- Haigh, Gideon
- Battles and operations, Ship design and development, Ship histories and stories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Bulletin, Friday, December 22, 2006
‘It was hailed a century ago as a revolution in battleship design, but tragedy awaited the Invincible as the mists lifted in the Battle of Jutland’, writes Gideon Haigh.
A hundred years ago, the Royal Navy was both the world’s most formidable military force and its least employed, having last met a reckonable enemy more than a century earlier, at Trafalgar. In that protracted Pax Britannica, millions of words of naval scholarship had been launched, and admirals had waged theoretical battles as implacable as any in wartime. Finally, one seer advanced a vision that seemed to dispel the fog of future war, and made it real in a ship called Invincible.
Jacky Fisher had been inspired to join the Royal Navy as a 14-year-old by Southey’s Life of Nelson, and his first posting was to Nelson’s former flagship, Victory, then still serving as a headquarters ship at Portsmouth. But inactivity had turned the fighting navy of Nelson’s day into a flaccid freemasonry: by his own account, the Naval Board of Examination tested Fisher’s suitability for service by asking him to write out the Lord’s Prayer, recite the three-times table, jump over a chair, then join them in a glass of sherry.
Fisher’s only experience of a shooting match would be on a paddle-gunboat during the Opium Wars. But he refused to let peace sap his warlike spirit. As he advanced through the ranks to command the Mediterranean Fleet, surviving the grim 1870s when successive Liberal governments slashed naval expenditures, he fought a thousand battles in his head, developing ever more grandiose and bellicose visions of reform.
Imbued with an immense natural charm and a torrential eloquence, Fisher punctuated his speech with aphorisms that detonated like high explosive. ‘The humanising of war?’ he would scoff. ‘You might as well talk about the humanising of hell!’ He had a philosophy for every occasion: ‘Plunge is the watchword of progress’; ‘Do right and damn the odds’; ‘The Royal Navy always travels first class’. It sometimes seemed he would burst with bonhomie; Violet Asquith likened his eyes to smouldering charcoal, lighting up at his own jokes, and Edward VII, for whom he sang patriotic songs and danced the hornpipe, adored him. ‘The King sent for me yesterday,’ reads a line in Fisher’s diary. ‘A wet afternoon and he wanted someone to talk to.’
Appointed First Sea Lord
The vaudevillian manner, however, was misleading. Fisher had deep and genuine insights into his service’s malaise, and obtained the remit to address them when appointed First Sea Lord on Trafalgar Day 1904 – which, naturally, he thought auspicious. He assailed the navy’s class barriers, sweeping aside its decrepit systems of officer entry and radically improving lower-deck conditions. He was a far-sighted believer in the potential of the submarine, the destroyer and the torpedo, and a brutal realist where older ships were concerned, recalling 154 from their imperial stations and striking them from the active list. Everything was undertaken with messianic intensity, captivating many, alienating some, as he rose at 4am daily for the walk to the Admiralty, pausing only to put in a quick prayer at Westminster Abbey. ‘We must have the Scheme!’ he proclaimed. ‘The Whole Scheme! and nothing but the Scheme!!!’ He would upbraid anyone who spoke of looking back: ‘Remember Lot’s wife!’ He cordially loathed idle chit-chat, displaying in his office the warning: ‘If you have nothing important to say, please go away and let me get on with my work.’
Above all, Fisher is identified with the first all-big-gun battleship HMS Dreadnought (1906). Powered by turbines rather than reciprocating engines, with guns of one calibre fired in salvos by a gunnery officer aloft in a control tower rather than multiple calibres discharged independently, it brazenly courted the dismay of traditionalists. In the words of one detractor, it ‘morally scrapped’ the Royal Navy, rendering obsolete all previous capital ships, precipitating a worldwide scramble to re-arm on similar principles – an arms race stretching England and Germany to their budgetary limits. Yet, as Fisher’s biographer Jan Morris says of Dreadnought: ‘For all his pride in her, she was never really the apple of Fisher’s eye.’ The culmination of Fisher’s dreams, almost his own incarnation in steel, steam and smoke, was the Invincible: the first of a new class of warship, the battle cruiser.