When Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, he quickly grew to rely on the services of a former First Sea Lord, by then supposedly retired: Admiral John Fisher. Between them, Fisher and Churchill were to revolutionise the Royal Navy, just in time to facilitate its successful prosecution of World War One. Fisher had predicted a 1914 war with Germany as far back as 1911.
Once war broke out, he returned to the position of First Sea Lord in a formal capacity, though he resigned after less than a year. He and Churchill had fallen out over the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, about which he was never an enthusiast. Fisher is regarded as one of the most influential admirals of his generation. His partnership with Churchill is an often neglected aspect of the pre-war period.
John ‘Jacky’ Fisher came from a colonial family who had fallen into debt. He therefore joined the navy at the age of only thirteen, by when his father had died. He grew estranged from his mother. He married, and had four children, three of whom were in turn to marry admirals. He was a forward thinking, sometimes impatient man, frustrated by the conservatism and patronage that was rampant in the navy. He was also extremely religious, an aspect of his make up which could sometimes affect his judgement.
First Sea Lord
His first tenure as First Sea Lord had been between 1904 and 1910. It was a period of retrenchment and transformation. Amidst much outcry, Fisher freed up resources by scrapping or mothballing dozens of elderly ships, and instead invested in new technology. Modern turreted ‘Dreadnought’ battleships and the new concept of battlecruisers were the result.
Prior to that, Fisher had served in many capacities and many theatres, working his way up through the ranks. He became a recognised expert in gunnery and naval tactics. A captain at the age of only 33, Fisher later had command of the Mediterranean Fleet and was trusted to serve at the Hague Peace conference of 1899 – a delicate diplomatic task. He had excelled in every role he was given.
After his terminal row with Churchill in 1915, he attended a notorious meeting with General Allenby, during which he lectured the solider for hours about the divine purpose of recapturing Jerusalem. More profitably, he chaired the navy’s research committee until the end of the war. Fisher died two years later on 20 July 1920 of cancer.
Winston Churchill: History In An Hour is due for publication on 24 April 2014.