Free to view

New Crusade: The Royal Navy and British Navalism, 1884-1914

19 Sep 23


(De Gruyter – £93.00)

ISBN 978 3 11 067157 5

225 pages

Andrew Lambert

While the emergence of popular navalism in Britain and other major powers before 1914 is relatively well-known, and widely assessed as a significant factor in the descent into war, the management of this phenomenon has attracted relatively little attention. Bradley Cesario focuses on the interaction of naval professionals, Captains and Admirals, naval journalists and their editors, and Members of Parliament. He contends that these groups collaborated to harness public support for increased naval expenditure; a process he terms ‘directed navalism’. The navalist project was closely connected with British prestige, an essential element of strength for a seapower state with a global maritime empire, dependent on food imports coming by sea. This was not a question of real weakness – rather the need to avoid any hint of naval inadequacy in a hostile world – a form of deterrence.

The need for navalism emerged when the Second Reform Act of 1867 created a wider electorate focussed on domestic and economic issues. To survive in an era of populist politics the Navy had to employ the same promotional tools as politicians, rival services and economic actors, and work with the national press. In 1884 ‘Jacky’ Fisher masterminded a successful navalist campaign, claiming the nation was in danger, and worked with the press for the rest of his life. That precedent ensured that when the Navy felt the political leadership was not listening it would use the press to communicate directly with the nation.

Fisher’s stable of journalists, editors and experts supported his policy initiatives. Heavyweight articles by Julian Corbett explained educational reforms, the Dreadnought, international law and strategy, while journalists delivered overtly alarmist reminders of potential threat and risk. Fisher used naval alarmism to reshape the service, and influence politicians. Journalists and politicians engaged with naval issues for as long as they served their own purposes.

The key issue for this book is ‘direction’: to control the narrative the Admiralty had to harness politicians and the media. The Navy League, created in 1894 to campaign for a Naval Staff, quickly abandoned specific issues, becoming a big navy pressure group. Fisher’s skilful handling of the press helped persuade the 1906-1914 Liberal Government, initially anxious to reduce expenditure, to accept a big Navy. This success alienated political and social Conservatives, who objected to Fisher’s socially radical reform of initial officer entry, and hoped to use the Navy as a source of electoral advantage. The Imperial Maritime League was formed in 1907 to campaign for Fisher’s removal. This was obtuse. While these attacks contributed to his decision to retire in 1910 he did so having made a big Navy central to national politics, in effect no longer a political issue.

The bitter arguments generated by Fisher’s radical policies prompted a dramatic about face. When he left office the Admiralty banned journalists from annual exercises, and warships at sea, abandoning a key tool for promoting the naval message in public. This proved self-defeating – weakening the ‘Art of Admiralty’. If Fisher’s methods had been questionable, and occasionally illegal, the Navy soon discovered that a ‘Silent Service’ would not be understood or supported. At least his Navy had a Ministry dedicated to supporting the service, and significant support in the House of Commons. Fisher continued to work the press, alarming Churchill after they clashed over strategy in 1915.

The enduring legacy of Edwardian navalism was cultural. The revival of Nelson and Trafalgar at the centenary began as a Navy League project, as did the ‘Fantasia on British Sea Songs’ that concludes the Promenade Concerts and were anything but expressions of nostalgia. They served the Navy by reminding the nation of its critical role. Readers of this journal know the connection between the Navy and public support for its work must be drawn more widely than populist navalism. The Navy Records Society, founded in 1893, a year before the Navy League, brought many of the same men into Admiralty service, publishing texts that informed naval education, strategy and policy, conversations that the Naval Review would continue. This is a significant contribution to our understanding of the Royal Navy’s management of public relations in the Fisher era, a subject that remains pressing.