Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sunday History Blogging (naval variant)

Officers but not gentlemen

Unlike army and air force officers, who hitch their swords and scabbards to their belts, naval officers, in accordance with dress regulations, are required to carry or 'trail' their swords. Rather than being hitched at the waist, the scabbard is suspended from two long leashes requiring the wearer to carry the scabbard to prevent it dragging on the ground or deck.

The myth surrounding this unique naval custom is that naval officers are required to carry their swords as a mark of disgrace, allegedly for involvement in some mutiny. Standardized dress regulations for naval officers started to become firm around 1748 which had no specific regulation regarding the wearing of swords. It wasn't until Victoria came to the throne that details regarding the carrying of swords became uniform and Victoria's reign was well after the Spithead and Nore mutinies. In any case, the major mutinies of the Royal Navy involved ratings and RN officers had no involvement which might bring disgrace upon the whole. In any event, there is little likelihood that the Lords of the Admiralty would have permitted a uniform distinction which would have brought the navy into ridicule. There is some suggestion that Victoria had made a casual remark that naval officers were not gentlemen (and the wearing of a sword was the mark of a gentleman.) In one sense she was quite correct.

Naval officers in British society were unique. The navy had, by the late 1600s, made it clear that being a "gentleman" was not sufficient to enter or succeed as a naval officer. Skill, as opposed to social status, was the mark of a naval officer and the navy exercised equality of opportunity at the point of entry over a century before the army saw the merits of such a program. Army commissions, very much the preserve of the nobility, were generally purchased. Naval commissions were granted only after a young teenager had learned his trade, passed his examinations and was selected for promotion on the basis of merit. When wartime required the navy to expand its officer corps, most were drawn from the seaman pool where education and skill in handling ships carried weight; social status carried none. Those aristocrats who did enter the navy found themselves competing on an equal basis with the sons of merchants and labourers. Given that, naval officers were not considered less than an aristocratic army officer; just different, and the title "naval officer" carried with it a degree of social standing which indeed made one a gentleman. So, while they may not have been the sons of gentlemen, naval officers were certainly considered gentlemen in British society.

Some historians suggest that naval officers never wore swords at sea and when the sword was used, the scabbard was discarded as useless, particularly when boarding another vessel. That certainly makes practical sense except that for most naval officers, who were unlikely to be good fencers, an edged sabre was the weapon of choice for close quarters fighting. Swords and rapiers had little place in the hack and slash boarding fights of the days of sail.

What is more likely is that the army changed and the navy did not. Trailing a sword shows up as an act of pride among light horse regiments where both officers and troopers loosened their spurs and allowed their trailing sword scabbards to rattle over the cobblestones. Naval officers, who would have no reason to wear a sword except when ashore, copied what was then a military display. So, all officers, regimental and naval, actually trailed their swords, with slings as long as possible, as a means of attracting attention to the wearer. This is the origin of the term, "sabre rattling". On parade, all officers carried their swords whether they were army or navy. Soldiers eventually slung their swords from their belts, for practical purposes, particularly as field drill developed. Naval officers, having never used swords for practical reasons and rarely wearing them in any case, saw no need to change and continued to carry them when dress dictated.

Trivia: Where does the term "cut and run" originate and what is its meaning?

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