Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918)

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A Life of Service and Adventure

“Nicholas Dawlish is for me a real person whose life I am researching,” says author Antoine Vanner. “I want to document not just his distinguished public career but also the more obscure aspects of his life and that of his no-less impressive wife.”

A life that spanned two eras

Admiral Sir Nicholas Dawlish is probably best remembered today for leaving retirement in 1914, at the request of his friend and sometime rival Lord Fisher, to assume responsibility for Unconventional Naval Operations. His imaginative filling of that role, and his death at the age of seventy-two on the Zeebrugge Mole, where he fell in a hail of machine-gun fire on St. George’s Day 1918, (making him the oldest serving officer to fall in action in either World War), ended an illustrious career in a manner which he would have found wholly appropriate.

The Storming of the Zebrugge Mole – St. George’s Day 1918

The dramatic nature of his last services has however diverted attention from the no-less interesting course of his earlier life. Dawlish, like Fisher, typified that generation of officers who entered a sail-based service, commanded by veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, and who themselves went on to forge the Grand Fleet and employ wireless, submarines and the first aircraft carriers. His early career involved a ferocious baptism of fire in China, service in various naval brigades, mastery of small boat and riverine operations, brief secondment to the Ottoman Navy and a pivotal role in the development of the torpedo. Numerous gaps appear in his official records however and research into his life is uncovering a number of significant services which were never publicised at the time for good political or diplomatic reasons.

Boyhood cut short

According to a family tradition, the Dawlish family originally hailed from Devon – where there is a small coastal town called “Dawlish”.  An ancestor serving with Royalist forces in the Civil War was wounded badly when Shrewsbury fell to Parliamentarian forces in 1645. Sheltered by a local family, and nursed back to health by the eldest daughter, he subsequently married her and never left. There was some suspicion that Dawlish was not his real name, but that he adopted it as a nom-de-guerre to avoid recognition by the Parliamentarians, who were merciless in their persecution of Royalists in the years following their victory. His descendant, Nicholas, was born exactly 200 years later, on December 16th 1845, the youngest of three children.

Nicholas’s father, Andrew, was an attorney, a profession with considerably less social standing then than it has today, and his mother, Jessica, came from minor gentry. She was to die in childbirth in 1850 and it is known that the loss affected Nicholas very deeply. His father was kindly but distant and did not remarry until 1877 though, despite outward respectability, he is believed to have consoled himself with a succession of lower-class women. Nicholas’s mother’s place was taken by his elder sister, Susan, and by his nurse, Mrs.Gore, who remained as housekeeper and to whom he was devoted throughout his life. Nicholas revered his elder brother, James, who followed their father into his practice but who died in a hunting accident in 1871.

Pau in the 1850s, when the young Dawlish spent several months there with his uncle Ralph

A major influence on the young Nicholas was his mother’s brother Ralph, who had been a Royal Navy officer. He contracted tuberculosis and retired from the Navy in the mid-1850s and settled at Pau in the Pyrenees, a resort that was favoured because of its climate by many consumptives. Nicholas spent almost a year with him there, becoming fluent in French, and it was his uncle who facilitated his entry to the Royal Navy. Dying relatively young, Ralph was to bequeath Nicholas several farms in southern Shropshire from which he subsequently derived a modest private income. But Nicholas was never to know – or even guess – the truth about what his uncle had really been.

This is the story told in Britannia’s Eye, the bonus short-story included in the Britannia’s Amazon volume.

Dawlish joined the Navy young and in early 1859, as a 13-year old midshipman, found himself en route to China, where the Second Opium War (The Arrow War) had broken out. It was to prove a terrifying introduction to his profession.

A brutal baptism of fire, 1859-60… 

Dawlish claimed in later life that being involved in the debacle of the first, failed, storming of the Taku Forts on the Peiho River was “the most important lesson I ever learned – it showed me that courage alone is not enough.” The horror of seeing wounded men sinking into the mud before the forts was only partly compensated by participation in their successful capture the following year. By the time Dawlish left China he was seasoned in responsibility and in battle – and sixteen years old. This brutal intrioduction to warfare is covered in the two opening chapters of Britannia’s Spartan.

The second, successful, storming of the Taku Forts in 1860. The first attempt, in 1859, had been a bloody failure

In 1862, as a midshipman, Dawlish was assigned to the North America and West Indies Station flagship, HMS Nile, a 90-gun wooden ship-of-the-line which would not have looked out of place at Trafalgar had she not carried a small auxiliary steam engine. Dawlish was seconded, on a temporary basis, to the gunvessel HMS Foyle, to take the place of a sub-lieutenant who had fallen ill. HMS Foyle was to be involved in dramatic actions on the coast of Columbia, and off that of Brazil, which were to prove important formative experiences for Dawlish. These events are told about in Britannia’s Fist, in Britannia’s Chase, in Britannia’s Freebooter and in Britannia’s Prestige, short stories made available, free, to readers on the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list (Click here to join).

Service in defence of Denmark 1864

In 1864, political folly brought war upon Denmark. Lacking allies, the small country was invaded by the forces of military superpowers Prussia and Austria. Dawlish, just returned from service in the West Indies, and on the threshold of promotion to sub-lieutenant, was induced to join a group of British volunteers prepared to fight for Denmark both by land and by sea. In the process Dawlish was exposed to the most revolutionary naval development of the period, the turret-equipped ironclad, and to the international implications of the civil war raging across the Atlantic in America. Though increasingly competent in his profession, Dawlish found himself innocent in the ways of the world  as he was immersed in a nightmare of shore bombardment, siege warfare, commerce raiding and pitched sea battle. He was to learn from the experience, but the lessons were dearly bought. This is the story told in Britannia’s Innocent.

The Battle of Heligoland, 1864 – when Danish, Austrian and Prussian naval forces clashed

Nightmare in Mexico, 1866

Following his unofficial service in defence of Denmark, Dawlish, now promoted to Sub-Lieutenant, was posted the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station, serving in the gunvessel HMS Sprightly. One memorable incident of this period is described in the short story Britannia’s Collector, which is included as a bonus in the volume Britannia’s Morass. 

Dawlish’s most dangerous service in Sprightly was to be during the second half of 1866, The vicious war that had raged since the French invasion of Mexico in 1862, and its installation of a puppet emperor was turning in favour of republican forces loyal to President Benito Juarez. The French were grudgingly accepting that the war was unwinnable for them and were contemplating evacuation. Hard fighting would be necessary in these last months however and many old scores remained to be settled.

French troops and “Imperial” soldiers of Mexico’s puppet emperor.

Britain was neutral in this conflict but large investments by British companies in railroad and mining ventures were, coming under threat as the war front grew closer. Powerful investors in London demanded action from Her Majesty’s Government to protect these interests. HMS Sprightly and her redoubtable captain, Frederick Weatherby, were tasked with taking “appropriate” action to guarantee the safety of these interests. Deciding just what “appropriate” meant in practice was to prove a major challenge. In a land scourged by war, atrocity and greed, not only Republican Juarista, French and Imperial Mexican forces but bandit groups, a volunteer Belgian Legion and ex-Confederate mercenaries all had their own agendas. And at sea, a powerful ironclad, flying Imperial Mexican colours, was commanded by an Austrian aristocrat who’s desperate for glory.

Dawlish found himself plunged into deadly action on both land and water. Despite his lowly rank, his fluency in French and Spanish proved invaluable to his captain in a web of political intrigue, treachery and greed in which a single mistake can end both their careers.

And for Dawlish in his personal life, an unexpected and heart-breaking encounter with a figure from his past, to whom he was linked by a solemn promise that he could not fulfill, would bring mental torment . . .

This is the story told in Britannia’s Interests.

Service in an Age of Transition 1866 – 1877

Dawlish’s appointments over the next decade exposed him not only to service in what Kipling later described as “The Savage Wars of Peace” which Britain waged around the world as her Empire expanded, but to developments in what .represented the cutting edge of the technology of the time.

The Age of Sail was ending as steam propulsion advanced in power and efficiency, the long reign of the muzzle-loading naval gun was threatened by the rise of the breech-loader, wood was being replaced by iron, and it in turn by steel. The broadside disposition of armament was yielding to turrets, barbettes or central batteries and the explosive shell was making armour indispensable for larger ships. The spar torpedo, and the later development of the locomotive torpedo, had given small craft the capability of sinking larger ones and the moored mine had proved deadly efficient, as had so many other developments, in the American Civil War. In this period of rapid change and experimentation some developments were to prove dead ends while others were to evolve in ever-greater sophistication up to our own time.

Service at sea, service with naval-brigades ashore and trials of new weapons, were to be Dawlish’s life through the 1860s and early 1870s. Recognising that the pace of technological change could work to his advantage – Dawlish was ambitious, perhaps over-ambitious in this period – he studied each new advance assiduously. He differed from many of his contemporaries in their snobbish dismissal of engineer officers as inferiors – indeed for much of his career they messed separately.

Making His Own Luck

With no powerful family connections, Dawlish recognised that he must make his own luck if he was to rise to high rank. Knowing that service in home waters, or in the Mediterranean, would offer few opportunities to distinguish himself in action, he sought assignments elsewhere. The most important for his future was to be his spell with the East African Anti-Slavery Patrol, based in Zanzibar. fAn insight into Dawlish’s anti-slavery activities can be gained from the free short story “Britannia’s Rescuers” (click here if interested), which finds him on duty off the coast of Oman in 1875).

Slaver-hunting in the Indian Ocen in the 1870s

Dawlish escaped with his life during a desperate encounter with slavers on Pemba, the island north of Zanzibar, in early 1877. His hopes for promotion rose while greater events were afoot in Europe, where the Russian and Ottoman Empires were drifting ever closer to a war that could draw in other great powers. Britain could not stand aside, for strategic reasons, in such a case. Preparations for war were in hand and Dozens of young officers, all as qualified as Dawlish, were hoping for their own commands. He was just one of many however and he lacked the advantages of patronage or family influence.

But only a handful of powerful men knew how unexpectedly vulnerable Britain would be if war were to come. That weakness offered Dawlish the chance he needed to distinguish himself. On a clandestine mission, far from civilisation, dependent on a new and as yet unproven weapon, he faces a clever and ruthless enemy in unforeseeable and appalling circumstances. This was the first unconventional mission of the type in which he later specialised. It also brought him into contact with a man who would have a decisive impact on his subsequent career and promotion. This is the story told in Britania’s Guile.

The Mesrutiyet – the Ottoman ironclad commanded by Dawlish

This last mission earned Dawlish promotion to Commander and a recommendation thereafter for secondment to service with the Ottoman Navy. Until the dramatic end of his eventful life, Dawlish was proud of the two Ottoman decorations he was awarded, mementoes of his brief service under the Sultan during the latter stages of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. They marked his enduring affection for the Turkish fighting man, if not his government. In command of an ironclad, and later leading a naval brigade ashore against the Russians, exposed him to war at its most brutal. And it also led him to find the love of his life, the magnificent Florence Morton.

This is the story told in Britannia’s Wolf.

During the 1914-18 War, Dawlish was several times heard to say that Turkey’s alignment with the Central Powers had broken his heart. (See free short story Britannia’s Diamonds, available to members of the mailing list – click here). This did not however deter him from a major role in planning the Dardanelles campaign and only urgent need for his services elsewhere denied him the chance to command that operation.

Churchill afterwards identified this as one of the great lost opportunities of the conflict, proclaiming that “Had Dawlish had the direction of affairs on the 18th  of March 1915, the Royal Navy would have anchored off Seraglio Point two days later.” That achievement could well have changed history – but Dawlish had already done much to make a similar event possible almost forty years earlier, when he wore the Sultan’s uniform.

River Warfare in South America

Dawlish returned from his service in the Ottoman Navy to an appointment in Portsmouth. Here he was involved in torpedo development and indeed was responsible for the invention of the “Dawlish Cam” which was to be used to improve depth-keeping ability.  In late 1879 he was granted six month’s unpaid leave and for many years the exact nature of his activities during these months was unknown. It is only recently that the full story of these months has been revealed. This resulted from a great-grandson of Dawlish’s sister Susan giving Antoine Vanner access to Dawlish’s private journal for these months. This was supplemented by a cache of documents made available by the present Lord Kegworth, Chairman of the Hyperion Food and Beverages Group of Companies. The new information revealed that Dawlish was involved in this period in leading the riverine component of a military expedition in Paraguay, a venture which had no official backing from the British Government. Commanding a disparate flotilla of antiquated warships and paddle steamers Dawlish participated in a brutal series of land and river battles as the expedition thrust towards the heart of a revolt in the parched Gran Chaco of north-western Paraguay. In the process Dawlish found himself morally compromised, leading to one of the most terrible ethical choices of his entire life.

This is the story told in Britannia’s Reach.

Clandestine Service 1881

Following Dawlish’s return from Paraguay in mid-1880 he resumed his duties at the Mine and Torpedo Establishment at Portsmouth. It is known that though the work was congenial – he always enjoyed development and trials of new weapons – he seems to have suffered from bouts of depression related to his recent experiences. That he came through this difficult period without lasting harm was largely due to the untiring patience and understanding of his wife, Florence, to whom he was deeply devoted.  Financies also appear to have been a worry: the income from his farms in Shropshire were badly eroded by the agricultural depression of the period, he had been on half-pay from the Royal Navy while in Paraguay and for reasons of conscience had refused remuneration for his service there. Though his spirts were restored by early 1881, a personal tragedy – a miscarriage with complications – almost cost Florence her life. It was therefore very welcome, shortly after her recovery, that a holiday could be made of her accompanying him when he attended trials of a new weapon at the Whitehead Torpedo Works at Fiume, on the Adriatic, in April 1881. This longed-for holiday ended however in dramatic circumstances and it is only recently that the train of events that followed has become known. Personally tasked by his shadowy patron, Admiral Sir Richard Topcliffe, with removing the threat emerging from these events, Dawlish, accompanied by Florence, was to cross the Atlantic, initially to the United States, thereafter to Cuba. Here, it was only by making some of the most unexpected alliances of his life that his goals were achieved, albeit with great difficulty. This period also established an unlikely friendship which, twenty years later was to be lead to the entry of the first submarine into Royal Navy service. In his later years Dawlish was to refer with some fondness to what he referred to as “the admirable blackguards” with whom both Florence and he were to work closely in 1881, but it was to her to whom he assigned the greatest credit.

This is the story told in Britannia’s Shark.

Cuban rebels –  photograph taken in 1881

The standing figure is believed to be Julio Machado, with whom Dawlish had dealings

Turmoil in Korea 1882

HMS Leonidas

In early 1882 Dawlish, newly promoted to Captain, took command of the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas of the Leander Class. These ships represented the last word in naval modernity – built of steel rather than of iron, equipped with efficient engines and boilers that provided unprecedeted operational range and armed with 6-inch breech loading guns of a design so advanced that a modified version of them would still be in use in the Second World War. Leonidas carried, in addition, four torpedo launchers. Her only link with tradition was that she retained masts and yards to allow passage under sail, a feature of which Dawlish was critical and with which he would have liked to dispense.

Dispatched with Leonidas to the Far East on a fast return voyage to test boilers and engines, Dawlish found himself on arrival in Hong Kong to be entrusted with a routine diplomatic mission to Korea. His arrival coincided however with major upheavals within the “Hermit Kingdom”, which was being forced by powerful neighbours to abandon the self-imposed isolation of centuries. Korea was still a nominal vassal of Imperial China – an empire mired in corruption and decline – while Japan, rapidly industrialising and moderninsing, was emerging as a new regional power. Russia was also reaching south from Eastern Siberia to dominate Manchuria and the Yellow Sea region. Korea’s strategic location made her the focus of the ambitions of all three nations. Ruled by a weak king, but with a ruthless and ambitious queen by his side, and incapable of resisting internal forces of discontent no less than pressures from without, Korea was entering a period of chaos. And it was into this maelstrom that Nicholas Dawlish found himself unwittingly thrust and to be confronted by riot, treachery, massacre and battles by land and sea.

This is the story told in Britannia’s Spartan.

And meanwhile, on the Home Front . . .

While Nicholas Dawlish was absent in Korea in 1882, as recounted in Britannia’s Spartan, his beloved wife Florence (who was a major player in both Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Shark) was left behind in Britain. Dedicated to working for the welfare of seamen’s families, she found herself plunged unexpectedly into the squalid and brutal underworld that lay beneath outwardly-respectable Victorian society. Confronted by exploitation of the weak, and unsure of whom to trust, Florence was unwilling to retreat in the face of evil. Her investigations unmasked a web of vice, corruption and espionage that extended up to the highest levels of British society. In the process, she had to expose herself to the possibilities of prison for herself and of the destruction of her husband Nicholas’s career prospects. And only ingenuity and sheer bloody-minded determination could help her win through…

This is the story told in Britannia’s Amazon

Florence’s investigations were to span the full spectrum of Victorian poverty and wealth

East Africa: Slavery, missionaries and the Imperial German Navy…

Still in command of HMS Leonidas, Dawlish was sent to the Indian Ocean and East Africa in 1883. Though Britain had been dedicated for many years to suppression of the slave trade in the region – and Dawlish had served in patrols against it in the mid-1870s – this traffic had now reached all but industrial standards of efficiency. Armed columns of slavers, some of them small armies, were striking deep into the African interior, devastating villages and capturing huge numbers of innocent people for shipment to the insatiable markets of Arabia. Powerful voices in Britain were demanding more decisive measures to suppress the trade, the more so since Christian missionaries were establishing themselves in the very path of the slavers, rising martyrdom to shame the government into action. Over-extended by commitments in Egypt, India and elsewhere, the British government was reluctant to occupy the area – but for strategic reasons was reluctant to see any other nation occupy it either.  At the same time, the recently established German Empire, already the supreme military power in Europe. was considering colonial expansion – and East Africa seemed to offer attractive prospects.  The  Imperial German Navy, a new creation, was available to back any such claims.  In this complex and fast-changing situation, Nicholas Dawlish was faced with not just with upholding British interests but with determining what those interests actually were.  Horror at sea, battle and atrocity on land, combat in swamp, all lay ahead – but the ultimate determinant must be the guns of HMS Leonidas and her German counterpart.

This is the story told in Britannia’s Mission

The horrors of the slave trade brought Dawlish to East Africa in 1883

Revolt, Persecution and Terror in the Sudan…

Dawlish’s return from East Africa with HMS Leonidas was interrupted in early 1884 by a diversion to the Red Sea coast of the Sudan, the vast territory ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt. A savage Islamist revolt was plunging the area into a maelstrom of bloodshed and establishing the rule by terror of a fanatical and messianic leader. Leonidas’s crew was landed as a “Naval Brigade” and participated with other British forces in a bloody but inconclusive land campaign. By late in 1884 only the city of Khartoum, at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers,  still held out under the inspired leadership of a British national hero, General Charles Gordon. The vast relief mission that was mounted to support him threatened to arrive too late to avert disaster. But one other route for reaching him remained open – one that demanded expertise in ship construction no less than in riverine warfare. Spurred by the memory of meeting Gordon as a boy, Nicholas Dawlish would attempt that route, despite the obstacles of barren mountains, parched desert and merciless enemies. Massacre and tragedy would lie ahead but how the venture would end – and how it would forever change the life of his beloved wife Florence no less than his own – would be in a manner he could never have expected…

This is the story told in Britannia’s Gamble

River steamers were to be key elements in the campaign in the Sudan

And, once more, on the Home Front …

When Dawlish left for the Sudan in late 1884, his wife Florence remained behind in Britain, where she expected a quiet life, largely focussed on welfare work for seaman’s families. But a single well-meaning but wrong decision plunged her into an ever-deepening morass, where loyalty to her country and to seamen who served with her husband raises terrifying dilemmas. Old friends supported her but she found that old allies who offered help might have different agendas. In a time of shifting international alliances, in which the stakes are high and not all the enemies she faces are British, she could be little more than a pawn. And pawns are often sacrificed . . .

This is the story told in Britannia’s Morass

Florence – clever, loyal, courageous. The love of Nicholas Dawlish’s life, as he was of hers.

And a volcanic eruption in the West Indies will bring unexpected challenges . . .

Following his return from the Sudan in 1885, Dawlish’s service there was recognised by awarding him command of the Royal Navy’s newest and most powerful battleship, HMS Scipio.  The following year he was to bring her, and two other modern ships, on a “showing the flag” voyage to South America which was also intended as a showcase for British shipyards seeking orders there. While coaling at Trinidad for the last leg of the return, word came through of a massive volcanic eruption on a small West Indian island. An entire town was cut off and its destruction imminent. Only decisive action could avert massive loss of life. Dawlish was ordered to race there with his ships to render help. His enemy was an angry mountain, vast in its malevolent power, a challenge that no naval officer has faced before.

But Dawlish’s contest with the volcano was just the prelude to a longer association – in a role he never anticipated – with the island. Its sovereignty was split – a British Crown Colony in the west, and in the east, an independent republic established seven decades earlier by self-emancipated slaves. When wrenched from France through war, both seemed glittering economic prizes. By the 1880s they are impoverished backwaters where resentment seethes and old grudges fester. For many, the existence of a ‘black republic’ was resented, an affront to be excised.

And in France, a man of limitless ambition, backed by powerful interests, saw the turmoil as an opportunity that could bring him to absolute power. And, if he succeeds, perhaps trigger war in Europe on a scale unseen since the fall of Napoleon . . .

This is the story told in Britannia’s Rule 

A retirement that was to be unexpectedly interrupted…

Insights to Dawlish’s later years can be gained from Britannia’s Eventide and Britannia’s Diamonds,  short stories distributed free to readers on the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list (click here).  The former sees Dawlish and his beloved wife enjoying what they do not realise are the last days of peace in 1914, unaware that he will be called back to duty once more. It’s a different world to that in which they both grew up and manned-flight has become part of it. And in Diamonds, we see Dawlish on one of the saddest days of his life…

There is more to come about the lives of Nicholas and Florence Dawlish– much more – but that will be told in later books.