- Naval History:Division or Dialogue?
Naval history has a specific relationship with its subject matter. It is first and foremost a study for navies, and only secondly a study of navies. Before 1914 naval history was not even an academic subject. Published work was driven by the requirements of naval education, doctrinal development, and strategic reflection in an age obsessed with decisive battle. Modern naval history was prompted by new shore-based officer education for mid- and senior-level officers intended to help prepare admirals who had seen no significant combat for future wars in ships that were equally untried. History was important, but only relevant history.
In the 19th century navies became focal points for national identity, potent mobile symbols of political and cultural power. In the process they were also shaping their own history. As naval identities became increasingly disparate, naval history would be shaped by the need to explain current strategic and policy choices. Alfred T. Mahan's historical endorsement of "battle-fleet Sea Power" at the U. S. Naval War College is only the best-known example of how this process affected naval history.
Mahan's friend Sir John Laughton, professor of modern history at King's College London (1885-1915), harnessed academic methods to refine the delivery of naval education and produce teaching texts. He founded the Navy Records Society in 1893 and with the Director of Naval Intelligence he persuaded officers, academics, journalists, and statesmen to adopt edited primary source material as the basis for advanced naval education. By 1914 the Society had produced forty-five volumes dealing with strategy, policy, fleet actions, and tactical thought. The most significant naval history project in the world before 1914 was driven by naval needs, expressly excluding antiquarian subjects.1 Laughton believed the university should train historians to educate the navy.
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Modern naval history reflects an enduring tension between the educational demands of navies, the role for which it was created, and the anxieties of an academic discipline that has not infrequently resisted the very idea of relevance. The historical profession knows that the past teaches us nothing—certainly nothing useful. Furthermore, many eminent scholars at British and American universities during the middle decades of the 20th century were distinguished émigrés from totalitarian regimes. They had witnessed firsthand the dangers of linking historical scholarship to the needs of rulers and regimes. Consequently, they avoided public activity and emphasized the importance of the discipline. In Britain this intellectual aversion has been replaced by a centralized government assessment process based on science metrics. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was used to generate numerical scores so departments in the same subject could be compared. The process privileged the internal debate of the peer-assessed journal and the academic monograph above public contribution, and weakened the very intellectual exchange across disciplines that should be the essence of a university. Having set the rules and made the allocation of research funding dependent on the outcome, the British Government unwittingly constricted the profession. While cutting-edge science may have become an entirely internal process, history has always existed in the wider public sphere. Long before the rise of professional academic history the great historians of the 18th and 19th centuries—Gibbon, Macaulay, and Froude—spoke directly to a literate public. They saw history as part of the public debate and aspired in one form or another to a public role.
Across a career of almost three decades, teaching at the Royal Naval College Greenwich, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and two universities, I have frequently had occasion to reflect on the nature and purpose of my work. In the first decade I taught international history, strategic studies, current affairs, and finally army history. This period in intellectual exile stimulated a deep concern with historiography, both to situate myself in the historical discipline and [End Page 9] to address the reasons why naval history was dead, or at best dying. In 1991 I moved to King's College and taught my...