Admiral Sir David Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty (1871-1936), was the First Sea Lord who accepted the German Imperial Navy’s surrender at the cessation of World War One. Contemporaries called him a second Lord Nelson and ‘a man of courage with such a fiery, dashing quality’ though historians have since questioned the recklessness that characterised his leadership as a wartime Admiral of the Fleet.
David Beatty was born out of wedlock, a secret that was concealed for much of his natural life. He served as a naval cadet at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth from 1884, training on board HMS Britannia, where he was beaten three times for insurrection and graduated eighteenth from a class of thirty-three. Beatty showed a remarkable talent for cultivating the well-connected. In 1886 he was appointed to HMS Alexandra, a flagship commanded by Queen Victoria’s son Albert, Duke of Edinburgh. During his service, Beatty befriended the Duke’s daughter Marie who would be crowned Queen of Romania.
In 1892, Beatty joined the Royal Yacht, Victoria & Albert, accompanying Queen Victoria on a Mediterranean cruise while Court was in mourning for her grandson Prince Albert Victor. In the same year, Beatty was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Beatty first saw combat in 1896-8 in Egypt and the Sudan and, aged twenty-nine, was one of the British sailors who helped crush the Boxer Rebellion sanctioned by the Dowager Empress of China in Peking in 1900.
Beatty was as controversial a figure in naval circles as in his personal life. While staying with his brother at Newmarket after the Sudan campaign, Beatty fell in love with married American heiress Ethel Tree. Returning from Asia, Beatty wrote to Ethel ‘I landed from China with my heart full of rage, and swore I did not care if I ever saw you again or if I were killed or not’. But he consulted a fortune teller who predicted a favourable outcome and in, 1901, Beatty made the now-divorced Ethel his wife.
It was believed that Ethel’s riches allowed Beatty to be rather cavalier with his naval career. When he was threatened with disciplinary action, Ethel was purported to have said ‘What? Court martial my David? I’ll buy them a new ship’. Beatty was appointed naval aide-de-camp to King Edward VII in 1908 and was made captain of the battleship HMS Queen. As a captain in the Mediterranean Fleet, Beatty and his wife were posted to Malta where they held court in all the pomp and style that Ethel’s fortune could afford them. Reacquainted with Marie of Romania, she said of him ‘Beatty was my special friend and was already in those days a splendid rider and a good polo player. He has said since that I brought him luck’.
By 1912, Rear Admiral Beatty was appointed Naval Secretary to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. When Churchill barked ‘you seem very young to be an admiral’, Beatty replied ‘and you seem very young to be a First Lord’. Beatty’s rules of engaging with his fleet differed from his autocratic superiors in the Royal Navy. He believed ‘to be successful captains must possess, in a marked degree, initiative, resources, determination and no fear of accepting responsibility. As a rule, (my) instructions will be of a very general character so as to avoid interfering with the judgement and initiative of my captains’.
With the outbreak of World War One, Vice Admiral Beatty distinguished himself against the German Admiral Franz von Hippen. On the raid into Heligoland Bight (1914) his fleet sank three cruisers and one destroyer without loss of British ships or life. When British intelligence intercepted signals detailing a raid by the German High Seas Fleet at Dogger Bank (1915), Beatty’s squadron met the enemy, repelled them and gave chase before hunting down and sinking the German vessel Blucher. Beatty’s command was questioned at the Battle of Jutland (1916) when both Indefatigable and Queen Mary were sunk in the early stages of conflict. Beatty famously said ‘there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today’.
Both the British and the Germans claimed victory at Jutland. Fourteen British ships were sunk compared to eleven German vessels and there was a vast loss of life on both sides. Nevertheless, Beatty succeeded Admiral Sir John Jellico as Chief of the Grand Fleet in 1916. Beatty would serve as First Sea Lord from 1917 until 1927. In 1919, he was awarded the Order of Merit and created 1st Earl Beatty. He was considered for Governor General of Canada but Colonial Secretary Leo Amery dismissed him as having ‘no manners and an impossible American wife’.
An ailing Lord Beatty defied doctors’ orders in 1935 when he served as pallbearer at the funeral of Sir John Jellicoe. ‘What will the navy say if I fail to attend?’ he questioned. According to bystanders, Earl Beatty was so obviously infirm that a bystander held out a glass of brandy to him as the cortege passed Fleet Street. When he died in 1936, Earl Beatty was afforded a ceremonial funeral and was buried facing Nelson’s tomb in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.
‘In him’, said Pathé News, ‘the spirit of Nelson seemed to have come back. In him, as in Nelson, the passion for victory was a burning fire. In the days of the war it was his consuming desire to engage the enemy’. A bronze of Lord Beatty stands against the northern wall of Trafalgar Square in the shadow of Nelson’s Column.