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The Challenges of Command: The RN’s Executive Branch Officers, 1880-1919 by Robert L Davison

As I understand it this is the published PhD thesis of Robert L Davison, a Canadian academic historian, which explores in deeply researched detail what for some may be a rather niche subject.

Davison comes to his subject as an outsider, and it shows - in some ways he never really gets under the skin of the Royal Navy, and he's not helping himself by expressing the results through the prism of bien-pensant 21st century academia, and often in the jargon of sociology, particularly in frequent (and rather unpleasant) use of 'elite' and 'elites'. He does not seem to understand the RN as a growing organism working through surprising technical challenges, nor that admirals can only be made from captains, and captains of ships are necessarily seamen by virtue of their personal responsibility for safe navigation. Also missing is an understanding of the difference between 'engineers' who actively mind and mend engines, and those who organise and manage, and that it necessarily took time for a corps of the latter to develop from the former. That there were some rough edges to the development process was only to be expected. Civilian 'engineers' ashore are an irrelevance and even in merchant ships the engineer's role is different from that of engineer officers in the RN. Another irrelevance to the RN was the fallout of discontent with army leadership after the Boer War, an issue which keeps turning up in the book like a bad penny. Davison seems at times to have a large chip on his left shoulder which is unhelpful to objective analysis, and is reflected on his remarks relating to the links between the Royal Navy and the Crown which of course only ever involve a minority of naval officers. Too often I felt that a strawman image of our officers was being used to support an 'officer corps' construct, and there seemed to be too many unsubstantiated derogatory one-liners and glib generalisations. Percy Scott, if mentioned at all, should have been given credit for his campaign to turn our missiles into hittiles. Blaming Moore rather than Beatty's slapdash signalling for us not gaining a better victory at Dogger Bank is entirely unfair.

I found the conversion from thesis to readable general history incomplete. There is an exasperating amount of repetition, space which could have been better used to give quotations from many of the references that are merely listed, unquoted, in support of statements that are therefore neither quantified nor qualified, or are used to allude to some otherwise unexplained matter - for instance there is no background information given to Sammy Collard's Portsmouth or the HMS Zealandia mutinies. Over-use of the Dewars as a reference sounded an alarm bell, considering that Corbett described their account of Jutland as 'grotesque'. Indeed another thing Davison doesn't 'get' is Jutland - he doesn't understand what a great strategic victory it was, in maintaining our command of the North Sea and ensuring the continuing of our blockade which finally brought Germany deservedly to its knees. He also doesn't acknowledge how Germany's earlier return to its (nearer) harbours (tail between legs) gave them the drop on the press as far as their mendacious immediate account of Jutland was concerned. there is altogether too much opportunist and often wrongly conceived point-scoring in this book.

These disappointments apart, I found a great deal of new and interesting information in this book; such a pity that golden currants were hidden in very large amounts of duff; the accounts of the Treasury's war against the Navy were particularly informative.

There are 22 pages of references and bibliography so I will certainly concede that the narrative has been supported by truly exhaustive research.

Publisher's invoice price is £110 but ~£90 on Amazon.
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