Bacon, says Churchill, had a “strange, dynamic personality…But it is a pity that Admiral Bacon [Fisher’s biographer] should have discharged his mission in a spirit and method so calculated to revive the animosities and quarrels which hung around the great old sailor’s neck. Most of his contemporaries were prepared to take the...
Bacon, says Churchill, had a “strange, dynamic personality…But it is a pity that Admiral Bacon [Fisher’s biographer] should have discharged his mission in a spirit and method so calculated to revive the animosities and quarrels which hung around the great old sailor’s neck. Most of his contemporaries were prepared to take the rough with the smooth and to let bygones be bygones. To import a mood of hatred and spiteful controversy into the discussion of the memorable transactions with which Lord Fisher was concerned, was to render no true service to his memory.”
Written in the decade before Churchill became prime minister, Great Contemporaries is a book filled with essays about great men he had known. His keen observations make the book perhaps his most important. In it, he provides fascinating insight into these subjects as Churchill approaches them with a measuring eye, finding their limitations as well as revealing their merits. These short biographies cover political and cultural personalities ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Lawrence of Arabia, and Leon Trotsky to Charlie Chaplin, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw.
One of these subjects was Admiral John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, who was an outstanding innovator whose reforms helped transform the Royal Navy into a modern fighting force at the start of the twentieth century. From the first time of its invention, Fisher was a supporter of the torpedos and submarines. When appointed First Sea Lord in 1904, he set about constructing modern vessels, developing a modern fleet prepared to meet Germany’s. Personally, he was a self-opinionated man with a bellicose personality, making enemies both within the Royal Navy and in politics. He retired in 1910, but the outbreak of the First World War Churchill brought Fisher back to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in October 1914. During his tenure he became involved in ship construction. He also found himself at odds with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, over the proposed Dardanelles campaign. Fisher believed attacking the Dardanelles would jeopardize the success of the major naval strategy of the war. Ultimately forced to concede, Fisher became increasingly discontented when it was clear the campaign was hopeless. He resigned his post in 1915, precipitating Churchill’s own resignation as well. Fisher then served as chairman of the newly established advisory Board of Invention and Research. This would be the final chapter in an illustrious naval career spanning over 60 years.
So Churchill was a man who both respected Fisher and had clashed with him. But he wanted to see Fisher treated fairly. When Admiral Reginald Bacon wrote a biography of Fisher that was unflattering, in 1936 Churchill wrote a Great Contemporaries article about Fisher taking Bacon to task, which was first published in the News of the World newspaper, as were the other articles. “The task of writing the life of Lord Fisher has been attempted by more than one accomplished journalist. The two volumes which now see the light are the work of his old friend and trusted agent, Admiral Bacon. They will be read with the interest inseparable from Fisher’s strange, dynamic personality. But it is a pity that Admiral Bacon should have discharged his mission in a spirit and method so calculated to revive the animosities and quarrels which hung around the great old sailor’s neck. Most of his contemporaries were prepared to take the rough with the smooth and to let bygones be bygones. To import a mood of hatred and spiteful controversy into the discussion of the memorable transactions with which Lord Fisher was concerned, was to render no true service to his memory. His friends can only hope that these rather hurriedly slung-together records will not be the final appreciation which his own time will make of ‘Jacky’ Fisher. As I am involved in these matters, I will first say a word or two about Admiral Bacon. Bacon was an energetic, ambitious and highly competent Captain closely associated with Lord Fisher in the great revival of gunnery in the British Navy which was achieved at the beginning of the century. When Lord Fisher was First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, as he then was, commanded a ship in the Mediterranean Fleet.” He continued, “I am sure he was not so black as his clumsy biographer has painted him. There is always, as was well said, more error than design in human affairs. I felt for him in the bitter years of exclusion that followed his desertion of his post. I even advocated his re-employment. I am sorry that Admiral Bacon should force me to anticipate, however casually, the grievous inquest of history.”
Bacon wrote Percy Davies, News of the World director, complaining; and that complaint he forwarded on to Churchill. This is Churchill’s reply to Davies.
Typed letter signed, on his Chartwell letterhead, Westerham, February 1, 1936, to Davies. “The passages referred to first appeared almost textually in the first volume of the World Crisis published twelve years ago in 1923, and have been reprinted in your popular fortnightly edition. I think it possible to prove from Admiral Bacon’s books that he read the World Crisis many years ago. It is therefore late in the day for him to pretend that he is shocked ad injured by these statements which are no more than the truth expressed in a friendly manner. There appears therefore to be no reason why you should not take a stiff line with him. He is probably endeavouring to obtain some advertisement or perhaps a fee for writing an article. I do not object to his writing anything he pleases in reply. But I have always been taught that a man cannot found an action for libel on statements which he has seen and allowed to pass current for many years. The whole sense of the law (according to F.E.) was that you must come into Court betimes and under the strong impression of your injury.” The F.E. referred to was F.E. Smith, Earl of Birkenhead, one of Churchill’s closest friends and a barrister, as well as for a time Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.
It appears that Davies followed Churchill’s lead and turned aside the complaint as a gesture to get an article in the paper. There is no record of Bacon’s having been paid for an article in that paper.
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