Winston Churchill on Royal Navy Traditions
According to several published histories of the Royal Navy, and of Winston Churchill, the former First Lord of the Admiralty once said, “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy, and the lash”. Churchill liked the quote, though he never cited it in his work, and when asked about it he remarked to his private secretary, Anthony Montague-Browne, that he wished he had said it, but that he had not. A second version of the quote included prayers as one of the traditions of the Royal Navy. Both versions of the quote emerged at a time when the First Lord was attempting to modernize the British Fleet by converting it to burn fuel oil rather than coal, and concentrate on smaller ships.
To the more hidebound senior British Admirals this activity by the First Lord, particularly the reliance on smaller ships rather than great lines of battle filled with battleships and battlecruisers, was a threat to the Navy in which they had built their careers. The British Navy of the time, early in the twentieth century, had two main missions; control of the Mediterranean and its links to India, and control of the North Sea. The main threat in the former was the Italian and Austro-Hungarian fleets, in the latter, it was the Imperial High Seas Fleet of the German Empire.
When one of these Admirals complained in a somewhat heated meeting with Churchill of the need to maintain the traditions of the Navy Churchill, according to the Admiral, responded with the above quote, belittling both the Navy’s storied past and endangering its future, or so he told fellow officers and reporters. The quote itself is a derivative from an old British Navy chanty which referred to what can be expected ashore and at sea. One line of the chanty went, “Ashore its wine, women, and song; aboard its rum, bum, and bacca (bacca referring to tobacco).
The first recorded reference to the quote is found in the diary of Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat, author, and politician who worked for a time in Churchill’s government during the Second World War before he was asked to resign his position by the Prime Minister. Nicolson was an anti-Semite, a married man who confessed to his wife that he feared he would infect her with a venereal disease he had contracted from a same-sex encounter with a colleague (he didn’t) and who once wrote a column during the Italian campaign in which he declared human life expendable, but works of art irreplaceable.
The quote was, like many others, widely spread by political enemies and supporters of those opposed to change in the 1910s, when it was allegedly uttered, and again in the 1940s, when Churchill was the Prime Minister. Churchill, who had written of the history of the Royal Navy and would again after the war, expressed some admiration for the line, probably due to its pithiness, but clearly stated that it was not a sentiment which he expressed. Nonetheless, many books of quotations attribute the quote to Churchill without making note of his comments denying that it was original to him.