Filson Young

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

Table of contents

26. Quarrels in high places

In the weeks that followed Filson went with Princess Royal on manoeuvres in the North Sea, and on one occasion was sent to take papers to Captain Chatfield in Newcastle, where the Lion was being patched up. It was a period of stagnation; the Admiralty did not think the Germans would put to sea again for some time. Filson occupied himself with trying to arrange for a proper Fleet Intelligence Service to be established, but he got little encouragement. The only other person who seemed to thing such a thing necessary was Winston Churchill, who like Filson had himself been a war correspondent in the Boer War. In London in April with further despatches, Filson was told to wait in town until Churchill sent for him:

When he received me, Winston Churchill told me that he had for long been considering the advisability of giving the public some closer insight into the life of the Fleet in all its manifold activities. No one knew better than he with what difficulties the job was beset; but he very kindly said I was in a unique position and could perhaps do what would otherwise be impossible. What he wanted was a kind of ‘eye-witness’ for the Navy; someone who could go about, see everything, and yet who had sufficient training in the essential intricacies of naval life both to understand the significance of what he saw and to know what could and could not be made public with discretion. We had a long and interesting talk. He was very keen on the idea, and I became so, since I felt that whatever qualifications I might have for that work were enormously increased by my sea experience.

He asked me if I had seen Lord Fisher, and when I replied that I had not, he said, ‘We must have his approval; I will send for him.’ He rang the bell, and told the messenger to ‘Ask the First Sea Lord to come in.’ It was all strictly correct, but it made me uncomfortable that I should thus be made a witness of the fiery old man’s forced acknowledgement of the superior civil authority. Presently the door was opened. ‘The First Sea Lord,’ said the messenger, and Lord Fisher walked in, looking rather surly. He greeted me with a word or two and then turned expectantly to Winston, who, rather nervously, I thought, but very mildly and tactfully, explained his suggestion. But the old man broke out at once as though he were present at a conspiracy.

‘I object,’ he said.

Winston renewed his argument, which of course was a very sound one, and which was acted upon afterwards with a great deal less intelligence and purpose behind it; I saw him now in a new aspect in which I could not but admire him, for he was gentle, sympathetic, diplomatic, and even soothing to his hostile colleague. Something more than the mere point at issue lay behind Lord Fisher’s sensitiveness and opposition; we know now what it was, but I did not know then that the parting was coming so soon, although I felt that trouble was in the air.

‘Besides,’ continued Lord Fisher, ‘the Commander-in-Chief would never consent.’

‘Of course he would have to be consulted,’ siad Winston. ‘I don’t know what his views would be; but supposing that he did approve, would you still object?’

‘Yes,’ said Lord Fisher, retiring on his second line of defence. ‘The Press would never stand it; they’d be jealous, and say we were showing partiality and allowing one writer special privileges.’

‘Oh, I think I could manage the Press,’ said Winston, with a wave of the hand.

‘Oh, I could manage the Press,’ said Lord Fisher, ‘if that were all.’ And for an amazing moment these two potentates boasted to one another as to their respective powers of ‘handling’ the Press.

‘So if that is all,’ continued Winston, ‘I do not think it would be a serious difficulty.’

Then Lord Fisher, at bay, was driven into his last stronghold, and giving the table a

mighty thump, he thundered, ‘I shall object as First Sea Lord!’ and burst out into a great tirade. The Navy was everything we had in the world; it stood between us and defeat and destruction; the whole of the Army might be wiped out tomorrow and it would make no difference to the Empire, but if we touched the Navy – and so on, with a great deal of anger and eloquence. To my embarrassment he suddenly turned to me at the end of his address (for it amounted to that) and asked, ‘Don’t you agree with me?’ I said I did, but added that I did not quite see how the existence of the Navy depended on people being kept in ignorance of its life and services, upon which he turned upon me, apparently boiling with wrath: ‘Oh, you don’t, don’t you; and who asked you for your opinion, sir?’

‘You did, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll rub your nose in your opinion, sir, and let me tell you that a certain person has got his eye on you; he does not at all approve of you being where you are – remember that!’

I felt that this was becoming childish, as well as rude; and as the First Lord hastily

interposed with a red herring which drew the old man’s attention off me, I waited for a lull (I had been edging towards the door all the time) and said to Winston, ‘If you do not want me any more, sir, perhaps I may be allowed to retire.’ Upon which the old man, like one emerging from a nerve storm, turned to me, walked over and put his hand on my shoulder.

‘I didn’t mean anything personal against you,’ he said. ‘I entirely agree that if anyone

were to do this work, you are the right man for it, and I shouldn’t consent to anyone else; but I know it would never do; the Press would never stand it. And don’t mind what I said just now. I am always violent! I was born violent; I wouldn’t be weaned!’

And under cover of the laughter I retired to the less electrical society of Masterton Smith and Eddie Marsh in the next room. When I got home to my house I found two telephone messages; one from the First Sea Lord, asking me to lunch with him, and the other from the First Lord, saying that if I received an invitation to lunch with the First Sea Lord he hoped I would go, as Lord Fisher was distressed lest he might have appeared rude to me, when he really meant nothing of the kind. I could not, as it happened, go to lunch, and I felt far from happy that, at such a juncture of the war, the First Lord and the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty should have time to concern themselves with so infinitely trifling a matter. I mentioned this to Winston some years afterwards, when we were recalling the scene, and he replied with amusing candour, ‘Oh, it wasn’t the feelings of a Lieutenant R.N.V.R. that we were thinking of; it was the voice of history.’ And the Voice of History has now duly uttered itself. (114)

When in 1921 With the Battle Cruisers was published, Churchill told Filson: ‘I could not resist looking up the account, which I was sure you would give, of the stormy scene with old Fisher: it is very well and truly told.’ (115) But now, in 1915, neither Churchill, Fisher nor Filson was to be at the heart of naval affairs much longer. For some time the relationship between Churchill and Fisher had been strained almost to breaking point; Fisher had always wanted to keep the North Sea centre stage and strongly disapproved of Churchill’s policy of opening a second front in the Dardanelles. Breaking point came a few weeks after the scene just described, when on 15 May 1915 Churchill asked for more ships to be sent to the Dardanelles. Fisher retaliated by handing in his resignation – for the ninth time – to Churchill and the Prime Minister, Asquith. Asquith’s Liberal government had recently been rocked by a shell shortage scandal, and there was a sense of growing crisis in the country. Fisher was popular with the Navy and the general public, and it was feared that of he went the government might collapse. Churchill, Asquith and Lloyd George did all they could to persuade him to stay on, but this time he had really had enough.

On May 17 Asquith agreed with the Conservatives and the small Labour party to form a new coalition government; he would remain Prime Minister but Conservatives and at least one Socialist would be brought into the government. When he heard this Fisher (popular with the Conservatives) assumed that Churchill (hated by the Conservatives) would leave the Admiralty, so he prepared to withdraw his resignation. But he made two mistakes: he made the technical, but in time of war extremely serious, blunder of deserting his post before his resignation had been officially accepted, and he sent Asquith an imperious list of ‘terms’ for staying on as First Sea Lord. It was felt he had gone too far; he was ‘making an ass of himself’ and showing signs of megalomania, not to say madness. Besides, Fisher did not know that the Conservatives had persuaded Asquith to replace their bête noire Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty with the former Conservative Prime Minister Balfour; Fisher had already made it clear that he would never serve under Balfour, whom he considered even more responsible for the Dardanelles operation than Churchill. So by May 22 it was clear that Fisher would have to go, and that his career was over.

Churchill realized his own position was under threat on the 17th, when it became certain there would be a coalition government. He fought hard to stay, ironically calling on Fisher to support him, not realising that Fisher had already burnt his boats by trying to dictate terms to the Prime Minister. In any case, Asquith was determined to sacrifice Churchill in the interests of ‘national unity’. Churchill, stunned by the brutality of his dismissal (116), left politics with great dignity on May 21 to spend six winter months on the Western Front as a major, sorry that he had quarrelled with Fisher, for whom he had great admiration. Most people, including Beatty, were sorry to see Fisher go but glad to see the back of Churchill, who was considered a ‘danger to the Empire’.

In the midst of these political convulsions, Filson quarrelled with Beatty and was dismissed from the Battle Cruiser Squadron. Beatty had added Filson to his staff on condition he did not write about his naval experiences in the press and, almost as if giving evidence in court, Filson stated categorically after the war that he had honoured this undertaking:

… no sentence on any subject whatsoever was ever written for publication by me, from the moment I thought of entering the Navy until more than a year after I had left it – and then only at the request of the Admiralty … and the fact that I was with him at all is a sufficient guarantee to those who had the slightest knowledge of David Beatty that he could trust me perfectly to abstain from writing about naval matters and also forget for the time being that I had ever been a writer at all. (117)

Not true. The Admiralty gave Filson permission to resume writing for publication when he resigned his commission in November 1915, and a month – not a year – after this he started publishing a series of articles describing daily life on Lion in the Times, though these were anonymous and the name of the ship not mentioned (118). More remarkable, he published a long article entitled ‘Beatty, the Fighting Admiral, by an Officer of the Flagship Lion’ in Cassell’s Magazine for May 1915 when he was not only still a commissioned naval officer but still on Beatty’s staff. This was why Beatty got rid of him.

While Lion had been undergoing repairs on the Tyne after the Dogger Bank battle the Admiral’s staff, including Filson, had been accommodated on Princess Royal; Lion was not ready for service again till late May, by which time Beatty was back on board. During these weeks Filson spent a good deal of time in London, among other things exploring the possibility of a transfer to the Dardanelles, which was where the action now seemed to be (his chances of getting this transfer were reduced by the fall of his friends Churchill and Fisher). In With the Battle Cruisers Filson does give a reason for leaving Lion but, as we shall see, it wasn’t the main one:

The increasing complications made by a larger command and a larger staff made my curious undefined position, which I had made for myself, more difficult to hold; absence in London, waiting the pleasure of the First Lord, did the rest – ‘his place let another take’ being an eternal rule in the Navy. The time came when the best service I could render my Admiral was to yield the space which I occupied near him to others of whom he had more need. It was the most difficult service of all to render; but my bit of duty was done. (119)

Not entirely sanctimonious guff. Beatty had indeed encouraged Filson to go to London at the beginning of May to try for a transfer. In London Filson wrote a polemical article about the Navy and sent Beatty a copy in the hope that Beatty might allow him to publish it. But Beatty saw no reason to make an exception in this case:

Thank you for the enclosed which I return. As usual the old gentleman is Destructive and it comprises an indictment. Of what value now? After perhaps, but it would only destroy confidence in the Admiralty to publish now and would not cause any change which would be the only excuse for doing so … I hear you are working for Winston and Jacky [Fisher] I should have thought it difficult to combine the two … I am sick to death of doing nothing and can see no light. (120)

Sometime during the next six days Filson’s article ‘Beatty the Fighting Admiral’ appeared in Cassell’s Magazine. It is not clear whether this is the article Filson had sent to Beatty for checking, but what is clear is that ‘Beatty the Fighting Admiral’ is scarcely a controversial piece, since most of it is a virtually word-for-word reprint of the Saturday Review pen-portrait that so embarrassed Beatty two years before and which, incidentally, had just reappeared in Filson’s latest book, a collection of his pre-war Saturday Review pieces brought out the previous month by the publisher Martin Secker under the perhaps misleading title New Leaves. If this is all, Filson did keep his word not to write about his wartime naval experiences until after he was given permission to publish again by the Admiralty in November 1915. On the other hand the piece in question had of course already offended Beatty when it first appeared in April 1913. Beatty was furious when he saw the article on himself in Cassell’s Magazine (121), though he seems not to have realized it was virtually the same piece he had seen two years before. On May 16 he wrote to Filson, perhaps more in sorrow than in anger:

I think indeed you might have had a little more consideration for me than you have displayed in publishing the article in Cassell’s Magazine by An Officer of the Flagship ‘Lion’. It was understood between us when you became a naval officer that you curbed your Literary proclivities on Sea Subjects. This is not acting up to the Spirit of this agreement.

You should know the service well enough to understand the interpretation that will be put upon this effusion. You will therefore not be surprised when I say that I cannot sanction your return to the Lion.

It really distresses me very much and I do not think you have played the game with me in this matter. The question of good taste is another matter.

The fact that you injure me in the opinion of the Service I suppose never occurred to you.

Also the Admiralty will almost certainly want to know why a naval officer is writing for the Press and by whose authority.

Yours disappointedly

David Beatty

Filson defended himself by return of post, but Beatty was not to be


I of course accept your explanation but cannot completely absolve you of responsibility. What you write you must be responsible for as to where it is produced.

I have no malice. I don’t think I can be accused of being narrow but I am very sore. (122)

So Filson was banished to an office job at the Portsmouth shore establishment known as ‘H.M.S. Victory’ (123) where, for the next six months, he was restricted to ‘the antique administration of a great naval depôt in war-time’. But Beatty’s anger didn’t last long. Soon he was telling Filson that he was sure that, even if he (Filson) did go to the Dardanelles, he would be back in lots of time for the final show,

when we will manage to find a place for you somewhere and somehow … I shall miss you; it was refreshing to have someone to talk to who was not of the Navy, and your advice was good. (124)


114  With the Battle Cruisers 234-8.

115  Winston Churchill to FY, 27 April 1921.

116  Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames has written: Many years later, looking back over her life with Winston, [his wife] Clementine was to say that, of all the events they had lived through together, none had been so agonising as the drama of the Dardanelles. During these days of 1915, and for long weeks and months thereafter, she shared with Winston every anxiety, every brief hope, every twist and turn of the devious course of the crisis. Half a century later, Clementine told Martin Gilbert, Winston’s biographer: “I thought he would die of grief.” – Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: the Revised and Updated Biography (2002), p 141.  See also note 85 above on the collapse of Asquith’s Liberal government.

117  [find ref for this quote again? WBC, I think]

118  The Times, [find refs]

119  With the Battle Cruisers 238.

120  David Beatty to FY, 10 May 1915.

121  A touch of irony is added to this dispute about official secrecy by the full title of the offending periodical: Cassell’s Magazine of Fiction. Perhaps it was now that Filson promised Cassell the full story (censored in some places for personal reasons) that they would publish in 1921 as With the Battle Cruisers.

122  David Beatty to FY, 25 May 1915.

123  ‘H.M.S.Victory’ was not Nelson’s famous flagship but what was known as a “stone frigate”, i.e. a sprawling collection of slum buildings, condemned to demolition by successive lords of Admiralty but always retained, never justifying the cost of renovation and so continuing to decay, (Bassett, Battle-cruisers, p 164).

124  With the Battle Cruisers 239.

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