Remain seated for victory

Even though the deck heads are now higher, naval officers still sit to toast the Sovereign. They are thereby reminded of the triumphs of Vernon, Nelson and Hood in the days when the wooden walls of England had dashed low ceilings. Traditions are important in the armed forces. The battle honours on the quarterdeck cannot win battles, but it can strengthen the will of those who fight today to know that they have more than simply their own honour to uphold. Pride in the achievements of the past and maintenance of the traditions is a significant part of the strength of a ship.

Just as in other areas of historiography the study of the Royal Navy has recently seen the assumptions of past generations challenged. The Victorian navy in particular was conventionally seen as hidebound and pejoratively ‘traditionalist’. There was much sniggering about the famous dictum that ‘you can tell a ship by its boats’ and the charge that gunnery exercises were neglected for fear of tarnishing the brass and dirtying the paintwork.

Interest generated by the preservation of HMS Warrior, the first British Ironclad, has led to a revision. (For instance, From Warrior to Dreadnought DK Brown, Chatham 1997.) The innovations in the design of ships, armour protection, guns, engines and equipment were extraordinary, even visionary. Tactics and training had to be thoroughly revised. But the Navy retained its character, its spirit, and its will to win, and emerged in 1905 to the Dreadnought era not dislocated but enhanced by the experience of a half century in which ships changed out of all recognition. This was not just because the officers continued to sit for the loyal toast, but that had much to do with it.

Whether we accept the title as a badge of honour, or sit uncomfortably with it, ‘Traditionalists’ have all this to hand. Tradition can indeed become hidebound or foolish convention. Our Lord condemned those who elevated the tradition of men above the Law of God. But true adherence to tradition links the past with the present in ways which allow an institution (or a church) to draw strength from the past while becoming stronger for the future.

Luke Miller is Vicar of St Mary’s, Tottenham.