At the end of May 1796 a French military convoy bound for the Italian coast was badly mauled off Oneglia by a squadron of Royal Navy ships commanded by Commodore Horatio Nelson of the Agamemnon, 64 guns.
Amongst the captured siege guns and ammunition was a case of books intended for General of Artillery Napoleon Bonaparte, then besieging Mantua. The books included Prince Eugène de Savoie’s Memoires pour servir de L’Histoire of 1710, Pezay’s Histoire des campagnes du Maréchal de Maillebois en Italie 1745-1746, and Sébastien le Prestre Vauban’s De l’Attaque et de la Défense des Places of 1697, sent to the young general by the French republican Directoire to enhance his military education.
After inspecting the books Nelson wrote laconically to Admiral Sir John Jervis commanding the British fleet in the eastern Mediterranean:
“If Bonaparte is ignorant the Directory it would appear wish to instruct him. I pray God he may remain ignorant.”
The importance of learning from the past was well understood by Napoleon and by Nelson, who would shortly resume their long and deadly duel begun as young officers at the siege of Toulon in 1793. Other warriors at other times have known this too, from Alexander the Great under Aristotle’s tutelage studying Herodotus, to Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan analysing Nelson’s own strategies, to Winston Churchill reading any military history he could lay his hands on before himself writing some of the most readable examples of the genre.
I believe we have a duty to ourselves and our children, and – if it does not sound too pompous – to the free world, to learn from the mistakes of the past to prevent their re-occurrence, especially military conflict. And to learn too from the successes of our forebears, so that when conflict does occur we may be more effective at the lowest cost in human lives and suffering. This latter point was well understood by Nelson and by Thomas Cochrane, perhaps the most effective frigate commander of them all whose “butcher’s bill” was always notably low.
In western schools the proper study of history has been relegated, with much else of value, and any recognition of our great naval traditions has become politically incorrect, at best barely tolerated as just another form of entertainment competing for our attention. Britain – perhaps the most successful naval nation in recorded history and still today highly dependant on maritime trade – has become sea-blind. And that can do us no good.
The British Naval Historical Branch was founded (initially as the Naval Historical Section reporting to the Naval Staff) by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, in 1911. Its purpose was to learn from the past, from its repository of official records made by British officers of naval actions in which they took part, which would be properly analysed by specialists and annotated to produce manuals for similar future conflicts.
An unpublished history of the Admiralty and MoD Naval Staff in the author’s possession shows that the Admiralty had always seen the value of properly organised records (as much for financial auditing as for strategic analysis), and that after 1911 this was increasingly utilised for the benefit of operational strategists, reaching an apogee during the early 1940s. At this point the purpose of an enlarged NHB staff was to analyse records and write monographs for use in Staff and senior strategist training, but the Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff wrote in 1940 that:
“What’s needed, is not so much written histories of previous wars or recording of day-to-day events, as research work to the background for an appreciation of current events.”
In other words, to learn from history AND make it relevant and available to today’s commanders.
With the changes of the 1960s which swept away the British Admiralty as a separate service command, this system became far less satisfactory under the Ministry of Defence. In recent years a more enlightened approach to funding the Navy’s repository of knowledge, and a period when an enthusiastic staff were led by a service officer committed to make naval history relevant to today’s needs, brought back to life the arm of the service which Winston Churchill saw as being so critical to the success of operations as the First World War loomed.
In 2007 my Oxford students and I were treated to a talk by Captain Christopher Page Royal Navy, then Head of the Naval Historical Branch based in Her Majesty’s Naval Base at Portsmouth. He shared with us an example of how valuable such a resource could be to the modern strategist and to the people directly engaged in an arena of conflict.
The Royal Navy and Royal Marines have been involved in amphibious actions for centuries and this has produced a significant body of historical records about estuarine and riverine warfare. The second Gulf War (Iraq War 2003-2011) had become at that stage just such a conflict for the British in their main area of responsibility around Basra, close to the confluence of the Euphrates with the Tigris in the ancient marshes of Hawr’ al Hammar in southern Iraq. The Navy’s operational strategists consulted the NHB’s histories and advised the sailors and Marines in southern Iraq on effective tactics, gleaned from years of experience by their predecessors over the same ground in the 1920s, and in Malaya, Borneo and West Africa at other times.
Nelson would have approved.
© J M J Reay September 2012