Why are we forgetting the navy?
We have been through another Remembrance weekend and, as we know, the First World War was reaching its crescendo a century ago. We have had huge numbers of references to the Western front and, this year, to the Dardanelles and the Anzacs. But one reason for writing this article, and the book that it supports, is because I want to ask: whatever happened to the navy?
Why has there been little or no reference to the sea battles of a century ago? The Battle of the Falkland Isles, the Battle of Dogger Bank and the disastrous attempt to force the Dardanelles by sea, have all gone by without a mention.
Does it matter? Well, actually, I think it does. Because we appear to be forgetting that we are primarily a naval, seagoing nation. When I was growing up, hardly a week went by without a picture of a ship on the front of the newspaper. These days, you just see soldiers..
Two reasons why it matters come to mind:
First, we start regarding what comes from over the seas with fear and trepidation, though our forebears were at home there and often came from there themselves.
Second, the Royal Navy has a powerful tradition of informality, a Nelsonian strand of disobeying orders. It is the senior service and it would be a pity to lose this vital, energetic understanding that sometimes, to make things work, you have to do it in your own way.
One of the legacies of the Blair years is that we began to regard ourselves, perhaps for the first time in our history, as primarily an army nation. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that this coincided with the iron, regimented straitjacket that have rendered so much of our public services so much less effective.
One reason why I want to write Before Enigma is that it begins, just a little, to redress that balance. When we watch Alan Turing’s portrayal on celluloid, we hardly realise that he was tackling a naval code – and that these things were life and death on the high seas. We particularly forget that the techniques and systems developed by Turing’s bosses were developed by a bizarre collection of people in Room 40 of the Admiralty from 1914-18. It is their story I want to tell.
I have a week left to crowdfund the project, so do let your naval friends know...