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Wednesday, January 15, 2014
With Britain’s prowess as a naval power on the wane as the 19th century came to a close, MARK NICHOLLS reflects on how two Norfolk maritime figures endeavoured to change the face of the Royal Navy to help it meet the challenge of warfare in the 20th century.
As the 20th century dawned, Britain’s senior maritime figures were increasingly aware of the limitations of the Royal Navy.
For Britain to remain a leading sea power and continue Nelson’s legacy, the Royal Navy had to adapt and change: new ships, a switch from steam to oil burning vessels, more advanced techniques and a new generation of warships was desperately needed.
There was, however, little consensus on the course the new Royal Navy should plot and it would take strong characters to stand up to the traditionalists at the Admiralty to steer through those changes and ensure the fleet was ready to match the sea-power of nations such as Germany.
It fell to Norfolk’s two, and only First Sea Lords - who coincidentally followed one another as the most powerful mariners in the land – to do that, with both making significant contributions to the Royal Navy, ensuring that it was better placed to meet the demands of 20th century warfare.
First Sea Lord John “Jacky” Fisher of Kilverstone (1841-1920) drove through major reform and introduced the fearsome Dreadnought battleship, while Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (1842-1921) pioneered the advancement of torpedo warfare.
Fisher was a figure of immense importance in reforming the Royal Navy, but there remain differing views over his approach and whether he was as effective as he had hoped to be, particularly in assembling a deterrent force.
Some regard him as an Admiral who is up there with Nelson in the impact he had on the history of the British Royal Navy, while others assess him as vain and ruthless, a man who took on his rivals and made himself unpopular.
With a natural loathing of war, his efforts were primarily geared towards preventing conflict and defending the assets of the British Empire as they were. However, he is also accused of triggering an arms race as he strove to both avoid conflict and change the face of marine warfare.
Despite rising to the highest naval office in the land as First Sea Lord and the professional head of the Royal Navy – on two occasions – he built his career more on achievements as a shore-based officer rather than a seafarer. He acknowledged that fact, conceding, in his own words: “To be a good admiral, a man does not need to be a good sailor. That’s a common mistake. He needs good sailors under him.”
John Arbuthnot Fisher was born the eldest of 11 children on January 25, 1841, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where his father Captain William Fisher, was a British army officer with the 78th Highlanders. He joined the Royal Navy aged 13 in June 1854 at Portsmouth with HMS Victory as his first ship, serving on a number of vessels over the following years and in the China Wars of 1859-1860.
He studied at Excellent, the naval gunnery school, later returning as an instructor and head of torpedo and mine training. While there he married Frances Broughton and they later had a son Cecil and three daughters - Beatrix, Dorothy and Pamela - who all went on to marry naval officers who became Admirals.
Promoted to Captain at 33 in 1874, he commanded five ships, including HMS Inflexible, which was said to be the most powerful warship of her day.
A close friend of the future King Edward VII and knighted in 1894, he held key overseas commands before being given the chance to push his reforms through when appointed First Sea Lord in October 1904. He was also Admiral of the Fleet (1905-07).
During Fisher’s first tenure as First Sea Lord - until 1910 - he reorganised the fleet, the manner in which dockyards were managed, pushed the development and deployment of submarines, improved gunnery standards and encouraged the conversion of a largely coal-fuelled navy to oil power. He was ruthlessly ambitious and dedicated, intellectually brilliant and revelled in mastering new technologies but equally became known for his concerns for the welfare of sailors working on the lower decks.
Drafted into the Admiralty to reduce the naval budgets and reform the navy for a modern war, he created a navy that was suited to its needs: economical, yet awesome. Convinced that war with Germany was inevitable and that the Royal Navy would play a major role in it, he also escalated the development of larger and far more powerful all big-gun battleships, leading to HMS Dreadnought, which was completed in record time in December 1906 and effectively doubled the firepower of any existing ship.
The Dreadnought was the predominant type of battleship in the early 20th century, with an unprecedented number of heavy-calibre guns, and steam turbine propulsion. The first such ship, the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought, made such a strong impression, that similar battleships built subsequently were referred to generically as “dreadnoughts”.
Fisher took the navy from an age of wooden sailing ships and coal-powered vessels into the Dreadnought era, creating an efficient, modern fleet, equipped with the finest warships on earth and prepared for 20th century marine warfare.
Created Baron Fisher of Kilverstone in 1909, taking the motto “Fear God and dread nought”, Lord Fisher retired in January 1910, to be succeeded by Knyvet Wilson, but was later persuaded out of retirement by Winston Churchill for a second spell, to replace Prince Louis of Battenberg as the First Sea Lord who left office because of his Germanic connections. But there soon appeared cracks in the relationship with Churchill, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty, primarily over the Dardanelles expedition and Fisher eventually resigned over the campaign on May 15, 1915 serving out the remainder of the war at the Board of Innovations.
Lord Fisher died in 1920 and is buried in the churchyard at Kilverstone.
Knyvet Wilson and Fisher were men of the same naval generation, of similar ages with careers following a near identical trajectory. But whereas Fisher left conflict, controversy, feuding and division in his wake, Knyvet Wilson’s style helped calm the waters at the Admiralty.
Born in Swaffham on March 4, 1842, his father was Rear-Admiral George Knyvet Wilson and his uncle was Major-General Sir Archdale Wilson of Delhi, who was embroiled in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 and the siege of Delhi.
Having joined the navy from school, Wilson had seen limited combat in more than a quarter of a century of military service apart from briefly as a young midshipman in the Crimean War and the China Wars until he was despatched from his command post in Malta with a naval detachment of 240 marines and seamen in support of the Sudan Campaign. It was in that most unlikely of settings for a naval man, that he won his Victoria Cross. Aged 41 and a Captain in the Naval Brigade, he found himself in the midst of a deadly skirmish more than 10 miles from the ocean in the eastern deserts of Sudan on February 29, 1884.
After a number of setbacks, the British Army decided on a show of force in the region. Wilson’s men joined a force of about 4000 under the command of Major General Sir Gerald Graham who were to advance inland to take a small fort and then move to the village of El Teb, where the rebels had scored their latest victory.
Wilson’s role with the advancing party was vague, officially little more than a spectator hoping to see some action in a career that until that point had been relatively barren in combat terms.
After a cautious advance one of the detachment’s guns was seized and the British forced into rapid retreat, pursued by the enemy armed with swords and spears. Amid the fray, Wilson found himself projected forward from a position of relative safety to the front of the line and into single combat with the enemy.
What followed next can best be described in Captain Wilson’s own words.
“One fellow got in close to me and made a dig with his spear at the soldier on my left. He failed to reach him, and left his whole side exposed, so that I had a cool prod at him. He seemed to be beastly hard, and my sword broke against his ribs. The man on my right was a plucky fellow, and collared him around the neck and tried to throw him. The Arab still held onto his spear, so I hacked at him in a futile kind of way with the stump of my sword, and while I was doing so a second Arab came up and hit me over the head with a sword. My pith helmet took the greater part of the blow, so it only just cut the scalp and I hardly felt it.”
The close combat continued for several minutes until the 1st Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, came to his assistance. With the rebels repelled, word spread of Wilson’s gallantry and the commander of the brigade at El Teb, Sir Redvers Buller, later described it as “one of the most courageous acts I have ever witnessed.”
Wilson was invested with his Victoria Cross on Southsea Common, on June 6, 1884 followed by celebrations back in Swaffham for the local hero.
Promoted Rear-Admiral in 1895 to carry out secret torpedo-related manoeuvres from HMS Hermione, he became Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and Comptroller of the Navy in 1897. Knighted in 1902 while in command of the Home and Channel Fleets, Wilson was an influential figure in the development of the Royal Navy, and in particular of the torpedo as a weapon. However, he was not an advocate of submarine warfare, famously describing it as “a damned un-English weapon.”
With an austere personality, which saw him known as “Old ‘Ard’ Eart”, Knyvet Wilson became First Sea Lord in 1910 but he only accepted the position with reluctance. He resigned early from the post in 1911 and retired from the Royal Navy in 1912, though he did assist his successor during World War One. After the war he returned home to Beech Cottage, Swaffham, to play golf and help erect a memorial to the town’s war dead.
Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson received the title 3rd Baronet of Delhi in 1919, a title originally created for his uncle Sir Archdale Wilson, but the title became extinct on his death aged of 79 on May 25, 1921.
At his funeral, he was carried by four admirals and a vice admiral to burial in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s, Swaffham, followed by a memorial service at Westminster Abbey. On April 23, 1922, a bronze memorial plaque was unveiled in the church at Swaffham by Admiral Sir Edward Bradford. Wilson’s Victoria Cross medal, meanwhile, was donated to the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth.
See www.EDP24.co.uk and discover how to Norfolk sea lords readied Britain for the challenges of 20th century warfare. Tomorrow: Six Royal Navy ships named HMS Norfolk.