I blogged about some of the idiosyncracies of naval history conferences a few months ago. Last week, I was able to attend a particularly important example of the genre, a conference held at All Souls College, Oxford, to honour Professor John Hattendorf of the US Naval War College. The original raison d’etre, namely to mark his retirement from that institution, was overtaken by events: as Nicholas Rodger remarked at the conference dinner, the US Navy might be willing to phase out battleships and decommission a few aircraft carriers, but it’s realised that it can’t do without John Hattendorf, who duly remains in post. I was delighted to be there; I’ve known John for over 25 years, partly because his original area of interest (the War of the Spanish Succession) intersected with my own, partly because I’ve worked under his editorship on several projects, notably the centenary volume of the Navy Records Society and the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History. A quiet, modest man, John is one of the most perceptive historians I’ve known, as well as being unstintingly generous with his advice and support for younger scholars.

The conference was particularly impressive for all sorts of reasons. First of all, its venue, All Souls College, is one of the most exclusive academic institutions in the world. It contains only Fellows, with no undergraduate members at all, and the former are admitted principally by means of a fiendishly difficult examination. As befits its exclusivity, All Souls is, shall we say, a trifle eccentric: once, and only once, a century (yes, century – like the Vatican, Oxford works in the long term), the distinguished fellows parade round the medieval quadrangles by the light of flaming torches, singing a song as they go, in pursuit of a mythical mallard. The last such occasion occurred in 2001, so at a push, there might just be a screaming infant or two somewhere in the world at this very moment who will be eligible to take part in the next mallard hunt in 2101. But even without any sightings of the mallard, the chance to explore the splendours of All Souls was a rare opportunity indeed: the Tudor Old Library, where the conference sessions were held; the Codrington Library, a stunning eighteenth century space (I was fortunate enough to be able to work there, many years ago); the college chapel with its magnificent medieval reredos; and the neo-classical hall.

In sharp contrast to the surroundings, the organisation of the conference was at the cutting edge of modernity. Indeed, it’s the first conference I’ve ever been to that had its own app, a nice touch provided by the three organisers, Benjamin Darnell, Jeremiah Dancy and Evan Wilson, who also formed the first panel and delivered thought-provoking papers on aspects of eighteenth century naval history (notably Jeremiah’s now relatively well known but still highly controversial thesis that during the war of 1793-1801, only 16% of British naval seamen were pressed, thus turning the established orthodoxy on its head). Indeed, the quality of the papers throughout the conference was uniformly excellent. Naturally, I was particularly interested in the papers that were closest to my own work and interests, such as Jaap Bruijn’s talk on the deployment and decline of the Dutch navy and the fascinating paper by Jakop Seerup of the Royal Danish Naval Museum on Anglo-Danish and Anglo-Swedish disputes over the ‘salute to the flag’ in the 1690s and 1700s, disputes which led to several full-scale battles between navies that were nominally at peace with each other. But it’s also good to be taken out of one’s comfort zone, and several of the talks did that – perhaps most memorably, that by Captain Keizo Kitagawa of the Imperial Japanese Navy  sorry, the ‘Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force’, the defence attache at the London embassy.

The three keynotes were very different to each other, but all were remarkable in one way or another. Nicholas Rodger reviewed the historiography of naval warfare in the First and Second World wars and concluded that much of it is simply wrong – hampered by national bias and flawed preconceptions, ignorance of foreign source material, and a lack of awareness of the actual capabilities of the technology. The third volume of his history of the Royal Navy should certainly ruffle a few feathers when it comes out! Paul Kennedy provided a magisterial comparison of strategy in the great global wars of 1793-1815, 1914-18 and 1939-45; it’s difficult to see how any historian could work on a broader canvas. Finally, Admiral James Goldrick of the Royal Australian Navy and Professor Geoffrey Till had a lively discourse on the relationship between navies and naval historians. The former made a number of provocative but important points, suggesting for example that all those who write about maritime matters should make every effort to get to sea as much as they can (as he said, even a North Sea ferry crossing can give one a better understanding of the realities of naval warfare in World War I) while also pointing out that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for future historians to reconstruct the naval history of the last 15 years or so onwards, given how much shipboard and ship-to-shore communication is now undertaken through such ephemeral channels as chatrooms and messaging services.

So all in all, it was an excellent and highly enjoyable conference, especially as it amply fulfilled the principal criterion for going to such events – namely, to provide an opportunity to meet up with old friends and chew the fat!


There’ll be no post next week as it’ll be Easter Monday. Back in a fortnight!

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