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Book Review, NRJ 58.3

August 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

All Hands: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy Since 1939 to the Present Day

Brian Lavery

Matched with his first volume that focused on the common seamen in the Royal Navy from the ninth to mid-nineteenth centuries (Royal Tars: the Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 875 – 1850, 2010) these two important volumes provide readers with an encyclopedic perspective on the seamen who helped to make the Royal Navy great.

A generation ago these books could not have been written. As late as the 1970s the command form of military and naval history dominated and able seamen, along with their counterparts in the marines and army, were seldom studied and rarely mentioned. It was the Admiralty and the general staff who held center stage in the historical discourse. We were still under the spell of the “great man theory of history.”

With the emergence of the new social history however, things began to change. Historians continued to pay homage to the great men (and sometimes the great women) of the past—but the spell had been broken. Now history from the “bottom up” began to take its place in the historiography. What was once called the “new naval history” and the “new military history” is now an accepted part of the discourse, providing casual readers and serious historians alike with a broader and more comprehensive perspective on the past. Brian Lavery’s contribution to this process of historiographic change is significant. These three works represent the maturation of the “new” naval history.

In Able Seamen, Lavery introduces us to “Jack” in 1850 as he faced the bewildering changes both in the Navy and in the world around him. Like his cousins on land who were dealing with the rapid changes in society and the economy brought on by industrialization, Jack faced a similar set of changes. The sailing line of battle ships were essentially unchanged from the time of the Spanish Armada with some minor exceptions. The sea seemed unchanging and eternal. Generations of men had gone to sea and its traditions were deep indeed. And then, within a generation, their world changed forever. First was the introduction of steam power that transformed the fundamentals of seamanship. Then came the iron clad and steel hulled vessels. Turret guns, rifled guns and torpedoes would follow. Later submarines and airplanes would become important parts of the naval arsenal. Old skills quickly become obsolete and new ones had to be acquired. Naval traditions changed quickly and a new kind of seaman with new ratings was now taking his place in the ranks of the Royal Navy.

Lavery takes an encyclopaedic approach to describe these changes and the response of seamen to them. His ten chronological chapters address issues including recruitment, rating, pay, training, discipline and messing In addition, Jack’s social and leisure world is also discussed in some detail. This approach is both useful and a bit daunting. The casual reader interested in naval history may be overwhelmed while the specialist might want more. And yet this criticism is common among books that attempt rather complex topics. Lavery’s style of writing and his organizational skill, however, will help the reader navigate this material.

Brian Lavery completes his study of seamen in the lower deck with his recently published All Hands, bringing the story to completion since 1939. The primary themes of change, adaptation and response developed in Able Seamen remain the centerpiece of this new work. While able seamen of the mid nineteenth century were forced to adapt to steam power, iron and steel hull vessels and breech loading artillery, the seamen of the twentieth century had newer and seemingly more dramatic challenges. Lavery demonstrates that the “jack of all trades” that dominated the Royal Navy in the earlier period was rapidly giving way to a more professionally trained group of men and women who were specialists with extensive training in engineering and computer applications. As in his earlier volumes, Lavery’s description of change allows the direct parallel to life beyond the sea. The complexity of life, the need for greater education and the technological revolution of the late twentieth century were challenges for seaman and landsman alike. While this volume spends less time discussing the social life of “Jack,” (there is a short section of the wives of seamen, and privileges afforded families in the post war period) he does discuss “ethnic minorities,” homosexuality, the Wrens, as well as the general issue of women at sea.

  • Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, 328 pages
  • Illustrations, diagrams, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. $41.95
  • ISBN: 9781591140351

Reviewed by Donald S. Parkerson, East Carolina University

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