Handsome Willie May

In going through all my father papers I came across this document.  I do not know the origin of this or the reason for this document except to say it was written by a ‘Mary” in Spain around 2000.  Whoever Mary is, I hope that putting it on my site  not cause any problems.  It is a great report and makes me proud to see what my Great Grandfather might have done if only he was still serving in World War 2.   Thank you Mary! 

Handsome Willie May – A Re-appraisal

‘Handsome Willie May’,   the ‘pin up’ whose photographs and exploits adorned the Victorian and Edwardian press and who was confidently expected to become the First Sea Lord by an admiring populace. has been underrated1 by modern historians.  There have been accusations of vanity, incompetence, unpopularity

 Perhaps the time has come for a re-appraisal.

Born at Liscard in Cheshire in 1849, the fifth in a family of ten children, his background was one of Dutch naval provenance rather than English.  A family forebear, John May, went to Holland in the seventeenth century as a Naval Architect.  His grandfather was an Admiral in the Dutch Navy and a Captain in the British Navy.  His uncle had also been an Admiral and Personal A.D.C. to Prince Henry of the Netherlands.  His father came to Liverpool to settle in 1840, determined to carry on the family naval tradition in England.

‘From the first’, said William, ‘I was destined for the Navy, and my earliest recollections are of being made to read extracts from Captain Marryat’s novel; Peter Simple, Midshipman Easy and others.  Every night, at dessert, I was asked what I was going to be when I grew up, and my invariable reply was, “A sailor”2 The family was not wealthy and economy was the order of the day.  William and his brother, Seaburne, went as day scholars to the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, where the teaching, as in common with many other schools, was carried on at the end of a cane.  A nomination was not easy to come by and when it eventually arrived, William was nearly fourteen, and assured by his masters that he would never pass the entrance exam for the Navy.  However, his family managed to send him to the naval crammers at Eastman’s for six weeks, which was much more to William’s liking and he passed into the Navy twenty second out of fifty three entrants, in 1863.

William Henry May as a Cadet

1863 was the year the Training Ship, Britannia, moved from its restricted station at Portland to the wider opportunities afforded by Dartmouth.  William experienced  both stations and testified to the improvement at Dartmouth: ‘from the Cadets point of view..a much pleasanter place’. Despite a certain amount of bullying, ‘the senior terms took every advantage of bullying the new boys and disposing of sundry of their articles, such as soap, etc,’..The five terms, lasting fifteen months, passed profitably enough.  William ended up a Cadet Captain and passed out fourth in his class.

His first ship was the Victoria, a three decker flagship, and his gunroom experience as a Midshipman was fairly typical of the Old Navy.  Half dead with sea sickness in his first storm, he was urged on deck to the reef topsails by a young sub with a hunting crop, there was ‘a great deal of bullying… the youngsters were generally marked with a broad arrow on their noses to show that they were government property’and half the gunroom contracted Malta fever at the local hospital, three of them dying.  Fortunately, his own health was good and three years on Victoria saw him turn from a rather frail boy to a young man weighing twelve stone ten and reaching six feet in height, the foundation for the future ‘pin up’ of the Victorian and Edwardian newspapers, ‘handsome Willie May”.

His next ship, the frigate Liffey was not a happy experience, it became part of the Hornby’s Flying Squadron and food was scare in the overcrowded gunroom. ‘We were always so hungry that after the mutton bone had been scraped clean, we broke it in half to get the marrow out’.5 Not only was food difficult to come by, there were other difficulties.  The ‘young Chambers, also a Mid on the Liffey “did not understand..a great deal that went on’ but declared euphemistically, ‘things were far other than they should have been’.Even when the Admiralty put a stop to the cribbing that meant Liffey Mids were always ‘successfully’ examined.  William May succeeded in getting a first class in the final examination which made him an acting Sub.  He then went on to get a first in gunnery at Excellent and a good second in navigation at Portsmouth. This resulted in a welcome appointment as sub-lieutenant in the latest ironclad, Hercules, in 1871.  The ‘Splendid tone7 of the ship was agreeable after the depradations of the Liffey.

It was  William’s ambition to make his mark as a gunnery officer.  In this he was not alone, gunnery was generally considered the fast path to a naval career. He had already resorted to extra coaching to get himself through the sub-lieutenant’s navigation exam, and in 1874 he refused the offer of two ships to apply himself to hard work at the newly established naval college in Greenwich , where he declined an offer to play Rugby for England.  However, a chance to go on the Polar Expedition of 1875, was not to be missed. It was a good career move and provided interesting experience for a young lieutenant at a time when ‘there was practically nothing going on in the Navy’.He was one of eight who successfully applied out of two hundred, an early demonstration of his ability.

The expedition caught the nation’s interest and a description of the venture would make an article in itself.  The two ships the Alert under Captain Nares and Discovery under Captain Markham set off with maximum publicity and popular excitement to discover the North Pole.  May’s journey on the Alert, as navigating officer, passed well enough with regular and lively entertainment by the officers. (May continued himself to a sober reading of Dickens)  However the expedition itself entailed considerable hardship and endurance.  The was scurvy and frostbite.  William acquitted himself well as a sledge team leader but the expedition failed to find the North Pole, and he returned home with amputated toes.

However, to the ambitious young Lieutenant, the expedition worked out well as a career move.  In the Army and Navy Gazette for August, 1880 we read that Lt. H W. May was promoted to Commander over the heads of 206 Lts.

At this point, the would be gunnery officer was asked to take charge of the Whitehead instruction in the newly established torpedo school at Vernon.  Always careful where career was concerned, May consulted the now Second Sea Lord, Phipps Hornby, before deciding to accept.  The Whitehead was then in its infancy, but torpedo work was the coming thing and in his three years at the school, May instructed many officers of all ranks, executive and engineers officers, and carried out numerous experiments and trials with new models.  In fact it was here that he felt he had turned himself into an engineer.  He was always happy with problems of machinery and technology.  As a commander at Vernon, in 1878, William May married Kinbarra Swene Marrow.  Again in accordance with the appropriate career structure which disapproved of naval officers marrying before they had become Commanders.

In 1881 after an altercation with the First Sea Lord (Cooper Key) over disappointment at not being appointed  second in command in Monarch, May accepted the command of the ramming, torpedo battleship, the bunch of tricks, Polyphemus.  He found it entailed a great deal of trouble and anxiety10 dealing with the failing locomotive boilers and unsuccessful, submerged torpedo tubes.  Eventually, Government was forced to acknowledge the problems of Polyphemus after there was a fuss in the press (about formidable as his prototype was after Ulysses had struck his charred stick into his one eye11) and acrimonious debate in the House. A committee was set up to experiment and design torpedo tube improvements.  In the event Mr Watts failed design, May’s invention of a new submerged torpedo tube was accepted.  Eventually almost all the arrangements in use throughout the Navy for opening, closing and locking tubes was his design.

Commander May was awarded with an appointment to the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert.  In the event, she was undergoing repair and his first command was in the Osborne.  Here he took the Duchess of Edinburgh and her entourage to Russia for the wedding of her brother.

‘The Duchess of Edinburgh was very kind.  I lunched with her every day and in the evenings dined and played whist; she arranged that I should be shown over forts of Krondstadt”12

Meeting royalty of all sorts and being part of aristocratic social life was a particular pleasure to May.  It was an entree into higher reaches of aristocracy, delightful to this fastidious officer from a more lowly social milieu. When May took up his command in Victoria and Albert he had good fortune to oversee the celebration of Queen Victoria’s jubilee.  The command resulted in his appointment to Captain in 1887.

For this Captain W.H.May has just cause to be thankful, seeing that he has just been promoted from the rank of Commander over the heads of nearly seventy of his seniors.  This officer, like other Royal favourites, had had a double innings on board the Victoria and Albert13

Did May really mean it when he said,

‘As a matter of fact, if I had not gone to the Yacht, I should have been promoted before, and I think, on the whole, it was certainly a mistake to have gone there’.14

May was Captain of the Imperieuse, Flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Noel Salmon, C in C China.  While sailing between Mauritius and Singapore to carry secret orders to annexe Christmas Island, trouble with the ship’s condensing tubes gave him much anxiety.  But apart from that and three cases of Cholera which caused him concern, it was a pleasant enough trip.  At the finish , William was appointed Naval Attache for the whole of Europe.  No doubt his regal bearing, his social aplomb and his hard work at the French language contributed to the appointment.

In 1891 France was the country that required most attention and being naval attache was a spying as well as a diplomatic commission.  May managed to pick up a good deal of information with regard to the ships that the French were building and the designs of the boilers and guns but he found the germans more secretive.  When the Kaiser asked if May was seeing everything he wanted, May said that he would like to see the submerged tube.  The Kaiser replied diplomatically, that they wouldn’t show it to even him!

‘The work of a naval attache is very hard, because you have to keep yourself au fait with everything that is going on, such as guns, torpedos, all classes of ships, boilers, etc. There is not a single question that you have not to know something about.’ 15

 After Naval Attache, came a spell as Director of Torpedoes and then Chief of Staff to Sir Michael Culme Seymour, C in C Mediterranean Station, where a pleasant social and sporting life was only frustrated by Sir Michael’s unwillingness to ever discuss battle action with him, I shall know what to do when I see the enemy 16. Then it was back to his old C in C Sir Nowell Salmon, as Flag Captain and Captain of the Depot at Portsmouth.  As Chief of Staff he organised the fleet which assembled at Spithead for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and was awarded a second M.V.O.  In August 1897, he became Captain of the Excellent where although he was against Scott’s gun on technical grounds, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Scott’s Dotter and made successful firings with the new design for the Vickers 6” guns.  Two years later he became ADC to Queen Victoria, then to Ed VII, posts which he held until his appointment as Rear Admiral.

All these posts were relinquished ahead of time and Lambert had suggested this is evidence of failure17.  Is it  not rather evidence of success, since each post was promotional?  In January of 1901 May was offered a seat on the Board of the Admiralty as Fourth Sea Lord and Director of Naval Ordnance.  Three months later he received another promotion when he became Third Sea Lord and Controller.  The Controller was a responsible command with oversight of the Director of Naval Construction, the Engineer in Chief, the Director of Dockyards and Director of Stores.  It argues May’s competence; a competence that was ensuring a speedy rise in his profession.

Jackie Fisher was an enthusiastic supporter of May.  He wrote to Lord Selborne

perhaps the best officers in the whole British Navy are..Capt. W.H.May and Prince Louis of Battenberg…18

Glad to think you have Captain May at your elbow…He is simply A!… he is a loss to the sea, having nerve and resolution of iron and especially to be a fighting Admiral.19 

May’s appointment to the Admiralty was also enthusiastically supported by the popular press.20  The Morning Post was typical , when it wrote

Willie May’s quite young for an Admiral and has always been one of the most popular skippers in the service… He is one of those men whom one does not know which to admore the more – his unfailing tact and courtesy or his technical ability..21

May embraced the work of Controller with his usual vigour.  He assured Lord Selborne,

I don’t in the least  mind being disturbed when on leave.  In fact, I prefer and have dealt with all important papers as soon as they are sent to me.22

 There were three initial work committees; design of ship’s boilers. design of destroyers and stability of the new Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert.  In the first, May disagreed with Lord Selborne over the fitting of Yarrow and Babcock and Wilcox boilers to replace the failing Belleville boilers.  In the second, May supported a new heavier design for destroyers called the River Class which although opposed by C in C Med, was vindicated by performance in Manoeuvres, and in the third, he oversaw the shortening of masts and increase of ballast to stabilise the Sir William White’s unsuccessful design for the Royal Yacht.

May also recommended and innovated a greater use of private firms in naval construction in the face of Admiralty reluctance.  He objected to a Prize Competitive design  competition because,

The designs would not be fairly judged at the Admiralty.. no outside design would even pass Sir William White23  without severe criticism…24

Encouraged by a suggestion from Arnold Forster, and against the advice of Sir John Durston, the Engineer in Chief, May organised own experiments to verify the practicability of standardisation of machinery in cruisers.  In the event, Durston had to acknowledge success.  It meant spare parts became readily available.  May experimented with everything, from bread making and new machines in the dockyards, to gas engines fro ship propulsion.25  Always a keen proponent of the use of oil fuel, he declared his Flagship, Edward VII, had burned oil fuel (coal sprayed with oil) in 1905, before Fisher.

‘(Fisher) started using oil fuel as if it had never been done before, making out that he was the originator of the idea’ 26

Fisher continued to be an enthusiastic supporter of May.  After the manoeuvres of 1902 he wrote.

I think May is very much impressed by what he has seen.  It has been a most special thing for us your letting him go with both the Chanel and Mediterranean Manoeuvres and it will re-act to great advantage on his teaching and I do hope you will keep him on where he is – he is incomparable for the work.27

It is to be noted that May was always a great supporter of Fisher’s New Scheme.

I hope we shall be able to carry out the complete New Scheme you are thinking about.  I will do my best to assist.28

His natural bent was towards the technological, he belongs to the school of pushing naval scientists29 and he always understood the importance of the work of engineers.

From the beginning, with his considerable torpedo and gunnery experience (he oversaw trials with Percy Scott and Pollen), May appreciated the importance of submarines.  He paid tribute to the efficiency of Admiral Bacon.

attached to my Department specially to look after submarines, he carried out his work in a most efficient manner, before my time was up, submarines were a practical proposition…30

May found his work as Controller hard and strenuous.31  He perceived himself to be a man of new ideas struggling against the opposition of the Engineer -in – Chief and the Director of Naval Construction, Mr Philip Watts. (later Sir Philip).  To May’s ambition and drive, Watts procrastination and laissez faire was frustrating.  He believed Watts was responsible for the failure to have a new battleship design for the King Edward VII class.  However was appreciated in one quarter, the St. James declared him.

an officer who brought a master mind to bear upon the intricacies of that position, and effected some wholesale and urgently needed reforms, who will leave Whitehall not only with a splendid record, but a with a happy consciousness that the work he has done will live after him.32

 The Times referred to the splendid and devoted services of Admiral May as Controller and his well proved zeal and capacity for a command afloat.33

 In 1904, as May was leaving the office of Controller, Sir John Fisher became First Sea Lord.  In 1905 he appointed May an acting Vice Admiral in command of the Atlantic Fleet.  An appointment again greeted enthusiastically by the popular press.

This prestigious office was to May’s taste – a chance to get back to the sea and employ his new ideas in manoeuvres, to entertain royalty and to capitalise on his diplomatic skills.  With his command of French and his social skills, he was the ideal man to promote the ‘entente cordiale’, the meeting ‘fraternellement’ between French and British officers at Brest, and the Algeciras conference at Gibraltar in 1906.  Of his visit to Brest, Fisher wrote

I can’t thank you enough for your French excursion – your speeches and letter quite first rate!  The King is greatly pleased and also the Prime Minister.34

 However, it was not an entirely trouble free command for his part in the stranding of HMS Assistance, the manoeuvres of 1906 caused some controversy and it was some time before the gunnery of Edward VII came up to standard, although late.

The whole score of Admiral May’s flagship this year is a startling as it is satisfactory and will probably receive commendations from their Lordships.35

During the manoeuvres of 1906, May was in command of the numerically inferior Blue Fleet mandated to entice away the superior Red Fleet and then prey on shipping and create a scare in Great Britain.  Sir Arthur Wilson was in command of the Red Fleet.  May left Berehaven where they had assembled and steamed west, then south to destroy merchant shipping.  Despite being seen by cruisers of the Red Fleet and sighting Wilson’s main Fleet off the Portuguese coast, he managed to despatch his five slow battleships in the night to act as cruisers destroying merchant shipping, and although he thought the Red Fleet only five miles off would catch him, he managed, to his surprise, to reach the Chanel about sixteen hours ahead of Wilson, due he believed to the superior power of oil fuel.  In order to make the scare complete, he informed the King, by telegram that he was in command of the Channel and went on to capture the Town of Scarborough.  The telegram disturbed his Majesty during the night causing something of a ruckus at Admiralty and in Government circles but the King gracefully replied.

Please let Sir W. May be informed that I was not annoyed, but surprised by his telegram.  The explanation is quite satisfactory, and I like to see an officer as keen as Sir W. May

Lord Tweedmouth was equally conciliatory,

‘…. am very pleased to say the King is quite happy about the telegram; he was only a bit startled at first, but afterwards was amused at the situation.  I congratulate you very much on your splendid steaming performance… Your experience of the value of oil fuel in maintaining speed will be very useful for future developments….’36

In June of 1906, May was made Knight Commander of the Bath.  In 1907, Lord Tweedmouth, First Lord of the Admiralty asked him to become Second Sea Lord, in charge of personnel.  It was another popular move in the country.  Adulatory articles and photographs increased.  The United Service Gazette wrote of him

He has a distinguished career behind him, snd yet a greater career before him.  He is one of the most brilliant and esteemed flag officers of the Navy, scientific, clear headed, and hard working, a gunnery expert, a most capable sailor, and one of those organisers which now and again the Fleet produces.  he is in the prime of life being only fifty seven…he is destined in future years, if service opinion is not  disappointed to be the ruling sprit in the Navy.37 

In November of 1908 Sir William May became a full Admiral.

Concern about the strength of the German Fleet prompted a desire to increase the strength and personnel of the British Fleet, but Beresford and Fisher could not agree on how that was to be done and the disagreement was part of the scandal that soured not only the personal relations between the two men, but vitiated the Navy itself,

This is a new thing in the Navy… and a most pernicious thing, and ought to have been avoided by tact and consideration for the feeling of others.38

 complained Lord Selborne.  In the event Fisher decided to split the Home Fleet into two.  Beresford, much to his annoyance, found himself in command of a smaller Channel Fleet, while the main part of the Fleet, with some of the latest ships and those stationed in reserve, were under the command of Bridgeman.  In 1909 after Beresford had been effectively sacked, thus promoting a governmental inquiry into the state of the Navy, the two fleets were combined and May was appointed C in C tot he new large amalgamated Home Fleet.  Again, there was a flurry of enthusiastic photography in the press and an outbreak of eulogy

The Commander of the strongest fleet in existence is over sixty years of age, looks no more than forty and has all the enthusiasm of a lieutenant of five and twenty.39

….is equally distinguished for his professional qualifications and for his scientific attainments and probably no better man could be found40

William May’s qualities and abilities are fully recognised throughout the service.  His independence of action is proverbial and in him it is felt we possess a naval administrator capable of discharging the highest duties 41

This strength and prestige of the new Home Fleet was impressive.  On the occasion of the first inspection by George V, May commissioned a picture of the fleet painted by Wylie, steaming into Torquay, four hundred ships and fourteen flag officers.

 However the demands of amalgamation drew on May’s ability for tact and diplomacy.  There was jealousy between Bridgeman’s fleet and Beresford’s old fleet when they came together.  In a diplomatic move, May made Captain Gough Calthorpe (later Admiral of the Fleet) who had commanded one of Beresford’s ships, Chief Staff Officer for both fleets and paid tribute to the good influence which he exerted over his old Captains.

May’s command of the Home Fleet was not without incident – a few socialites disguised themselves as  Abyssinian Princes and the Captain of the Dreadnought, was fooled into giving them shipboard hospitality.  A considerable embarrassment to a man who was not noted for his sense of humour.  May’s loyal Commander Fisher was reputed to have them horsewhipped.  There was a serious disagreement with McKenna (First Lord) as to the nature of war orders.  When May received a secret telegram from McKenna on 8.5.1909, indicating that news had come from the Governor General of Canada that the Germans might be planning an attack (8 German ships were on manoeuvres in Helioland and it was thought reservists had been called back to the German naval reserve ship), he was told to take precautions against attack but to avoid publicity and consequent scare. He maintained that these orders were contradictory, he could not behave as an Admiral should and carry out precautions against attack without arising suspicion.  He said the orders placed him.

in an entirely false position and one which I cannot in justice accept in the future…..the matter under consideration is of such an important nature that I prefer of you no objection to discuss the question in writing….42

McKenna would have preferred to conduct the disagreement in conversation.  The significance here is not a discussion of the nature of war orders, but the obvious inflexibility of May in the face of McKenna’s compromise, and his determination to vindicate himself in the future by having everything clarified in writing.  It may be regarded as strength or obstinacy, but his willingness to fight his corner and his care to safeguard his position shows a tenacity which was typical of this Admiral who had risen to the top of his profession.

For it now seemed just a matter of time before May became First Sea Lord.  He wrote in his memoirs that McKenna had informed him twice that he was to be First Sea Lord and a note in his private papers shows that Fisher had made the same prophecy in November of 1902.43 Selborne had even given him advice on how to behave when he took the office.

Never forget that, my dear fellow, when you become First Sea Lord; Lead and have the courage of your own opinions or else no one will follow you, but respect and weigh the opinions of others who deserve respectful treatment…44

All the newspapers and military publications made constant reference to his prospective elevation,

Admiral Sir William Henry May, whom rumour is designating as the probable successor to Sir John Fisher as First Sea Lord, is an officer of the highest ability who has climbed the rungs of the professional ladder by dint of meritorious service… A sea leader of great determination, keenness and resource, whose ability in the tactical handling of a fleet is second to none, and whose strategic theories are marked by the qualities of bold initiative.  Admiral May is regarded in naval circles as one of the foremost men in the progressive school of his profession.45

And yet it did not happen.  Why not?

Nicholas Lambert considers this issue in his recent book, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution.  He focuses all his attention on May’s failure to be appointed First Sea Lord in 1909 and adduces various reasons.  Firstly, that he was simply too unpopular for the post; his promotion would have produced a storm of dissent 46  within the service.  Would it?  No doubt May was unpopular with some, it was inevitable in the nature of the profession.  But Esher said to Sandars,

I have from long experience learnt to mistrust attacks upon men who have risen to the top of their profession.

Everything depends on standard.  It is incredible that May should have risen so high, if he is a bad as some of his colleagues seem to think.

After all, he is not an aristocrat, a spoilt child of successive governments etc, He is just an  ordinary sailor. 47

Lambert’s only evidence appears to be Bridgeman’s dislike of May as related by Sandars to Esher.  What weight may be put on Bridgeman’s comment that he would refuse to serve under Fawkes or May when his prickly temperament threatened resignation three times in his own later, short tenure as First Sea Lord?  The colleagues referred to were all as ambitious as each other and hatred and envy was evident amidst the varying personal rivalries and animosities of senior officers at the time.  In 1906 Battenberg, who later became First Sea Lord, had declared,

I have discovered a good deal about the Mediterranean end of theCabal during the last few weeks… Lambton is behaving like an absolute cad toward me…(the Board) are now haggling and throwing dirt at me.. I feel very sore and bitter about the whole business.48 

Fisher was constantly vituperative about any one who disagreed with him.  Amidst all rancour of rival camps, May’s voice was notable for its moderation.  McKenna responded appreciatively,

I am sure your judgement is right when you express the hope that the C.B. matter will drop.  Some feeling exists in the minds of my colleagues that the Report of the Committee was not strong enough….I am looking for a period of comparative peace in naval politics for the next few months49

It was not  accidental that May was known as the silent man of the Navy.  He disapproved  of officers making their opinions on service matters known publicly.

Billie May the ‘silent man’… has always sternly deprecated the custom that is growing prevalent of officers on the active list airing their views upon the fleet.50

May is not the man to say much.  Indeed from all accounts his is the voice least heard at Admiralty…he is possessed of tact and urbanity…when there was almost an open rupture between Beresford and Fisher adherents, it was he who undertook to pour oil on troubled waters…51

Not only was silence a matter of policy for May, it was also a manner of temperament.  He was not given to easy communication.  Even his admirers were prepared to acknowledge that he could seem aloof and standoffish.52 Other admirers relished this superior being.  Willie May made everyone else look absolutely commonplace! declared his Commander William Fisher.53

The appointment of Wilson in 1909, although a surprise to many, since he had been in retirement for three years, was apparently taken as an acceptable appointment of seniority by May. (It would seem that government wanted a First Lord who had had no part in recent naval controversy and who would be more willing to see ra educed naval budget). It was May’s failure to succeed Wilson in 1911 that hurt.  He allowed one brief allusion to it in his memoirs.

Mr McKenna was always charming and complimentary, and on two occasions volunteered the information that I was to be First Sea Lord.  I always replied that I would wait until the appointment was offered to me;  but I was surprised at what occurred after I had hauled down my flag.  Mr McKenna had been to Venice with Sir John Fisher, and on his return, when I saw him again he said: ‘I think, on the whole, you are rather to  old to be First Sea Lord, and that a younger man would be preferable…. Francis Bridgeman became  became First Sea Lord and he was actually a few months senior in age.54

Commander Fisher also regarded it as a great calamity to the Service that our Admiral is not to succeed.  He wrote to Mrs May of his profound disappointment at today’s news… Cecilia and I have been thinking of you so much today…55

To the extent was Sir John Fisher responsible for the failure of May to become First Sea Lord after Wilson?  I really had had an immense triumph over the Board of Admiralty,56  he declared in 191.  There is no doubt that Fisher took against May in 1910.

I am boiling with fury against May.  He is a cad as well as a coward, unless it be that he is a dupe… Battenburg may be engineering May in order to get three years for himself! 57

He accused him of trying to take advantage of his royal connections.

Sir W. May is working the backstairs leading to the royal apartments to ensure himself succeeding ‘and art’.. his not being a man of war and a sneak.58

In  1911 he called him a renegade who also thought he was sure  59  In 1912 he said he was a bit of wood painted to look like iron who held dangerous opinions.60  But it is difficult to determine just why Fisher took this attitude to a man whom he had previously thought progressive,61 whom he had always liked and a man who had supported him in most things.  Perhaps it was May’s even-handedness towards the  Beresford/Fisher feud which caused trouble.  He told Fisher that he thought Beresford should have more ships in his fleet.   perhaps as Marder has indicated, it was all to do with Fisher’s jealousy and desire to oust Beresford.  There was an implication that if May got First Sea Lord, Beresford would have to be given Admiral of the Fleet in compensation, and as  Fisher wrote to McKenna it would mess up ‘the whole course of action in regard to getting Beresford out on the two year principle’.62  But Fisher’s polemics toward May were short lived.  later in 1912 he wrote,

My beloved May,

So delighted to get your letter.  Dozens of times I’ve been going to write to you!.  What a Christian you are yo forgive me!. 63

In the event McKenna did not make the appointment.  It was Winston Churchill who became First Lord and Bridgeman was appointed to the post as malleable deputy.  May’s career effectively came to an end.  In 1911 he hauled down his Flag, spent two quiet years as C In C Plymouth, where ‘hardly anything took place which is worth recording’ and in 1913 on the accession of Admiral of the Fleet had to give up the Plymouth command a year early.  May spent the whole of his service career planning for action, but it was not to be.

‘Thus ended my naval career after fifty years continuous service.  It was my misfortune never to have been in action, either afloat or ashore, during my career.  Somehow, wherever I went, there was no war, and then my time was up in the Home Fleet three and a half years before the Great War started; such is the luck of the service…’ 64

 Both Wilson and Bridgeman were disappointing as First Sea Lords.  Indeed they were both largely appointed as short term stand ins.  What might have happened if May had been appointed instead?  A firm and progressive hand at the helm for threes years at least?  No return of Jacky Fisher?  A stronger, more flexible fleet at Jutland?  He always emphasised durability  against speed and stronger hulls against shell, especially lyddite shell.  he always refused to tie his fleet down to a stereotyped plan.65

Surely Sir William May has been underestimated.  His creative interest in the trial and experiment of technological progress,66 and his innovative command of tactical manoeuvres and the conduct, formation and fighting of a Fleet were acknowledged by colleague 67 and historian 68  alike.  Lambert pays tribute to his novel and controversial ideas.69  Roskill acknowledged his contribution to the training of officers.70  May believed in giving them careful, early reports on exercises and manoeuvres and encouraged the more extensive education and training supplied by the New Scheme. It was not an accident that he chose the progressive Richmond as his Flag Captain on the Dreadnought and clever W. Fisher as his Commander, that he appreciated the clear thinking of Julian Corbett.71  Dewar regarded his time with May and Richmond as one of the most innovative and valuable of his experience.

It seemed to me that in many respects the Home Fleet of 1910 marked a great advance in preparation of war.72

Admiral of the Fleet
Sir William Henry May, G.C.B., G.C.V.O.
1849 -1930

May’s naval career may have ended in 1913, but he continued to be of service to the Navy and the Government.  Winston cracks up Sir William 73 said Fisher.  He was used as Chief Umpire in the manoeuvres of 1912 and 1913, as a member of the Royal Commission on the failure of the Dardanelles Campaign in 1916, and as the effective, if not titular Chairman of the Committee for the Reconstruction of the Navy after the war.  he died in 1930 after the retirement of civilian service tot he people of Berwick.



1 N. Lambert. Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution. (University of South Carolina 1999) p.200 Conversation with Andrew Lambert

2 Sir William Henry May.  The Life of a Sailor (London 1931) p.1.

3 May,  Life of a Sailor p. 2.

4 Ibid. p.6

5 Ibid p.17

6 Admiral B.M. Chambers, Salt Junk (London 1927) p.68

7 May, Life of a Sailor p. 18

8 Ibid p.25

9 Army and Navy Gazette, August 1880

10 May, Life of a Sailor p. 43

11 Hampshire Telegraph, Oct 82

12 May, Life of a Sailor p. 45

13 Modern Society, May 28th 1887

14 May, Life of a Sailor p.48

15 Ibid, p.59

16 Ibid p. 61

17 Lambert, Naval Revolution p. 200

18 Fisher to Selborne 5.1.190

19 Fisher to Selborne 16.1.1901

20 Morning Post, Pall Mall Gazette, Tatler, Globe, Manchester Guardian amongst others

21 Morning Post, April 21st 1901

22 May to Selborne 2.9.01

23 Director of Naval Construction

24 May to Selborne 2.9.01

25 Selborne 29.7.03

26 May, Life of a Sailor p.68

27 Fisher to Selborne 19.7.02

28 May to Selborne 28.10.03

29 Naval and Military Record 19.4.1906

30 May p.67

31 Ibid p.72

32 St James, Nov 18 1904

33 Times March 20th 1904

34 Fisher to May 18.7.05

35 ‘Naval Notes’ The Globe 20.4.1906

36 Tweedmouth to May 7.9.06

37 United Service Gazette 14.2.1907

38 Selborne to May 24.1.1908

39 Daily Sketch Sept 27th 1909

40 The Graphic 2/1909

41 The World 9.2.1909

42 Letter from May to McKenna 16.6.1909

43 I said nothing of the sort but he said remember what I told you about being Controller Private note dated 14.12.1902

44 Selborne to May 24.1.1908

45 United Service Gazette 17.6.1909

46 Lambert p 200

47 Esher to Sandars 26.8.1909

48 Battenberg to May 22.5.06

49 McKenna to May 1.9.1909

50 Western Morning News 2.2.1911

51 John Bull 27.1.1909

52 Ibid

53 Admiral W James Admiral Sir William Fisher (London 1943) p 56

54 May, Life of a Sailor p.91

55 W Fisher to May 29.11.1911

56 Fisher to his wife 2.10.1911

57 Fisher to McKenna 25.8.1910

58 Fisher to Mrs McKenna Dec 1910

59 Fisher to wife 2.10.1911

60 A Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought (London 1953) p. 439

61 Fisher to Balfour 5.1.1904 Admiral May, the Controller, is only progressive member of the Board

62 Fisher to McKenna 25.8.1910

63 Fisher to May mid/end 1912

64 May, Life of a Sailor p.92

65 ViceEsher Admiral K. Dewar The Navy from Within (London 1939) p.123

66 Ibid p. 124

67 Chatfield The Navy and Defence (London 1942) p. 114

68 G. Bennett Charlie B. (London 1968) p. 239. Temple Patterson Jellicoe (London 1969) p. 104

69 Lambert Naval Revolution p. 216

70 Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty, (New York 1981) p.42

71 D Schurman Julian S Corbett, 1854 – 1922 (London, 1981) p. 96 Corbett’s paper had lifted the whole controversy out of mere detail

72 Vice Admiral K. Dewar, The Navy From Within (London 1939) p116

73 Fisher to Mrs McKenna 22.4.1912

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