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David Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty

Admiral of the Fleet David Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO (17 January 1871 – 11 March 1936), was an admiral in the Royal Navy.

Early career

Born at Howbeck Lodge (originally one of the Earl of Shrewsbury's hunting lodges), in Howbeck, which is a hamlet in the parish of Stapeley, Nantwich, Cheshire, he joined the Royal Navy in January 1884. Beatty had a mediocre record as a midshipman, leaving eighteenth in a class of thirty-three. He served as a midshipman on the Mediterranean Fleet flagship HMS Alexandra, from 1886 until 1888, when he was transferred to HMS Cruiser. He was at the gunnery school, HMS Excellent from 1890 until 1892 when he was promoted to lieutenant. He was on the corvette HMS Ruby until 1893, when he was transferred to the battleship HMS Camperdown until 1895. Ironically, he joined the ship shortly after a collision between it and HMS Victoria had nearly killed his future commander-in-chief at the Battle of Jutland, John Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe. Following Camperdown he was transferred to the battleship HMS Trafalgar. In 1897, he was given his first command, the destroyer HMS Ranger.

Beatty gained recognition in the recapture of the Sudan (1897-1899), where he was selected as second in command of the river flotilla by Lord Kitchener for his Khartoum expedition. Beatty commanded the gunboat Fatah at the Battle of Omdurman. He was promoted to commander during the expedition, in 1898 at the early age of 27 over the heads of many senior officers.

He gained further recognition as a member of the British naval brigade during the Boxer Rebellion (1900), which he joined from the battleship HMS Barfleur on the China Station where he was second in command. During the capture of Tientsin in June, he was twice wounded in an arm, and rewarded for his bravery with a promotion. At the age of 29, Beatty became the youngest Captain in the Royal Navy. The average age for a newly promoted Captain at the time was 43.


In 1900, he married a wealthy heiress, Ethel Field Tree, the divorced only daughter of department store founder Marshall Field, and this allowed him much independence that most other officers lacked. She is reputed to have commented after he was threatened with disciplinary action following the straining of his ship's engines "What? Court martial my David? I'll buy them a new ship. She had bought him a steam yacht, houses in London and in the Leicestershire hunting country, and a Scottish grouse moor. The couple circulated in high society, even occasionally dining with the King. However, there were disadvantages, as Beatty discovered after his marriage, for his wife was an unstable neurotic who caused him extreme mental tortures. Beatty was an intelligent and able leader, but all his social and sporting obligations, coupled with his high-strung temperament, prevented him from becoming a coldly calculating professional like Jellicoe – or his adversary, Hipper. Beatty’s flamboyant style included wearing a non-standard uniform, which had six buttons instead of the regulation eight on the jacket, and always wearing his cap at an angle.

He was captain of HMS Duke of Wellington from 1900 to 1902 and of the cruisers HMS Juno, HMS Arrogant in 1903-1904 and HMS Suffolk from 1904 until 1905. He then became the naval advisor to the Army Council in 1906.

He was made captain of the battleship HMS Queen in 1908 and promoted to Rear-Admiral on 1 January 1910, becoming, just shy of 39, the youngest Admiral in the Royal Navy, except for Royal family members, since Horatio Nelson.

He was offered the post of second-in-command of the Atlantic Fleet, but declined it and asked for one in the Home Fleet. As the Atlantic Fleet post was a major command, the Admiralty were very unimpressed and his attitude nearly ruined his career. He was put on half pay in 1912, but his career was saved by the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Beatty's gunboat on the Nile had used its guns to support the charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman in which Churchill had taken part. Robert K. Massie in his thorough history of the period, Dreadnought, reports the first meeting of Beatty and Churchill. As Beatty walked into Churchill's office at the Admiralty, Churchill looked him over and said, "You seem very young to be an Admiral." Unfazed, Beatty replied, "And you seem very young to be First Lord." Churchill - who was himself only thirty-eight years old in 1912 - took to him immediately and he was appointed Private Naval Secretary to the First Lord. From 1912 to 1916, he commanded the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron with the rank of Vice-Admiral.

World War I

During World War I, he took part in actions at Heligoland Bight (1914), Dogger Bank (1915) and Jutland (1916). He was an aggressive commander who expected his subordinates to always use their initiative without direct orders from himself. Jutland proved to be decisive in Beatty's career, despite the loss of two of his battlecruisers. Beatty is reported to have remarked (to his Flag Captain, Chatfield, later First Sea Lord in the early 1930s), "there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today," after two of them had exploded within half an hour during the battle. One theory is that this was caused by a design fault in the ammunition loading system to the main gun turrets, so that an enemy hit on the turret set off an explosion in the magazine, thus sinking the ship. Churchill's account of the First World War, The World Crisis, describes Beatty's next order as, "Steer two points nearer the enemy." His next order was to turn away by two points, and, in any case, a few minutes later he reversed his fleet's course to fulfill its anticipated role of leading the German forces towards the main British fleet.

Admiral John Jellicoe, described by Churchill as the man who could "lose the war in an afternoon" by losing the strategic British superiority in dreadnought battleships, was not the dashing showman like David Beatty. When Jellicoe was promoted to First Sea Lord in 1916, Beatty succeeded him as commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet and received promotion to the rank of Admiral at the age of 45 on 27 November.

In 1919, he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet and served a lengthy term as First Sea Lord until 1927. This was not a happy period for the Royal Navy. With the removal of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, Britain had no naval enemies, and at the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 it was agreed that the USA, Britain and Japan should set their navies in a ratio of 5:5:3, with France and Italy maintaining smaller fleets. Britain was required to scrap most of her vast First World War fleet (only two new, oddly-shaped, battleships, HMS "Rodney" and "Nelson" were built at this time, known colloquially as the "Cherry Tree Class" as they had been "cut down by Washington"). Japan, which had been an ally of Britain since 1900, was angered that she had not been treated as an equal by the two major powers, and Anglo-Japanese relations soured thereafter. When the United States began to expand her navy in the 1930s, she would surpass Britain as the world's premier naval power.

After 1924 Beatty, supported by the First Lord of the Admiralty Bridgeman, clashed with the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, over the number of cruisers required by the Royal Navy. At this stage of his career Churchill was opposed to what he saw as excessive defence spending. This may seem in odd in light of his previous and subsequent reputation, but in the 1920s no major war seemed to be on the horizon, although Beatty correctly warned that Japan should be treated as an enemy going forward. The dispute dragged on until after Beatty's retirement, and a further naval disarmament treaty, (the London Treaty of 1930) would limit the numbers of cruisers.

In 1927 Beatty, who had become the first chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, retired from active service and was created 1st Earl Beatty, Viscount Borodale and Baron Beatty of the North Sea and Brooksby. On the 24 July he was made a Freeman of Huddersfield.

Later life and legacy

David Beatty spent much of his life (when not at sea) in Leicestershire, and lived at Brooksby Hall and Dingley Hall . During the First World War, he and his wife performed many services for the public of Leicestershire, including opening up their home first as a VAD Hospital under the 5th Northern General Hospital, and later as a hospital for Naval Personnel.

In 1930 the Scottish artist Cowan Dobson painted a full-length portrait of Beatty in white-tie and tails.

A (perhaps apocryphal) story is sometimes told of Beatty's retirement, that he canvassed in uniform in support of Conservative candidates in dockyard constituencies, presumably in the 1929 or 1931 General Elections. On knocking on one door the lady of the house, presuming him to be a sailor in search of "horizontal refreshment", directed him to the local brothel several doors down the road. Another version of the story is that he canvassed with Nancy, Lady Astor, MP for Plymouth Sutton, and received an embarrassingly friendly welcome at boarding houses who were used to renting rooms by the hour to sailors and their lady companions.

Beatty died after catching a chill as pallbearer at the funeral of his old commander Admiral Jellicoe. He had been advised not to leave his bed, but he went anyway saying, "What will the Navy say if I fail to attend Jellicoe's funeral?" Beatty had requested in his will that he would like to be buried next to his wife Ethel at Dingley. Instead he was buried at St Paul's Cathedral. Thus the double grave at Dingley Church only has Beatty's wife buried there.

In Germany, Beatty had ruined his reputation when he told the crews of his ships that were receiving the German High Seas Fleet for its internment at Scapa Flow, "Don't forget that the enemy is a despicable beast," and arranged the surrender of the German Fleet as a grand spectacle of humiliation. The German navy thus ignored Beatty's request that its Commander-in-Chief, Erich Raeder, attend his funeral -- as Raeder had done at Jellicoe's funeral earlier. Raeder merely sent the German navy attache. Admiral Sir Dudley Pound commented: 'Who wants these sinkers-of-hospital-ships and machine-gunners-of-sailors-in-the-water at Admiral Beatty's funeral anyway?'.

The Royal Navy named a King George V-class battleship after Beatty, but this ship was renamed HMS Howe before completion.

A bust of Beatty rests on Trafalgar Square in London, alongside those of Jellicoe and Andrew Cunningham, Admiral of the Fleet in World War II.

In Toronto, Canada at 55 Woodington Blvd. there is a school named Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School. The school belongs to the Toronto District School Board (commonly referred to as the TDSB). The school is an active member of the eastern Toronto community and celebrates his legacy.


  • In the afternoon of the Battle of Jutland Beatty came into HMS Lion’s chart-house. Tired and depressed, he sat down on the settee, and settling himself in a corner he closed his eyes. Unable to hide his disappointment at the result of the battle, he repeated in a weary voice, “There is something wrong with our ships,” then opening his eyes he added, “And something wrong with our system.” Having thus unburdened himself he fell asleep.

W. S. Chalmers. The Life of Beatty. 1951. (Chalmers was Lieutenant, R.N. on HMS Lion at Jutland)


Further reading

  • Andrew Gordon, The rules of the game - Jutland and British Naval Command ISBN 0-7195-5542-6
  • W. S. Chalmers, Rear Admiral, R.N. The Life of Beatty. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951.
  • Heathcote, T. A. (2002). The British Admirals of the Fleet 1734 - 1995. Pen & Sword Ltd. ISBN 0 85052 835 6
  • Malcolm H. Murfett, The First Sea Lords from Fisher to Mountbatten. Westport. 1995. ISBN 0-275-94231-7
  • Stephen Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty - The Last Naval Hero : An Intimate Biography. London : Collins 1980 & Atheneum : New York 1981. ISBN 0 - 689 - 11119 - 3

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