New research that lifts the lid on the Royal Navy’s secret campaign to prosecute homosexual sailors in the run-up to and first months of the First World War has been unveiled for the first time by naval historian Professor Matthew Seligmann of Brunel University London.
Between 1911 and 1915, the British Admiralty, led at that time by Winston Churchill, sent out a number of confidential circular letters – memoranda to the fleet –advising how to identify and prosecute those suspected of involvement in what were euphemistically called ‘unnatural crimes’.
Whilst homosexuality was criminalised at the time, the difficulty of obtaining sufficient evidence for successful prosecutions and the threat of bad PR meant the Navy had often previously allowed suspects to leave the service quietly with an administrative discharge – ‘Services No Longer Required’, in the language of the day.
However, new evidence now points to a marked shift in policy in the years before the outbreak of the First World War.
“There is a well-known story that Churchill described naval tradition as ‘nothing but rum, sodomy, prayers and the lash’,” said Professor Seligmann, who revealed the research during his inaugural lecture at Brunel.
“I was working in the archive researching something completely different – I think it was blockade – when I came across a paper on the rum ration and then almost immediately one about corporal punishment.”
“Both were from the period when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, and I suddenly wondered if this was coincidence or if there was actually something to this quotation.”
Due to be published in his new book Rum, Sodomy, Prayers and the Lash Revisited in June, Professor Seligmann uncovered previously unseen confidential documents that reveal an ever-evolving effort to make successful prosecutions more likely.
Ultimately, the start of the First World War led the Navy to reassess their priorities, and the policy of prosecuting homosexual sailors quietly fizzled out, with much of the documentation that covered the policy since lost or destroyed.
“The material on at least two of the issues – reform of the spirit ration and the suppression of homosexuality – is really difficult to find,” said Professor Seligmann, who spent many years trawling through and cross-referencing naval archives in preparing his research.
“There were a lot of important papers that were missing. I either needed to find them – which I did in some cases – or find a way to find out what was in them by other means.”
Professor Seligmann said he initially envisaged working his research into a short article, which he hoped to publish in a well-known historical journal. But this plan did not come to pass; some of the examples used to illustrate the article were sufficiently ridiculous to modern ears as to be humorous, and the journal was worried that this might devalue the topic.
“It was turned down because the referee thought that it was a serious topic and it was a shame that I was writing about it, as he or she put it, for sport,” explained Professor Seligmann.
“I am glad the article was turned down because since then I have found out so much more about the topic and have turned what was just a short piece into a full-length book.”
Rum, Sodomy, Prayers and the Lash Revisited, by Matthew S. Seligmann (ISBN 9780198759973), will be published in June by Oxford University Press.
For further information on studying Politics and History at Brunel, please visit https://www.brunel.ac.uk/politics-and-history
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