Morale and Discipline in the Royal Navy in the First World War

19 Jan 19
Posted by: Robert Muddysley

There will be no shore leave until morale improves
Apocryphal main broadcast pipe by a ship’s executive officer during a 1970s group deployment

Many naval officers claim to be able to ‘feel’ the morale of a ship as soon as they board her. However, measuring morale, and especially assessing what will affect it, is far more difficult. Who, for example, would have predicted that an extended period in defence watches interspersed with long periods at action stations as happened recently would have led to two sailors withdrawing their notice because that was ‘what they joined for’ (snowflake generation, anybody?). Historical assessments of morale have proven so difficult that even those writing personal histories, let alone historians, content themselves with anodyne phrases such as ‘morale was good’, ‘morale improved’ etc etc. with no attempt at any detail.
The Royal Navy’s performance in the First World War was outstanding and made a major, indeed crucial, contribution to the allies’ victory over the central powers. The German navy was beset with mutinies from as early as 1916, surely evidence of poor morale, yet the Royal Navy had no significant episodes of ‘collective indiscipline’ throughout the war. How morale was held up throughout long periods on endless patrols and in barren anchorages speaks volumes for the navy’s management. This volume is an attempt to examine this factor.
Ignorance of naval morale is part of a widespread ignorance of maritime and naval matters in general (aka ‘sea blindness’) even among those supposedly well informed. To illustrate, a recent well received book on submarine warfare (Iain Ballantyne’s The Deadly Trade) includes the account of the loss of the Pathfinder moving at five knots when a torpedo was sighted ‘[d]esperate, contradictory orders were rung down to the engine room, asking for full astern on one prop and full ahead on the other. The seemingly nonsensical order was ignored…’ The author had spent a lot of time at sea in submarines researching his book and has written a generally well informed and informative book, but of course modern submarines have but a single ‘prop’; he had no experience of manoeuvring a multiple shaft ship at slow speed. Such a solecism, if occasional, can be ignored if the totality of the book shows a sympathy and above all understanding of the Service. Regrettably, the book being reviewed on morale and discipline while showing a lot of sympathy for, even empathy with the navy of the First World War, has so many errors of fact and comprehension that, for one familiar with the Service, it is difficult to read. Worse, some omissions and errors affect the book’s arguments. The continual use of ‘POs’ to describe senior ratings can possibly be excused, but a book that deals primarily with discipline surely should not refer to the ‘regulation branch’, and should not describe the ‘defaulters table’ as being a daily parade conducted by the Captain. The part played before the event and at the table by Officer of the Day, the Executive Officer and the man’s Divisional Officer are not even mentioned. Worse, the divisional system, surely the bedrock of naval morale, is not covered in any detail. The regulating branch did not become ‘police’ until the present century, and the other roles of the Master at Arms are not mentioned and Coxswains not at all.
Democratism [sic] is a stated theme of the book, so it is surprising that the existence and composition of the shore patrol, surely evidence of the whole ship’s involvement in its discipline, is not mentioned. (Your reviewer treasures the memory of seeing a shore patrol going ashore headed by a killick under stoppage of leave and sporting a black eye from his previous social night out).
When the modes of officer entry are examined, there are serious flaws. In a book that makes much of paternalism v democratism, there surely should be some discussion of the mates scheme, but not a single footnote, which for the first time in a century opened a route for ratings to become officers. Direct entry cadets did not ‘generally lag… behind the Osborne/Dartmouth trained officers on the promotion list’, not least because no direct entry officer (the scheme started in 1913) would have been senior enough for selective promotion during the First World War. In fact, ultimately they did statistically somewhat better than the ‘Darts’. Nor was it true to say that they were often intended for the engineering branch. That branch actually did not exist as a separate entity during the First World War and was an executive specialisation. The statement, therefore, that ‘they were not destined to assume command of a ship’ is manifestly incorrect. In fact, engineer specialists could command until the ‘great betrayal’ in 1925, and plenty of direct entry went on to command at sea as executive branch officers and as flag officers.
Rating entry is described no better; boys would not enter from the Royal Naval School, Greenwich which was a public school for the sons of officers, rather the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich which moved to Holbrook in 1933). Nor would they, on completion of training, receive ‘their first commission to join a ship’. Unmentioned is the far larger entry from HMS Ganges which had been a source of boy entrants since 1865, first in a hulk of the name and then ashore at Shotley.
Morale, the subject of the book, is multi-facetted. Unfortunately, the core of this book, detailed examination of punishment returns, is not the best and certainly not the most reliable way to assess morale. It cannot be examined through the single lens of discipline. While the author makes mention of some morale building efforts, the mobile theatre ship in Scapa Flow for example, there is little attempt to examine why and how Royal Naval morale held up during a war that saw the collapse of morale in the Hochseeflotte into indiscipline and mutiny, just proving that Royal Naval morale was ‘good’.
Regrettably, while her admiration for the navy and its structures shows through, Dr Rowe obviously has a limited knowledge of the Service and obviously did not have the services of an editor better placed. The result is that this is a bad book. It cannot be recommended to members of the Naval Review.