Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

22. Fisher and Beatty

Filson had been interested in the Navy and Admiral Lord Fisher since his Outlook days in 1904, the year Fisher, who looked like ‘a Buddhist god whose jaws have the set of a bulldog’s’ (86), began his momentous career as First Sea Lord. Between 1904 and 1910 he stamped his personality on the Navy, sweeping away the ‘cobwebs’ of tradition (and making more than a few enemies in the process) to build up a powerful force that in the event of war with Germany – and Fisher wanted war with Germany – would be strong enough to attack and not just defend. It was Fisher who had been responsible for the revolutionary battleship Dreadnought

(1906) which carried more big guns than any previous warship, and for the large, fast and heavily armed ‘battle cruisers’ of the next few years; his maxim was ‘speed is armour’ and he attached more importance to guns and powerful engines than to protective armour plating. After he resigned as First Sea Lord in 1910 Filson got to know him well; to Fisher he was a valuable publicist for the Navy (87). It was probably through Garvin that Filson first met both Fisher and Winston Churchill, who in October 1911 became First Lord of the Admiralty (a civilian minister ranking above the First Sea Lord, who was always a career admiral). Filson had a high opinion of Garvin as a commentator on Naval affairs and Garvin was one of Fisher’s staunchest supporters. Writing after the war, Filson described Fisher’s magnetic personality:

I fell under the old man’s spell on an autumn evening when, arriving at Kilverstone (88) to spend the week-end with him, the car was stopped at the entrance gates by the sturdy, impressive old figure of my host, who haled me forth of the car and had me deep in talk of the Navy before we had reached the house. My chief and lasting impression of that week-end was of a personality passionately inspired by one idea and purpose; a monomaniac, if you will, for whom the universe was one storm cloud; who had no thoughts of peace, or of the ends for which war is waged, but only of war itself and the preparation of the British Navy to take the decisive and destructive rôle in that war. This war cloud was then no reality to me, and I marvelled that so strong and able a mind should be so completely obsessed by it. But I learned to think differently, and, like so many others with whose temperament such preoccupations were incompatible, to remember with a shudder the mental indifference that had made me turn my face from the writing on the wall. In those long monologues, with their background of garden pleasaunce or Norfolk stubble, I learned the secret of this lonely life spent so mysteriously and consistently in the pursuit of one aim [...] (89)

In the summer of 1912 Garvin sent Filson to Spithead to report on some big naval manoeuvres for the Pall Mall Gazette. Filson was shown round and entertained on board the obsolete ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleship Agamemnon but, with the rest of the press, he was sent ashore before the manoeuvres began. He realised that the press were being denied the chance to see and report possible faults in the ships or the tactics which might prove serious in action, and were being fobbed off with the sort of window-dressing that he himself wrote up in the series of articles which, as we have seen, he and Richards later presented in booklet form to an indifferent public under the title With the Fleet. But he kept in touch with Fisher. The old sailor’s pugnacity comes across in a typical note to Filson written a couple of years before the war:

Dont think I’ve ever minded being maligned all my life! I really don’t. I fear I gave you that impression. In seven appointments I had the seven jobs of Hercules and the 3 R’s saw me through. I was Relentless, Ruthless and Remorseless! You’ve got to get hated in such cases!

But my experience is that if you are Right it dont matter a d-n if the whole world is against you You’re bound to win! There’s nothing you can’t have if you want it enough! (90)

This was written, as it happens, the day before the launching of the battleship Iron Duke, famous four years later as Admiral Jellicoe’s flagship at the Battle of Jutland. Such events were becoming so frequent that the public scarcely noticed them any more, but apropos of the Iron Duke Filson commented in ‘The Things That Matter’:

Possibly there is something more infinitely formidable than great demonstrations in the fact that, one after another, almost unnoticed, from south and west and east, these monsters are sliding silently into the sea, to keep intact the honour and glory of England. (91)

Filson’s friendship with David Beatty dated from 1912. One of Churchill’s first acts on becoming First Lord of the Admiralty the year before had been to appoint Beatty as his Naval Secretary (i.e. special adviser on naval Matters). At forty, Beatty already had an unusually adventurous career behind him and had become the youngest Rear-Admiral for more than a century. He believed war with Germany inevitable, and like Fisher and Churchill felt adventurous and aggressive about it. At the same time, like them, he was sensitive and imaginative. Beatty’s biographer, Admiral Chalmers, claims that Beatty and Filson first met in Monte Carlo; Filson himself, perhaps for more dramatic effect, places their first meeting in Churchill’s office. Filson had been in the habit of going to see Churchill from time to time to discuss the Navy, and on one such occasion Churchill took him into the next room to meet Beatty who, he felt, would be better able than himself to answer some question Filson had asked. Filson was immediately impressed:

I had been accustomed to regard Admirals as very senior and indeed venerable beings, those whom I had known being mostly of great age, and retired, living amid a kind of property background of spy-glasses, boat-clocks and sea rime. I was therefore the less prepared for the appearance of the man, young, distinguished-looking indeed, but more with the distinction of Pall Mall than of Plymouth Hoe, who turned to greet me. Youth and high physical training were written all over the figure and shone in the clear eyes; but there was something in the heavy lines of the face [...] that seemed to contradict the sense of youth, and, like the deep voice, gave an impression of weight and gravity to a personality that I perceived at once to be remarkable. The meeting proved to be one with much of destiny in it for me; and (what is not always true of such moments) I felt and was sure of it at the time. Here was the man for whom, in a dim but persistent way, one had been looking as a sea-leader; here surely was the realization of one’s dream of the fighting sailor. It was not until after months of friendly intercourse that I began to know what good ground I had for that intuition, and not until after years of trial that it was to be made clear to the world; but I am glad to think that it was clear to me in that dim room at the Admiralty nine years ago, and that in those years my certainty of it never wavered. I little thought then that I should wear the uniform of his service and stand beside him in battle; but I made up my mind that his was the career to be watched and studied, and his the mind from which one could accept the truth amid the conflicting voices then engaged in debating the essentials of naval supremacy. Here, then, was the ideal type for which Lord Fisher in our conversations had so often sighed; and I was secretly disappointed when, on my mentioning Fisher’s name, Beatty merely smiled. And I was still more crestfallen when, a few days later, I spoke of Beatty enthusiastically to Lord Fisher, he gave me a blank, sour look and said: ‘Really? Never met him.’ (92)

Early in 1913 Churchill appointed Beatty over the heads of many more senior officers to the command of the Navy’s crack unit, the fast and powerful First Battle Cruiser Squadron. Filson, rightly judging that Beatty’s concept of heroism was similar to his own, sent him a specially bound copy of his biography of Columbus. Thanking him, Beatty admitted he was afraid that when the great moment of his own life came he might not be equal to it:

Ten thousand thanks for the Very Exquisite Copy of the Finest Sea Story in the World. It will indeed stand out as a star of the first magnitude in my small and technical library on board the Lion [...] With the story of the Great Columbus added to those of the many great Seamen our Country has produced Surely the inner light of how to accomplish things might be more truly revealed. All I can pray is that the seed will not fall on barren ground and when the great reaping takes place I shall be able to apply some of the lessons to be learnt from a study of the lives of the great seamen of the past and not be found wanting. (93)

Unfortunately Filson, in typical fashion, could not restrict himself to singing Beatty’s praises in private but had to rush into print as well. In April 1913, using the nom de guerre ‘Signifex’, he wrote an adulatory pen-portrait in the Saturday Review:

The extraordinarily forceful and clear-cut features, the compact, well-knit frame, the quick, almost bird-like movements, and yet with it all the curious effect of a restrained, contained, and most ponderable energy, produce an effect at once distinguished and formidable [...] If the gods give him a chance before his present command is up, and he has had time to shake up his terrible leash of battle cruisers, he will fight until either he or his enemy is finished. (94)

As subsequent events were to show, this was an accurate assessment of Beatty’s character, but Beatty wrote in horror from Lion to his wife:

I hear there is a long article on the subject of my humble self in last Saturday Review signed by Signifex which is fulsome in its laudatory tone. This is Filson Young, I feel sure. I wish to heavens he wouldn’t. I personally hate it and it does me no good. Everybody naturally asks me how much did I pay for it and classes me as an advertiser, which, whatever my faults are, I am not. I suppose he thinks that he is making me, as he said the journalist Steevens made Kitchener. I don’t like it, I don’t want it, and I won’t have it, but how am I to stop it? (95)

Next day he went on:

I have read the Saturday Review article. It’s dreadful, and makes me go hot and cold all over [...] Nobody has achieved anything after being puffed up like that before he has ever done anything at all. So I am a goner, and of course they’ll think I said it myself. That’s the worst of journalistic friends and scribblers. They think only of good copy and that’s all I’m fit for.

Never trust a journalist. Chalmers, quoting these letters, comments acidly that eighteen months later Filson used Fisher’s influence to worm his way onto Beatty’s staff but that, being untrained and unable to pull his weight when others were short-handed and overworked, he didn’t last long. This isn’t quite the whole truth, as we shall see. There can be no doubt that in some way Beatty and Filson needed one another and that in spite of everything their friendship was a lasting one. Beatty’s jaunty exterior concealed a lack of self-confidence. Sore though he may have been about the ‘Signifex’ article, within a month he had invited Filson on board Lion as his guest during manoeuvres, a rare privilege for a journalist – no doubt on the strict understanding that he would not write in the press about what he saw. Filson seems to have honoured this agreement, if agreement there was, but at the beginning of June he did convey the excitement of the occasion to his brother Tom, writing from the Moray Firth on paper menacingly headed with the ship’s logo: a lion prowling over the motto BEWARE:

How you would enjoy being here! Lovely weather, and the most powerful ship in the world – 30000 tons, 29 knots, 70000 h.p. and 10 13″ guns. It is great fun being at sea when the Admiral is your pal: last night I had an amazing experience, when we did squadron night firing with the big guns, showing no lights, the bridges crowded with stealthy demons at voice pipes and telephones, and not another soul visible. We are on our way to the Firth of Forth, and from there we are going to do, on our way round to Portland, battle exercises at full speed – ships approaching each other at 50 miles an hour. It’s never been done before with big ships, no one knows in the least what it will be like, and it is quite unofficial. But the only way to use this squadron efficiently is to use it at high speeds – in war of course; and now everything is done on a war basis. We are cleared for action practically all the time.

I have an immense suite of cabins, with windows that go up and down, a big private bathroom &c. The Flag Captain, Flag Commander (another friend of mine) and flag lieutenant all mess with the admiral & as we are all very much of an age it is a good time. There are five ships in the squadron – Princess Royal, Indefatigable, Indomitable, and Invincible – seven when the Tiger and Queen Mary are finished. (96)

What Filson was also aware of but did not tell his brother was that no one had any idea how the battle cruiser squadron should be used. Its progenitor Fisher was out of office, and one school of naval opinion held that battle cruisers were no use at all. The Admiralty had no plan and issued no instructions, and left it to Beatty to work things out in consultation with the captains of his ships. This suited him well, and in due course he decided that in war the squadron should have two main functions: one, to be an independent scouting force; the other, to act as a decoy to attract the enemy’s big ships and, by the use of superior speed, lure them into the jaws of the main fleet.

In the year of peace that remained Filson kept in touch with both Fisher and Beatty. That his relationship with Beatty was not one-sided is shown by an incident during this period when Beatty went to a good deal of trouble to prevent Filson quarrelling with Garvin over money and leaving the Pall Mall Gazette. Beatty’s letter shows a concern for Filson’s welfare that suggests a closer friendship between the two men than Chalmers would allow, and also reveals a tact and sensitivity in Beatty that would have surprised those who only knew his public image as a dashing and reckless leader despite the fact that Filson and others who knew him well were always at pains to point out that he was never careless of the safety of his men, any more than the more obviously cautious Jellicoe was. Beatty advised Filson:

I had intended to speak to you last night about a matter which you referred to in your note to me and [about] which you had spoken to my little lady But I felt a considerably difficulty in doing so because I am naturally shy and sensitive of other people’s sensitiveness and feared you might consider it an impertinence on my part Even now I feel that I am treading on tender grounds so if I offend please forgive me My omission last night was not from lack of sympathy. My offence tonight if it is an offence is not from over officiousness.

I gathered from my lady’s remarks that you contemplated severing your connection with Garvin and the P.M.Gazette and your note confirmed it. This I would consider in the light of a calamity to the reading public and from your point of view as a misfortune. I further understand that the calamity is caused by a difference of opinion as to the emolument not being compatible with the amount of tissue that the effort to produce good stuff absorbs. That would appear a sound and reasonable basis of argument. BUT is the difference between you very great? Have you other means and ways of providing the wherewithal (without which we can’t live) to take its place? If the negative answers both questions permit me to beg of you as a friend not to part brass rags with Garvin. (97) I do not know him but I do know that he has a reputation and a voice which carries weight. How much it is worth you must know far better than I but it can do no good from a sense of personal injustice to quarrel with him at this juncture unless you have a line of retreat and a second line of advance as good to take its place.

I gather he is a crank but not a grinder of human efforts which when done with he slings on one side. The struggle to live increases daily therefore until you see your way clearly throw nothing away unless you have some thing else up your sleeve which you can make use of reasonably and without breach of faith This might be all tosh to you my writing in this strain but whatever do not think it an impertinence I have not the gift of saying exactly what I want but it is the best I can do So forgive me if I have trespassed at all and tear it up and forget it was written the spirit is willing but the pen is weak and I am not given to interfering in other people’s affairs. Our friendship must be my Excuse

Just off by the midnight mail Shall be back Friday morning passing through possibly Thursday night. (98)


86 ‘Tacitus’ (presumably Filson, the editor) on Fisher in the Outlook, 17 Dec 1904.

87 McRanft (ed.) The Beatty Papers Vol I (1989), p 53.

88 Kilverstone Hall, Thetford, Norfolk, was Fisher’s country home.

89 With the Battle Cruisers pp 2-3.

90 Fisher to FY, 11 Oct 1912.

91 The Pall Mall Gazette 14 Oct 1912.

92 [add ref in Chambers]; With the Battle Cruisers pp 5-7.

93 David Beatty to FY, 15 Feb 1913.

94 The Saturday Review 5 April 1913. I’m sure the would-be spin doctor in Filson was well aware that the Latin word ‘signifex’ means ‘image-maker’.

95 David Beatty to Ethel Beatty, 11 April 1913.

96 FY to Tom Young, undated but postmarked 5 June 1913.

97 To ‘part brass rags’ means to quarrel, naval slang from Beatty’s early days in the service when you could express friendly felings for a shipmate by allowing him to share your brass-polishing rag. As he tried to drag the Victorian Navy kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, Fisher had, among other things, declared war on the spit-and-polish tradition. The expression ‘to part brass rags’ is still heard occasionally, but always, it seems, with the emphasis on ‘rags’. It makes no sense at all unless the emphasis is put on ‘brass’.

98 David Beatty to FY, undated but clearly not later than 1914.

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