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March 03, 2007

Weapons of honour and war

Several of the readers of the book Out of Time have wondered why a Midshipman would carry a knife and not a sword. This is a misunderstanding, a lot of people hear the word "dirk" and think of the Scottish "Sgain dubh"(Black knife), the small sheath knife that fits into the sock when in Highland Dress. The "Dirk" carried by a Midshipman is, in reality, a small sword as can be seen in the photograph. It was sized to fit a young man of twelve to thirteen when he joined the Navy. Naturally as he grew up he would have made use of a larger weapon if he needed to, yet a dirk in the hands of a small boy at close quarters would have been absolutely lethal.

A Midshipman's Dirk from the early 19th Century. The blade is around 14 inches in length and the overall length is a little over 19 inches.

The carrying of a sword was considered the mark of a gentleman until after the Napoleonic wars so this marked out Midshipmen as being "Officers in training". They were not "Commissioned" but held a Warrant in the same manner as the Sailing Master and Master's Mates aboard the old wooden walls and were, more properly, "Warrant Officers". The Dirk symbolically sat between a sword (Officer and Gentleman) and the Lower Deck "Warrant Officer" who would have carried a cutlass when he needed a bladed weapon. As not yet an officer and not yet considered a "Gentleman" a sword was not appropriate. Certainly the Warrant Officers never "wore" a sword as part of their uniform.

To further complicate matters, following the great mutiny of 1797 when the Fleets at the Nore and at Spithead mutinied in response to Parliament's callous refusal to pay the sailors and their families the monies owed them, Naval officers were required to wear their swords slung from the belt and not on the hip. It is said that this indicates that the King no longer considered them to be "gentlemen", however, I suspect that this is much more to do with the fact that certain elements in parliament were simply being vindictive. Funny how history moves in cicles, because almost a hundred and fifty years later, at Invergordon, the Fleet mutinied again - over Parliament's cutting the pay of sailors by an "across the board" one shilling per week. For an Admiral one shilling in the 1930's was small bear, for a seaman it meant the difference between feeding his family and not doing so. Following that debacle, the Dirk dissappeared as a Midshipman's "sword". I wonder if that was supposed to prevent a bunch of mutinous Midshipmen assaulting their MP's?

Either way, the Dirk carried into battle by Midshipmen was worn with pride as the mark of their status, and it was used on occassion with determination to defend their lives, their ship or their men. It is a proud badge and has an even prouder place in our history. Sadly, I have no doubt that many of our so-called "leaders" today will simply see it as yet another piece of our history to shudder at and attempt to denigrate.

Perhaps we ought to remind them that it was boys carrying these that frequently were sent to board and seize the slave ships and who gave their very lives in suppressing the slave trade. It is a weapon of war yes, but it is also a badge of honour and we should honour those who carried it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at March 3, 2007 11:56 AM

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