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01 July 2016

History for humans (i.e. not academics): an example I read yesterday

The Russian royal yacht, the Standardt, dressed
This is an account of the Tsar's visit to Cowes in 1909 to watch the yacht racing with King Edward VIII and inspect the British Home Fleet at the Spithead Review (the main naval parade of those days).

This piece conveys something of the mood of the occasion described, while being both factual, selective and semi-poetic. This is history as, in my opinion, it should be written for an audeince if people.

The essay is quite long, but I have chosen the bits giving the views of this Russian – Alexander Spiridonovich, who was on the Tsar’s yacht, Standardt – of the British fleet and their inspection of it. The second to last paragraph is key to the "plot", but don’t read that before you have read the rest. 

Whatever else it may be, it is enjoyable to read and, as you correctly pointed out, a STORY – but it also conveys something which pure factual, analytical history does not – the SPIRIT of the occasion, the human and emotional side of it.

We had before us the entire North squadron of the English fleet. Three lines of huge combat ships and many lines of smaller ships were arranged in parallel in the harbour of Spithead and were lost out toward the direction of Cowes. One hundred Fifty-three of them, without counting the destroyers and the smaller ships, commanded by 28 admirals, who were receiving their crowned admiral, the Emperor of Russia.
Despite the rather strong winds, the ships remained stationary as they were anchored fore and aft.
It was as if immense spindles had been thrown by a powerful hand between the steel giants, ships formed into links between them, at the same time picturesque and yet of an impressive power. In front of this passed the yachts of the Sovereigns.
A characteristic "hurrah", which was similar to our Russian "hurrah", came to us from the ships also along with the sounds of the Russian national anthem. Our sailors responded back at full voice. We passed before ships each more and more impressive. We arrived before the right flank where we found many Dreadnoughts, the pride of the British fleet. This type of ship was at the time a novelty to us, as we did not yet have even one of this class of ship. Seeming like gigantic and monstrous irons as we passed by, they pressed down, so to speak, compressing the entire surface of the sea.
Passing before the Dreadnoughts, the Rurik could not turn as required, could not "deploy" and failed to hook up with one of the ships. It had to execute a manoeuvre which had the effect to make the ship leave the line. It soon joined back up with the rest of the squadron, at the same place it had occupied before the mishap.
The parade of ships lasted more than an hour. Then at 5 o'clock, the yachts returned to their places and dropped anchor, and one of the Dreadnoughts began to salute them with cannon shots. The monster made an indescribable thunder. The Polar Star also dropped anchor. Before us and to our left the entire surface of the sea was covered with yachts and small boats of all kinds. A genuine forest of masts it was, with flags flying from their tops. The tableau was less grandiose than the one in the harbour of Spithead, but was more happy and gay.
Their Majesties spent that day on board the royal yacht. That evening was a dinner, during which there were many proposals of official toasts. The Royal table was decorated with roses and was resplendent with gold dishes. The suite and Captains of the yachts dined separately, but were invited afterward to join with the circle around the Sovereigns.
The King and the Emperor spoke in their toasts of the Anglo-Russian friendship and of world peace.
The King observed that our Emperor was no stranger to England in general, nor to Cowes in particular.
In his response, the Emperor admitted to having been quite struck by the spectacle of the English Navy. He recalled the past and said that he would never forget the happy days which had passed fifteen years earlier under the reign of Queen Victoria.
The second day of their stay in English waters passed, for Their Majesties, with less solemnity.
The weather was exquisite, clear, warm. A soft breeze blew. In the morning they received several deputations, among them a deputation from London, led by the Lord Mayor who gave Their Majesties a magnificent gold coffret. Their Majesties then went on board the royal sailing yacht, Brittania and left to attend the races. The day before, the Emperor had been named an honorary member of the Royal Yacht Club and, as a sportsman, he showed a great pleasure.
Their Majesties did not return to the Standardt until six o'clock, after which they went to visit Empress Eugenie, widow of Emperor Napoleon III, who was on board a private yacht. They stayed with her for about one half hour.
The Emperor gave permission for the English journalists to visit the Standardt. Admiral Tchagyine received them with his customary kindness. The journalists were happily surprised to find in Their Majesties' salon were copies of the works of Shakespeare and other English authors.
Our officers went ashore where they were entertained by the English. Some of our men had even found the means to go to London for several hours.
The only men of the Standardt who did not go ashore were the Emperor, Tchagyine and Sabline. The Empress, to display her appreciation, had each man given as a gift of one of solid gold jetons with both the English and French flags, which they were selling in Cowes. That evening on board the Standardt there was a ceremonial dinner, at the end of which they were going to admire a magnificent tableau. As if by the stroke of a magic wand, the entire English fleet was illuminated with electric lights strung along the outlines of each ship. Under the dark blanket of night, the giant ships seemed transformed to be bordered in silver along their contours. As far as one could see into the distance these luminous spectres appeared smaller and smaller, with the farthest seeming to be mere fine silver threads.
The colossal fleet, stationary and sleeping, was a fairy tale vision.
When we awoke the next morning, the fleet was no longer there. Silently, without anyone having noticed, they left the harbour during the night. Only a true sailor can really appreciate the virtuosity of such a manoeuvre.

That same morning, our squadron left the English waters and proceeded back, with the Standardt in the lead, toward the Russian coast. The weather had again become sombre. The barometer fell.

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