Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918)

A Life of Service and Adventure

“I’ve always loved historical naval fiction,” says author Antoine Vanner, “but for me Nicholas Dawlish is a real person whose life I am researching. And I want to document not just his distinguished public career but also the more obscure aspects of his life.”

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 but an ancestor serving with Royalist forces in the Civil War was wounded 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. His descendent, 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 paymaster in the Navy. He contracted tuberculosis and retired from Navy in the mid-1850s to settle at Pau in the Pyrenees. 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 long 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.

Service in an Age of Transition 1859-1877

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

Dawlish’s appointments in the next fifteen years 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, 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, for this was, indirectly, to bring him in contact with that shadowy figure, Admiral Sir Richard Topcliffe, who was to play a significant role in the next period of his career.

The Mesrutiyet – the Ottoman ironclad commanded by Dawlish

Though details of the first task Dawlish undertook for Topcliffe are vague, and still being researched, it earned him promotion to Commander and a recommendation thereafter for service with the Ottoman Navy. Until the dramatic end of his eventful life Dawlish wore two Ottoman decorations with pride, mementoes of his brief service under the Sultan during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. They marked his enduring affection for the Turkish fighting man, if not his government, and indeed during the 1914-18 War he was several times heard to say that Turkey’s alignment with the Central Powers had broken his heart. 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.

This is the story told in Britannia’s Wolf.

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  over the next two decades 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. It appears that in the process Dawlish appears to have 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 this 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 and 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 would have liked to dispense with.

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 Dawlisih found himself unwittingly thrust and to be confronted by riot, treachery, massacre and battes 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 and corruption 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

There is more to come about the lives of Nicholas and Florence Dawlish– much more – but that will be told in later books. The sixth will be published in mid-2017.