Max Hastings, Lost Voices of the Royal Navy, 2005
This book is all about people. It is a story of the Royal Navy told by the people who were there. It isn’t an academic study, or a critical analysis, or even a narrative description. This is a history of what it was like to be in the Navy, from submarine captains describing hunting in World War 2, to stokers describing their hot and humid experience in hype greasy bowels of World War 1 Dreadnoughts. Each story is unique – some are humorous, some are celebratory, some are emotional, some are tragic, but they all share one characteristic – a deep authenticity that no modern historical interpretation will ever be able to capture.
When writing this review, I was more than once tempted to compose it purely using the words of the survivors who informed it. If we take the case of Hubert Trotman – extraordinary in this case as his time in the First World War was spent on land – a member of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. He tells not tales not of daring do, but of survival against all the odds. Of entering a battle alongside 600 and leaving as part of 10 survivors, them doing the same again the next day. Of banter, of giving cigarettes to those actively in the process of dying, of stalking through woods trying to avoid the pot shots of people who wanted to kill him, of the alcoholic splurge which marked the end of the war for his battalion, less than a mile from the unburied skeletons of soldiers of the Manchester Regiment who had been among the first casualties of the war, and then of returning home to his family’s celebrating until 2am, before returning to the family bakery at 5am. There are countless stories like this which highlight the futility of the First World War. Those Manchester soldiers had fallen at the peak of the British advance in 1914, and British soldiers had barely returned to the same point 4 years later.
Another veteran, taken off the seas and onto the land, says of his experience of burying the corpses of those who had fallen between 1914-1918 that “it was a task which I wouldn’t wish upon anyone; except perhaps the politicians whose decisions usually cause it all in the first place.” Poignant words, and ones which I feel the current Education secretary should cast his eyes over. This tome is full of little gems like this, illustrating incidental occurrences which make up life. Every now and then an even more exceptional story creeps in (such as a team of sailors sent into the Brazilian rainforest to try and find vanished explorers), reading like something out of Boy’s Own. Other times, major encounters which we are more familiar with (Jutland, convoy PQ17, the sinking of the Tirpitz, the defence of Malta, midget submarine attacks, D-Day) are described in the unique detail that only an eyewitness can bring to bear.
Max Arthur admits in the introduction that he is more of a shepherd than a writer in this book, and his succinct historical narratives do add some value and context to the accounts contained in this important book. He is a very knowledgeable author, although at times the focus on the Naval warfare can be a little Whiggish, with little reflection on other significant contemporary events. His social history does pick out some important issues raised in the stories of the veterans, such as post war pay cuts and their social impacts, but one does wonder whether there is scope for this aspect to be expanded (for example, the use of punishments for junior staff members, often just out of school, and the developing role of women in the Navy).
This edition is an edited compilation of Max Arthur’s two previous oral histories of the Royal Navy. Whilst is doesn’t feel like anything is missing in the bulk of the text, I did get to the end and wish that there was a chapter to bring me up to the present day. By limiting this edition to the period 1914-1945 you feel like something is missing – a post-script to how this turbulent period effected more recent happenings, and a chance to contextualise the events within.
And yet… This is a book with a high “unputdownable” factor. Every night I would attempt to read one more entry, one more snippet of a life extraordinary. The bread and butter of this book is, of course, the story of what life is like at sea. Of thunderous waves, sea sickness, the terror of abandoning a ship in the middle of a vast ocean. Naturally, we can only hear the choice of survivors, and more than once I felt mild panic rising at the hopelessness of some of the situations described.
Indeed, I found the book so compelling that I’ve jumped right on in to a series of Post-War diaries, edited by Simon Garfield, still high on the giddy excitement that is true history.