Filson Young

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

Table of contents

23. Breaking into the Navy

To return to October 1914. Filson had left the Australian Voluntary Hospital in France and was back in London trying to glean information at fashionable luncheon parties, irritated by grand ladies who thought they were running the war. A couple of months earlier, Winston Churchill had told him he had no chance of joining the Navy in any capacity whatsoever. Now in a letter to Lady Beatty he expressed a longing for ‘the clean spaces of the sea’, and in reply she asked him why he didn’t go and join her husband; she was sure he would like to have Filson with him, and she knew of at least one case of someone who knew far less about the Navy than Filson did getting an R.N.V.R. commission (99). Filson, immediately applied for a commission through the normal channels, only to be told his name would be entered seventy-fourth on the waiting list, and that he need do no more at the moment. Discouraged, he wrote to Beatty, who replied:

I will help you all I can, but where I am I am powerless. You must tackle someone on the spot. Surely you could manage an R.N.V.R. commission if you went the right way about it; and if you were sent to the battle cruisers we would find a place for you somewhere. (100)

He added that the person to see was Fisher, and told his wife:

I am sorry Filson Young thinks I am so inarticulate [...] He has been bothering me again. I told him I had no room but Brock had and he better get his friend Fisher to fix him up somewhere. (101)

At this point Filson had a stroke of luck. A few days earlier Fisher had been recalled to his old post as First Sea Lord to help Churchill direct the fleet that he (Fisher) had done so much to create. Filson had written to congratulate him, carefully not mentioning his own hopes of getting into the Navy. Fisher, who at seventy-three still had the vigour and enthusiasm of a schoolboy, had scribbled back on headed paper from the Ritz:

My dear Filson Young,

Heaven Bless You – Forgive more!

I’m exceeding busy!

I’m “scrapping” parasites!

I’ve just told Garvin that War is “Great Conceptions” and “Quick Decisions” Think in

Oceans! and Shoot at Sight!

Yrs Fisher (102)

After sealing the envelope Fisher jotted an afterthought on the back: Will try and find a spot for you if I can!

Filson now played off Fisher against Beatty. He went to Fisher’s office and asked for a commission as an R.N.V.R. lieutenant on the grounds that Beatty had said he wanted him – a slight exaggeration, but it worked, and he got a note to take to the Admiral Commanding Reserves. After waiting three quarters of an hour to see this officer, Filson told the admiral’s clerk he would have to go back and tell the First Sea Lord that the admiral was too busy to read his letter. The admiral saw him at once and angrily asked what he wanted. Nothing, Filson lied, but he believed the letter he’d brought with him explained that the First Sea Lord wanted something. The admiral said there were great difficulties in the way of Filson being granted a commission, and that there were various things he should have done before applying. Filson replied that it was matter of indifference to him, but if the admiral wished he would go back and tell the First Sea Lord what he had said. At this the admiral gave him an ‘ill-look’ and said he would see what could be done; Filson’s commission arrived by special messenger the next day. In much the same way, presenting his commission and saying Beatty had asked for him, Filson managed to get himself appointed to Lion on ‘Special Service’. No one ever quite knew – least of all Filson – what this ‘Special Service’ was to be, but it did prove to have one unexpected advantage. When in due course he produced a camera with a telephoto lens on board Lion and began taking photographs in defiance of an Admiralty

order to the effect that all cameras had to be surrendered to the captains of ships, no one interfered with him since it was assumed he’d been officially appointed to take photographs. In fact, the idea of using official photographers never occurred to the Admiralty till some years later, so the pictures Filson took on board Lion are unique documents. (103)

The evening before Filson left London for Scotland to join the Battle Cruiser Squadron, Fisher sent for him and made a ‘chilling’ suggestion:

Well, you are going to have a very interesting time. You are going to quite the most interesting part in the Fleet, and you are sure to be in the middle of whatever is going on [...] Now, there is always something to be learned from a fresh point of view. An outsider sometimes sees more than the trained man. If you hear anything that’s interesting, or see anything going on that you do not think quite right, just drop me a line; you can always send a letter to me by the Admiralty bag marked ‘Private’, and no one else will see it. (104)

Filson had no intention of turning informer, but since Fisher and Beatty still hardly knew one another (they first met in July 1914, according to Filson), he was able to use Fisher’s suggestion as a means of starting an informal correspondence between them. He also sent Fisher reports and suggestions in his own name whenever Beatty thought this might be useful.

Eager for experience, Filson on Lion absorbed the routine of life on a large ship in time of war: long days in port, manoeuvres at sea in search of the elusive ‘Sausages’ (as the Germans were almost affectionately known (105), the ritual of Christmas at sea, and above all the mysteries of the new science of wireless telegraphy. This, Filson realized, was doing more than anything else to change the nature of war at sea, since it took the initiative away from the sailor on his ship and handed it to administrators and politicians on land. The squadron had already seen action in August, sinking two German cruisers in the Heligoland Bight. Within a month of joining Lion Filson was himself in action when on 16 December 1914 Beatty’s opposite number Admiral Hipper took the German battle cruisers across the North Sea to bombard Scarborough and Hartlepool. Beatty, supported by a squadron of battleships, moved down from Scotland to intercept Hipper and cut him off from his base. The result was a muddle in which at one point Beatty, had he but known it, was chasing the entire German High Seas Fleet which had moved up to support Hipper. Eventually Hipper and his squadron escaped back to Germany. Not only had a great opportunity to have a crack at the Germans been missed but, more seriously, it was widely felt that the British fleet had failed in its fundamental duty of protecting the British coast. So on December 20 the Battle Cruiser Squadron was moved from Cromarty in the north of Scotland to Rosyth in the Firth of Forth to be nearer the expected scene of action and, as Christmas 1914 and New Year 1915 passed, Beatty became increasingly anxious to catch the ‘Sausages’ and do something to redeem the Navy’s reputation.

In the midst of this a letter reached Filson on board Lion from Henry James, of all people. As the old novelist was well aware, there could hardly have been a greater contrast than that between his own rarefied mental world and the clash of massive steel warships on the North Sea:

I am greatly moved by the sign of generous remembrance of me that I receive from you at this end of our terrible old year – and of the year, I fear, much more than what makes it to me, I confess, an horrific nightmare almost exclusively. This is not my proper tone of address, I know, to a man of your splendid energy and gallantry, in the very thick of the irresistible force of things – and in fact I do just humbly and abjectly admire and applaud and envy the treasure of experience and the weight of authority that you are working into your already so great wealth and variety of initiation. You dazzle me from afar; I do you unmitigated hommage [sic];I lose myself in the imagination of your history and of the pitch of your consciousness. Please very fully and patiently believe me when I tell you that I feel quite gilded and glorified by figuring to your memory through the great globe-clamour and the elemental blur of it all. It’s prodigious to me that if I survive we shall probably meet and talk again – so far as my strained ears shall represent talk. Actually and at present I think I should die if I weren’t so inhumanly interested, and feel how interested even beyond that perversity I should be if I weren’t, with it all, so all but mortally stricken.

But I wish you all joy of service, not to say of battle, and all assurance of victory, not to say of renown. I pray that this may only reach you and express the very grateful acknowledgement of yours all faithfully

Henry James

Dec 30th 1914


99 This exchange of letters between Filson and Ethel Beatty is mentioned in With the Battle Cruisers, 33. The R.N.V.R. (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) is sometimes known as the ‘wavy navy’ from the wavy stripes on its officers’ sleeves. [see FY in uniform of an RNVR ?lieutenant, p xxx]

100 David Beatty to FY, date unknown, quoted in With the Battle Cruisers, 34.

101 David Beatty to Ethel Beatty, 3-4 Nov 1914. Captain O. de B.Brock commanded Lion‘s sister ship Princess Royal.

102 Fisher to FY, undated but almost certainly October 1914. Reproduced photographically in With the Battle Cruisers, facing pp 34 and 36.

103 More than twenty of these snapshots illegally taken on board Lion by Filson are reproduced in With the Battle Cruisers.

104 With the Battle Cruisers, 39.

105 There is something tight and apposite in the word; it suggests skins filled to bursting point, and ripe for puncture by the fork or bayonet. - Filson in ‘Life in the Fleet: III The Enemy’ in The Times, 22 Dec 1915, p 8.

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