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Admiral Beatty was beyond doubt the best known fighting Admiral, perhaps the best known military leader, of the First World War. His conduct at Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank, and later at Jutland, caught the public imagination, while his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet in taking into custody the German High Sea Fleet in November 1918 associated him with perhaps the most tangible symbol of the collapse of Germany’s military might. He is probably remembered by most for his comment at Jutland that ‘there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today’ after two of his battlecruisers were sunk in quick succession.
Stephen Roskill’s magnificent biography of Beatty explains so well why he has come to be seen as Britain’s last naval hero, an admiral in the mould of Nelson who won the unstinting devotion of all those who served with and under him. He came from an Anglo-Irish military family who exhibited the utmost gallantry on the field of battle with a corresponding recklessness in the hunting field, while he himself was extremely handsome and courageous and exuded charisma. His early promise led to fast promotion and he was to become the youngest Admiral since Nelson.
But that is only one part of the story and there are aspects of his character that were not entirely admirable. There were, and still remain, questions over his handling of the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron at Jutland at which his highly aggressive approach was contrasted with the prudence of his commander, Sir John Jellicoe, and the later animosities between the Jellicoe and Beatty camps reflect poorly on Beatty himself. His turbulent marriage and his extra-marital liaisons were to be suppressed in his official biography but in some ways these aspects are as significant to our understanding of him as Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s great affair is to our reading of the Napoleonic era at sea.
Roskill deals with all these issues and in doing so brilliantly reassesses Beatty place in history. Access to new material at the time of writing allowed him to write a balanced and wholly credible account of an extraordinary life, and this wonderfully readable and ‘intimate’ biography will appeal to a whole new generation of readers.
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