By Richard Freeman
Pen and Sword Maritime
Reviewed by Dr Tim Coyle
REGULAR readers of Headmark book reviews will recall the recent review of Historical Dreadnoughts, the ‘history wars’ between Professor Arthur Marder and Captain Stephen Roskill, the great historians of the Royal Navy in the 20th century. This book, The Great Edwardian Naval Feud, is the story of an earlier struggle, that between the titans of the Royal Navy, the volcanic genius Admiral John ‘Jackie’ Fisher and the patrician and folk hero Admiral Lord Charles Beresford (universally known as ‘”Charlie B”).
Whereas the Marder-Roskill feud was history-related, the Fisher-Beresford campaign went to the core of the mighty Royal Navy, convulsing serving officers and politicians alike. Some readers may find their patience stretched in the face of Beresford’s disruptive insubordination – difficult to reconcile in a disciplined service. The book exposes the divisiveness that both Fisher and Beresford engendered in the service and is a fascinating window into the times.
Both actors in this drama are well known to naval history buffs. Fisher and Beresford were chalk and cheese. Fisher, born into the large family of an unsuccessful colonist in Ceylon, entered the Royal Navy “…penniless, friendless and forlorn” and rose to become First Sea Lord through ruthless pursuit of reform, both in officer education and in naval technology, scrapping dozens of ships “which could neither fight nor run away” and introducing the revolutionary ”Dreadnought” and his favourite design – the battlecruisers. His reforms caused great division within the service; those opposing him resenting his relentless mission of change, while his supporters – those in the ”Fishpond” – were progressives who rode to high rank in his wake.
Beresford, on the other hand, was the scion of a wealthy Irish family who lacked for nothing either materially or in influence. A magnificent seaman, totally fearless in action, charming to all, he was loved by officers and seamen alike and by the general public. However, his lifelong passion was incessant complaints to the Admiralty regarding his perception of the service’s lack of preparation for war. As he reached fleet commander status, he added a constant tirade against the claimed shortage of ships in his command, which he maintained was a slight against him personally. To this he added an intense detestation of Fisher.
In this campaign his unique parallel career as naval officer and sometime member of parliament sorely strained the Admiralty’s attempts to control him. From the age of 28, Beresford would periodically go on half pay and contest House of Commons seats which he invariably won, due to his immense popularity. How Beresford rose to the rank of admiral in command of the Royal Navy’s premier fleets, despite the Admiralty’s constant reprimands, speaks of the power of influence in the Victorian and Edwardian era.
The book records 23 official reprimands and expressions of disapprovals issued against Beresford – from his demotion from cadet captain on the same day he was promoted in 1860 to the 1908 circulation of letters criticising Home Fleet officers when he was Commander-In-Chief of the Channel Fleet. In parliament Beresford thundered against the Admiralty, which he continued when he returned to active service as a fleet commander. His ultimate ambition was either First Sea Lord (to replace Fisher) or to be political head of the navy as First Lord. He seethed with rage when Fisher was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet and extended as First Sea Lord in 1905. Had Fisher retired Beresford would, in all probability (and as Beresford expected), have assumed the leadership of the navy.
The Great Edwardian Naval Feud is well researched and painstakingly details Beresford’s rise and eventual fall, following the government enquiry established to investigate his complaints. The book requires the reader’s perseverance to negotiate the labyrinthine details; however, as a record of the culmination of Beresford’s disruptive career, that perseverance is needed to fully appreciate the issues of the feud and its effect on the navy and the government. Beresford’s naval demise prior to World War I freed the service from the imponderable ”what if…” he had assumed the post of First Sea Lord in the immediate pre-war period.
Royal Navy enthusiasts of the Edwardian era will find in this book all their favourite tales of stultifying and hidebound attitudes which engendered in officers a narrow view of their profession, where they were not encouraged but actively dissuaded from thinking. The greatest navy in the world operated as appendages of the respective commanders-in-chief. Even Fisher, as commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet, rarely allowed his second-in-command, Beresford, to exercise the fleet independently. Beresford complained that he had nothing to do on the Mediterranean station in 1899. When Fisher arrived at Admiralty House Malta to assume command he reported “an absence of detailed preparation for war.”
The author continues: “This was an understatement. What he witnessed and indeed would have done so in any British fleet of the last 80 years, was an eye-catching collection of beautiful ships, brass sparkling, decks spotlessly whited, guns glistening with fresh paint…and not much more. “
The gunnery reformer, the firebrand Rear Admiral Percy Scott (who Beresford would pillory) wrote that It was a time when “a ship had to look pretty; prettiness was necessary for promotion.“ It was this attitude which Fisher fought so fiercely and why the likes of Beresford, as his influence grew, treated his later Channel Fleet command as a personal yacht club which he used as an prop to his exalted persona. The commander-in-chief’s flagship dictated every activity and all ships had to conform to the C–in-C’s movements; even as to when washing could be hoisted to dry. Junior squadron flag officers rarely exercised independence and initiative.
“War plans“ remained in the heads of the First Sea Lord at the Admiralty. C-in-C’s were not privy to these plans, and this was at the core of Beresford’s relentless campaign against the Admiralty. This then was the setting for the great Edwardian naval feud. Fisher made a strategic error when he appointed Beresford as C-in-C Channel Fleet in April 1907 as this further strengthened Beresford’s decades-old crusade. From the outset Beresford bombarded the Admiralty with complaints regarding the perceived lack of ships under his command and the absence of war plans communicated to him as C-in-C.
Finally the Admiralty struck back and terminated Beresford’s nominal three year command after two years under the pretext of fleet reorganisation. The government set up an enquiry, comprising five cabinet ministers, within weeks of Beresford’s hauling down his flag in March 1909. The enquiry extended over 15 days and the proceedings are exhaustingly detailed in the book and it is the extent of this detail which might strain some readers’ forbearance.
While the enquiry found against Beresford’s claims, it was hardly critical of him and his constant insubordination. This gave Beresford more room to continue his campaign against the Admiralty as a parliamentarian. Fisher also suffered as his retirement occurred within three months of the enquiry’s end. While Fisher returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord under First Lord Winston Churchill in late 1914, Beresford remained a member of parliament until his elevation to the peerage in 1916. His political influence waned and while he anxiously awaited the expected recall to the fleet during the war, this never came. He died in 1919 an embittered man.
The author ends with this summary of Beresford:
..the feud must remain the defining feature of Beresford’s life; for all his courage, for all his skill as a seaman, for all his popularity, he was a man of feeble intellect and poor judgement…Beresford turned competition for high office into a vendetta. In doing so he took on the Admiralty and the Government and lost.
Beresford and Fisher live on in this book. The reader will become infuriated with Beresford and the Admiralty’s weakness in not controlling him, but this is history and it is enthralling.