Filson Young

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

Table of contents

37. The Jutland controversy

With the Battle Cruisers (1921) re-established Filson’s position as an expert on naval affairs, consolidated when the editor, his cousin Hugh Chisholm, asked him to write articles on Admirals Beatty, Fisher and Jellicoe for the twelfth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, a 1922 update of the famous eleventh edition, edited by Chisholm before the war (1903-11) (68a). For Beatty, predictably, Filson had nothing but praise, and if he did fault Jellicoe for excessive caution at the Battle of Jutland, he also had a good many positive things to say about him. He had tried and failed to save Beatty’s old flagship Lion for the nation, and in the summer of 1924 was the guest of an old shipmate, now commanding a battleship, at a naval review inspected by the King at Spithead. A week or so later an interview (not by Filson) with Admiral Scheer, German commander-in-chief at Jutland eight years before, appeared in the Daily Express [date?].


The war might be receding into the past, but every time a new volume of memoirs or a new ‘expert’ assessment came out its battles were fought over again. Jutland was particularly controversial since both sides had claimed victory; the Germans had inflicted heavy damage on the British battle cruisers before making off. It was the only sea battle of modern times in which virtually the whole navy of both sides was involved. Had Beatty been too rash in risking his battle cruisers and the lives of his men? Had Jellicoe been too cautious and too inflexible in his tactics in letting the Germans escape after Beatty had lured them almost into the jaws of his battleships?


Journalists and naval officers had long since divided into a pro-Jellicoe camp and a pro-Beatty camp, which spent most of the 1920s crashing salvoes into each other. With the Battle Cruisers had been a major salvo from the Beatty camp. The two admirals themselves refused to quarrel in public, but they were caught up in the fray nonetheless. In the words of the modern naval historian Arthur Marder, it was an ‘unsavoury affair’.


In his Daily Express interview, Scheer blamed Jellicoe for having thrown away a chance to annihilate the German fleet. Jellicoe retorted that Scheer was wrong to claim that the British had been the first to turn away from the battle. On 10 August 1924 the Sunday Express published an article by Filson, who of course had not been present at Jutland, having left the Navy the previous autumn. He insisted that Scheer’s account was ‘only a confirmation of views and opinions which have long been held by the best informed naval opinion in this country’. Beatty, Filson claimed, had not been impetuous, but Jellicoe had been too defensive and inflexible. He had already said as much in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but his Sunday Express article so enraged Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, one of the leaders of the pro-Jellicoe camp, that he wrote a whole book to refute it. Bacon, said to have been a man of firm opinions who did not like taking advice from others, had been a protégé of Fisher, who in 1906 had chosen him as the first captain of his revolutionary battleship Dreadnought. During the war Churchill had put Bacon in command of the Dover Patrol to stop German U-boats getting into the Channel, but the U-boats had evaded him and in 1918 he had been relieved of his command. He later wrote useful biographies of his heroes Fisher and Jellicoe. His attack on Filson came out around New Year 1925 in the form of a full-length book entitled The Jutland Scandal. In it he pointed out, among other things, that Scheer had since claimed to have been misrepresented in the Daily Express. As for Filson’s article, this ‘can rarely, if ever, have been surpassed’ as a ‘masterpiece of inaccurate imagery’, and it was so full of ‘innuendo and inaccurate assertions’ that the only way to deal with it was to reprint it in full with a running commentary. Bacon devoted no less than a tenth of his whole book to this, and was able to point out some factual inaccuracies, thus giving Filson a dose of his own medicine, attacking him and the Express in exactly the same way that Filson had attacked Conan Doyle’s account of the Highgate séance in the Saturday Review three years before. For example:


Filson: With that risk [Beatty] played throughout his marvellous fighting chase towards and return from the south-east at Jutland, when he brought back the whole German High Seas Fleet and laid it, as a cat brings you a mouse, at Jellicoe’s feet.


Bacon: This is delightful! The cat ran away from the mouse and lost sight of it in twenty minutes, and never saw it again. When asked where the mouse was the cat had to confess it didn’t know!!


Leading article in Sunday Express, same date: Admiral Scheer exploded a new Jutland bombshell in the columns of the Daily Express.


Bacon: He shortly after exploded a second one under Mr Filson Young and the editor of the Sunday Express. (69)


Filson didn’t like this at all, but instead of facing Bacon’s head-on he attacked from another quarter by bringing a court action to have Bacon’s book suppressed for infringing his copyright by reprinting his article in full without permission. The case opened on 20 January 1925. For Filson, Mr Archer KC said the basic difference between the two men was that Filson thought Beatty’s tactics at Jutland had been better than Jellicoe’s while Bacon thought Jellicoe’s had been better than Beatty’s. But in his book Bacon had added that he didn’t think it was in the true interests of the Navy or the public that a view such as Filson’s should be held. The judge pointed out that the book had been dedicated to ‘Those Two Neglected Goddesses Justice and Truth’ (laughter). Mr Archer went on: the book had injured Filson, whose article had been considered good and its views correct by many people; he had hoped to make more money from it by printing it again, but Bacon had made this impossible. It was not Bacon’s criticisms of his article that Filson objected to – he accepted that these were fair – but that by reprinting it in full he had infringed the Copyright Act of 1911. The case was adjourned for three weeks. (70)


Four days after this, on January 24, came the tenth anniversary of the Dogger Bank battle. In a long article in the Daily Telegraph Filson claimed that, as the first major action between modern capital ships, it had been ‘the moment that the Navy had been waiting for so eagerly, the moment for which the successors of Nelson, Hood and Anson had been preparing through strenuous years of effort.’ He again argued that Beatty had been the opposite of rash and impetuous, but he had come round to the view that Admiral Moore had not been to blame for letting the Germans escape.

Finally he claimed that both the Dogger Bank and Jutland battles provided an immense amount of material for study and discussion of tactics, and that ‘any attempt to divert this study to a rivalry of personalities and an indulgence in odious personal comparisons is deplorable, and can only obscure far more important and interesting issues’. For once, Beatty was pleased. He told his wife:


Today is a great anniversary for us. The Dogger Bank action 10 years ago. It doesn’t seem so far away as that, and yet a tremendous amount has happened since that [sic] (what we thought) was a glorious day and it has been completely forgotten by everybody except the Daily Telegraph which had a long article by our old friend Filson Young. (71)


To the disappointment of the lawyers, Filson and Bacon settled their quarrel out of court – the case had raised an extremely interesting point in copyright law. Mr Archer announced that Filson had withdrawn so that the names of ‘very great public servants’ would not be dragged into the litigation. Bacon, appreciating this, agreed in return not to quote Filson ‘estenso’(i.e. in extenso) in future editions of his book. He was well satisfied; the first edition was almost sold out and all he had to do was to cut a little of Filson’s article from the second. The publicity the case had brought him ensured at least a third printing by the end of 1925. It may well be that Beatty had privately persuaded Filson to drop the case, despite the fact that Bacon’s book accused him of incompetence and want of chivalry and honour in allowing the blame for mistakes he was supposed to have made himself to fall on other officers. The Daily Express 70 was disappointed that Filson and Bacon were not after all going to fight it out in a public debate, because they would have been well matched, one a writer-turned-sailor with a ‘peculiarly caustic tongue, which always serves him most willingly’, and the other a sailor-turned-writer with a ‘downright tang-of-the-sea manner which would terrify any ordinary landsman at sight’.



68a Hugh Chisholm (1866-1924), after a brilliant academic career at Oxford and an apprenticeship in journalism with the Conservative  London evening daily The St James’s Gazette, attracted the attention of the new American owner of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, H.E.Hooper. As a result, in 1903 Hooper asked Chisholm to edit a completely new edition, to be known as The Times Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chisholm … rose to the occasion and over the next seven years prepared one of the three greatest monuments to Victorian and Edwardian cultural entrepreneurship (James Murray’s … Oxford English Dictionary and Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography being the other two). – Nigel Hamilton, article on Hugh Chisholm in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), vol 11, 488-90. Hamilton summarises: the EB’s eleventh edition is commonly regarded as the greatest encyclopaedic achievement in the English language of the twentieth century, and the credit was Chisholm’s. To this day it remains a primary reference work of the state of knowledge in the English-speaking world on the eve of the First World War. As we have seen, Chisholm also edited the 12th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1922), which covered the first World War.


69  Bacon  The Jutland Scandal, 115-16 and 120.


70  The case was extensively reported in the Daily Telegraph, 21 Jan and 14 Feb 1925.


71  David Beatty to Ethel Beatty, 24 Jan 1925.


72  16 Feb 1925.

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