Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Infighting Admirals: Fisher’s Feud with Beresford and the Reactionaries - Geoffrey Penn

Title: Infighting Admirals: Fisher’s Feud with Beresford and the Reactionaries
Author: Geoffrey Penn
ISBN: 978-0-85052-756-8
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2000
Pages: 264
Photos: 31

It is hard to imagine the degree of influence that the Royal Navy had, at the end of the 1800’s, on British public opinion and therefore, by extension, politics. At that time it was entirely possible to transfer between active duty positions and political office as long as one wasn’t on duty (but was on ‘half-pay’ semi-retirement). This gave naval officers, especially ambitious ones, a great deal of scope for influence and mischief. The two officers at the centre of this work were contemporaries, once friends and, in the end, deep set rivals. Both had their supporters and detractors; the UK and, most especially the Royal Navy, were fortunate in the final outcome of the feud.

Penn’s work does an outstanding job at providing a comprehensive picture of each man’s personality, development, influences and ambitions. This is key in providing context to the nature of the rivalry that developed between them. Both loved the Navy but for different reasons. Fisher saw it as an extension of British influence and domination and one that was under threat from a lack of focus and professionalism as well as operational and developmental stagnation. His vision was one of fundamental change to all aspects the Navy. Conversely, Beresford also viewed the Navy as an extension of British power, but not in terms of a professional arm but more as a hereditary right and norm. What had worked in the past will continue to work in the future. In his view the Navy served to glorify the country and the Admiral in charge and quantity more than made up for quality as long as the turnout was good.

This book is really about personalities and the environments within which they worked. Penn excels at encapsulating the nature of military and political service and the ways by which influence was exercised. Also of note is the role of the major newspapers of the period. They were the twitter of their period and policies and reputations were subject to their whims. It is truly incredible the degree to which Beresford was able to publically flout military protocol and discipline in his efforts to advance his own agenda. The failure of the Royal Navy and its political masters to nip this behaviour was indicative of the intricacies of class and position.

Fisher’s advancement was also unique in that he had no political or family connections to draw upon; his competency and luck were his tickets to promotion. He was a visionary with little time for political niceties and he drove forward his agenda with a single-mindedness of purpose. Fisher’s success, despite deep rooted resentment and resistance amongst the Naval Old School, serves as a testament to the adages relating to being the right man at the right time.

Penn’s work is an eminently readable account of one of the most fascinating periods of the Royal Navy outside of wartime. Little remembered today, the experiences of Fisher and Beresford should serve as opposing examples of leadership and self-sacrifice that are the bedrock of effective military command. Penn’s book should be read by any who are interested in examples of effective and ineffective arts of command as well as the inherent dangers in complacency.

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