Monday, 22 December 2014

When did we stop being a seafaring nation?

Falklands 1914 - INVINCIBLE and INFLEXIBLE in action
It is rather a strange thing that, as we celebrate the centenary of the Christmas Truce – maybe even read my ebook on the subject – we are forgetting one critical element of the First World War.

Are we not supposed to be remembering the war at sea? Why not?

The last few months have seen the centenary of two of the most decisive sea battles of the First World War, and they have gone by with barely a mention – the overwhelming German victory at Coronel in October, followed by the overwhelming British victory over the same squadron in December at the Battle of the Falkland Isles.

The only institution which seems to have remembered either is the British Film Institute, which released the 1927 film made about the two battles.

It is odd that we have had almost permanent series of memorials on the western front. The Queen must have had to rent rooms in France. But about the war at sea – nothing.

Coronel was one of the biggest British naval disasters in history. The Falkland Isles marked the only time that British battlecruisers were used for the purpose they were designed to: to overwhelm cruisers.

Why? Is it because we worry about marking major defeats? Admiral Si Christopher Craddock had no need to steam into disaster, but somehow felt it was required of him to make the gesture of sacrifice once he was in the situation.

Is it because the mention of the Falklands always makes the official mind nervous?

Is it because we no longer regard ourselves as a seafaring nation? Or that we are embarrassed that the naval tradition which stretches back to the days of King Alfred – with some hiccups along the way – has so much unravelled?

If it is the latter, then that may mark a far-reaching shift that matters politically. It also matters culturally.

When I was growing up, hardly a month would go by without the picture of a warship on the front of the newspapers. These days, the place of the senior service has gone to the army.

When did the shift take place? Because there does seem to have been a parallel shift in political attitudes at the same time – from naval informality, the right to disobey orders and the Nelson Touch to the iron, regimented centralisation of the Thatcher-Blair period.

The question of whether we are a naval nation or a military one has important implications for the way government works. Naval nation’s are permissive and localising; military ones are controlling and authoritarian. I know which I want us to be.

I suggest as a small antidote that we start remembering the battles of Coronel and the Falklands, and the great forgotten commanders, Craddock, Sturdee and Von Spee.

And maybe also remember to commemorate the Battle of Dogger Bank in March.

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