Jellicoe:Controversy and Dismissal

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The Life of Admiral of the Fleet
John Rushworth Jellicoe,
First Earl Jellicoe

5 December, 1869 – 20 November, 1935
Jellicoe, 1920.JPG
Background and Early LifeService as LieutenantCommanderCommand and ChinaDirector of Naval OrdnanceFlag Rank and ControllerSea Service and Second Sea LordCommand of the Grand FleetThe War at Sea, 1914-1916The Battle of JutlandAfter JutlandFirst Sea Lord and the Submarine MenaceControversy and DismissalEmpire TourGovernor-General of New ZealandThe Jutland ControversyRetirementDeath and Legacy


Roskill suggested "that a careful clinical examination would have produced a diagnosis of peptic ulcers."[1] Jellicoe's friend and subordinate at the Admiralty, Frederic Dreyer, maintained however that the First Sea Lord's health wasn't an issue at all. He wrote later Jellicoe "was physically very fit, running about a mile in the Mall every morning before breakfast."[2] This in the end comes down to which source you would rather put your faith in: a naval officer turned naval historian who maintained an irrational hypercritical reaction to the Navy he was brought up in — Jellicoe's Navy — or a naval officer widely regarded as one of the best brains in the Service and who actually knew Jellicoe at the time. There is a story that a minute by Jellicoe was "almost incoherent" with the result that Geddes was prompted to endorse it, "Better not use this argument."[3] The tale has been repeated elsewhere,[4][5] but the originator later noted that the negative endorsement was not written by Geddes, but probably by someone in Cabinet.[6] In the editor's opinion, the paper in question, "Remarks on a Scheme of an Imperial Air Policy" (dated 14 August, 1917),[7] makes perfect sense.

Friction with Geddes and Wemyss

On 7 August Vice-Admiral Wemyss had replaced Burney as Second Sea Lord.[8] Jellicoe wrote to Beatty on 4 August that, "I am very sorry for Burney. It is a great blow to any man's pride to be moved without any reason being assigned and he feels it greatly. I shall like Wemyss here of course. He is such a nice fellow to work with."[9] On 6 September Wemyss was appointed as Deputy First Sea Lord[10] in order to combine staff duties with personnel in his capacity as Second Sea Lord. This was done at Geddes's behest, but Wemyss realised the burden of staff work and departmental work as Chief of Naval Personnel would be too much for him, and at his request he was relieved, Vice-Admiral Sir Herbert L. Heath assuming office as Second Sea Lord on 27 September.[11]

On 26 October, Hankey confided to his diary:

… Earlier in the day Balfour had told me that he and Carson (as ex-First Lords) had been summoned to meet the P.M. and Geddes to discuss the question of superseding Admiral Jellicoe. It appears that from the Adty. inquiry it has transpired that the latter had been fully warned by highly secret, but absolutely reliable information, of the probability of the recent attack on the recent Norwegian convoy, and had neglected to act. Geddes regarded this as an example of Jellicoe's lack of energy, if not timidity, and wants to replace him by Adl. Wemyss.[12]

Wemyss later recalled in his uncompleted memoirs:

Some time in December I had a conversation with him and told him that I feared I was not of as much assistance to him as I had hoped to be. I pointed out to him that he was giving me no responsibilities and that as matters stood I was merely giving an extra opinion on dockets which could be well dispensed with, and I asked him directly whether he trusted me or not.
His reply was to the effect that he entirely trusted me, but that he could see no way towards shifting any of his responsibilities on to me, since such would not be legal. My reply was that it was legally a matter for the First Lord, and that if he chose to appoint certain duties to me, the procedure would be constitutionally correct. Sir John did not agree with me and the matter was dropped for the time; but I seriously began to reconsider my position, and to wonder whether it was right or useful to remainunder such circumstances. I knew that to throw up my appointment would cause more difficulties.[13]

December, 1917

Many years later, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Oliver recounted:

In December 1917 there was evidence to me that there was some underground work going on. One evening about 10:30 p.m. some officers were talking in my room about Admiralty affairs, and one of them referred to someone as "Judas Iscariot", and I asked him who he was, and was told it was Hall who was mixed up with political people in high places and did not support Jellicoe.[14]

Lloyd George was at a War Cabinet meeting on 24 December, where, according to Hankey, he was "in a very pernickety and irratable state of mind." Roskill suggests that his behaviour may have been motivated by the events which were about to unfold later in the day.[15]

At 6 p.m. on December 24th I received Geddes's letter of dismissal. No reason was given, merely a statement that he considered a change desirable.[16]

In so many words Jellicoe described his dismissal as First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff. He allegedly had had a fourteen hour day,[17] punctuated by a deputation of Grand Fleet Captains presenting him with a silver model of Iron Duke as a token of their esteem for him.[18] Winton states that "at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve a special messenger arrived with a blue envelope - what the girls always called afterwards the 'blue letter' - marked 'Personal and Strictly Private'.[19] Temple Patterson says much the same.[20] Roskill claims that Jellicoe "found" the letter "on his desk at the Admiralty."[21] The letter read:

My dear Sir John Jellicoe,
After very careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that a change is desirable in the post of First Sea Lord. I have not, I can assure you, arrived at this view hastily or without great personal regret and reluctance. I have consulted the Prime Minister and with his concurrence I am asking to see The King to make this recommendation to him.
The Prime Minister asks me to tell you that in recognition of your past very distinguished services he proposes to recommend to His Majesty that a peerage should be bestowed upon you. I have thought that you would prefer me to convey this decision to you in writing but, should you wish to see me, I shall of course be at your disposal at any time. My regret at having to convey this decision to you is the greater in view of the very cordial personal relations which have existed between us throughout.
Yrs Sincerely E.C. Geddes[22]

Jellicoe later recalled his reaction:

The letter was marked "Personal and Strictly Private" and I felt a difficulty in consulting anyone as to my line of action, but I decided I must speak to someone, and saw Halsey (3rd Sea Lord), told him what had occurred, and that I felt I could hardly carry on in the circumstances, and proposed going on leave, telling Wemyss (Deputy 1st Sea Lord) to carry on. I asked if he thought this course justified and he agreed. I then wrote accordingly to Geddes, saying however that of course I would do what was best for the Service.[16]

His reply to Geddes ran thus:

Dear Sir Eric Geddes,
I have received your letter. You do not assign a reason for your action, but I assume that it is due to a want of confidence in me.
Under these conditions you will realise that it is difficult for me to continue my work, as action taken by me may commit my successor and may be contrary to your own views. I shall therefore be glad to be relieved as soon as possible, and if you prefer that Admiral Wemyss should take my place temporarily I am ready to go on leave to facilitate matters.
Yours sincerely
J.R. Jellicoe
I am of course ready to do what is best for the service without regard to any personal feelings. That I am sure you will understand.[22]

Geddes responded promptly, it still being Christmas Eve:

Dear Sir John Jellicoe,
Thank you for your letter. I am obliged to you for your assurance that whatever is best for the Service is acceptable to you. You suggest going on leave and I think that will be quite satisfactory. I am asking Admiral Wemyss to arrange accordingly.
Yours sincerely
E.C. Geddes

Vice-Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, commanding the Third Battle Squadron on the Nore, received the following letter from Jellicoe which perhaps encapsulates his feelings immediately after his dismissal:

My dear de Chair,
Thank you very much for your letter which arrived today. I should like you to know that I did not resign, but was dismissed very curtly by the 1st Lord without any reason at all being given. He did not even tell me personally, but wrote me a note. I have had trouble with him, as he wishes to be an autocrat, after the Winstonian lines, and I refused to accept such an attitude. He had treated various Flag Officers badly and I took exception to that. The result you see!!! I fear Wemyss will not stick up to him. I have often told Wemyss that he must realize he is a colleague and not the First Lord's servant, but he won't realize it. I am not very happy as to the future of the Navy. The best of fortune to you. I feel the parting from the Fleet, but I can't possibly serve in any capacity while Geddes remains.
Ever Yours,[23]


On 27 December Hankey sent Jellicoe a letter of sympathy:

My dear Admiral,
I was most awfully sorry to read in the newspaper this morning that you were leaving the Admiralty, and I should like to say how much I have admired the way you have tackled the difficult problems with which you were confronted, and literally put a new face on the submarine warfare.
May I at the same time offer my congratulations on the well-earned peerage?[24]

Jellicoe replied the following day:

My dear Hankey,
Thank you very much for your letter and when you hear of the manner of my dismissal you will be surprised, of one can ever be surprised at the deeds of those in power nowadays. I am very sorry our association is at an end.[24]

Captain the Honourable Matthew R. Best, formerly on Jellicoe's staff in the Grand Fleet and now in command of H.M.S. Royalist, wrote in his diary on 27 December:

Heard news of JRJ's retirement from the Adty. An iniquitous piece of political intrigue and a national disaster. It is appalling to think that such a thing can occur. The campaign against him was organised by the Harmsworth Press, probably instigated by Lloyd George. Adl Henderson who wrote against him in the Daily Mail, was inspired entirely by personal animosity because 2 years ago JRJ had his "Naval Review" repressed. Similarly the press was against him on account of JRJ's disregard of it. It appals one to think that a man of JRJ's genius & brain capacity should be flung away for such causes. The papers and Henderson saddle him with the convoy losses — If anyone should be saddled with it, it is David Beatty. What, in the name of conscience, had JRJ to do with it. The first news JRJ had of his dismissal was finding a note on his table in his office in the morning.
Dear Jellicoe,
I have decided to dispense with your services etc
Ye gods!!![25]

Revolt of the Admirals

On 25 December the other naval members of the Board of Admiralty became aware of Jellicoe's resignation. In the words of a joint letter sent to Geddes on 2 January, 1918:

We had full confidence in Sir John Jellicoe's ability and fitness to perform his responsible duties and were most gravely concerned and disturbed by this sudden removal of a most able and distinguished officer, we therefore decided to request you, if you saw fit, to inform us of the reasons which had caused this step to be taken.

After a representation from Heath, the Second Sea Lord, on 26 December Geddes saw Heath, Halsey (Third Sea Lord) and Tothill (Fourth Sea Lord) and informed them that at a meeting two or three months previously Arthur Balfour and Sir Edward Carson, both previous First Lords, had informed Geddes in the presence of the Prime Minister "that they did not consider Sir John Jellicoe to be the best man for the position of First Sea Lord." Halsey called on Carson on 1 January to verify the claim, which the latter strenuously denied. The naval members therefore ended their joint letter of 2 January:

We feel with deep regret that we cannot allow this misunderstanding to continue; it is imperative that it should be cleared up. It is due to you and to us that it should be fully explained and all doubts set at rest, and we feel we cannot continue to serve as your colleagues unless this is done.

We wish to add that we have no desire to hamper the public service by our action and that we will continue to carry out our duties loyally until we are replaced or until a satisfactory explanation is received.

The letter was signed by all the naval members of the Board except Wemyss: Heath, Halsey, Tothill, Paine, Oliver, and Duff.[26]

According to the memoirs of Sir Dudley de Chair, Vice-Admiral Commanding the Third Battle Squadron: "None of them [the Sea Lords] would speak to Wemyss after his dirty work, as he must have known that Jellicoe was to be dismissed when the time came, and that he was to succeed him."[27]

Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth


  1. Roskill. "The Dismissal of Admiral Jellicoe". p. 69.
  2. Dreyer. The Sea Heritage. p. 224.
  3. Roskill. "The Dismissal of Admiral Jellicoe". p. 69.
  4. Temple Patterson. Jellicoe. p. 193.
  5. Winton. Jellicoe. p. 252.
  6. Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service. I. p. 497.
  7. The National Archives. ADM 116/1606. Reproduced in Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service. I. pp. 497-499.
  8. Keyes Papers. I. p. 404.
  9. Beatty Papers. Reproduced in Jellicoe Papers. II. p. 192.
  10. Wester Wemyss. ed. The Life and Letters of Lord Wester Wemyss. p. 506.
  11. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. IV. p. 223.
  12. Roskill. Hankey: Man of Secrets. I. p. 447.
  13. Wester Wemyss. ed. The Life and Letters of Lord Wester Wemyss. p. 364.
  14. Quoted in Beesley. Room 40. p. 273.
  15. Roskill. Hankey: Man of Secrets. I. p. 473.
  16. 16.0 16.1 British Library. Add. MSS. 49009. Reproduced in Jellicoe Papers. II. p. 244.
  17. Gibson; Harper. The Riddle of Jutland. p. 325.
  18. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. IV. p. 341.
  19. Winton. Jellicoe. p. 259.
  20. Temple Patterson. Jellicoe. p. 203.
  21. Roskill. "The Dismissal of Admiral Jellicoe". p. 72.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Quoted in Roskill. "The Dismissal of Admiral Jellicoe". p. 73.
  23. de Chair. The Sea is Strong. p. 236.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Quoted in Roskill. Hankey: Man of Secrets. I. p. 473.
  25. Captain Matthew Best's diary entry for 27 December, 1917. Liddle Collection. University of Leeds. RNMN/BEST. Box 2. Volume VI.
  26. Letter of 2 January, 1918. ADM 116/1807.
  27. De Chair. p. 237.