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Staging the Navy: Pageantry, Heritage, and Commemoration in Interwar Britain

In July 1929, the journalist and naval historian H.W. Wilson noted that the ‘Army Pageant has come and gone in the form of the Aldershot Tattoo. The Royal Air Force is busy with its preparations for its own magnificent display next week.’ ‘How is it’, Wilson bemoaned, that the ‘Navy, upon which the safety and very existence of this country depend, has nothing of the same kind? Is it want of imagination and insight, or merely preoccupation with other matters?’ (Daily Mail, 4 July 1929).

In order to redress this neglect, Wilson called for a ‘naval tattoo’, while others similarly lobbied for a ‘Sea Pageant of Famous Epics’ (Daily Mail, 5 July 1929). Such events, it was hoped, would rival the Army’s Aldershot Searchlight Tattoo and the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon and, in doing so, provide a stage for the naval education of the British public. Yet, despite Wilson’s article, the performance and representation of the navy through historical pageantry, tableaux, tattoos, and re-enactments formed an important part of the popular civic ritual of interwar Britain. Thousands of men from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines – alongside ex-servicemen and amateur volunteers – took part in performances, while hundreds of thousands of spectators saw some form of naval pageant.

Thanks to a Society for the History of War bursary, I was recently able to carry out a research trip to examine a broad range of naval pageants. Such events promoted themes of naval heritage and tradition. Yet, they were not simply nostalgic or anti-modern, also staging vivid and often militaristic depictions of modern war and conflict. While pageants had educational and propagandistic value, they could also be humorous and light-hearted (as in the case of crossing the line ceremonies held at Navy Weeks in the 1930s). Conversely, many pageants were more solemn in nature. Indeed, a number of naval pageants made important contributions to the post-war commemorative landscape, providing a space to commemorate and memorialise those who died at sea during the First World War.

Pageants dedicated to the commemoration of the First World War at sea included the Thames Pageant and River Procession, the Trafalgar Orphan Fund pageants, alongside a range of processions staged by the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society. Underpinning such displays were themes of patriotism, loss, and sacrifice. Tableaux in the Trafalgar Orphan Fund pageants, for instance, included items titled ‘Lest we forget’, models of the recently constructed Portsmouth Naval Memorial, and depictions of Jack Cornwell, the sixteen-year-old sailor who was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for his gallantry during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Other forms of naval theatre and pageantry included re-enactments of a range of First World War naval engagements, including the Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, the Battle of Jutland, the Zeebrugge Raid, and even the sinking of the Lusitania. As such episodes suggest, naval pageants provide important insights into issues such as heritage, commemoration, and cultural displays of naval war and conflict following the First World War.

Although figures such as Wilson expressed concerns that the navy was becoming ‘lost to view and forgotten’, historical pageantry and theatre helped to impress upon the British public the ongoing importance of the navy on which, Wilson reminded his readers, ‘the safety and very existence of this country depend’.

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