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Able Seamen: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 1850-1939.

Able Seamen: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 1850-1939. By Brian Lavery. (Annapolis, MD. United States Naval Institute Press, 2012. Pp. 352. $41.95.)

In Royal Tars, the first volume of his trilogy on the social history of the Royal Navy's sailors, the author of this book examined the age of sail; this installment covers the age of steam down to the eve of the Second World War, a period of only ninety years. The shift in scope reflects the remarkable transformation that took place in the career structure and wider perception of the British sailor. In 1853, the old system of raising men for a voyage was replaced by continuous service--men and boys joined the navy for ten or twenty years, qualifying them for a pension.

This new professional status reflected the growing demand for skilled man-of-war sailors. After 1830, specialist gunnery training and steam power transformed naval service. Future sailors would be gunners and engineers. The Crimean War of 1853-1856, the only major conflict between Waterloo and 1914, provided an early test of the new system. The British Army soon faltered, calling on the navy for manpower, technical support, and, above all, heavy artillery. Naval brigades serving ashore would feature in most British wars of this period, and in the First World War a large Royal Naval Division fought on the Western Front. By the 1870s, iron steamships, heavy guns, hydraulic machinery, and torpedoes emphasized the increasingly specialized demands placed on the man-of-war sailor, while his public persona, cemented by the issue of a standard uniform in 1857, moved from raffish outsider to icon of working-class respectability.

In 1901, sailors pulled Queen Victoria's hearse, completing this remarkable transformation. Increasingly sailors had families and responsibilities; they were more closely integrated into society as issues of class and organized labor began to divide Britain. Their recruitment and retention were subjects of the first importance to British statesmen. In the 1890s, the navy expanded to meet the challenge of rival fleets. Manpower doubled in little more than a decade. Many of the new men were stokers, a very different career to the upper-deck crew. In the First World War, the Royal Navy expanded to almost a million men, acquired an air force, and mastered several new systems, from airships to submarine detection by hydrophone. Postwar disillusionment with war in general, the lack of a glorious battle, and the emergence of an independent Royal Air Force challenged the navy's age-old support among the wider public. By 1939, the sailor had lost a little of his luster.

In a text aimed at the general reader, Brian Lavery mixes archival and anecdotal sources to demonstrate how the service was changing and what the men made of the experience. With a far richer haul of contemporary sailors' accounts, Lavery explores a unique culture of arcane rituals, camaraderie, resistance to authority, and the delights of the seedy side of naval dockyard towns, where pubs like the French Maid provided all the entertainment a sailor needed. This book and the trilogy of which it is a part will be required reading for all students of the subject--a handsomely illustrated introduction to a quintessentially British hero.

Andrew D. Lambert

Kings College, London

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Author:Lambert, Andrew D.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Words:535
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