many respects, a rearguard action to protect the prerogatives of ‘X’ branch officers—those officers wearing the distinctive executive curl on their uniform stripes—from these influences. The study is solidly based on both archival research and use of the period’s secondary literature and is a welcome study filling a void in our understanding of the Royal Navy.

Davison posits that the forces of the “Second Industrial Revolution,” a term he never adequately defines, when adopted to maritime use required the navy to recruit officers and men with the requisite skills to manage the appliances of science and industry. One consequence of this was that traditional naval command based on competence in seamanship no longer served as an adequate justification for promotion, as mastery of the new technologies increasingly became essential. Concurrently, changes in the structural basis of British democracy and an expanding fleet also forced the Royal Navy to broaden the pool of those eligible to hold a commission in the service.

One response adopted by the navy was the creation of a separate engineer branch to manage the new motive power of a warship absent such offices having command responsibilities. In time, a natural tension arose as more and more of a ship’s complement became dedicated to engineering purposes moving away from the deck force that previously handled the sails. Seamanship, thus, declined as a relative naval skill. Meanwhile, another trend of the Victorian era was the rise of newer professions—a consequence of the Industrial Revolution—having a vested interest in protecting their status and that of its practitioners, of which, marine engineers were one. As the two groups of officers—executive and engineer—had different terms of engagement and differing prospects for advancement tensions naturally arose. Both came to believe that their worth was not appreciated: the former financially, the latter professionally.

The Challenges of Command relates the service’s response to the above which, ultimately, gave rise to the Selborne Scheme of common officer entry, the rise of a War College, and, shortly before the onset of the World War, a War Staff Course to produce officers for a nascent Naval Staff. The experience of war found the Royal Navy seriously lacking in strategic, operational, and tactical nous further undermining the authority of the executive branch with confidence in the senior leadership of the service so suffering that a group of younger officers organized a palace coup to replace Jellicoe as First Sea Lord and to realize a properly constituted Naval Staff. This is the work’s culminating point and it is the portion that this reviewer finds most problematic for a number of reasons.

Foremost, the performance of the Royal Navy during the war was better than what the author concedes. Its logistics planning was excellent and the readiness levels achieved by the fleet in the wake of the battle of Jutland is testimony to this fact. Secondly, the real problem facing Britain during the World War was not operational or tactical though issues of these there were, it was strategic and the author fails to address the lamentable coordination of the higher direction of war operating at the Cabinet level. This was never truly resolved during the war and British operations against Soviet Russia in the period immediately following demonstrated the machinery remained far from sound. Finally, the author makes a number of assertions where evidence is lacking to support his contention. Here, the claim that gunnery and torpedo specialists dominated the service can be cited. This may well be the case, but as there were few billets for such officers above the rank of commander, did they advance in the service because of their specialization or because they were also the most capable officers? The question is not investigated which points to one omission in the author’s methodology: his failure to systematically review the service record files of officers held at the National Archives, Kew which offers the clearest testimony why certain officers were promoted.

For all the presumed conservatism of the service during the period, what remains striking is the level of innovation readily accepted by the Royal Navy. This was more than just the acceptance of technology and encompassed changes in its educational practices, its embrace of historical method, its willingness to challenge existing shibboleths, and the adoption of newer management controls in the shape of a Naval Staff. Davison’s work is an excellent starting point for our understanding of these efforts, but it remains only a starting point.

(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)

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One Response to BOOK REVIEW – The Challenges of Command: The Royal Navy’s Executive Branch Officers, 1880-1919

  1. Simon Harley says:

    In 1943 Admiral Sir William Goodenough lamented:

    It is to be regretted that no single compilation has ever been made or account given of the changes in naval thought on entry, training and education of the naval officer since 1870.

    The fact is, one book isn’t nearly enough. Dr. Harry Dickinson’s “Educating the Navy,” was a scholarly work of deliberately narrow limits. Dr. Davison’s is a far more ambitious work in terms of scope but, if it is much the same as his doctoral thesis, then it’s based on an extremely shallow foundation of research and poor understanding of the Navy he’s studying.

    Two of his infrequent references to the War College, for example:

    “officers were regularly taken off the course in favour of sea commands and on occasion men who were not intended for further employment were sent to Portsmouth at full pay as a form of compensation to ensure that “Buggins” got his share.” He provides no evidence to back this up at all, and doesn’t define what qualifies as “regular.”

    And another example:

    “Even at the War College, which supposedly was the home of historical research, one gifted officer was dismissed as “too historical” and concerns were expressed about his suitability for command as a result.” Was the War College the home of historical research? A dubious assertion, at best. As to “too historical”, the officer (Alfred Dewar) was actually described as “too theoretical” and no such concerns were expressed.

    And if the book (well out of my price range) “is” similar to the thesis then I fear there will be no detail, let alone mention, of Senior Officers’ Gunnery and Torpedo Courses or Signals and Fleet Tactics Courses, i.e. the curriculum which, in addition to the Royal Naval War College and actual command afloat, formed the backbone of higher education for executive officers in the years leading up to the Great War.

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