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First Sea Lord - 1889-1919

1889-1891 Sir Vesey Hamilton
1891-1893 Sir Anthony Hoskins
1893-1899 Sir Frederick Richards
1899-1904 Lord Walter Kerr
1904-1910 Sir John Fisher
1910-1911 Sir Arthur Wilson
1911-1912 Sir Francis Bridgeman
1912-1914 Prince Louis of Battenberg
1914-1915 John Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher
1915-1916 Sir Henry Jackson
1916-1917 Sir John Jellicoe
1917-1919 Sir Rosslyn Wemyss
1919-1927 David Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty

The First Sea Lord was responsible for advising on preparations for war, for the fighting and sea-going efficiency of the fleet, and for the superintendence of the War Staff. The 2nd Sea Lord was responsible for personnel; the 3rd Sea Lord for materials; the 4th Sea Lord for transport and stores, full and half pay, salvage and collisions. No one was specially responsible for the conduct of all operations of war, and though this presumably rested with the Chief of the War Staff he was not a member of the Board, and at least two flag officers senior to him were acting in an advisory capacity to the Board. The First Sea Lord was responsible for the "fighting efficiency of the fleet," a phrase covering an immense technical scope and opening out an endless vista of all sorts of considerations.

Jacky Fisher was an extraordinary man, not to be judged by normal standards. People were either wholeheartedly with him, or bitterly opposed to him. There was no half-way house. During Sir John Fisher's administration as First Sea Lord (1904-10), the British Navy underwent a complete transformation. On October 21, 1904 - the ninety-ninth anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar - Mr. Arthur J. Balfour, then Prime Minister, and one of Fisher's most enthusiastic converts, gave him practically a free hand as First Sea Lord. The organization of the admiralty was changed so as to give him practically absolute control; he was placed at the head of several important committees and most officers of importance were ordered to report to him.

Believing that concentration was the keynote of successful warfare, he boldly reduced the Mediterranean Fleet in order to strengthen that in the North Sea, which he held to be the main strategic theater. Germany, and not France, was the menace. He reformed Osborne, accentuating the importance of the engineering branch of the sea-profession, developed the submarine, fathered the sea-plane, adopted the water-tube boiler, the turbine, and oil fuel, and introduced the Dreadnought type of battleship and the battle-cruiser. Many old ships were scrapped, 'a miser's hoard of useless junk' in Fisher's words, and their inshore duties taken over by the new surface and submarine flotillas. The reduced reserve fleet was made more ready for war and the fleet was concentrated in home waters to meet the threat posed by the growing German High Seas Fleet. Fisher cut down expenses without in any way reducing the efficiency of the fleets, turned out old-fashioned ships, and reorganized the whole service. And Sir John had made other preparations. He had handed the gunnery work over to Sir Percy Scott and Sir John Jellicoe.

Most notably, the all-big-gun concept was applied both to battleships and large armoured cruisers, battlecruisers, producing the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought and HMS Invincible. As Germany emerged as the major threat, a country with few armoured cruisers, Fisher was forced to concentrate on the battleships rather than the battlecruisers but the combination threw Germany's plans for a naval build up into confusion. All these changes were done against a background of great controversy and Fisher was eventually forced from office but his innovative policies helped Britain to win the naval race.

Lord Charles Beresford enlisted his aristocratic influence against this son of a humble Scottish officer; he wrote books, made speeches, entered Parliament, obtained parliamentary inquiries - all in an attempt to cause Fisher's downfall. Charles William de la Poer Beresford, second son of the 4th marquis of Waterford, was for many years known by his courtesy title of "Lord Charles." He entered the navy in 1859 and rose rapidly through all grades by force of a strong personality, a fiery enthusiasm in his work and a reckless courage that made him the idol of his comrades. He was a lord commissioner of the admiralty from 1886 to 1888, when he resigned, owing to what he regarded as inadequate provision for the needs of the fleet. Beresford retired from the navy in 1911. He was a persistent critic of the administration of Sir John (later Lord) Fisher while the latter was First Sea Lord. Beresford's book, 'The Betrayal,' issued in 1912, was withdrawn by request of the government. It led, however, to the formation of an Imperial naval war staff.

At various times Beresford sat in Parliament for different constituencies ; his last one, Portsmouth, he represented till 1916. In the House he was nicknamed the "stormy petrel" and "M.P. for the Navy." Like Lord Roberts, he was one of the few British public men who foresaw a gigantic conflict in the not distant future, and openly proclaimed it on every possible occasion. As the one spent 10 years in pleading for a powerful army with which to face the coming storm, so the other at all seasons insisted on the maintenance of the "two-power standard" for the navy, propounding the fundamental truth that battleships arc cheaper than battles. Already in 1905 he wrote, "Great Britain must watch the activity of the German Navy League with the greatest attention."

In 1910 Sir Arthur Wilson became Lord Fisher's successor as First Sea Lord. In Fisher's successor, Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (b. 1842), the navy obtained a first sea lord who commanded universal confidence. In 1907, when "Tug" Wilson had reached the age of retirement, a special Order in Council gave him the rank of admirai of the fleet which carried with it five more years of service on the active list. He succeeded Lord Fisher as First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. That the protection of British commerce, and, inversely, the suppression of that of the enemy is the main objective of the British fleet is indicated in a memorandum drawn up by Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, First Sea Lord in 1910, in which he stated that the real danger for Great Britain to guard against was not invasion but the destruction of her merchant shipping, hence, the main object of the British fleet was to prevent any ship of the enemy from getting to sea far enough to do any mischief.

The reforms demanded by Lord Beresford were not carried out during Admiral Wilson's tenure of office, but in 1911 the government planned to put these reforms into effect and Mr. Churchill was appointed First Lord for that purpose. Thereupon Sir Arthur Wilson retired from office. Admiral-of-the-Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson, formerly First Sea Lord, retired from the active list on March 4, 1912, on attaining the age of seventy.

Wilson was succeeded as First Sea Lord, on November 29, 1911, by Admiral Sir Francis Bridegman. A year later Churchill urged Bridegman to retire on the grounds of ill-health because the "burden may be more than you could sustain." Bridgeman did not wish to go quietly but acquiesced when told that Churchill's conclusion "must necessarily be final." Bridegman's resignation on the ground of ill-health was announced on December 6, 1912. The Bridgeman resignation became a major political problem for Churchill in the House and the Press. Five Sea Lords had been retired by Churchill who was accused of wanting to run the show himself. Bridegman was succeeded by Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg. On 20 December 1912 an acrimonious debate occurred in the House of Commons. The criticism was led by Andrew Bonar Law and Lord Charles Beresford. Although Churchill vigorously defended his actions, it was generally believed that he had not behaved well and that Bridgeman had been a victim. Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, who was a member of the House, and Winston Spencer Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, reviled each other to the utmost limit allowed in Parliament. "Backstairs methods, .... bribes and threats," "gross insinuations," and "skulking" were some of the choice phrases exchanged.

On 09 December 1912 Adml. Prince Louis of Battenberg, became First Sea Lord, followed in the office of Second Sea Lord by Vice-admiral Sir J. R. Jellicoe. It was Prince Louis himself, and not Mr. Churchill, as universally supposed, who was chiefly responsible for the mobilization of the British Fleet just before the outbreak of war in consequence of having "commanded the ships to stand fast, instead of demobilizing as ordered." Prince Louis of Battenberg, a most patriotic and capable sailor, unjustly attacked because of his German origin, tendered his resignation as First Sea Lord on October 29, 1914. The anti-German fury in England claimed an early victim and a shining mark-His Serene Highness Vice-Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, who, as First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, was practically in supreme control of British strategy at sea. Prince Louis was a native-born Austrian, and although he had been a naturalized British subject and attached to the Royal Navy since 1868, and in 1884 married into the British Royal Family by wedding his own cousin, Princess Victoria of Hesse, a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, a campaign inaugurated and mercilessly prosecuted by the aristocratic Morning Post, led to the Prince's resignation.

In October 1914 the retirement of Prince Louis of Battenberg from the post of First Sea Lord, led to Lord Fisher's being again installed in that office at the Admiralty. His presence was immediately felt in the dramatic and brilliant piece of strategy which resulted, under Adml. Sturdee, in the destruction of Adml. von Spee's squadron off the Falklands. Fisher then, with the cooperation and hearty support of Mr. Churchill, initiated a great building programme of cruisers, monitors, destroyers and small craft to the number of some 600 keels, pressing the American shipyards into the service, necessarily at an enormous cost. Everything had to be subordinated to haste, and in fact most of the craft were actually delivered within six months. Although primarily designed for a great strategic move into the Baltic, which Lord Fisher had himself drawn up in detail, this vast armada was gradually diverted from its original purpose to various other uses, among them the naval attempt to force the passage of the Dardanelles; and it was the War Council's decision to proceed with this that ultimately (May 1915) led to Lord Fisher's resignation of his post as First Sea Lord.

In mid-1916 Sir John Jellicoe was succeeded as commander-in-chief by Sir David Beatty, and returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord, where he remained until the end of 1917. The government wished bring fresh ideas into a lethargic Admiralty. His place in charge of the Grand Fleet was taken by Admiral Sir David Beatty. In May 1917 the term "War Staff" was altered to "Naval Staff" and the office of Chief of the Naval Staff was merged in the First Sea Lord (Admiral Jellicoe), while a Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff (Vice-Admiral Oliver) and an Assistant Chief (Rear-Admiral Duff) were appointed with seats on the Board. Jellicoe opposed the use of the convoy system to deal with the U-boat threat in the spring of 1917, but was responsible for its successful introduction after an intervention by Prime Minister Lloyd George. However, Jellicoe was exhausted after years in command of the Grand Fleet and on Christmas Eve 1917 he was abruptly dismissed by Eric Geddes, the new First Lord of the Admiralty.

On 17 December 1917 Sir David Beatty was succeeded by Rosslyn Wemyss (pronounced Weems), one of the members of the great family of Wemyss of Wemyss Castle, Fife. Wemyss was commander-in-chief in the East Indies and Egypt (1916-7), and shortly afterward First Sea Lord of the Admiralty (1917-9). In the Mediterranean, during the Dardanelles campaign, greater reputations were damaged beyond repair. In a record of events otherwise disastrous, his achievements were conspicuously successful. The rapidity with which he had effected an efficient organization was a glowing part of the records of the Admiralty. He first served as Second Sea Lord, having direction of the strategetical work. The younger element in the navy centered their hopes on "Rosy" Wemyss, as his friends call him. The purpose was to convert sound ideas into practical and effective action. It was generally understood that the new Sea Lord favored a more aggressive use of naval power than has heretofore been made. The British and American Navies were in full cooperation, and were thought likely to accomplish far greater results in 1918 than in the year past.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:19 ZULU