Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fall of France, Manpower, Part 7: How Does One Solve These Problems? A Solution From 1904

On 2 December 1906, HMS Dreadnought was commissioned into the Royal Navy in the latest of a series of highly publicised events. It must have been obvious by this point that her belt was submerged with a combat load on board, making her somewhat dubious ship of the line, and you certainly didn't want to run those ungeared turbines any harder than necessary! Worse, the choice of an armament of 10x12/45" in 5 twin mountings and 27 12-pounders (76mm) guns leaving her deadly in line of battle against other battleships but virtually helpless at night, in poor visibility, or in torpedo flotilla action. Kept out of harm's way as Channel flagship during WWI, her life came to a premature end as she was decommissioned in February 1919 to save on costs and manpower.

Well, that's one story of HMS Dreadnought, in which she features as a classic example of the military-technological process of "failing forward." Too many innovations in one design meant gravely deficient fighting power. The other story, of course, is precisely that of all those innovations. The world naval community rushed to replicate Dreadnought's many innovations, and in general it is said that a "Dreadnought Revolution" followed, even though many of the first "Dreadnoughts" launched in response, in particular those from American and German builders, lacked turbine engines, while conversely both had the good sense to eschew Dreadnought's effectively all-or-nothing big gun armament. (Thus, they wisely ignored the sillier ideas of British naval strategists while failing to replicate the breakthroughs of British marine engineers. Is there a way to recall an entire historical literature?)

The question remains: why? It was hugely controversial at the time.  And it has been controversial since. The doyen of the field, Arthur Marder, offered what I recall as being some pretty nuanced explanations --but it's been a long time since I read Marder, and everything I say below is probably just going to end up repeating him, I suspect. The same cannot be said of Jon Sumida, who revisited the facts and, as far as I can tell, sent the literature down entirely the wrong track with his ideas about a fire-control revolution, occasioned by financial difficulties. The frighteningly prolific Andrew Lambert  thinks it is down to torpedoes.

It is interesting, therefore, to see that the Admiralty's answer came down to manpower: not enough men to man all the useless, old warships, not enough men to man all the ships. The second-to-last class before  Dreadnought, the King Edward VII, carried 4x12", 4x9.2", 10x6", 12x76mm, and 12x47mm guns. It also had a peacetime complement of 777 men. The next class laid down, the Lord Nelson, had 4x12" guns, 5x9.2", and 24x76mm, and a peacetime complement of 750. Dreadnought was designed for a complement of 700. Now, the number of men borne in the fleet is a hugely important factor in driving the naval budget up, and the new Liberal government that took office in 1904 was eager to cut the Naval Estimates. It turned out that Dreadnought's small complement was funny book-keeping, although it was unquestionably a major step forward in the man/tonnage ratio in battleship design, and thus a major gain in fighting power/man. That being said,  the unspoken implications of Dreadnought's greater speed and range was equal sea power through fewer battleships. Fisher embraced that idea and we got the battlecruisers, and controversy ever increasing since. The idea was that technology would maintain Britain's control over the seas.

But it's more complicated than that if we take the Admiralty seriously.
(Warning: explicit scenes: Work/Family friendly substitute here:)

When the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series --for the second time, I think, in the fall of 1993-- I was watching at a friend's apartment in downtown Toronto with some graduate school buddies. Game gloriously over, we headed out on Yonge Street to mingle with the crowds. They were deliriously happy, but there was no trouble, in part because of a massive police presence. Every cross-street was blocked with barricades and a small police detachment. As we washed up on several of these groups, I began to notice a strange thing: the police were all hanging out with big, scruffy bikers. Eventually, it dawned on me that the Toronto PD must have called in the plainclothes detectives. They weren't all dressed like bikers, but those were the ones that I noticed. You don't see many big, bearded guys in police ranks in video of a major, modern demonstration, but that's usually because these days they plan for these things and bring in extra officers from other jurisdictions.

Manpower: it's the Achilles heel of government control and surveillance. I'd use gender-neutral language at this point, but I'm seeing signs of a gendered or sexualised reading of the question at issue in the video, and I'll make some feeble attempt to honour the theme as I talk about the crisis of naval manpower and the genesis of HMS Dreadnought below.

Per Wikipedia: Compare with HMS King George V (1937); now compare with Dreadnought (1875)
Hard as it is to believe, three generations of master shipwright could easily have worked on all three ships in their career. (Although it would have involved a family relocation from Devon to Northumberland.) If we imagine that grandfather, father and son were all 35 when they did the work, grandfather's parents were born before railways, while grandson visits his grandchildren in Australia in a passenger jet.

Yes, I know, the point's been made many times before. I'm arguing that it is causal, and can be linked back to the tragedy of 1940. Neville Chamberlain made a terrible, horrible, mistake, and let France fall, with all the consequences that came from it. But he had a vision, and that vision is neatly summed up by the debate over what is usually called the Selborne Scheme, which led directly to HMS Dreadnought.

But first, some background: on 12 July, 1901, Lord Brassey, he of Brassey's Naval Annual, rose in the Lords to raise serious concerns about the manning of the Navy.

[It has been ten years since a previous First Sea Lord promised to work the Fleet up to a strength of 75,000 men]..... this year Parliament has voted, on the recommendation of the Admiralty, no less than 119,000 men. The country is fully resolved to maintain a strong and well-manned Navy. Cordially accepting the national policy, I do not urge any reductions. Looking, however, to the future, I submit that it may not be necessary that the recent rapid increase in the number of men should be continued in future years. The strength of the permanent force for the British Navy must be determined by a comparison with other Powers. In the present year the numbers may be taken for the French Navy at 49,000, for Russia 45,000, for Germany under 30,000. We have added in the last ten years 50,000 to our permanent force, as against 12,000 for the French Navy. Our Votes for pay and victualling amount for the present year to some £8,000,000, as against £2,640,000 for the French Navy. We have to add the charge for retired pay which will fall on future Estimates. When we compare our numbers and contrast our expenditure with those of foreign Powers, it seems fitting to review our policy for the manning of the Navy. We have to take care that we do not allow the permanent establishments of men to grow perhaps unduly, and the Reserves to decline to an extent which may ultimately prove a cause of weakness. The personnel of foreign Powers is less considerable than ours in relation to matériel because they rely upon reserves which as yet we have failed to raise on any adequate scale for the British Navy. Including the valuable force which the Admiralty has lately organised our Reserves number in all some 36,000 men. Our expenditure on the Reserve is under £300,000. In comparison with the Votes for the permanent forces the Reserve Vote is scanty. The Inscription Maritime, the creation of Colbert, gives to the French Navy a muster roll of more than 100,000 men, of whom at least 50,000 are effective. The British Reserves should not be less than those of France; we have many more ships to man.
A large permanent force is essential—it is the point of the spear. It is the only source from which specially trained officers and men can be supplied. Seamen and stokers, requiring less training, can and should be obtained in an emergency from a reserve force. With much concern it must be admitted that the resources we formerly possessed for manning the Navy from the Reserve are failing. British seamen hold their own in the fisheries and the coasting trade. In the over-sea trade they are rapidly disappearing. The falling off is the more deplorable because it is chiefly among the younger men. If the present movement continues unchecked our shipping in the over-sea trade will shortly be manned mainly by foreigners, not always, perhaps, under the command of British officers. Sir Charles Dilke has lately said, in addressing the Shipmasters' Society— Their secretary had investigated the composition of the crews of half the transports to South Africa, and found in one case all the deck hands and firemen were foreigners, and in other cases fourteen nut of sixteen, fourteen out of nineteen, and nine out of fourteen, were aliens. Moreover, some ships were commanded by aliens, and he need hardly point out the difficulties which might arise, and the serious results that might occur, through such a state of things, if we were at war with any great continental Power. The opening up of the Suez Canal route and the substitution of steam for sails, the pay (poor in comparison with the earnings in employments on shore), and the insufficient number of boys in training—all these causes have led to the diminution in the number of British seamen. Training being the initial step in any remedial scheme, I will deal with this point first. For advice we must look to the Commissions and Committees which from time to time have been charged by Parliament with the duty of considering the subject. The report of the Royal Commission on the Manning of the Navy, to whose recommendations we owe our existing force of Royal Naval Reserve, is still the leading authority. The Commission included two shipowners, Mr. W. S. Lindsay and Mr. Richard Green. The chairman was Lord Hardwicke. A most active member was Lord Cardwell. To him is due the signal honour of having originated the plans on which we have been working for the establishment and maintenance of Reserves both for the Army and the Navy. All the recommendations of the Manning Commission have been adopted, except those relating to school ships, which they recommended should be established at the principal ports, half the cost being contributed by the State. The ships were to be under the Board of Trade, the military part of the training being conducted by the Coastguard. School ships were also strongly recommended by the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships, of which I had the honour to be a member, and by the Manning of Merchant Ships Committee, of which Sir Edward Reed was the chairman. These recommendations in favour of school ships, though renewed again and again, were not adopted because no difficulty was found in providing the numbers required. The conditions are changed. It is no longer possible to maintain the Reserves at the strength voted by Parliament. State aid, judiciously applied, is necessary to maintain the supply of seamen. The Government should begin by combining their efforts with those of the committees of management of training ships already established, at which boys suitable for the Navy are received. The Admiralty should enter boys for the Naval Reserve, and pay for their training. The system should be extended gradually by establishing ships directly under the Board of Trade at the principal ports. The training in the school ships should include not only seamen, but firemen, and possibly mechanics. I may mention that a decree for the organisation of technical naval schools has just been promulgated by M. de Lanessan, the French Minister of Marine. The harbour training for the Reserve boys must be followed up by apprenticeship in sea-going ships, on the lines suggested by the Manning Commission. After serving in the Fleet, reservists would return to the mercantile marine. At this stage we stand face to face with a grave difficulty. I assume that by the aid of the State the seaman of the Reserves will have received a thorough training, in harbour, in his school ship, and at sea as an apprentice, and have gained a valuable experience by his service in the Navy. He will have become, in the best sense of the familiar term, a handy man. To men so highly qualified the merchant service offers few attractions. The only remedy which can be suggested is an increase in the pay of the Reservist.

Those familiar with defence policy debates in the first decade of the Twentieth Century know where this is going; conscription, not a place that the Government is going to follow. Lord Selborne's response concluded that Britain still had a sufficiently large maritime manpower to man the Fleet to war strength. Yes, the number of British subjects in the merchant marine (not including lascars) was falling. But the number born in the Fleet was rising, and thus 1 in 62 British males was still choosing to follow the sea, just as they had done a generation before.

And, yes, that is pretty Pollyannish. The causes that Lord Brassey cites were at work. British labour was being priced out of the British merchant marine, and there was nothing to be done about it, because the ships had to compete, and British subjects could make more on shore. The day was very soon coming when the Royal Navy drew directly, not from the seafaring population but from the industrial labour force.

The Selborne Scheme is intended to address this problem in the only possible way: by making a young man think hard about the choice between going into the mill, or going into the navy. How do you do that? Not by offering him a career and a pension. Warships are no place for men in their 50s. They're barely places for men in their 40s. If you come out of the Fleet at 40, facing the prospect of working for another 25 years, you simply cannot line up at the mill gates with the 16 year old school leavers for a job, because after a day of that, you'll be down at the pub complaining, and your wife and your mother will be leaning over the fence and chatting as they put out the washing, and the day after that will be first day of the forever in which no young man will ever visit the navy recruiting office ever again.

Right now, the solution for that is obvious. The man leaving the fleet is an able-bodied seaman and a handy man. Hopefully, he gets a job on a Channel packet or a troller,* but even the American trade will hopefully not put an unbearable strain on family relations. But equally, right now, there is another class of man carried in the Fleet with an urgent claim to accommodation: the "stoker." This is the hard-working man who shovels coal onto the burning grate. Since that's a job that doesn't lead in the direction of useful experience and a long career, the Navy instead pays stokers a lot, and gets rid of them young. It's the puddler problem all over again,and it can't continue. The Naval Reserve is already short on stokers. On the bright side, if Lord Selborne's solution works for stokers, it will be possible to extend it to seamen later.

Here's the Selborne Scheme (or, more accurately, the Cawdor Memorandum spelling it out) again. There's been lots of heat and even a little light shed over the question of engineer officers, but for our purposes, the relevant section starts at 1.3:

It has long been felt that the Stoker Class should have better opportunities of advancement, and in the Memorandum of December, 1902, the creation of the new Chief Petty Officer rating of Mechanician, to be filled from the Stoker Class, was announced.
Further consideration of the various duties in the Stokehold and Engine-room led the Committee to recommend that in future the highly trained Engine-room Artificer Class should not, as heretofore, be called upon to undertake ordinary watch-keeping duties, but should be enabled to devote all their time to their real calling of Artificers, and that watch-keeping duties should be undertaken by men selected from the Stoker Ratings after a suitable course of instruction.
The Board have adopted this policy, and the Stoker Ratings will in future be eligible for promotion to Warrant Officer rank for duty as Engine-room Watch-keepers.
It's simple, because the solution is simple. Keep the Stokers by offering them training as "Mechanicians," and giving the existing  "Engine Room Artificers" more opportunities for senior responsibility by relieving them from more routine tasks with these "Mechanicians." Elsewhere, Selborne lays out a scheme whereby Stokers can be promoted to "Mechanician" and then to "Engine Room Artificers" by passing an examination by the age of 27. (Also the maximum age at which direct entrants can qualify as ERAs.) The dockyard apprentice stream of ERAs will continue, and be supplemented by promising lads promoted out of the stoker ranks. Now, you can wax indignant about the class politics implicit in all of this, as Holger Herwig has. Indeed, there are weird class politics all over this issue. The least important and in the event failed part of the Selborne Scheme was an attempt to combine the Naval Engineering Branch with the line branch. 

By contrast, nothing is said about the stoker scheme, even though in a few short years, there isn't going to be any coal to shovel, and all the stokers will be, effectively, apprentice "mechanicians." But here's the thing: even now, a battleship, in battle, only needs so many stokers. The relief stokers won't be sitting around, however. They'll be manning guns. The huge number of guns on a King Edward VII- class battleship are there in part for tactical reasons, but also because, traditionally, a battleship had lots of personnel whose main task was to make the ship go, and since the ship had to go 24 hours a day, there were a great many surplus personnel during a battle, so they should be shooting something, right?

So that's why I see an industrial/economic/social problem being resolved by the all-big gun battleship. It's a pre-emptive strike against the ongoing industrialisation of Britain, which otherwise threatens British national security.

So fewer guns and fewer stokers are a converging trend. This allows for cutting manpower in the first instance. But in the second and slightly longer time frame, it reorients the man separating from the fleet from a sailor into an industrial operative. But wait: doesn't that mean that there will be a flood of highly skilled technicians entering British industry in their 30s and 40s? Won't that mean that industry will take advantage and cut wage rates? Won't all this be counterproductive? Of course not: there's a simple solution. The men leaving the fleet have to have a guarantee of a job at good pay, and the employer must be constrained to hire him at that rate. The very simple solution to this is a trade union certificate. Here's the absolutely bizarre location where Google turned up a reposting of a newspaper summary of Hansard on "the Labourites'" acceptance of the Cawdor Memorandum. I'm sure I could do better (hmm... maybe the original exchange is in Hansards?), but time is a-wasting.

There's two ways that people have tended to look at union demarcation disputes over the year. The first has been a posture of hostility, in which the certificate allows, as the modern neo-liberals say, "rent-seeking activity." British shipbuilders have to employ certified riveters to rivet all the ships, so the ships are too expensive, and new welding technology need not apply, and British sea power is doomed! The other comes from a place of entitlement, the not entirely unjustified thought that a 45 year-old breadwinner is entitled to a job at the expected rate, and screw industrialists, the government, and whoever. 

I'm throwing out a third, in which it's a guarantee of national security. From the perspective of the Admiralty, it worked well. From the standpoint of the Air Ministry, the Admiralty blueprint worked more than well. It created a highly skilled aviation industry labour force out of literally nothing in only 20 years. But look again at the problem of demarcation from the standpoint of the Minister of Supply in the First World War (an old-line Liberal, tellingly enough), for whom the key to increased military production was the "dilution" of skilled labour. From that perspective, the unions are just troublemakers getting in the way of increased shell production with their demands for higher wages, more jobs for union brothers, and more consideration (of their drinking habits, for example), and more  

Looking at what is going on in the Engineering ROFs in the late '30s, we can see that "dilution" is a second best solution. Automation is the better solution --more shells made for less labour, just as the Navy long since adopted technical solutions to throw higher weights of shell with less labour. From the PMO's office, the War Office needs to be adopting this approach to things. More fighting power with less labour frees up more labour for industry. Automation in the army creates technicians who can then go into industry and make weapons that yield more fighting power for less labour. And this way, you can work with the unions, instead of against them. 

Of course the mistake here was to see the solution exclusively in terms of bombers and AA guns without including heavy tanks in the mix. How did this specific failure of vision come out of cavalry country? It's a fascinating question.

*Hey, look: self-conscious use of local dialect!

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