His later career was marked by a longstanding dispute with Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher, over reforms championed by Fisher introducing new technology and sweeping away traditional practices. Fisher, slightly senior to Beresford and more successful, became a barrier to Beresford's rise to the highest office in the navy. Beresford rose to occupy the most senior sea commands, the Mediterranean and Channel fleets, but failed in his ambition to become First Sea Lord.
Despite Fisher 'pipping Beresford to the post', Fisher could not match Beresford's charm and charisma and sheer flare for life and situation, for Beresford was not only a serving MP but a serving professional naval officer at the same time, and this both angered and continuously annoyed the Admiralty that a junior officer could speak in the House about naval policy. He was a naval officer from 1859 until 1911 [52 years] and an MP from 1874 until 1880 [6 years], and again after his retirement in 1911 until his death, he retook his seat in the House. He entered parliament as a lieutenant [over 8 years] and one year later in 1875 he was promoted to commander. A lieutenant [over 8 years] was the equivalent to the rank of lieutenant commander but it wasn't until 1877 that Rear Admiral Alexander Hood introduced the half stripe. Therefore he went from two stripes to three stripes.
My story comes from the period when he was first an MP, and a commander RN, from a speech of his in the House of Commons which was more or less his swansong for the first period: it dates from March 1879.
The procedure in the navy at that time was that a man of war paid off after a commission [usually three years and sometimes more] and its crew were dispersed according to their branch, commission conduct and professional training/status. Blue jackets [sailors as opposed to men like stokers] were discharged to "receiving ships" which were hulks in the dockyards, to await through-drafting to newly commissioned ships or employment in the dockyard as a proverbial dockyard matey, and this was most undesirable for all concerned. Shore barracks and all the obvious advantages were the answer. As a young commander, nobody was in a better position in the House to talk on this subject, and as you will read, he 'pulled no punches' further embarrassing his superiors back in the Admiralty. He left the House a few months later.
This then, is what he said. His speech tells of a navy in disarray, with major personnel problems, where men deteriorate once paid off, and where captains of newly commissioned ships have to spend months working-up these crews left to rot in receiving ships.
HC Deb 10 March 1879 vol 244 cc544-9
, in rising to call attention to the present system of paying off men-of-war's men into receiving ships, and to suggest that barrack accommodation should be provided for men-of-war's men in lieu of receiving ships, said, it might appear a waste of time to bring forward the subject of building naval barracks when a sum of money was put down in the Naval Estimates towards the construction of "seaman's barracks;" but he believed the great importance of getting these barracks finished as soon as possible to be so under-estimated, that he should like to point out two most dangerously weak points in the efficiency of Her Majesty's Navy. The system at present used for disposable men at home who were held in readiness to man newly-commissioned ships, or to fill vacancies on foreign stations, was as follows:—On a man-of-war paying off the ship's company, the marines went off to their barracks, the blue-jackets, excepting a certain proportion who were composed of the smartest men with the best characters, who were allowed to volunteer for the gunnery ships, went to the receiving ships; A.B.'s, ordinaries, and what were known as "excused" and working idlers went to the Duke of Wellington, or to the Royal Adelaide, the stokers went to the Indus or Asia. The above-mentioned men might then remain in these home-receiving ships for different periods of time, varying from six weeks to two years. His object in bringing forward this subject was to show—firstly, that during this time, from a service point of view, these men deteriorated, and much valuable time was lost which might be utilized in making them efficient; secondly, that the very large increase of "non-combatants" in our first-class ships, who were totally untrained to arms, and, he might say, undisciplined, was most undesirable. The total number of men—seamen class—in the Navy, not including officers, marines, and boys, was 30,887; that included all classes—petty officers A.B.'s, ordinary seamen, idlers, "excused" idlers, and stokers. Of this number 8,581 were serving in the eight receiving ships, the two gunnery ships, one torpedo ship, and in the naval barracks at Sheerness, From the 8,581 he must deduct 1,954 men who were most usefully employed, with much benefit to the Service, in perfecting themselves as seamen gunners and as gunnery and torpedo instructors in the Excellent, Cambridge, and Vernon; that left 6,627 men who were doing nothing towards re-qualifying themselves or being got ready for commissioning slips. From the 6,627 he must take the number of "non-combatants," which amounted to 3,012; that left 3,615 pure blue-jackets in the home ports. Now, how were these 3,615 employed? Firstly, a large ship like our old liners—taking the Duke of Wellington as an example—required a large number of men to keep it clean and a large number to man the boats, who must do nothing else while so employed towards making themselves efficient in drills, ready for any ship newly commissioned; then two hours each day were wasted in pulling from the ship to the dockyard, as it took half-an-hour to do the distance. And when they did get on shore a large proportion of men were employed at work which was certainly not instructive in either seamanship or gunnery, and which was called by the men "Doin' a'orse," that was, hauling carts and timber about the yards. When they had barracks all that time would be saved. It would give the Admiralty a chance of making all pure blue-jackets seamen gunners, instead of, as was now the case, only the smartest and "best-charactered" men being allowed to volunteer for the gunnery ships on a ship paying off; the remainder, which comprised men not so intelligent, or young men who might have got into trouble, kicking over the traces a bit from exuberance of spirits, but still often very good men if wanted, went to the receiving ships. If the men were in barracks instead of on board these ships, they would be ready-drilled when called on to man a ship newly commissioned, instead of being, as is now the case, deteriorated, having forgotten what they were taught even in their last sea-going vessel. Under the present system, the smartest captain could not get his ship in order for fighting under three or four months—that was, as he would like to have her, and as she ought to be on going into action, every man thoroughly acquainted with the duties of his station, and with the ordinary drills and routines of a sea-going man-of-war. Another very weak point, notably in the Duke of Wellington, was the large number of prisoners awaiting court martial or completion of sentence, sometimes as many as 60 at a time. Knowing a ship was to know the bad effect so many prisoners must have on the ship's company, more particularly as he had mentioned that they were not our very best men; also, having of necessity to keep the 60 prisoners cooped up together was as bad as it could be, the only possible place to keep them being in the fore part of the or lop deck, which was railed off like a cage. There was also the point of expense. The Duke of Wellington last year cost £2,600 to repair her—that was merely to keep her rotten timbers efficient. If they allowed £1,000 for each of the remaining ships a-year, always excepting the gunnery ships, it would take £7,000 more, making a total of £9,600, or, say, £10,000 a-year to keep them floating in a liveable condition. That sum, of course, would be saved by having barracks. New let him turn to what he called the dangerously weak point at present existing in Her Majesty's Navy. Of the 30,887 seamen class—these did not include, as he said before, officers, marines, or boys—11,300 were "non-combatants"—namely, stokers, who numbered 4,985; artificers, who included carpenters' mates, carpenters, calkers, blacksmiths, armourers, plumbers, plumbers' mates, and armourers'crews, 2,310; petty officers, non-seamen class, which included schoolmaster, sick-berth steward, attendants, writers, bandmasters, and musicians, 994; and the domestics and bandsmen, which included stewards, cooks, and servants, 3,044. These men were totally untrained to arms, and were undisciplined. By undisciplined, he meant that they knew nothing about "squad" drill, and any orders other than those connected with their respective duties they did not know how to obey. In our present first-class fighting ships the proportion of "non-combatants" was enormous; it was quite unavoidable owing to the number of things that were now done by machinery that were formerly done by manual labour, but still it formed a dangerous element. In the Marlborough, 20 years ago, the non-combatants were in a proportion of about 9 or 10 per cent. The present proportion, taking three different classes, was as follows;—Minotaur, total complement, 700; non-combatants, 192. Thunderer, total complement, 359; non-combatants, 161. Hotspur, total complement, 210; non-combatants, 92;—rendering the last-named about 45 per cent. This large proportion existed in our best ships, the very ships that would do all the fighting if war were declared—blockading and duties in the performance of which they would be most liable to be attacked by torpedo boats. In that case our own boats would be away rowing guard, manned and armed, and who would then be left to defend the ship? If a ship were to be rammed, no doubt boarders ought to be called. With a small ship's company every man ought to be trained to arms—servants, stokers, idlers—all ought to be able to assist in defending the ship. Again, the commanding officer of a turret-ship ought to be able to man and arm boats, and to be quite happy with the "non-combatants" left to defend the ship; but it was not so. In a ship of the Thunderer class, if the boats were to be manned and armed, it would take every fighting blue-jacket out of the ship, and nearly all the marines, leaving the "non-combatants," about six petty officers, and 12 marines, to defend a ship worth over £500,000. When they had barracks, he most earnestly hoped that every man might be trained to arms, particularly in these days of small ship's companies and costly ships, and large percentages of non-combatants. He had no desire to make the work tedious to the men. They ought, however, to be taught how to fire a rifle and fix a sword-bayonet. With barracks this would be simple enough; much time would be gained; a routine would be made out to enable each man to have a fair spell at his drill, as also at his ordinary work. It was impossible, or almost impossible, to drill "non-combatants" on board a commissioned vessel, as their time was entirely taken up with the duties for which they were engaged by the Service, besides which there was very properly an Admiralty Order against employing stokers, particularly in duties other than their own. He had endeavoured to point out the very faulty system of "receiving ships;" they were nearly all worn out, and the country, of course, would not vote for building obsolete line-of-battle ships merely as receiving ships for paid-off men-of-war's men, and also the imperative necessity of having every man on board, whether he was combatant or non-combatant, trained, so that he might be able to help or defend the ship in those cases of emergency which were so certain to occur in our next naval war. We had our servants, now, Marines, and very well they answered. Being old soldiers, they were always available to fall into a company or work a gun. Why should we not require this to be done by all non-combatants when we get the barracks? He hoped the First Lord of the Admiralty would not think this was hostile criticism. He wanted to strengthen the hands of the right hon. Gentleman in so that the barracks might be built as soon as possible.
It would be wrong of me to tell you that the Admiralty's ruffled feathers led to change, but the speech must have caused enough waves back in Whitehall [in what we now call the Old Admiralty] to spur them on to assigning the receiving ships to history, for less than twenty odd years later, quick in terms of bureaucracies, by 1903, the naval barracks were completed and opened, the first being Devonport followed by Portsmouth and Chatham as joint second, much to the joy of thousands of men and boys.
It is widely believed, that had not Beresford become an MP and had toed-the-line as a professional naval officer throughout his 52 year career, he would have undoubtedly become the ultimate admiral of the fleet, surpassing even the brilliance of Sir John Fisher and thus being revered and remember in the vein of Admiral Lord Nelson.
Please, keep telling me about our famous and resplendent admirals, but let us not forget about those, who, despite not getting to the very top, nonetheless, rendered other admirals as "also rans". CHARLIE B was one such, and yet strangely, not a lower deck favourite. He certainly is one of mine.
I have said above that few would engage the old war lord in debate about the navy. However, whilst in Parliament for the second time post 1911, he met, nay more than met his match [albeit temporarily] during a debate in the House on the 31st March 1913 on Navy Estimates 1913-14 VOTE A [which is personnel], when he insisted to the First Lord of the Admiralty that he [the First Lord] had miscalculated and was 20,000 men short of the required quota. He was so persistent with his accusation that the First Lord had to 'come on strong' to defend himself and the Admiralty. The First Lord, but not in so many words, called his accusation untruthful [almost openly calling him a liar] and that every ship in all the fleets could be manned in war, and moreover, that every man in the navy knew exactly to which ship he had been assigned should the navy mobilise. The First Lord offered Charlie 'B' the opportunity to seek friends in the House to vouch for the Admiralty figures, and if he refused that option, he was cordially invited to the Admiralty to see the evidence for himself where he would have an opportunity to speak to whomever he wished in connection to his case. The country at all costs, said the First Lord, must not be led into believing that its navy was not prepared for combat. The First Lord was none other than Winston Spencer Churchill. Charlie 'B', for the first and last time in his life, sat down with his 'tail between his legs' and said nothing: or did he ? Absolutely NOT. He sat and waited and bided his time. When he did next take to the Floor, he did what the country loved to see him do, and that was to go in with all guns blazing. By all accounts he was quite angry with Churchill's slight, but his deliverance was cool and calm befitting that of an admiral.
This is what he said
31st March 1913
The First Lord of the Admiralty has been good enough to tell me that I am a person who does not tell the truth.
I do not wish to make a tu quoque and say his statement is contrary to fact, but I want to prove the statement I have made on several occasions as to our being 20,000 men short, and I believe the House will see that I was correct, and not the First Lord.
Last year, in answer to a question, the right hon. Gentleman said we were 240 men short. That was in March, but afterwards his junior came down and said it was 2,000.
That was a great discrepancy, and I pointed it out at the time. I pointed out that we were a great deal more than 240 men short.
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me why he did not give me the first-term men who were leaving the Service last year and who had left during the last three years? He said that it was not in the public interest. I maintain that it is in the public interest. The public should know if we are short of men in the Fleet, and they should know why men who are worth their weight in gold are leaving the Service in great numbers.
The First Lord by increasing the pay will retain some, but I do not think he will retain them all or nearly all. He knows perfectly well that the men were overworked and underpaid. He knows perfectly well that it was the shortage of men in the Fleet which gave rise to the discontent; it was overwork in the Fleet, and not the question of pay which made them discontented.
The First Lord is not going to tell this House—if he does it will not believe him—that it is a good thing to get in an enormous number of recruits, some 15,000, as we are going to do now. They are nearly all lads, except the Marines, and he must acknowledge that it will take five years to properly train them for fighting.
He tells the House this large amount of recruiting is to fill up ships that are going to be commissioned. I deny that altogether.
The Government reduced the complement of the Fleet for five years. They were warned over and over again by many of us that they would have to join an enormous number of men suddenly like this, and my statement that they are 20,000 men short is proved to have been correct by what he is now doing.
He is joining the same number next year and the year after in order to fill up the 20,000 of which I say the Fleet is short. I do not want to have recriminations. I believe him to be as perfectly honest as I am in endeavouring to get the Navy correct, but he is absolutely wrong about the men. He invited two Members from this bench to go to the Admiralty. I hope they will go. It is a very fair offer, and the question is very important. I do not for one moment say the First Lord cannot man these 143 ships…
What are the 143 ships?
They are all in the Navy List—nucleus crews and skeleton crews; what you call "the Reserve."
Does the Noble Lord include ships of the Second Fleet, or is he speaking of the ships in the Second and Third Fleets…
If the right hon. Gentleman will get the Navy List, and look up the ships that have got nucleus and skeleton crews, he will find there are 143. I do not say he cannot man them. He will man them with the Royal Naval Reserve and with boys.
He has letters at this moment from captains and admirals to say there are a great many boys in the ships.
There are a great many, too many, boys in the Fleet. There are a great many boys taking the place of able seamen.
I was perfectly right when I told my countrymen that we were 20,000 men short for the selected moment, and proof of it is to be found in that which the right hon. Gentleman is now doing.
Just fancy having to join men at the rate you are now joining them, when you know they cannot be ready for five years!
If you had joined them during the last three or four years you would not have been in your present position.
The fact is our Fleet is not ready to go out to fight at the selected moment.
You are short of men. You have too many boys and too many young stokers, and all because you have not looked ahead during the last five years.
Instead of joining extra men, you reduced the number. I do not want to have a violent recrimination with the First Lord. When I made that statement I believed it. I believe it now.
I believe that if any hon. Member went to the Fleet and asked any officers or men he would be told that they are shorthanded and overworked.
If, by some wave of a fairy wand, the First Lord could have six "Dreadnoughts" to-morrow, he could not man them unless he paid off ships now in commission.
Naturally. How many "Dreadnoughts" more than the Admiralty now possess or have in prospect are they expected to provide crews for?
You cannot provide crews for the selected moment, because you are short-handed, and you are going to call out your Reserve.
Any captain will tell you that the reserve ships are not fit to fight an action.
The right hon. Gentleman informed us that the Germans were going to have four-fifths of their fleet always ready. You are not prepared for that.
Ninety per cent. of the whole fighting strength of the Fleet is manned without the use of a single Reservist.
There, again, is one of those charming sentences which take in the House. The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in what he says, but what are these crews? The ships' companies consist largely of boys and young stokers. The First Lord knows it.
It is not true.
Interruptions such as these ought not to be made by an hon. Member unless they are of sufficient importance to lead the hon. Member to rise.
I still maintain what I have said, both in the House and in the country. I think I have proved my case.
I take it all hon. Members have an interest in this question. They all have friends in the Fleet. I suggest they should go to any naval officer, or any man in the Fleet, or any man in the torpedo-boat destroyers, and make inquiries. I am sure the reply will be that they are shorthanded in the Fleet. To make up what the right hon. Gentleman calls the fighting Fleet, he will have to put in Reservists.
Not in the First and Second Fleets.
The First and Second Fleets have far too many boys and young stokers in them to make them efficient.
I again maintain I was right.
The right hon. Gentleman has simply made a statement to show that I was incorrect, whereas I have given proof of the accuracy of my statement.
I do not feel competent to follow the discussion in regard to manning, but I wish to make some observation as to the figures we have had from the right hon. Gentleman, and also as to some figures which he gave me in answer to questions a fortnight ago last Wednesday—questions replied to with some asperity, and, I might also say, with rudeness. The right hon. Gentleman on that occasion refused to disclose the facts for which I was appealing. Those facts are vital, and in regard to them I propose to make a general statement. This Government has provided and completed, while it has been in office, seventeen armoured ships, against the German fourteen armoured ships. It has provided and completed seventeen small cruisers, against Germany's ten; that appears to be a good majority, but it is a very deceptive one, as I shall show presently. It has provided and completed seventy-five destroyers against the German seventy-three; that is a serious fact.
In that case the 60 per cent. is only in imagination. I think, too, it is an unworthy record. It represents the compromise of the various wings of the party which go to make up the majority, while the German list represents an understanding between their Admiralty and their Foreign Office.
I wonder what Mr Winston Spencer Churchill said to himself when he left the Chamber that evening. If he ever lost a major battle, this was one of his earliest !