On the Necessity of Forming a Naval Staff

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This article, On the Necessity of Forming a Naval Staff, was written by Commander (later Admiral Sir) Cyprian A. G. Bridge and published in Naval Science in 1872.


THE oft-repeated truism that as Science makes fresh conquests it but opens up a vista of new worlds to conquer, is capable of amplification. Not only does it find new territory to be won, but it is also under compulsion to invade and win it. Like the great conquering empires of Home in ancient, and British India in modern, times, it must go on; conquest must succeed conquest, and annexation be followed by annexation. This, perhaps one of the greatest glories, is unquestionably one of the greatest charms, of science. The ever-expanding circle of its frontiers has really no limit, and students and enquirers in every branch find— whichever way they turn their gaze — awaiting the discoverer, magic realms untouched by speculation and unexplored by experiment. The acquisition of each of these is but the indispensable complement of previous gains, and as each new victory is won, order has to be infused into the freshly-acquired domain, and the new territory has to be organised and brought into submission to the present code of scientific laws.

Thus science continues to present to us more and more frequently its practical side; and thus every branch of human industry, every section of human life, year by year, more readily confess that each must ascertain, and be guided by, the laws of nature, which are expounded and arranged by scientific inquiry alone. And so we are, at the present day, either living in, or, at all events, entering upon, a scientific age. The practical concerns of every-day life are being viewed more and more in a scientific manner. The man of science is called in everywhere to assist the man of action, and thus do we continue to increase and consolidate our dominion over nature.

This is not the less true even in those professions and callings which were supposed most to depend upon practical experience alone. Scientific agriculture is of only recent date; and though few, perhaps, owed more to the teachings of science than the seaman, yet till lately no one was so eager as himself to repudiate its connection with, what he would term, the " practical part" of his occupation. And yet it is impossible to look back for a few years and not see how completely the seaman's art has been invaded and overrun by it. In that great branch of the seafaring profession which is devoted to the purposes of war this fact is still more apparent. Not to speak of the development, nay, the almost invention, of Meteorology, Physical Geography of the Sea—and especially of its great department, the Law of Winds, which possesses a common interest for the seaman of both the Military and Commercial Marine—we may specify, as among the creations of the past half-century which especially concern the former, the science of gunnery and steam navigation, shipbuilding in iron, tactics under steam, which either did not exist, or existed in the most undeveloped state at the beginning of the period we have named. And every one of these latter was pressed upon the Navy from without. Let any naval officer who may read this ask himself, "What do we owe to naval men for the introduction of them into our "profession?" He will not find it difficult to supply the answer. Thus many men of established reputation and vast experience, having the welfare of their country and its Navy at heart, have clamoured for the institution of some scientific teaching for our officers. A great body like the officers of the British Navy must possess numerous members who want but the necessary training to become entitled to a place amongst those who have done so much to improve the naval art. The desire to impress upon the Navy the importance of the improvement of itself has received a striking exemplification in the establishment of this Magazine; and the movement which has been made to improve Naval Education—a movement in which officers and civilians alike have joined—is also evidence of the same desire.

Fortunately there is abundant testimony to prove that the seed thus scattered has fallen upon a not ungrateful soil. The proceedings of the Royal United Service Institution, the pages of periodicals of a type resembling this, the establishment of scientific associations connected with the Navy, the keen anxiety with which the service awaited the result of the labours of the Education Committee, and the warmth with which the relative merits of Portsmouth and Greenwich as sites of the future Naval College are debated by Naval officers, supply overwhelming proof of the eagerness of those officers to improve their acquaintance with the scientific subjects of which the knowledge has become so requisite. The days in which a large number of officers looked upon it as discreditable to a seaman to be a student have passed away. The lot of the youthful officer is cast in happier times, and any attempts to improve the scientific education of the Navy will be warmly seconded by those for whom they are made. It is not our purpose to discuss here the details of the method by which such instruction may be imparted, but we are anxious to point out the possible result which seems to us well worthy of being kept in view.

The fleets and squadrons of the British Navy are absolutely without anything that can be called a staff. Flag-officers, indeed, have each their own personal staff, but there exists no body of men whose duty it is to assist the commander-in-chief in the conduct and supervision of the collection of ships under his orders. The growing manysidedness of the naval profession seems to render the establishment of such an institution highly necessary. The multifarious duties of naval officers, and the vast additions which have of late been made to the science of naval war, render an intimate acquaintance with all of them impossible. That which was possible in the days when the use of steam was unknown, when gunnery was in the rudimentary condition which preceded its recognition even as an art, when electric warfare was still undiscovered, when manœuvres depended almost solely on the seamanship of the officers of individual ships, when organisation as it is now understood and uniformity of discipline had yet to be invented, is not possible now. Let us give one striking instance of how things are changed. Every one will remember Nelson's final direction to his captains before one of his great sea-fights, "No captain can do very wrong who places his ship alongside "an enemy." Can there be any more startling proof of the complete revolution that has taken place in naval tactics since that day? The principles of strategy, indeed, have remained unaltered, and the necessity of grasping the real end and aim of each campaign, as well as of effecting powerful combinations, existed then as now; but when once battle had been joined, tactics were forgotten, manœuvring ceased, flag-officers, like Lord Howe on the 1st June, " emphatically closed their signal-books," and fortitude and valour decided the issue. But now the beginning of the fight will be but the beginning of the commander-in-chief s work. Naval actions in future will probably consist of a series of movements, ceasing only when the victory shall have been won. A constant supervision over the ships of the fleet must be kept up. By whom is the admiral to be assisted? Not by the captain of his flag-ship. He has his own ship to look after. By his flag-lieutenant? He is probably one of the junior and least experienced officers of his rank. By his secretary? He is not a seaman, and the manœuvring of fleets is altogether out of his line. By the captain-of-the-fleet? But the existence of such an officer presupposes the existence of a staff, and if a staff is worth having, it is at least worth while to train it for its duties.

A captain-of-the-fleet, hastily appointed to a fleet about to meet the enemy, new to his duties, having passed his career in the discharge of his functions as an officer of the particular ships to which he has happened to be attached, a stranger to the officers with whom he would be brought in contact, having no special acquaintance with the powers or performances of the ships, can scarcely be as well fitted to assist his chief as one who has been purposely trained, and who has spent some portion of his life in aiding in the management of a fleet. Nor is it likely that one officer would suffice. Captains-of-the-fleet unfortunately are mortal, and their ordinary station in action would, from the nature of their duties, be much exposed. It seems to follow, then, that this officer, if subito ereptus e causâ, would leave the fleet in an awkward state; for who is to supply his place? We can scarcely expect our enemies to be so complaisant as to agree to fight us within easy range of our dockyards and arsenals; and to make good the damage wrought in sea-fights at a distance from those establishments—so intricate and delicate is now the construction of our ships—would require the superintendence of specially trained officers. The work of procuring intelligence, of arranging combinations, of providing and of establishing depots for supplies, will be far more laborious than in our former wars it has ever been, and an admiral who finds himself about to conduct a campaign would probably hail with delight the presence of a body of staff-officers whose minds, not pre-occupied with the cares and duties of their own particular ships, might be devoted to these subjects. Indeed, it is scarcely possible to contemplate the contingency of our being involved in war without feeling convinced that a staff of some kind will be formed. It is a significant fact that the Americans, who—as the debates in Congress on the question of voting the necessary sums showed—objected to the existence of a staff, probably deeming it an aristocratic institution, found themselves compelled to surround each of their admirals with a somewhat numerous one, and they have since maintained the institution to some extent during peace. In the French Navy it has long been an established thing. In the days when Spain was still a naval power of importance the staff formed a prominent part of the personnel of her fleets, and in His Catholic Majesty's regulations for his Navy during the early years of the present century much space is devoted to detailing the duties of the mayor-general and his subordinates. We have ourselves heard a French admiral, himself a distinguished naval chief-of-the-staff, declare that he considered the existence of such a body absolutely indispensable.

But not in battle nor in actual war alone is the country likely to derive benefit from possessing a body of officers such as we speak of. The threats of the peremptory captain, who, putting his watch on the table, bade an independent sovereign choose within a certain time between compliance with the demands made on him and the bombardment of his capital, may have been more persuasive than any arguments to be derived from Grotius or Puffendorf; but such a mode of proceeding would scarcely be sanctioned now. An increased respect for public law is at the least professed in our days. Sir John Duckworth bearding the Grand Turk at Stamboul, and proposing to support his argument by broadsides, is not now likely to have any imitators. Conferences and protocols are now more likely to precede appeals to the deity whom men entitle the God of Battles. Naval officers not unfrequently find themselves placed in positions in which they have to conduct more or less delicate negotiations with foreign countries. Ignorance, in spite of good intentions, may result in landing us in awkward scrapes, and it is not too much to expect that the presence on his staff of an officer qualified to advise on points of international law would tend greatly to smooth the difficulties with which many an admiral at the head of a squadron in distant seas must find himself called upon to deal.

Such employment of a staff officer would, of course, scarcely be connected with those duties and requirements to which the epithet scientific is generally and somewhat arbitrarily applied. But it is amongst the many incidental advantages which the existence of such an officer would probably cause to the service. Nor, by the way, would there seem to be much difficulty in obtaining so desirable a result. Existing materials can supply us with the means. There must be many a young officer now serving in an admiral's office, who, looking forward to some day occupying a position similar to that of his immediate chief, would gladly qualify himself in those branches of international and naval law to which such great importance is now attached. The medical officers of the service, too, have shown a marked desire to inculcate the necessity of obedience to those laws of hygiene which former generations too much neglected, and to extend the knowledge of them. It is only owing to the inveterate and highly natural disposition of officers of all branches to concentrate their care and attention on particular ships that has prevented the perfection, at which in this matter we have arrived, being rendered, if possible, still greater.

But it is in those branches of science which are specially connected with the naval profession that there appears to be most need of training a body of officers whose labours might be of advantage to the service to which they belong. If it were attempted to give elaborate instruction to all, it is probable that the result would be the production of a number of people with little more than a smattering of the subjects which it is most necessary should be thoroughly known. The devotion of those, whose natural abilities and bent of mind should show them most likely to turn their teaching to good account, to a profounder and more advanced system of instruction could scarcely fail to conduce greatly to the efficiency of the Navy. Surely, to revert to the. truism with which we began, it is not being over-sanguine to predict that, with their opportunities, their mode of life, their necessarily constant habit of practically applying the doctrines which they should be taught, we should find in such a body as we hope to see some day created many earnest and talented inquirers who would enlarge the boundaries of those sciences with which the seaman is most concerned, who would explore new paths, and add fresh truths to those already accumulated by the patient labour of others who have gone before. The mere creation of such a staff would in itself be a concession to the science of method which would not be without its advantages. Hitherto we have been too content to proceed in unscientific and unmethodical ways. Philologists lay great stress on the presence in certain languages of certain words which express customs and habits of thought not found amongst those who. speak a kindred, but divergent, tongue. So perhaps there is some significance in the fact that for the two phrases "Happy-go-lucky" and "Rule of Thumb," it is not easy to find exact equivalents outside our English speech.

We have promised not to discuss the details of a system of education which might produce the class of men of whom we have been speaking. We hope to be pardoned, however, if we make the following remark:— Almost in sight of where we write this page there stands a noble pile of historic, but now deserted, buildings, of which the records have long been connected with all that is proudest in those of the Navy. Built on the site of the palace of that bold queen who from the fort of Tilbury, no great way off across the water, hurled "foul scorn at Parma and at "Spain," Greenwich Hospital was intended as a lasting memorial of the great sea-victory of La Hogue. Close to a gigantic engine-factory, scarcely out of view of some of the greatest shipbuilding establishments in the world, where the mightiest iron-clads are constructed, within earshot of the proving-grounds of the most stupendous artillery ever seen, close to a vast establishment for the manufacture of telegraphic wire, passed daily by ships of every size and of every class, under the shadow of a celebrated observatory, and within easy range of the lecturerooms of our most eminent professors, this noble pile seems to call for employment as a place of instruction for those who may add fresh lustre to our Navy's glory.

 C. A. G. B., R.N.

Feb. 17,1872.



  • C.A.G.B., R.N. (April, 1872). "On the Necessity of Forming a Naval Staff". In Reed, E.J., C.B. Naval Science: A Quarterly Magazine for Promoting the Improvement of Naval Architecture, Marine Engineering, Steam Navigation, and Seamanship. (London: Lockwood & Co.) (No. 1.): pp. 9–14.