This is a biography of Lord Charles Beresford who served in the Royal Navy from the 1860's through to just before the start of the First World War. As such it is not only an interesting insight into the man himself but includes a wealth of information on the Navy and its administration in a period that gets little attention, sandwiched as it is between the triumphs of the Age of Sail in Nelson's time and the global conflicts of the World Wars.
I have spent some time thinking about this review as Freeman's work establishes Beresford as a very complex individual and I am still undecided as whether I like him. During his career the Navy saw drastic (and expensive) changes as the relatively new innovation of steam driven ships saw constant updates to design and size culminating in the giant 'Dreadnought' battleships. It must have been a difficult time to serve, in the shadow of the great Nelson and with tactics constantly changing to take account of new weaponry.
As you read the narrative Beresford seems at first a worthy successor to the mantle of naval hero as he had some brave achievements to his name, such as his part in the campaign to rescue General Gordon in Khartoum and the public at the time seem to have thought so as throughout his career he was lauded by the general public. However, as he rose through the ranks, whilst outwardly he was keen to serve when in post he spent a lot of his time on politics and the leisure pursuits of the upper classes which was particularly noticeable when he gave up the command of his ship the day he had enough sea-service to qualify for flag rank. Freeman's excellent work makes it clear there was definitely a lack of commitment.
When at sea he liked to go his own way and regularly fired off letters to ministers and the press voicing his opinions, and between appointments he served as an MP, his speeches almost always being critical of those in power. It is amazing how much latitude he was given in this sniping which as the books title indicates was insubordination. He displayed a vicious streak, which seems to have been based on jealousy, through which he sought to destroy the careers of not just those he saw as his enemies but of others who would not side with him. These 'victims' include well known names such as Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill. On the positive side he always seems to have been an avid supporter of the common seaman and their dependants always speaking out on issues such as pay and pensions.
When what he had been training for all his life finally came, the First World War, whilst his contemporaries such as Fisher were called back from retirement, Beresford was not. However he threw himself into committee work for various organisations such as those organising hospital and ambulances. During this period his eleven committees were instrumental in raising £800,000 (£34 million in today's terms) a great achievement and evidence of his popularity with the masses.
It is the contrast of his attacks on others against his charitable activities that leave me undecided as to whether I like him or not but perhaps history is the best judge. The names of many admirals in the Napoleonic era and those of his contemporaries like Fisher, Beattie and Jellicoe are still known whereas (whilst I may have come across his name in passing) this is the first time I have heard of Beresford.
Freeman has done an excellent job of bringing out a lot of information from many sources and bringing it together in an interesting volume without being too judgemental of this complex man. I certainly know a lot more both about the man and the period now and recommend it.
Author: Richard Freeman