Swimming in the ‘Fishpond’ or Solidarity with the ‘Beresfordian Syndicate’: An Analysis of the Inquiry by the Subcommittee of Imperial Defence into Naval Policy, 1909

Keith McLay
Canterbury Christ Church University

Admiral Sir John Fisher. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3330-5

Admiral Sir John Fisher. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3330-5.

Modern histories of the army and navy have long recognised that these institutions are in respect of their external and internal relationships, sui generis, political. The former relations, typically manifest in a competition for resources and prominence in campaign, have retained headline currency but it is arguably the latter associations which have proved more pointed and historically significant. 1  For the Royal Navy, the Edwardian period was especially divisive with the high command, and the officer corps more generally, split into two groups. A dominant collection of officers coalesced around the First Sea Lord, 1904-11, Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher, thereby forming the ‘Fishpond’, while the opposition faction was known as the ‘Syndicate of Discontent’ and fostered by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, who between 1903 and 1909 served successively as Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Squadron and the Mediterranean and Channel Fleets. 2.]

Sir John Fisher’s reputation as the preeminent naval officer of the Edwardian era has albeit with differing interpretations and emphasises been vouchsafed by his biographers and historians of early twentieth century naval policy. 3  Following A.J. Marder’s lead, though with varying degrees of approbation, a longstanding assessment of Fisher’s repute is founded upon his reform of the Senior Service which was at the turn of the twentieth century considered to be in an advanced stage of atrophy in terms of material, organisation and thinking. Promoting four strategic reform programmes, Fisher is commended for increasing naval efficiency and for creating a fleet ‘instantly ready for war.’ 4  Of these reforms, the first, the 1902 ‘Selborne Scheme’ of personnel reform, removed class barriers between the engineering and executive officer branches; the second, the revision of the fleet reserve, introduced a nucleus-crew system and permitted the decommissioning of obsolete warships; the third, a redistribution of the fleets, completed a strategic reorientation of naval defence; and, the fourth, the introduction of the Dreadnought class battleship, rendered obsolete the fleets of other European powers. 5  By contrast, revisionist scholars of Fisher’s tenure at the Admiralty argue that his naval reforms to restructure and control costs were focused upon prioritising the ‘flotilla defence’ of torpedo boats and submarines in home waters to prevent invasion while enabling the new, fast but heavily armoured ‘battle-cruisers’ to operate overseas in place of the Dreadnought battleships and armoured cruisers. 6  Both interpretations exemplify reform programmes of weight and interdependent elements which ensured that there was little latitude for those reluctant or opposed to accept only part. Although the revisionists disagree by degree, it was fortunate for the enactment and maintenance of his reforms that Fisher was a shrewd political admiral, enlisting with relative ease varying amounts of aid from successive First Lords of the Admiralty of different party political complexions. For many admirers, regardless of the route to success, Fisher’s genius was demonstrated when the concomitant of his reform programmes was an annual average reduction in the Navy Estimates of nearly £2 million over the three year period 1905-08. 7

Fisher’s achievements cannot be gainsaid but his record has given rise to hagiographic comment by contemporaries and historians which have uncritically diminished the opposition of the Syndicate. Verdicts such as those offered by Britain’s first modern Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, that Fisher was ‘probably the most remarkable man of his day’ 8 and by Marder that ‘in Fisher the Navy and the nation had found their man’ 9 imply that the faction within the service was a product of Fisher’s determined personality and not predicated upon disagreement over policy. Even Mackay’s balanced biographical treatment, which recognises that Fisher bore considerable responsibility for the fractiousness within the Service, characterizes its existence as a function of his character and not principled debate over the issues. 10  In a similar vein, the Revisionists applaud Fisher, his ideas and his reorganisation schemes but argue that enactment of his reform programmes required the advocacy of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, 1911-15, in the interval between Fisher’s first and second stints as First Sea Lord; this latter circumstance was more a product of a relative lack of political support than principled opposition to his polices. 11  It is notable, therefore, that from whichever perspective – traditional or revisionist – this historiography does not fully engage with the Syndicate’s criticism of Fisher’s programme on the two central issues of the disposition and preparation for war, both of which were championed by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford.

Born into an aristocratic Irish family, Beresford gained a reputation as a colourful career officer who was also active in national politics, sitting five times as a Conservative Member. 12]  Within the navy, Beresford’s standing was, nonetheless, largely established through his leadership of the Syndicate’s opposition to Fisher during the period when Beresford served as C-in-C, Channel Fleet, 1907-9, at that point the senior sea-going command. During these two years, Beresford agitated on the issues of fleet disposition and the preparation for a future war while simultaneously challenging the Admiralty’s arguments in favour of the then conventional wisdom that the strategic touchstone of the two power standard could be maintained simply by building more battleships than other powers. 13 Beresford’s challenge on these issues soon became an acrimonious public dispute with Fisher, as it spilled from private correspondence to the press and parliament. Ultimately, Beresford suffered the ignominy of being instructed by the then First Lord, Reginald McKenna, to haul down his flag on the grounds that a redistribution programme would absorb the Channel Fleet within the Home Fleet; Beresford’s naval career was effectively finished.

HMS Dreadnought. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives NH 61018.

HMS Dreadnought. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives NH 61018.

The dispute between the two admirals has been rejected as a ‘colourful footnote to Edwardian naval history’ 14 and this dismissal resonates in its rather cursory treatment within the histories of period, both specific and general, and within the biographies, all of which tend to focus attention upon Fisher’s agenda and his relative success in its implementation. 15 Where the relationship between the two men has been examined the emphasis has been upon its colourful qualities, the personal slights and intemperate behaviours rather than upon the substantive issue of policy. 16  That such a dismissal and focus upon the personalities is precipitous is vouchsafed by Beresford’s success in convincing Prime Minister Asquith that the Syndicate’s assessment of Admiralty policy merited an inquiry. This investigation comprised a Subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence chaired by Asquith with four other Cabinet Ministers – Robert, earl Crewe, the Secretary of State for the Colonies; John, viscount Morley, the Secretary of State for India; Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary; and R.B. Haldane, the Secretary of State for War – sitting alongside. The Subcommittee’s fifteen meetings between 27 April and 13 July 1909 and its subsequent report have generally received only cursory attention as a contribution to the politics and substance of naval defence prior to the First World War. Assessment, however, of the inquiry’s origins, deliberations and conclusions provides a powerful statement of the Syndicate’s opposition to Fisher and his programme and, moreover, it goes some distance to establishing equilibrium between the Fishpond and the Syndicate by reducing Fisher’s grand reputation while concurrently promoting the merits of Beresford’s poorly recognised views on naval defence.


Origins of an Inquiry

There are two prevailing interpretations of the inquiry’s origins. One considers it the outcome of Beresford’s pique at Fisher’s appointment as an Admiral of the Fleet in December 1905 which thwarted Beresford’s hopes of becoming First Sea Lord. 17    The second locates Beresford’s critique within the overarching framework of pre-existing opposition to Fisher. In this instance, Beresford’s agitation provided political momentum to previous calls for investigations into Admiralty policy; specifically, the strategic thrust of the Syndicate’s criticism focusing upon war planning and fleet disposition, which ignored the specifics of the 1904-5 reform, encouraged those Unionists who were not reconciled to the Opposition’s stance of bipartisan consensus on the broad parameters of naval policy to support an inquiry. 18  Both interpretations of the inquiry’s origins afford only scant attention to Beresford’s evaluation of naval defence and instead emphasise the personal or political factors. These latter elements are, however, tributaries to the main stream of the inquiry’s origins, namely the two-year period (1900-02) when Fisher and Beresford served respectively as C-in-C and Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet.  Viewed as a time of germination for the subsequent Fisher reforms, Beresford was also then active in developing ideas on naval defence which he maintained and subsequently linked to the personal and political dynamics to secure an inquiry into Admiralty policy.

Given the vindictiveness of the Fisher-Beresford dispute one could be forgiven for thinking that a pathological barrier prevented them conducting a congenial relationship. The reality was, however, more subtle. As the senior commanders of the Mediterranean Fleet at the turn of the century their relationship as work colleagues was pleasant, even friendly and familial. 19 Professionally mutual respect can also be inferred, with Beresford writing in February 1901 that ‘The Fleet, the Country and the Empire’ owed Fisher gratitude for bringing the civilians at the Admiralty on to the side of the naval experts. 20  Beresford’s 1900-01 ‘Dockyard Notes’ is a little used source which proves central to establishing that the Admirals’ early friendship was underpinned by similar visions for the Royal Navy and naval defence. Crucially, it also demonstrates that Beresford’s critique of Admiralty policy from 1907 onwards reflected long-standing views. Beresford’s biographer, Bennett, rightly terms the ‘Dockyard Notes’ a ‘cornucopia of facts and ideas’ 21 and, though they are not marshalled in a systematic fashion, the opinions are clear. In the ‘Notes’, Beresford applauded sixteen actions – ranging from increasing coal stocks to detailed war planning combined with fleet exercises – taken by Fisher to improve the fighting efficiency of the Mediterranean Fleet, while further approval is reflected under the headings ‘Administration’, ‘Organisation for War’, ‘Preparation for War’, and ‘Things to be Done’. 22  In these sections, Beresford made clear his contempt for Admiralty administration which, he believed, conveyed an attitude that ‘our past fortune is a guarantee for our future safety’. 23 Beresford’s opinions on the Admiralty’s organisation for war are presented as lessons derived from the army’s initial failures in the recent and on-going Boer Wars which, he suggested could have been avoided with detailed preparation. 24  For Beresford, adequate naval preparation should emphasise detailed strategic war planning appropriately undertaken by a ‘Thinking Department or General Staff’ – effectively placing a ‘Moltke’ in the Admiralty. 25  Beresford’s commitment to this proposal can be traced back to his time as a Junior Naval Lord when, after the 1885 war scare, he advocated a similar proposal, though then it applied more specifically to intelligence provision; it was a suggestion which Haggie demonstrates Fisher supporting despite his subsequent recantation. 26  In a similar preparatory vein, on the exercise of fleets, although Beresford made it clear that he wanted to avoid ‘theory faddism’ 27 , he placed considerable faith in the didacticism of fleet manoeuvres. Beresford argued that while in wartime one could ‘improvise’ manoeuvres’, it was impossible to ‘improvise officers’. 28  Such fleet manoeuvres would not, however, improve officer competence if they remained the standard Nelsonic in-line formations and that alternatively fleets should be divided with divisions manoeuvring against each other, providing commanders with greater signal experience thereby advancing their tactical independence. 29

The Admiralty’s intelligence on Beresford’s opinions reflected a pattern over time but it failed to appreciate that Beresford’s views on naval defence and his later criticism of Fisher’s administration were long-standing. 30  The Admiralty instead considered that Beresford’s opposition arose when he took command of the reorganised and reduced Channel Fleet in April 1907. While it is correct that Beresford did object to the creation of the new Home Fleet because it reduced the number of vessels under his peace time command from 67 to 21, the crux of his argument was not the absolute reduction in ships but that the re-organization promoted dispersal and, thus, was not well disposed to meet the force which the Germans could muster in home waters; in addition there was the related issue of the frequent reductions in strength of the Channel Fleet due to refit and repair. 31  The situation of the Channel Fleet was graver, according to Beresford, because the vessel substitutions promised by the Admiralty had not been forthcoming and there were doubts about the fighting efficiency of the Home Fleet. 32  Beresford argued that a force organised around three reserve and one full division could not properly be described as a ‘striking force immediately ready for action’ 33 and this description obscured the reality that the Home Fleet was actually a ‘fraud on the public and a danger to the state.’ 34

Beresford’s correspondence in the years prior to the inquiry also addressed fleet composition and war plans. From the second half of 1907, his complaints focused on the shortage of small craft and destroyers, that he had not been furnished with war plans by the Admiralty and that he possessed insufficient information to formulate his own plans. 35  These criticisms also included a stress on importance of fleet exercise, training Beresford considered the Admiralty deficient in promoting. 32

Despite their agreement during the Mediterranean tour on such matters, Fisher, now the Admiralty’s senior sailor, opposed Beresford’s agitation. An early meeting between the pair in the summer of 1907 mediated by the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Edward, baron Tweedmouth, failed to impose calm. 37  Their personal and professional correspondence became increasingly obstinate and bitter with Fisher claiming that Beresford’s staff was ‘always preparing ammunition to fire at the Admiralty’ and by the end of 1907 Fisher considered Beresford in ‘open mutiny’. 38  Throughout 1908 respective positions entrenched as Beresford became the recognised leader of the Syndicate and the Admirals’ supporters perpetuated the dispute through various media. 39  In April 1908, Fisher seized the opportunity presented by the appointment of a new First Lord, Reginald McKenna, to move against Beresford. He urged McKenna to recognise that Beresford’s conduct was disloyal and designed to promote a naval policy in opposition to the First Lord’s Admiralty’. 40  McKenna proved receptive, quickly concluding that Beresford’s opinions and the absence of a working relationship between the senior sea-going commander and the Admiralty were causing damage. Although in July 1908 the Cabinet baulked at McKenna’s conclusion that Beresford should lower his flag, by December agreement was reached that as part of a fleet redistribution programme Beresford’s term of command was to be reduced to two years. 41

Given Fisher’s political skills and his creation of a bipartisan consensus on naval policy, Beresford faced a considerable task linking his critique, with its acrimonious personal element, to a political dynamic which would force an inquiry. 18  However, Beresford demonstrated his own under-appreciated political attributes by acting in conjunction with the inveterate Fisher critic, H.A. Gwynne, the editor of the Standard, to push the Unionist leadership to reflect its own backbench and sections of public opinion, which was largely opposed to the Fisher consensus. Beresford rightly reckoned that a breakdown of the consensus would result in the withdrawal of the parliamentary safety net for the Admiralty thereby increasing the political pressure upon the Government. 18  Beresford requested several meetings with the Opposition Leader, A.J. Balfour, to press his case while Gwynne maintained correspondence with Balfour’s Private Secretary, Sanders. 44    Initially, neither proved successful in altering Balfour’s attitude. He was committed to the 1904-5 naval reforms and Fisher assiduously noted that any inquiry would constitute ‘a fishing expedition’ probing these earlier reforms. 45  Balfour did, nonetheless, offer some encouragement by indicating that that he had no objection to the public airing of such matters and indeed he implied that Beresford’s knowledge and experience legitimised his criticisms of the Admiralty. 46  Moreover, the immediate catalyst for the inquiry arose from Balfour’s recommendation that Beresford, now free from the King’s Regulations, write to the Prime Minister about his intent to air his views publicly. 47  The letter to Asquith in early April 1909 distilled Beresford’s previous correspondence and earlier opinions into a structured appraisal of the provisions for naval defence. He ranged through the general flaws in fleet distribution via the material deficiencies of the Channel Fleet during his period of command to the lack of detailed war plans, all of which derived from his earlier ‘Dockyard Notes.’ 48

Asquith’s motives in acceding to an inquiry are opaque. The letter announcing the inquiry’s establishment is cloaked by vague assertions about national security combined with references to Beresford’s high standing meanwhile the Prime Minister’s replies to parliamentary questions on the subject were elliptical. 49 Notably Asquith had kept the King informed of the increasing political divisions within the navy through his weekly written Cabinet briefings but on the eve of the inquiry’s first meeting he simply acknowledged its existence. 50  Not surprisingly Fisher was content to understand that it was all a result of Asquith’s funk. 51  Anxious, the Admiralty believed that an inquiry threatened constitutional principle because it represented an attempt by the Government to divest itself of responsibility for the settled policy of its Admiralty. 52  However, given the inquiry was to be undertaken by a subcommittee of the main Prime Ministerial defence advisory committee, the Admiralty argument could be easily countered. Inclined to procrastination, Asquith saw an opportunity to stop this constant carping at his Government’s naval policy but through a process which deferred decisive action and over which he had control. 53  An inquiry was thus an appropriate constitutional and political solution to a senior experienced officer’s long-standing and constant critique of the Government’s provisions for naval defence. Fisher, fulminating on what he had previously remarked as the ‘apparent tendency to wobbling in the Prime Minister’ 54 , had been out-manoeuvred by Beresford and the Syndicate.


Proceedings of an Inquiry

Guided by eight terms of reference, subsequently reduced to three headings (‘The organisation and distribution of the fleet in Home waters’, ‘Small craft and destroyers’, and ‘War Plans’) the Subcommittee met on fifteen occasions to hear oral and accept documentary evidence. 55  First Lord McKenna welcomed the narrow framework and after the first two meetings he sought Asquith’s reaffirmation that the proceedings would not turn into a ‘fishing investigation’ 56 ; Beresford was, however, not concerned because the three headings encompassed the very issues about which he and the Syndicate were principally concerned. 57

Admiral Lord C. Beresford. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3770-4.

Admiral Lord C. Beresford. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3770-4.

There were three parts to Beresford’s critique on the organisation and distribution of the fleet in home waters. First, with reference to the three fleets – Home, Channel and Atlantic – he argued that the Admiralty’s policy of dispersal undermined the country’s defence. Beresford considered this orientation ill-disposed to meet Germany’s naval force which he portrayed as homogeneous under one commander; Britain, he contended, should imitate this organisation. Beresford’s proposal for a single unitary fleet of no more than 60 vessels, comprising three divisions of which two would be ever present with the C-in-C, also attempted to provide a solution to his second criticism, namely that during his period in command the Channel Fleet was frequently under-strength. 58  Examples of absentee averages per week were two to three battleships out of 14, one to two armoured cruisers out of siz, and nine to ten destroyers out of 30. 59  Beresford ascribed such absences to ships undergoing refit or repair without the Admiralty providing the promised replacements and thus the nominal strength of Beresford’s proposed homogeneous fleet would exceed the necessary war provision. A supplementary feature of his proposal was the increased opportunity for fleet training because time would no longer be wasted in organising the conjunction of three or more fleets. Finally, Beresford turned his argument upon the then Home Fleet, claiming it could not undertake the role of an immediate attack force assigned to it by the Admiralty. Beresford based his argument upon his assessment of the reserve system and, although not opposing directly the nucleus-crew reserve system, he claimed that the Admiralty had over-estimated its mobilisation rate and had failed to take account of the time required for a ship to become a functioning battle unit; under the Admiralty’s fleet disposition this was an important point because the reserve immediately formed part of the main battle fleet in war time. As an alternative, Beresford stated that his proposed unitary fleet would enable an authentic reserve force which would not in the first instance form part of the front line battle fleet.

The Admiralty’s reply sought to demonstrate that for two reasons there had been no threat to national security during Beresford’s command. First, Beresford had over-emphasised the strength of the German Fleet and its purported concentrated organisation; the reality, according to the Admiralty, was that the German fleet’s operational effectiveness was questionable due to 25% of the ships’ complements comprising raw recruits upon their annual October draft. 60  Second, the Admiralty argued that Beresford had been caught in the transition of fleet redistribution. A strategic reorientation had begun in 1904 through a programme of reorganisation which redeployed the largest British Fleet to home waters. Thus, while the Admiralty accepted that the fleet disposition in home waters during Beresford’s command of the Channel Fleet was not ideal, it was a transitory arrangement. McKenna also provided a stout defence of the Home Fleet, indicating that the Admiralty’s conception of its role was based upon its full Nore Division.   Notably, McKenna’s arguments were not focussed upon Beresford’s point about the efficacy of a reserve fleet feeding into the battle fleet at the outbreak of war but instead comprised quantitative comparisons to demonstrate that Beresford’s mobilisation rates were erroneous and the claim that a reserve ship, when fully commissioned, took little time in becoming an effective fighting force.

Beresford’s evaluation of the lack of small craft and destroyers in home waters ostensibly appeared a quantitative concern. The figures he submitted of 27 small craft (Beresford too loosely interchanged this term with the generic class nomenclature – Cruiser – when he was in fact referring specifically to 2nd and 3rd class cruisers) compared unfavourably to Germany’s 38. 61  With reference to destroyers and torpedo boats, the problem was less the lack of them as a total figure but that the average number was frequently three to four short of a full flotilla complement. 62  Moreover, out of the full complement of 123 destroyers only 33 of the River and five of the Tartar Classes were suitable for work in the North Sea. 62  Beresford’s further point concerned the deployment and role of these vessels. The shortage resulted in the use of larger 1st class cruisers to reconnoitre the enemy’s coastal egresses which represented a ‘misapplication of force’ 64 on two levels. First, as reconnaissance bore large operational risks and thus the expectation of considerable wastage in wartime, it was profligate to commit the larger vessels; second, by so committing them, the trade routes were left largely unprotected. In support of the latter, Captain Campbell of the Naval Intelligence Trade Division testified that the situation was such that British trade routes were ripe for capture.

In reply the Admiralty again concentrated upon the numerical comparisons. McKenna, by extending the numerical set to include all cruisers and not just the 2nd and 3rd classes, easily produced a different set of figures flattering Britain’s position. The Admiralty did not, however, try to deny Beresford’s articulation of a proper deployment for naval reconnaissance; rather, they aimed to present it as an ideal. McKenna argued that as 1st class cruisers could adequately carry out this task, if not more so given that ‘armour is vision’ 65 , then it would represent gross fiscal irresponsibility not to deploy them; for the Admiralty it was a simple question of efficient use of the available resources. Moreover, while not repudiating Beresford’s negative cost-benefit curve, McKenna argued that the differential did not warrant scrapping the larger vessels to build more of the smaller 2nd and 3rd classes; a similar argument was used with reference to the destroyers and torpedo boats. The Admiralty highlighted that the 1908/9 and 1909/10 naval estimates laid down a total of 36 new destroyers and that in any event 55 of the older destroyers could be deployed because they were similar to those which had engaged and acquitted themselves well in the recent Russo-Japanese war under conditions far worse than those prevailing in the north sea. 62  To counter the allegations on exposed trade routes, McKenna called Vice Admiral A.K. Wilson who argued that the cost of guaranteeing the security of trade routes was prohibitive. Instead he concluded that Britain would have to accept huge initial losses, but that equilibrium would subsequently be established between the combatants. 67

The treatment of war plan provision in the Subcommittee’s hearings tended to get mired in the details of who was given what plan and when. In part this was a result of Beresford’s specific claim that he had not received any war plans on assuming command of the Channel Fleet. McKenna demonstrated that Beresford had not only received plans from the Admiralty (these were a set of four which Haggie identifies as produced by the Admiralty’s Ballard Committee) 68 but that also their receipt was a departure from standard procedure. Normally the Admiralty would pass to the C-in-C a set of war orders from which he would formulate a plan for consideration by the Board. The implication was that Beresford actually received help with war planning above and beyond precedent and accordingly the inquiry’s Secretary concluded that Beresford’s testimony was ‘very considerably modified under cross-examination.’ 69  Although this clearly damaged Beresford’s credibility, he ensured that the Subcommittee grasped his two points on Admiralty provision of war plans.

First, Beresford argued that a detailed war plan with all vessels told off therein was a prerequisite of naval defence. This argument was set within a framework of the overall utility of war plans and the Admiralty again called upon Admiral Sir A.K. Wilson to give contrary evidence. Wilson claimed that the inherent vagaries of war rendered detailed strategic plans irrelevant and therefore within the Admiralty there was little enthusiasm for their development. Beresford re-joined that the essential concomitant of detailed war planning was fleet training and by returning to a theme of the ‘Dockyard Notes’, he emphasised the merit for commanders of fleet manoeuvres based on plans; in this context, he lamented that he had only once (October 1907) secured the whole fleet (the Channel, Atlantic and Home fleets combined) for training which he would command in war. On war planning, Beresford’s intent was to press the point that numbers ‘do not denote strength’, rather that the key strengths were ‘good organisation made out beforehand’, and ‘good and constant training.’ 70  A related point upon which Beresford also touched was the provision of information to the commanding officer on the condition of all the vessels under his command and he argued that only when in possession of such knowledge could an adequate war plan be drafted. Specifically, Beresford accused the Admiralty of preventing the fulfilment of command responsibilities because of the poverty of information in its monthly Order of Battle. The Admiralty did not dispute the centrality of this issue to naval defence, only that its provision had been both adequate before, and more frequent after, Beresford’s complaints. Moreover, McKenna argued that Beresford could have made good any deficiencies through approaching his immediate subordinates. The Admiralty seemed to concede Beresford’s basic point on war planning but deny the necessity for a centralised process through which the information might be furnished.


Consequences of an inquiry

A month after the last meeting the Subcommittee published its report as a Parliamentary Paper. There was certainly no equivocation in the general conclusions that with respect to fleet disposition, the number of small vessels and the production of war plans, the Admiralty’s arrangements had not imperilled national security and the current dispositions were ‘quite defensible in themselves’ 71  Such an apparent victory for the Fishpond was reflected in government policy being upheld and none of the Admiralty Board, the CID or the Cabinet deemed it necessary to consider the issues further, a stance rigorously supported by many serving Admirals. 72  For the Syndicate the final insult may have been the report’s platitudinous note that the airing of differences of opinion amongst high ranking officers had impressed the Subcommittee. 73

And yet the head of the Fishpond was distraught. It took Fisher a week to assimilate the report but then he wrote to McKenna, unleashing a tirade. He condemned the report as a ‘Cowardly Document’, which would allow Beresford to claim a victory of ideas while the ‘5 Men’ (the Subcommittee members) were denounced as ‘great cowards’ whom he condemned to purgatory. 74  The King’s Secretary, Lord Knollys, was also negative, reflecting that the report’s conclusions were essentially in Beresford’s favour. 75  This was a conclusion that Beresford had similarly arrived at and he gleefully expressed to Balfour that the report could not have been more in his favour ‘without wringing the heads of the Admiralty.’ 76

On the specifics of fleet organisation and distribution, the report supported the victory claims of both the Fishpond and the Syndicate. Any notion that the disposition of the Channel Fleet during Beresford’s command exposed the country to danger was firmly rejected and that an accurate comparison with other fleets demonstrated that British organisation was not dissimilar; indeed its total and reserve strengths had been superior. However, in terms of the fleet disposition the Subcommittee considered that the March 1909 fleet redistribution programme created a home waters fleet equal to Beresford’s proposals and indeed the sole disparity between Beresford and the Admiralty concerned the retention of the Atlantic Fleet as an independent command. 77 Beresford scheme for a home water fleet was thus viewed as the correct palliative for an organisational malaise which the Admiralty believed had not yet demonstrated any symptoms.

The report’s brief dispatch of the alleged small craft and destroyer shortage was predicated upon an indecision revealed by a contradiction in the conclusions. The inquiry deemed Beresford’s criticisms on the matter contingent upon technical conceptions of ship design which were outside the purview of the Subcommittee and thus there was no confidence to express an opinion; enough confidence, however, existed to claim subsequently that no deficiency existed to imperil national security or the trade routes. The report therefore drew a conclusion from evidence which it reputedly found incomprehensible. No justification was given of the deliberations on this issue and the report thus belied the importance which the point would subsequently have in war planning. 78  In this instance Fisher’s horror recognised that Beresford had foreshadowed a critical aspect of the forthcoming debate on naval defence. 78

Perhaps not surprisingly, the report emphasised Beresford’s recantation that he had not received war plans but nonetheless a significant rebuke to the Admiralty followed. Acknowledging that Beresford had ascribed deficiencies in war planning to the absence of a proper Staff, the development of a ‘Naval War Staff’ was stressed. 71  Admiralty progress with the matter proved excruciatingly slow and the body’s impending establishment was only subsequently referred to in minutes three years hence. 81  Beresford, therefore, understandably cast doubt in his 1912 book, The Betrayal: Being a Record of Facts Concerning Naval Policy and Administration From the Year 1902 to the Present Time, on the veracity of the Admiralty’s claim at the inquiry that it had taken great strides towards the Staff’s creation. 82  His argument for strategic planning and its associated benefit of increased training had been recognised by the Subcommittee to be then frustrated by the Admiralty.

Beresford’s post-inquiry years were tragic. Although he was not immediately placed upon the retired list, the Admiralty blocked his subsequent promotion to Admiral of the Fleet in 1910. 83  He did successfully seek re-election to Parliament in 1910 where he continued energetically to advocate his case on naval defence but he became involved in a series of grubby disputes with Winston Churchill, including in particular an unedifying exchange in the summer of 1914 over Beresford’s alleged comments in the Carlton Club and elsewhere which questioned the loyalty of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg. 84  In 1916, Beresford’s naval service was in part recognised through his elevation to the Lords but he died three years later.

At the outset it was clear that Fisher’s position would be vulnerable if the inquiry did not find unequivocally in his favour and the resultant ambiguities did hasten his departure from the Admiralty. Although raised to the peerage in 1910, he seemed unable to accept his departure and failed to heed Balfour’s advice that ‘even a sailor must occasionally long for a calm.’ 85  Fisher continued his dispute with Beresford, even indulging in political chicanery by beseeching McKenna’s wife to use what influence she possessed to get the writ postponed in an attempt to thwart Beresford’s election at Portsmouth. 86  Fisher’s reputation and career were, however, of sufficient merit to earn him recall as First Sea Lord in 1914 only for subsequent disputes with Churchill and others to prompt his second departure in May 1915. 87

Both for policy and the protagonists, the inquiry thus produced formal and informal consequences. Of the former, the Subcommittee found in the Fishpond’s favour and the Glasgow Herald’s succinct headline ‘Admiralty Position Upheld’ 88 was apposite. The measure of the Fishpond’s success was the Admiralty’s subsequent inactivity and the retention of the policy status quo. Informally, though, aspects of Beresford’s conception of naval defence were recognised either as coinciding with current Admiralty policy or as policy to be formulated. The high water mark for the Syndicate was that such informal consequences forced their nemesis, Fisher, from the Admiralty. Both groups won and lost the arguments in equal measure and thus as Lord Esher commented presciently ‘I suppose the Report fulfils all ‘political’ requirements.’ 89

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)



  1. H. Strachan, The Politics of the British Army (Oxford: OUP, 1997), pp. 1-19, 234-62.
  2. P.G. Halpern, ‘Fishpond (act. 1904-1910)’ & ‘Syndicate of discontent (act. 1904-1910)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, online edn Sept.. 2011), [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/96385/96386, accessed 8 Feb 2012
  3. R.F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford: OUP, 1973) remains the standard and best biography but please also see Admiral Sir R.H. Bacon, The Life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (2 vols, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929), A.J. Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1914 (2 vols, London: OUP, 1961) and A. Lambert, Admirals (London: Faber, 2009), pp. 291-333.
  4. Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, p. 38.
  5. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone , 273-350; Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, pp. 28-45.
  6. C.M. Bell, ‘Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution Reconsidered: Winston Churchill at the Admiralty, 1911-1914’, War in History, XVII (2012), pp. 334-35. For the Revisionist case see especially, N.A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), N.A. Lambert, ‘Admiral Sir John Fisher and the Concept of Flotilla Defence, 1904-1909’, Journal of Military History LIX (1995), pp. 639-60; J.T. Sumida, ‘Sir John Fisher and the Dreadnought: The Sources of Naval Mythology’, Journal of Military History LIX (1995), pp. 619-38
  7. Lambert, Admirals, pp. 293, 311; Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, p. 344, Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, p. 25.
  8. M.P.A. Hankey, The Supreme Command, 1914-1918 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961), Vol. I, p. 145.
  9. Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, p. 13.
  10. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, p. 420.
  11. Bell, ‘Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution’, pp. 334-36.
  12. V. W. Baddeley, ‘Beresford, Charles William de la Poer, Baron Beresford (1846–1919)’, rev. P.G. Halpern, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, online edn, May 2008). [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30723, accessed 30 April 2012
  13. A.J.A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament 1896-1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 164-84.
  14. R. Williams, Defending the Empire: The Conservative Party and British Defence Policy, 1899-1915 (London: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 127.
  15. See the works listed in footnotes 3 and 6.
  16. See in particular, G. Penn, Infighting Admirals: Fisher’s Feud with Beresford and the Reactionaries (Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword, 2000); R. Freeman, The Great Edwardian Naval Feud: Beresford’s Vendetta against ‘Jackie’ Fisher (Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2009).
  17. A.J. Marder (ed.), Fear God and Dread Nought: The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (London: Cape, 1956 ), Vol. II, p. 115; Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, p. 365; Bacon, The Life of Lord Fisher, Vol. II, pp. 29-30.
  18. Williams, Defending the Empire, pp. 120-37.
  19. Churchill College Archives Centre (hereafter CCAC), FISR 1/2 No.65: Beresford to Fisher, Feb.1901; FISR 3/2 No.1866: Beresford to Pamela Blackett (nee Fisher), 2 July 1906.
  20. CCAC, FISR 1/2 No. 65: Beresford to Fisher, Feb. 1901.
  21. G.M. Bennett, Charlie B’: A Biography of Admiral Lord Beresford of Metemmeh and Curraghmore G.C.B., G.C.V.O., LL.D., D.C.L. (London: Dawnay, 1968), p. 207.
  22. National Maritime Museum (hereafter NMM), GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A1-10 & Z15-19; O1-13, P11-12 & W7; P6-12 & W7; T6-12, U2-12 & V2-11.
  23. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A7.
  24. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, P6-12.
  25. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, O9.
  26. Bennett, Charlie B’, pp. 96-204; P. Haggie, ‘The Royal Navy and War Planning in the Fisher Era’, Journal of Contemporary History VIII (1973), pp. 113-31.
  27. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A5-6.
  28. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A3.
  29. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A3-7.
  30. CCAC, MCKN 3/24, fo. 2-28: Index to Lord Charles Beresford’s Opinions.
  31. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings of a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to Inquire into Certain Questions of Naval Policy Raised by Lord Charles Beresford (1909), Appendix 5B: Beresford to McKenna, 5 June 1908.
  32. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo. 3-18: Extracts from Official Correspondence & c, between the Admiralty and Lord Charles Beresford, Apr.1907-Jan.1908.
  33. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 5B: Beresford to McKenna, 5 June 1908.
  34. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo.11-12: Extract from Beresford to the Admiralty, 16 July 1907.
  35. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo. 17: Extract from Beresford to the Admiralty, 9 Dec. 1907.
  36. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo. 3-18: Extracts from Official Correspondence & c, between the Admiralty and Lord Charles Beresford, Apr.1907-Jan.1908.
  37. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 5C: Minutes of an Interview between Tweedmouth, Fisher & Beresford, 5 July 1907.
  38. CCAC, FISR 1/5 No.238: Fisher to Beresford, 22 Apr. 1907; Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. II, p. 151.
  39. Marder, Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, pp. 77-8.
  40. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. II, pp. 172-3.
  41. CCAC, FISR 5/16 No.4266: Extract from the Communication Sent by the First Lord to the Members of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence, Mar.1909.
  42. Williams, Defending the Empire, pp. 120-37.
  43. Williams, Defending the Empire, pp. 120-37.
  44. British Library (hereafter BL), Add. MS. 49713, fo. 185-6: Beresford to Balfour, 17 Feb. & 24 Mar. 1909; BL, Add. MS. 49797, fo. 66: Gwynne to Sanders, 10 June 1907.
  45. BL, Add. MS. 49712, fo. 21-3: Fisher to Balfour, 29 Nov. 1907.
  46. BL, Add. MS. 49713, fo. 188-90: Balfour to Fisher, 27 Mar. 1909; CCAC, FISR 5/15 No.4260: Memorandum 1908.
  47. BL, Add. MS. 49713, fo. 188-90: Balfour to Fisher, 27 Mar. 1909.
  48. British Parliamentary Papers (hereafter, BPP), Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence Appointed to Inquire into Certain Questions of Naval Policy Raised by Lord Charles Beresford (London: HMSO, 1909), pp. 2-4.
  49. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p.5; Hansard (Commons) 5th Ser. III, 29 Mar.-23 Apr. 1909, cols 1-1871.
  50. NA, CAB 41/31/62: Asquith to His Majesty, 8 July1908; NA, CAB 41/32/11: Asquith to His Majesty, 26 Apr. 1909.
  51. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought Vol. II. p. 242.
  52. CCAC, FISR 5/13 No.4241: On the Board of Admiralty’s Supremacy & Inadvisability of an Inquiry into Admiralty Policy, Jan. 1908.
  53. A.J.P. Taylor, ‘H.H. Asquith’, in A.J.P. Taylor, From the Boer War to the Cold War: Essays on Twentieth Century Europe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), p. 94.
  54. CCAC, MCKN 6/2, fo.55-58: Fisher to McKenna, 19 Mar. 1909.
  55. The subsequent analysis of the 15 meetings is based on the detailed minutes of the inquiry at NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, pp. 1-328 and also on the summary of proceedings at NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings: Appendix 48, pp. 228-45. Individual footnote references are only given in this section for direct quotations and figures.
  56. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, n.fo.: McKenna to Asquith, 29 Apr. 1909.
  57. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 5.
  58. NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, pp. 4-8, 10-21.
  59. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 229-32.
  60. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 232-33.
  61. NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, pp. 49-65.
  62. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 241-2.
  63. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 241-2.
  64. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, p. 239.
  65. NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, p. 227.
  66. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 241-2.
  67. A. Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 4-5.
  68. Haggie, ‘The Royal Navy and War Planning’, pp. 113-31.
  69. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, p. 243.
  70. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 11: ‘Criticism By Lord Charles Beresford of the Admiralty War Plans’.
  71. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, pp. 8-9.
  72. There are no references to the Inquiry in NA, ADM 167/43: Admiralty Board Minutes, 1909, ADM 167/44: Admiralty Board Minutes, 1910 or in NA, CAB 2/2: CIDM (09) 104, 19 Aug. 1909, CIDM (10) 105, 106, 107, 24 Feb., 14 June, 14 July 1910, or in NA, CAB 41/32: Asquith to His Majesty, 1909 (after 28 Apr. 1909); CCAC, MCKN 3/9, fo. 38: Admiral May to McKenna, 18 Aug. 1909.
  73. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 9.
  74. CCAC, MCKN 6/2, fo. 112-16: Fisher to McKenna, 19 Aug. 1909.
  75. CCAC, FISR 1/8 No.411: Knollys to Fisher, 19 Aug. 1909.
  76. BL Add. MS. 49713, fo.215: Beresford to Balfour, 29 Oct. 1909.
  77. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, pp. 5-8.
  78. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 8.
  79. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 8.
  80. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, pp. 8-9.
  81. NA, ADM 167/46: Admiralty Board Minutes, 4 Mar. 1912.
  82. C. Beresford, The Betrayal: Being a Record of Facts Concerning Naval Policy and Administration From the Year 1902 to the Present Time (London, 1912), pp. 87-94.
  83. CCAC, MCKN 3/18 fo. 1-4, 57-8: McKenna to Asquith, n.d, Asquith to McKenna, 26 Dec. 1910.
  84. CCAC, CHAR 13/43, fo. 99-104, 136-8: Churchill to Beresford, 29 Aug., 2 Oct. 1914, Beresford to Churchill, 29 Aug., 1 Oct. 1914.
  85. CCAC, FIRS 1/8 No.427: Balfour to Fisher, 3 Nov. 1909.
  86. CCAC, MCKN 6/2 fo. 138-42: Fisher to Mrs McKenna, 16 Sept. 1909.
  87. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone , pp. 464-505.
  88. Glasgow Herald, 14 Aug. 1909.
  89. BL Add. MS. 49719, fo. 93-96: Esher to Balfour, 15 Aug. 1909.

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