1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fisher, John Arbuthnot

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FISHER, JOHN ARBUTHNOT, 1st Baron (1841-1920), British admiral (see 10.428), on relinquishing the office of First Sea Lord in Jan. 1910 remained in retirement until 1912, when he was appointed chairman of the royal commission on oil fuel. He was a firm believer in oil as fuel for the navy, with its corollary the internal combustion engine. He foresaw its effects on the design of war vessels, and the far-reaching tactical results to be derived from the employment of capital ships that would show no funnels or smoke, have immense sea-keeping powers, and be fuelled at sea from tankers.

After the outbreak of the World War, the retirement of Prince Louis of Battenberg, in Nov. 1914, from the post of First Sea Lord, led to Lord Fisher's being again installed in that office at the Admiralty. His presence was immediately felt in the dramatic and brilliant piece of strategy which resulted, under Adml. Sturdee, in the destruction of Adml. von Spee's squadron off the Falklands. Fisher then, with the coöperation and hearty support of Mr. Churchill, initiated a great building programme of cruisers, monitors, destroyers and small craft to the number of some 600 keels, pressing the American shipyards into the service, necessarily at an enormous cost. Everything had to be subordinated to haste, and in fact most of the craft were actually delivered within six months. Although primarily designed for a great strategic move into the Baltic, which Lord Fisher had himself drawn up in detail, this vast armada was gradually diverted from its original purpose to various other uses — among them the naval attempt to force the passage of the Dardanelles; and it was the War Council's decision to proceed with this that ultimately (May 1915) led to Lord Fisher's resignation of his post as First Sea Lord. In the following July he was appointed chairman of the Inventions Board, and in 1917 gave important evidence before the Dardanelles Commission. In 1919 he published two books — Memories and Records. These collections of unconventional and more or less fragmentary utterances taken down in shorthand inevitably suffer from a lack of sequence and coherence, and they are of little value as a guide to their author's actual achievements. After some months of illness Lord Fisher died on July 10 1920, his last public act being a press campaign in favour of economy. He was then in his eightieth year.

It was still difficult in 1921 to form a just estimate of the value to his country of Lord Fisher's long and arduous service. In some ways the results of his strenuous life were disappointing to himself and to those whom his strong and rugged personality impressed with a sense of almost superhuman genius and power; as well as to those, such as the journalists whom he knew well how to flatter, who took him exactly at his own valuation. It needed an experience like that of the late King Edward to see the weak and unprotected places in the strong man's armour, and to understand where what was fine in him needed support and protection. Like so many men in his service, Lord Fisher suffered from the disadvantages of an incomplete education — a defect not likely to be felt in actual fighting service, but apt to become more and more of a handicap as a man advances in his profession and deals with wider and more complex problems than those involved in merely technical developments. Lord Fisher was temperamentally as well as by training unable to make use of a staff, in the modern sense of that term; he thought alone, formulated his large but vague conceptions of war and strategy alone, and attempted practically alone to work them out — with inevitable results. It is remarkable that so powerful and in some ways attractive a personality neither produced any school nor influenced any notable group in the navy; and even of the men whom he selected and furthered, practically none except Lord Jellicoe came to great distinction or achieved any signal success. Many of the schemes with which his name is most closely associated — Osborne, the training of the engineering branch, the system of the “common entry” for example — proved failures and had to be abandoned or completely remodelled. Although he was sponsor while First Sea Lord for the Dreadnought principle of design, and for such infinitely important technical developments as water-tube boilers, turbines, etc., his theory that “speed is armour,” as applied to North Sea warfare, proved to be dangerous, and the battle cruisers designed in accordance with it were to some extent at a disadvantage as a result of reliance on aphorism rather than on the logical and thought-out harmonization of means, conditions and end. Some of the more extreme examples of this class, still under construction on his retirement from the Admiralty, had to be abandoned or altered or adapted to other uses. On the other hand, in his large conceptions of warfare, in his prevision of the war with Germany and its date, in his concentration of the navy in the North Sea as a training ground, in his strategical strokes, such as the destruction of the von Spee squadron, and his conception of a Baltic campaign early in the war (never carried out), and in his untiring advocacy of an offensive policy (also overruled), Lord Fisher showed a true genius and grasp of the essentials of naval warfare which alone would make him a memorable figure in British history. His character was a combination of strength, ingenuity and simplicity; by some mysterious throwback he had, both physically and mentally, a strong oriental strain in his composition; and the Bible was his favourite and most familiar book. He read, however, not so much to educate and enlarge his mind, as to seek and find confirmation of his own views and conceptions of things. In that respect he was like a great artist, who assimilates everything in life that will contribute to the endorsement and magnification of his own genius, and rejects the rest. He was sometimes ruthless and violent in his methods, although rather less so than he would have the world believe; there were indeed veins of beauty and modesty in his character, and he came nearest to true greatness when he was most simple. His were a life and character essentially of the kind to provoke violent controversy and sharp divisions between his admirers and accusers; but when these have died away his figure will stand out, even among the strong men of his day, as that of an enemy to shams and pretences, to sloth and incompetency, and as a passionate lover and defender of his country. (F. Y.)