1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beatty, David Beatty, 1st Earl

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1922 Encyclopædia Britannica
Beatty, David Beatty, 1st Earl
See also David Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

BEATTY, DAVID BEATTY, 1st Earl (1871- ), British admiral, was born in Ireland in 1871, the son of Capt. D. L. Beatty, 4th Hussars, of Borodale. He was not, as so many naval officers are, predestined to his profession by family association or tradition, which in his case took its tone chiefly from the army and the hunting-field; his father was a well-known figure in the Leicestershire world of the 'eighties and 'nineties. That David alone of the family went into the navy was largely a matter of accident, and his own choice at the age of 13, when he was sent to the Royal Naval Academy at Gosport, can certainly have had little to do with it. Yet within 35 years of that date he had run through the whole gamut of naval possibilities, including those attained only rarely by naval men of any age — Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, Admiral-of-the-Fleet, and First Sea Lord — to say nothing of an earldom, the thanks of Parliament, the O.M., and the Lord Rectorship of Edinburgh University. His sea service combined the maximum of variety with a minimum of mere routine. As midshipman he served in the Mediterranean flagship “Alexandra” and with the training squadron in the “Ruby.” He was sub-lieutenant in the “Nile” and the yacht “Victoria and Albert.” His six years of service as lieutenant were passed in the “Ruby,” “Camperdown” and “Trafalgar”; in the Portsmouth destroyer flotilla, and in the Nile gunboats. His service there and in the battles of Atbara and Omdurman won him his commandership, and in that rank he served in the “Barfleur.” The Boxer rising gave him another opportunity of active service; he was wounded while in command of a shore party, when his dash and leadership won him further promotion, and he became captain at the record age of twenty-nine. From 1900 to 1910 he was in command successively of the cruisers “Juno,” “Arrogant” and “Suffolk,” and the battleship “Queen.” In the naval manœuvres of 1912 he flew in the “Aboukir” his flag as rear-admiral, a rank which he had attained 24 years from the day the boy of 13 had entered Gosport Academy.

Even up to this point his career establishes a record in the history of the navy. It was, in a sense, so far as the navy was concerned, an obscure career, unhelped by “influence,” unknown to the public, undistinguished by the kind of fame attained by the passing of examinations. It was remarkable only by its brilliant rapidity. What he had done he had done by himself, and he had come under no personal influence, with the possible exception of that of Lord Kitchener as Sirdar, that had particularly inspired or moulded him. He was never at the top of any of the lists of his rank, but generally near the bottom, from which he would leap, by sheer merit of service, to a similar humble position at the bottom of the next list, thus passing on the ladder hosts of officers who were laboriously climbing by the routine of seniority and the death or promotion of those above them. To make legal his promotion to flag rank in 1910 a special Order in Council had to be passed, as he had not served the statutory time in command of a ship at sea. His two Admiralty appointments afforded him brief but valuable experience. While still a captain he had acted for about a year as naval adviser to the War Council; and under Mr. Churchill he became naval secretary to the First Lord. In this capacity he assisted at the conference held at Malta in 1912 when the decision was made to reconstitute the Mediterranean fleet by replacing the older battleships by a smaller but more modern force of battle cruisers. In 1913 he was appointed to the command of the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, the fastest and most powerful scouting force ever launched, and hoisted his flag in the “Lion” (March 1).

From this brief outline of his service career it will be observed that Beatty escaped two things. By seizing every opportunity for fighting service he avoided that long period of drudgery in big ships which had for some time been recognized as having a deadening effect on the fighting spirit and initiative of naval officers. Similarly he was equally successful in avoiding long periods of shore service at the Admiralty which, valuable as they may be as a training in administrative work, do not tend to develop the entirely different set of qualities demanded of an officer in high command afloat in time of war. Of administrative work in the large sense Beatty had practically no experience at all when he hoisted his flag in the “Lion” and proceeded to train the newly formed squadron. In some ways it was an advantage. He came to this vital task with an original and untrammelled view of its essential objects, with an instinct for warfare developed in actual fighting, and with a mind undulled by subservience to that long grind of routine which is the inevitable avenue to flag rank except for the fortunate few who, like him, can gain early promotion for fighting services. Throughout his career, when Beatty was given the choice of decoration or other distinction as a reward for such service, he always chose promotion. He had an instinctive certainty that war with Germany would come in his time; and in so far as it lay in his power to shape his career, he shaped it so that he should be in a position to take a leading hand when the hour struck. As it was, with all the brilliant rapidity of his advancement, the war came just a little too soon to give him at the outset, and at the most vital moment, the position of commander-in-chief, which no doubt would have come to him almost as a matter of course if he had had a little longer in which to prove his undoubted qualifications for that post. When he did succeed to it the pioneer work of fleet organization had been done by Sir John Jellicoe, and the policy governing the use of the Grand Fleet as a strategic weapon had been, for good or ill, definitely established.

When the World War broke out, Beatty, although long marked by an intelligent few as certain to achieve distinction, was practically unknown to the navy at large. The routine Home fleet service in which officers get to know each other intimately had claimed little of his time; and when he took command of the battle cruisers even Lord Fisher had never met him. But a very few weeks of war service revealed his quality as a leader. In the action of the Heligoland Bight (Aug. 28 1914), a reconnaissance of light craft in which the battle cruisers were acting in support of Commodores Keyes and Tyrwhitt, Sir David Beatty exhibited his remarkable instinct for being at the right place at the right moment. Partly owing to faulty Admiralty dispositions the British light craft, after the first object of the action had been achieved, were in danger of being cut off when Adml. Beatty, acting not so much on information as on his intuitive sense of the position, turned back through a submarine-infested area and arrived just in time to save them and sink every German ship in the immediate neighbourhood. Then and throughout the war his battle cruisers were the spearhead of the British naval forces. In a score of operations of which, as they did not result in contact with the enemy, history takes no note, and in the two which developed into fleet actions, Beatty, in his famous flagship the “Lion,” was the leading spirit and pivot of the fighting forces. A true disciple of Nelson, he was a rebel against the official conception of British strategy that, provided the enemy were properly contained, his destruction was a kind of luxury that might be indulged in only on condition that the containing force was not unduly risked. Beatty, on the other hand, was inspired with the spirit of attack. He had unique qualities as a leader which made men willing to follow him anywhere, and to achieve the impossible; but apart from his dash and courage he showed consummate skill and caution in dealing with the new hidden elements which have placed so great a power in the hands of the defensive in modern naval warfare. At the battle of the Dogger Bank (Jan. 24 1915) he chased the enemy for three hours, inflicting such severe punishment that the “Blücher” was sunk and the “Sedlitz” and “Derfflinger” and “Moltke” were in full flight, the two former in a battered condition, when the “Lion,” which as head of the pursuing line had received heavy punishment, was put out of action, and the command devolved on Rear-Adml. Sir Archibald Moore. This officer, whose flag was flying in the “New Zealand,” gave no orders during the vital 40 minutes following the “Lion's” disablement. Adml. Beatty's signals to “keep nearer to the enemy” were either missed or misunderstood by the ships immediately following him, with the result that touch with the German battle cruisers was lost, and what was on the point of becoming a complete victory was left merely as an indecisive castigation of the enemy. The facts of this action, which had not been officially made public up to the spring of 1921, were first given at that date in Mr. Filson Young's With the Battle Cruisers, containing a very full account of the battle, with track charts and the actual text and times of the signals made.[1]

Beatty's brilliant handling of the battle cruisers in the battle of Jutland is discussed in the article on that action (see Jutland, Battle of). Some months later (Dec. 1916) he succeeded Sir John Jellicoe as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, in which capacity he received the surrender of the German fleet on Nov. 21 1918. He was raised to the peerage in 1919 as Earl Beatty, Visct. Borodale of Borodale, Baron Beatty of the North Sea, receiving the thanks of Parliament and £100,000. At the same time he was awarded the G.C.B., the O.M. and other honours and decorations. In 1919 he became First Sea Lord, and immediately set in motion measures for a reorganization of the naval staff on lines which would give the younger school of naval thought and experience a chance to make itself felt. He attended at Washington, D.C., in 1921 the Conference on the Limitation of Armament.

The following estimate of Lord Beatty was given, in the book referred to, by Mr. Filson Young, who had served on his staff in the “Lion.”

“One who has served him and observed him closely in the stress of war may at least bear this testimony to his conduct in the chapter of his life which is already over: that in everything that he did or attempted he showed forth in himself and evoked in others the fighting spirit that made England invincible in the past. The common view of him as a dashing leader trusting largely to luck, which so much endears a man to the ordinary English mind, is singularly untrue. It was not the mere instinct of the hunting-field, strong as it was in him, that brought him to the head of the Navy. His caution and his sense of responsibility were just as remarkable as his enterprise; but they were never allowed to obscure or dominate the fighting spirit. Perhaps the greatest tribute one can pay to him and to the Navy is to say that in the qualities in which he proved supreme he was not exceptional, but typical; and it was because he was a product of the modern Navy and contained in himself all its most characteristic qualities, that the Navy would have trusted and followed him anywhere.”

Lord Beatty married in 1901 Ethel, daughter of Marshall Field, sen., of Chicago; of his two sons the elder, Viscount Borodale, was in 1921 a cadet in the Royal Navy. (F. Y.)


  1. The Financial Secretary to the Admiralty answered in the affirmative a question asked in the House of Commons on May 4 1921 by Visct. Curzon as to whether the account given in this book might be taken as correct. Its publication then relieved Adml. Beatty of any responsibility for the somewhat misleading version originally issued by the Admiralty of his own dispatch after the battle.