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the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

Book cover of 'The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical profession'

Author's response


The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical profession

Andrew Lambert
Chatham Publishing
ISBN: 1861760868, pp. 256, 1998

Roger Knight

This review puts forward a good case for ignoring Sir John Laughton, and the 'exaggerated' claims contained in the book. Dr Knight addresses three core questions. He reminds us that the seminal thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were Mahan, Corbett and Richmond, not Laughton. By contrast Laughton's own writings are 'almost all of them curiosities now' and, consequently, his significance for history as it is written today is 'nominal'. Second, he addresses the issue of whether Laughton founded the modern discipline of naval history, and he concludes by arguing that a more rounded approach to the man was required.

The first problem arises from attempting to apply the test of 'great work' to a career like Laughton's, one driven by a Victorian service ethic inculcated at Cambridge. Laughton had no desire to write a 'great work'; his 'great work' was the intellectual overhaul of the Royal Navy, and it was in developing his chosen instrument for that task, naval history, that he made his contribution. Only Laughton could have created modern naval history in the curious form that it still retains today, combining the disparate demands of academic and professional audiences. The type of history he wrote, solid, factual and reliable, was the essential 'foundation' for the more expansive creations of Mahan, Corbett and Richmond. Without Laughton's hard work their efforts would have been built on sand. In an historically based discipline like strategic studies simple factual error will deprive the finest intellectual creation of lasting merit. Mahan, to take the best known example, was not a historian, and confessed as much to Laughton. Laughton's contribution was to make Mahan – a political analyst – apply sound historical method, to educate Julian Corbett, a dilettante lawyer-turned-novelist, into an outstanding historian, and to recruit such a stellar naval intellect as Richmond to the writing of naval history. All four men wrote pre-eminently for a Naval audience, not academics. Laughton would not have queried the credit Dr Knight gives to his three followers, he was content to have laid the 'Foundations' those unseen, but essential components of any building that has pretensions to endure. While Mahan was 'startling' the world with his Sea power volume in 1890 Laughton reminded him that it was littered with errors of fact, and interpretation that reflected Mahan's agenda and the degree of violence he had been prepared to do to the historical record. Similarly Corbett and Richmond used naval history to advance contemporary agendas, often at the expense of historical accuracy, in their 'stimulating' works.

The second question requires a re-examination of exactly what Laughton was seeking to create. For him the 'discipline' of naval history was not a distinct, stand-alone subject, but one element within the wider field of history, like many others then and know, that could address the particular needs of a specialist audience. Laughton deprecated the sort of 'naval' history that Dr Knight implies he was attempting to create, he knew the difference between Naval History and a History of the Navy (p. 61) and if his historical focus was less broad than we would take today, it was never exclusive. Laughton stressed the context of events, his naval history was not 'a mere chronicle of battles' (pp. 163–4) As if to demonstrate this point he devoted much of his last decade to the establishment of Imperial History at King's College, another discipline within the field of history. So impressive was his effort as a contribution to the advanced understanding of history that A. F. pollard cited it as the pre-eminent example of the case for a postgraduate school of history in the University of London (pp. 212–3). When pollard finally secured his school, the Institute of Historical Research, he devoted a room to the memory of this inspiring academic leader. The 'Naval and Military Room' reminded everyone who ever doubted the fact that naval history was a core element within the discipline of history as defined by pollard. Few have questioned his decision. Consequently I stand by what I wrote in introduction:

The history of Britain cannot be understood without constant reference to the sea, and the naval power of the British state. The best naval history makes those connections, for history is a single, seamless fabric (p. 13).

This reflects both my conviction, and the writings of Sir John Laughton. Laughton did not see naval history as a stand alone discipline. Let there be no mistake, Laughton created modern naval history within a newly professional English historical school. In doing this he set the agenda from which all subsequent naval historians have developed their own approaches. He created the structures, notably the Navy Record Society, wrote many of the core texts, and, above all opened the Admiralty Archive to scholars. His purpose was to enlist the historical profession in support of his naval educational task. His success is obvious. Although the academic world chose to ignore naval history for many years it survived, at the Royal Naval College and in the Navy Records Society, with occasional attempts to resume work in the universities. Naval history returned to the academic mainstream at King's College in 1970, by re-uniting all three elements of Laughton's work, University, Naval College and Record Society. It did so in a Department devoted to the understanding of war. That Department also provides the academic component of the higher education of senior officers in all three armed forces. This development has vindicated Laughton's approach.

On the third question, that of Laughton's personality, the critical evidence comes not from his quarrels, which were volcanic, but rare, but from his friendships. A man who could maintain the confidence of several generations of the best and brightest officers of the Royal Navy, especially leading figures like Admiral Hornby, statesmen like Earl Spencer and Lord Goschen, Royal princes, newspaper men and even the self absorbed Mahan was clearly special. We are told the name of his second wife (p. 81), that she came from Cadiz, and was of Italian extraction. It would have been interesting to have known more about the man behind the career, but the evidence simply does not exist. Having worked on Laughton for a decade it was clear that I could not attempt a meaningful life, the 'intellectual biography' was coherent, too much of the personal was obscure and this book was never intended to be speculative. Laughton, one suspects, was simply too busy to have managed an interesting private life. Consequently such evidence as could be found, which does make a significant addition to any previous account, was used to broaden the perspective, but this book could only be a study of a professional career, not a life.

Roger Knight's Review

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