In October 1912, a small group of Royal Navy and Royal Marine officers got together in Alverstoke to set about the formation of a Naval Society whose purpose was simple, ‘to promote the advancement and spreading, within the Service, of knowledge relevant to the higher aspects of the naval profession’. There were early ideas for meetings and formal debates, but the dispersed reality of naval service rapidly brought acceptance that the best medium for exchanging ideas would be through a regular journal.
Since 1913, with an interruption from 1915 to 1918 that was corrected in retrospect, a quarterly issue of the Naval Review has been distributed to subscribing members and to privileged libraries and naval authorities. There are over half a million pages of text in 106 volumes. In recent years, to the hard copy journal of record has been added a website: https://www.naval-review.com/ which includes an online discussion forum known as the ‘wardroom bar’ (and gives details on how to join).
The aim of the Society – a label abandoned in later years – was met by the journal. But perhaps a better description of what Naval Review sought to be was ‘the unofficial custodian of the Navy’s professional hopes and fears’ and in this regard it has been a remarkable forum. Although it is difficult to trace a direct relationship between the debates in its pages and policy innovation within the navy itself, many possible solutions aired within the journal came to fruition. Furthermore, as a long serving editor has noted, ‘it would be wrong to fail to record that contributors to the journal have on a number of occasions been right when their seniors have been wrong.’ A retrospective volume produced for the centenary under Peter Hore’s editorship and entitled Dreadnought to Daring sought to analyse the progress of the Review and its influence. The different chapters make fascinating reading as they range across the way that contributors have addressed strategy, operations, technology, training and leadership.
Membership has never been solely confined to officers of the Royal Navy and Marines. From the first, the new navies of the Commonwealth were included and the Editor’s license to admit any person with a legitimate interest in the naval service was always judiciously employed. In 2019, eligibility extends to serving and retired officers and ratings of all the British, Commonwealth and NATO armed forces, members of the RFA and RMAS and to civil servants whose work has involved the navy. Many academics, politicians, think tankers and maritime experts have been readily accepted over the years and admission for those with ‘demonstrable interest in the Royal Navy’ continues. It was no coincidence that the donors to the Review’s centenary appeal included ten distinguished academics, many of whom have contributed to the journal.
The ideas that circulation would be confined solely to members and that contributions could be anonymous were integral to the concept from the start. The leading founder, the then-Captain Herbert Richmond, and the first editor, Admiral William Henderson, were convinced that anonymity allowed greater freedom of discussion, but it had and has other benefits. Firstly, whether the author was junior or senior, it forced readers to judge articles on their inherent quality, not the status of their originator. This meant that senior officers could ‘fly kites’ to test the reaction to potential initiatives without it being influenced by their rank. Conversely, very junior officers could express opinions with a reduced risk of being patronised or ignored outright and without being accused of self-advertising. Finally, at a time of deep divisions within a service dominated by ‘Jacky’ Fisher and Lord Charles Beresford, anonymity would help avoid factionalism. Although far fewer articles are anonymous in the present day and allowing pen names has been questioned at intervals, would-be authors continue to have the right to anonymity. As they should, because most of the original justifications for concealing identity remain valid. The Review has evolved a thirty-year policy for maintaining that status, in part as recognition of the potential historical value of its text. It has a ten-year policy for allowing material to be cited in the public domain.
The Naval Review has always had both supporters and opponents with the navy. Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham thought it was ‘subversive’ and he was not (and probably is not) alone. On the other hand, while the author records since 1913 are incomplete, no less than four future admirals of the fleet and several future First Sea Lords have been contributors, while at least three future active flag officers first wrote for the Naval Review as midshipmen. Many other flags have contributed both as junior and sometimes very senior officers.
The journal was formally suppressed in 1915 after complaints by the C-in-C of the Grand Fleet, Sir John Jellicoe. Its existence after a post-war revival was again threatened when complaints were made about an article dealing with the escape of the Goeben and Breslau to Turkey in 1914. A compromise was reached – probably helped by the fact that the then First Sea Lord, Beatty, counted several of the founders of the Naval Society amongst his closest advisors. The requirement for authors to submit articles for clearance through their chain of command was waived on the condition that the Editor took responsibility that no classified or inappropriate material appear in the journal and that its circulation remained confined to the membership. This was formalised in later years, although this exemption from The Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy has recently lapsed. Nevertheless, the arrangement continues de facto and is one reason why the Editorship has always been occupied by an experienced retired officer of flag rank, who has both the experience to judge what should be printed and what should not, as well as the weight to liaise with senior officials and, where necessary, lobby on behalf of the journal.
Such protection has been needed. Despite its limited circulation and special status, copies inevitably fall into other hands. That the Naval Review can be abused by politicians wishing to score a point or journalists too lazy to treat the journal appropriately as a source of intelligence and guide to their research in the manner of ‘deep background’ is obvious, although it should not be inevitable if politicians and the media had enough sense. Captain David Hart Dyke’s 1983 account of the loss of HMS Coventry under his command during the Falklands War got into the public domain, creating considerable political angst at a time when the government was eager to paint the most favourable picture of the events of the conflict. The then Editor and the Trustees of the Review had to fight hard to protect it, the senior civil servants of the day proving particularly unsympathetic (in contrast to the more positive attitude of their predecessors in the Admiralty of 1915). The latest example of the Naval Review being forced into the public eye occurred as recently as November 2018, when a piece in The Times quoted extensively from an article on the Royal Navy’s manpower problems. To add insult to injury, The Times even named the original author.
In 2019, the Naval Review is at something of a crossroads. It must adjust to the world of social media but needs to protect its privileged status. Despite its wider potential membership, the fact is that the diminished size of the Royal Navy means that maintaining numbers will be difficult in the years ahead and there is the danger that members who are no longer serving will dominate the conversations. But the Naval Review continues to be an excellent journal of record and the website does provide a protected semi-real time forum for online discussion. Both the Review and the ‘wardroom bar’ could only benefit from the injection of more contributions from serving personnel. The record of more than a century of free debate suggests that they are worth a try – even by the most connected of social media activists.
Disclaimer: The author has been a member and contributor to the Naval Review for more than forty years and in every rank from Midshipman to Rear Admiral.
These posts are part of a special feature on military learning co-hosted with Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London.