|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
262 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY
ON Christmas Day, 1902, the Navy received a Christmas-box from the Admiralty, in the shape of a new scheme for the entry and training of naval officers. It was known as the Selborne-Fisher Scheme, though it was entirely the work of Vice-Admiral Sir John Fisher, who came home from the Mediterranean with the scheme in his pocket, took his seat at the Admiralty as Second Sea Lord, and - largely assisted by The Times newspaper - carried the scheme into law, in spite of all opposition. This was a really wonderful coup on the part of the author of the scheme.
Lord Selborne was merely a successful politician, who knew no more about the Navy than thousands of other landsmen; but, in accordance with our general (though not invariable) policy of placing the management of the British Navy in the hands of men who know nothing about it, he found himself in the proud position of First Lord of the Admiralty. A young and energetic politician, full of the best intentions, he no doubt cherished the ambition of handing down his name to posterity as a great naval reformer; which ambition, if it had been fulfilled, would have rivalled the lustre which shines around the memory of the distinguished lawyer, his father, who founded the title. As matters turned out, however, he will only be remembered as the figure-head of a great naval blunder; for the Selborne
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY 263
Fisher Scheme for the entry and training of naval officers has already been proved to be quite unworkable in its original form, and has been altered and patched and twisted about beyond all recognition, and will probably have to undergo a good many more repairs, before it is freed from the numerous fundamental errors which it originally contained.
The scheme was launched with a great flourish of trumpets, a quite dramatic prologue, and advertising puffs in the newspapers, as seductive and as frothy as if it had been a brand-new soap.
In his original memorandum, which occupied four and a half columns of The Times, Lord Selborne said:
" These changes are far-reaching and in some respect sweeping, but the scheme which necessitates them is framed in pursuance of a definite policy, is planned on clear lines, as designed to deal with the problem as a whole, and is throughout conceived in a spirit of veneration for all that is best and highest in the traditions of the Service."
The scheme was no doubt far-reaching and sweeping, but, so far from showing veneration for the traditions of the Service, it violated many of these in the most barefaced manner.
If we drop for the moment the question of whether the scheme was intrinsically good or bad, it is manifestly absurd to say that " far-reaching " and " sweeping " changes in the regulations for entering and training the future officers of the Navy could at the same time show veneration for the traditions of the Service. Exactly the opposite was the case.
For instance, the Royal Marines have for more than a century been considered as a branch, and a very important branch, of the Navy; yet this loyal and long
264 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
suffering corps was coolly told that they were no longer to have their own officers, but that the new Jack-of-all-trades prodigy, who was to be produced by the new scheme, the man who was to be one-third seaman, one-third engineer, and one-third soldier, was to be lent to the corps for a year or two, to take a turn at soldiering, and then go back to being a seaman or an engineer, while another seaman or engineer took his place, and so on. This game of general-post was called interchangeability - a fine long word - and it was supposed to be one of the cleverest and most far-sighted provisions of the Selborne-Fisher Scheme, as it would enable everybody to do everybody else's work. And this at a time when specialization, in all professions, was found to be necessary in order to insure the highest efficiency
" The Marines were heart-broken," as Lord Goschen (a former First Lord) declared in the House of Lords. And well they might be; for it was probably the most gratuitous and undeserved insult that has ever been offered to a highly disciplined and eminently efficient body of troops, even by distinguished reformers. Moreover, the plan was seen to be impossible, not to say absurd, and the lists were once more opened for the direct entry of Marine officers, to be trained at their own depot, in accordance with the time-honoured and illustrious traditions of the corps.
This was amongst the first of the fundamental alterations which were found to be necessary in the scheme which had been " framed in pursuance of a definite policy, planned on clear lines," and which was " conceived in a spirit of veneration for all that is best and highest in the traditions of the Service." Especially the traditions of the Royal Marine branch of the Service.
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY 265
It does seem almost incredible that even the most enthusiastic reformers should have been so blind, or so ignorant of human nature and of that most commanding sentiment we call esprit de corps, as to imagine that any body of troops could maintain its discipline; without its own officers.
As the direct re-entry of Marine officers disposed of one of the most glaring of the absurdities of the Selborne-Fisher Scheme, interest became concentrated upon the question of whether there was or was not to be a complete amalgamation of the Executives and the Engineer, or whether they were to branch off at the age of nineteen or twenty and remain separate for the rest of their careers. The common entry, which Lord Selborne claimed to be the most fascinating and peace-making feature of the scheme, proved to be one of the greatest stumbling-blocks, and the feature most likely to give. rise to heart-burning and jealousy. For whereas one of the principal fuglemen and advertisers of the scheme (my old friend J. R. Thursfield, leader-writer and naval critic for The Times) drew a charming and quite dramatic picture of the Chief Engineer rushing up the engineroom ladder just in the nick of time to take command of the fleet and win another Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Selborne himself remained in a cloud of doubt as to whether Nelson would or would not be found in the engine-room at the last minute. For when an anxious father wrote to him to ask whether, if his son took to the engineer line, he would be able to rise to the command of a ship or squadron, he received the following reply, which was also published in The Times of January 12th, 1903 - just eighteen days after the launch of the. scheme.
266 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
" Dear Mr.______,
" In reply to the inquiries you have made, I have to say that the words in my memorandum, to the effect that the division of the Sub-Lieutenants into the three branches - Executive, Engineer, and Royal Marine - shall be definite and final, mean exactly what they say as regards the intention of the present Board. The point could not be left doubtful. Either there will be interchangeability hereafter or there will not. Either an engineer officer, for instance, will be able to rise to the command of a ship or squadron, or he will not."
Even if the inquiring father was as ignorant of naval matters as Lord Selborne himself, it is highly probable that he could have informed his lordship that his son either would or would not be able to rise to the command of a ship or squadron; and when he was informed in the very same letter that the point could not be left doubtful, and that the words in the original memorandum " mean exactly what they say," he must have had a shrewd suspicion that Lord Selborne was chaffing him, or that he was reading " Alice in Wonderland."
Yet the letter was not published in Punch, but in The Times.
Further muddling and uncertainty then arose around the question of whether the parents or guardians of the little boys who were to be given nominations would promise for them that, when they arrived at years of discretion, they would go into whichever of the three lines was most in need of recruits.
At first it was announced that, in the distribution of nominations by the Admiralty, " preference would be given " to those who promised for general service. Then, a little later on, it was given out that only those who promised for general service would be given nominations.
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY 267
In his original memorandum Lord Selborne stated that, " although it is proposed to make the division into the various branches definite and final, ever endeavour will be made to provide those who enter the Engineer branch with opportunities equal to those of the Executive branch, including the same opportunity of rising to Flag rank."
The words " every endeavour " sounded strange to naval ears, which are more accustomed to receive definite orders than to be blarneyed with " every endeavours." But no doubt it was this clause in the memorandum that inspired my friend Mr. Thursfield to draw that fascinating and dramatic picture of Nelson skipping up the engine-room ladder, just in time to take command of the fleet and win a great naval battle.
The original memorandum stated that -
" When the young officers, aged nineteen to twenty, have passed out of the college at Portsmouth, and have gained their classification in the different subjects of the examination, their careers for the first time will begin to diverge, and they will be posted to the Executive or to the Engineer branch of the Navy, or to the Royal Marines. As far as possible each officer will be allowed to choose which branch he will join, but this must be subject to the proviso that all branches are satisfactorily filled."
The memorandum then went on to say that no Sub-Lieutenant would " be compelled to join a branch for which he did not enter as a boy when applying for a nomination "; but, as no nominations were to be given to any boys whose parents or guardians did not enter them for general service, the above promise could only be regarded as another exhibition of Lord Selborne's humour.
268 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
It was obvious that the framers of the famous memorandum foresaw that the great majority of the Sub-Lieutenants would try to get posted to the Executive branch. A promise of extra pay was therefore offered as a bribe to those who volunteered to be Engineers; and this, backed by the " every endeavour " clause, was expected to produce enough volunteers for that branch. But in case it did not prove to be a sufficient inducement, the Admiralty reserved to themselves the power (as if anyone could dispute their power!) of seeing that all three branches were furnished with " a due proportion of the most capable officers."
One of the critics of the scheme then pointed out that if all the Sub-Lieutenants, or even a majority, who got first-class certificates at the final examination, selected the Executive branch - an event which seemed at least possible, if not probable - the Admiralty would find themselves in the position of being obliged to drive some of these " most capable officers " into the Engineers or the Marines, against their will, whilst some of the duffers who got second or third class certificates would be drafted into the popular branch. For no one who knows anything about the Navy can doubt for a moment that nine out of ten young men who had selected the sea-service for a career would rather keep watch on the bridge than in the engine-room - even with the chance of scrambling up the iron ladder at the last minute to take command of the fleet.
The above is only one specimen of the numerous muddles and inconsistencies with which the famous scheme abounded, sinning as it did against light, against all experience, and against " veneration for all that is best and highest in the traditions of the Service " - to use Lord Selborne's own words.
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY 269
The scheme was said to be democratic and in accordance with the Liberal spirit of the age. It was, however, exactly the contrary, as it was a return to pure patronage, undiluted by any competitive examination. The reduction of the age from fourteen and a half - fifteen and a half to twelve - thirteen rendered a competitive examination impracticable: everybody was agreed on this point. But there was no good reason for altering the age. Lord Selborne, indeed, claimed that twelve to thirteen was the age at which boys usually left their private schools; but he was promptly contradicted by a committee of head-masters of these schools, who said it was not, but that, on the contrary, it was a year or two too young, and that it upset all their arrangements. Another blunder.
There can be no doubt that one of the principal - though unavowed - reasons for the great amalgamation scheme was the desire to put a stop to an agitation which had been going on for some years amongst a small, noisy, discontented section of the naval Engineers, who wanted executive rank, titles, the curl on the sleeve, and the " privilege " of punishing their own men, without bringing them before the Captain or Commander. This agitation was backed up, if not originated, by the " trade " on shore - mainly by the Society of North-East Coast Engineers, men who had nothing whatever to do with the Royal Navy, but who thought they saw a chance of aggrandizing the importance of their own business by stirring up discontent amongst the junior Engineer officers. The agitators threatened to boycott the Navy and stop the entry of Engineers, unless the Admiralty complied with their demands. The new scheme therefore was meant to be a clever counterstroke aimed at the " trade." In other words, it was
270 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
intended to " dish " the Engineers, and at the same time as a by-product, to " dish " the Marines. Nobody could understand why the most perfectly disciplined, the most loyal, and, without exaggeration, the most ubiquitous and most useful corps in the service of the Crown were to be dished. Happily for the Country and for the Navy, that part of the scheme completely failed; but, on the other hand, the Engineers have been dished, most effectually dished: for the whole of that social class which formerly supplied the Navy with Engineers, and, be it noted, the best Engineers in the world, is now absolutely debarred from getting into the Navy at all! The expense of Osborne and Dartmouth is too great for them. So the upshot of it all is that the boycotters and agitators have been hoist with their own petard.
So far from the new scheme being in accordance with the spirit of the age, it is a retrograde step. So far from spreading the net wider, in order to catch latent talent in a less restricted social class, we have returned to undiluted patronage and money.
It would be mere affectation to pretend that our incomparable naval Engineers were recruited from the same social class as the Executives. They were not; and no one who knows anything about the Navy could suggest that they were. Oh, but we intend to abolish classes altogether, say the new-schemers. Nonsense ! You might just as well start a scheme to abolish the tides or the change of the seasons.
The backers of the Selborne-Fisher Scheme claimed that the United States had already adopted a scheme for amalgamating their Executives and Engineers, and had found it a great success. This was an uncommonly bad shot on the part of the " reformers."
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY 271
The measure of the success may be judged by the following, which appeared in the Army and Navy Register, Washington, U.S.A.:
" British Adoption of Our Mistake " (in large headlines). " We can afford to read, with a complacency born of bitter experience, the discussion now going on in British Service papers, on the proposition to establish in the English Navy a system of all-round education which shall make the naval officer of the future an ‘executive engineer.' In the heyday of our scheme of line and engineer amalgamation we used to call that officer a ‘fighting engineer.' The difference in title, however, is a small matter. The effect is the same whether the adjective is administrative or belligerent in its quality, and probably, if the British plan is realized, there will some day be the same situation in that service as to-day offers its growing menace to ours."
And then, after describing our proposed method of training under the new scheme, the Army and Navy Register continues:
" It seems strange to talk of specializing when an officer must be capable of discharging the multifarious duties, and imparting a knowledge of them to other, such as is outlined by the projectors of this scheme.
There is no speciality about it. It is quite the contrary, and the British will find that no man can be trained to thoroughness in such variety of distinctly important tasks. The idea is an alluring one, that of giving a naval officer a value to his services not confined to one branch; but the best results must continue to be achieved by those whose business it has been to give thought and. study and research along definite and prescribed lines . . . . The plan of the British is impractical, just as our plan has been found impractical . . . . The attractive feature of the plan is that engineer officers will have executive rank . . . . The British Service is just about taking the step which this country now realizes, after several years' trial, to have been a well-nigh fatal mistake."
272 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
No doubt the Yankees will muddle through somehow, and provide themselves with competent Engineers and competent Executives; but they will not be the same individuals.
We also shall no doubt muddle through, when the new scheme has been finally altered out of all recognition; but it would have saved a good deal of trouble and much blundering if our Admiralty had not been too proud to find out what public opinion in the United States thought of the Jack-of-all-trades business, before committing this country to such a wild experiment.
When it became obvious the scheme was not working quite so smoothly as its authors expected, the Admiralty appointed a committee, presided over by a distinguished Admiral, to inquire into the subject. The committee was not instructed to report whether the scheme was fundamentally good, bad, or indifferent, but rather to draw a red-herring across the scent, cover up the track of some of the worst blunders, and, in short, to try and make the best of a bad job.
And now I think I have said enough about the Selborne-Fisher Scheme for the entry and training of naval officers. No doubt the British Navy of the future will be-somehow-provided with first-rate Captains and first-rate Chief-Engineers. The post of one will be on the bridge, the post of the other will be in the engineroom; and the two " first-rates " will not be combined in the same man.
It will certainly require skilful and very highly trained Engineers to manage the machinery of our future warships, and it will not be of very much consequence what we call them, so long as they know their job and stick to it, devoting the whole of their time and all their natural resources towards keeping their professional
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY 273
knowledge abreast of all the latest developments of engineering science; bearing in mind that these are becoming rapidly more and more complex day by day, for the inventive fiend never sleeps.
If the Engineers object to be called " Engineers," there seems to be no sufficient reason why they should not be called " Bishops " and " Archbishops," or even " Cardinals," as none of these latter go to sea in our ships; but to call them " Captains " and " Admirals," will be apt to lead to confusion. And it is regrettable that any body of men should be ashamed of the proper titles attached to their profession.
I fought tooth and nail against the Selborne-Fisher Scheme, as I had an absolute right to do whilst on half-pay. I wrote many letters to the Press and several articles in the popular magazines, exposing its inconsistencies and its distinctly retrograde tendency; and for my temerity in criticizing the Admiralty I was made to pay dearly, for out of my ten years on the active Flag list of the Navy I was only employed for two years, and that in a subordinate position, as second in command of the China Station; and I passed right through the Vice-Admiral's list without hoisting my flag.
It is no mere fancy of mine that I was deliberately punished by the Admiralty for criticizing their pet scheme; for when I had been passed over several times as a Vice-Admiral, and appointments, to which I had a better claim, were given to my juniors, my old friend Lord Clanwilliam - who was then an Admiral of the Fleet - went to the Admiralty to try and find out why I was being thus treated. But he could get no change out of them as he expressed it, except that they possessed the right of appointing whom they thought. proper, without giving their reasons, an indisputable
274 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
fact which nobody would question. My dear old chief was, however, told at the same time, by one of the Secretaries, that the First Lord and First Sea Lord had together " sworn a solemn oath " that I should never be employed again, so long as they remained in power, as I had dared to criticize their scheme.
Lord Clanwilliam told me the above himself, and I also have it in his own handwriting, in a letter which he wrote me immediately after his visit to the Admiralty - a visit which, I need scarcely say, he paid on his own initiative, and without telling me of his intention. He was greatly annoyed; but " they have the power," said he, " and they intend to use it. I can do nothing more in the matter; though, of course, you were entirely within your rights in criticizing the scheme, and you merely expressed what most of us think on the subject."
I have had the misfortune to be " agin the Guverment " on two occasions. The other was when I took part in the agitation that led directly to the Naval Defence Act of 1889 - an Act already alluded to in Chapter XII., and one which, I do not doubt, the historian of the future will duly record as a timely act of self-defence, which saved the British Empire ten years later. And he will also have to record how a Radical Government did their level best to wreck it, by " dropping Dreadnoughts," to please Germany, only three or four years before the outbreak of the great war - at a time when everyone, save fools, traitors, and place-hunting politicians, foresaw that the war was coming.
On both the above occasions I was punished professionally for doing what I had a perfect right to do, and what I believed it to be my duty to do, in the best interests of my country; and, moreover, I am absolutely unrepentant,
THE NEW SCHEME OF ENTRY 275
and I would act in precisely the same way again, even if I could foresee the consequences.
We are told that comparisons are odious, yet it is difficult to avoid comparing one's own case with that of someone else, who seemed to be in the same boat, and who received different treatment.
For many years I have watched with delight and admiration the career of my old friend Charlie Beresford, and I could not help comparing his treatment with my own. He also has been " agin the Guverment " on several occasions, especially in the case of the Naval Defence Act agitation; and it always seemed to me that he was much more militant and used much stronger language in his criticisms of the Admiralty than I ever used. Yet he went unscathed. The reputation he had made for, himself in the Navy, his many gallant and dashing exploits, both by land and sea, his immense and well-deserved popularity, and last - though perhaps not least - his political influence, caused the Admiralty to be afraid of him. They simply daren't touch him, and he could just say whatever he liked about the Admiralty or the Government of the day. He was absolutely fearless, though not always diplomatically discreet; but by speaking out boldly, as he did on many notable occasions, both in the House of Commons and on public platforms, he rendered to his country more substantial and important services than all the silver-tongued diplomatists, or the eloquent lawyers, who could easily prove that two Dreadnoughts added to two more Dreadnoughts made six Dreadnoughts.
Alas! I had no political influence, nor had I had the luck to see any real war service; so the Admiralty had no reason to be afraid of me - and they were not.
^ back to top ^