Earl Beatty: The Last Naval Hero

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Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty: The Last Naval Hero – An Intimate Biography. By Stephen Roskill. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 1980 – rereleased with new introduction 2018
Reviewed by Tim Coyle

THIS book’s name, at first sight, might seem to some students of the Royal Navy in the First World War as overly grandiose; particularly labelling Beatty as ‘the last naval hero’.

Such a title must surely be subjective as many other flag officers – most notably some great names of the Second World War who achieved victory at sea in naval battle – might be argued to be worthier of this title. Beatty never won a naval battle; he had ‘defeat snatched from the jaws of victory’ at Dogger Bank and Jutland, largely through his own fault. His impetuousness in action and lack of direction to subordinates exacerbated by poor staff work robbed him of true greatness as ‘the second Nelson’. Despite this he was lauded as a naval hero by officers and sailors of the Grand Fleet and by most of the British nation. His histrionic flamboyance, aided by his good looks, wealth and self-appointed uniform variations (rakish cap angle and six-button jacket) appealed to the service and public as a dash of excitement as compared to the stolid, micro-managing characteristics of his superior as Grand Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

‘Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty’ by Stephen Roskill was first published in 1980 and this reissued edition comes with a new introduction by noted maritime historian Professor Eric Grove. Roskill’s reputation as a historian of the Royal Navy is well known; largely for his three volume ‘The War at Sea 1939-1945’, two volume ‘Naval Policy between the Wars’ (now reissued and available) and his three-volume biography of Maurice Hankey, ‘Man of Secrets’, as British Cabinet Secretary and definitive Whitehall insider. Roskill’s life and work – both as a naval officer and historian – was the subject of Historical Dreadnoughts (Seaforth Publishing 2011) as was his sometime rival, the American historian Arthur Marder. Roskill and Marder divided their historical writings broadly on the lines of Marder covering the World War One period and Roskill the Second World War. When Marder ‘trespassed’ into Roskill’s turf with several books (‘From the Dardanelles to Oran’, ‘Operation Menace’, ‘Old Friends New Enemies’) an incipient feud ensued.

Roskill’s intimacy with the Royal Navy stemming from his pre- and wartime sea service and Admiralty appointments, together with his contacts with surviving senior officers is evident in this classic work. Roskill occasionally refers to Marder’s analysis in Beatty’s wartime years however this is constructive and does not evince any ill-feeling. A valuable adjunct to the book is Eric Grove’s new Introduction in which he reviews both Beatty, and Roskill’s treatment of him, in a contemporary vein.

As is well known, Beatty succeeded Jellicoe, as C-in-C Grand Fleet but he also followed Jellicoe and Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss as First Sea Lord. Jellicoe’s demise with his post-war ‘banishment’ to New Zealand as Governor-General, allowed Beatty a seven-year term as First Sea Lord. During this period, he seethed at the perceived insults to his record as commander of the Battle Cruiser Fleet. These centred around accusations of the BCF’s poor gunnery at Jutland, his storming away from the 5th Battle Squadron (comprising four of the latest 15-inch gunned Queen Elizabeth class battleships) which were attached to his Flag for support leaving this crack squadron to wander to the right flank of the Grand Fleet deployment while Beatty romped to the left in front of the deploying Grand Fleet. While drawing the German forces towards the Grand Fleet he gave no position reports and only a garbled report to Jellicoe before the main engagement which eventuated in the German High Sea Fleet escaping the long-expected annihilation. To add insult to injury his squadron turned 180 degrees inexplicitly in the pursuit of the retreating enemy.

A significant, although not excessively prurient, aspect of the book is the correspondence between Beatty and his mistress of many years, Eugenie Godfrey-Faussett, the wife of his sometime staff officer and highly socially-placed equerry to King George V. The correspondence was preserved by Eugenie into her later life and while some people suspected a relationship, none ‘outed’ them.

Beatty had ‘married well’ to Ethel, a divorced American of extreme wealth. Her money facilitated Beatty moving in elevated circles but latterly caused him great grief as Ethel deteriorated into depression and insanity. Her relentless jealousies, demands and overall unreasonable behaviour tempted Beatty to find a kindred soul. The liaison was physical during the war years however, this matured into a deep friendship which gave Beatty solace with Eugenie helping to manage the impossible Ethel leading up to her death. Roskill sensitively manages this relationship and shows a humbling of the outwardly brash hero.

Beatty expended much ink and bile against his critics and suppressed publications which exposed his failings. Chief of this was ‘Jutland: Naval Staff Appreciation’ of 1920, a book ostensibly to be used as a Staff College text which threatened to rent the Navy to the extent that Beatty ordered it to be pulped. However, a few copies survived and, happily, this work was finally published in 2016 by Seaforth Publishing. Beatty also suppressed an official account of Jutland by Captain John Harper which led Admiral Reginald Bacon publishing ‘The Jutland Scandal’ in 1925. Finally, Harper fired a repechage with ‘The Truth About Jutland’ in 1927. A taste of the Beatty critique is Admiral Bacon’s summation that ‘Admiral Beatty…failed when an experienced admiral would have succeeded, and his battle cruisers paid dearly for the omission, and the nation missed what should have been an annihilating victory’.

It is arguable whether these volcanic exchanges between Beatty a and his critics lessened his standing in the upper echelons of government, the Navy and the British community. However, Beatty could brook no demeaning of his fighting leadership and enjoyed an adulation which few of his contemporaries could equal.

Beatty survived the Jutland and other controversies and his tenure as First Sea Lord was largely successful. Roskill identifies Beatty’s acquiescence to the Royal Air Force lobby of 1918 to hand over the Royal Naval Air Service to the newly formed service as his greatest administrative policy error; a decision he later bitterly regretted. However, Roskill credits Beatty as preparing the Royal Navy’s order of battle, particularly in cruisers, through battling the restrictions of the inter-war naval armaments restrictions, for the war he was certain to come. He supported the construction of the Singapore naval base through a prescient forecast of what transpired in 1942.

As an assessment of Beatty at the Admiralty, Roskill quotes J C C Davidson, Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty who had an unexcelled opportunity to work with Beatty. Davidson wrote: ‘The dominant figure when I joined the Admiralty was the First Sea Lord, Admiral Beatty. His hat was worn at a rakish angle over one eye, he was a devoted friend of all horseflesh, and he had that rather attractive Irish horseman’s face. He was a very good-looking man and he had a most attractive personality, could be very witty, and was loved by all those who were of the same making as himself; but not by those who were a little more cautious and careful. He had immense energy and was prepared to take risks, but he had that genius for taking risks which turned out to be (so) successful that they appeared not to be risks at all … He spoke well and forcibly, and wrote much as he spoke. His powerful mind and immense concentration enabled him to master a case and put it so confidently and with such ability that he carried great conviction. He could stand up to the toughest Cabinet … several times during the discussions of the Estimates the Admiralty case was left entirely to him …’

A Beatty affectation lives on in the US Navy. The attachment of US battleships to the Beatty-commanded Grand Fleet in 1918, as the 6th Battle Squadron, resulted in an excellent relationship between the US ships’ companies and those of the Grand Fleet, particularly with its Commander-in-Chief. Such was Beatty’s influence on the American officers that they adopted Beatty’s characteristic six-button uniform jacket in place of their anachronistic high collar coat.

This biography of Beatty is a definitive analysis of this complex man, written by a naval historian of impeccable credentials. Roskill substantiates the grandiose title in this work and we come away from the book with an appreciation of Beatty’s triumphs and tragedies, his character flaws and strengths and his intense personal feelings and disappointments. Perhaps he is, after all, The Last Naval Hero.

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