‘ROSY’ WEMYSS, ADMIRAL OF THE FLEET: THE MAN WHO CREATED ARMISTICE DAY

Reviewed by: ALASTAIR WILSON

I suspect that many of our members will say “‘Rosy’ Wemyss – who he?”  My own knowledge was minimal, but although he succeeded Jellicoe as 1SL in 1917, he is probably the least known 1SL of the 20th century.  He was relieved by Beatty as 1SL in November 1919, promoted to AF and awarded a peerage in the end-of-war Honours, taking the tile of Baron Wester Wemyss.  His full name was Rosslyn Wemyss, and ‘Rosy’ was the nickname by which he was known throughout his career.

The book is a thoroughly workmanlike account of his career. Rosy was a posthumous child (third son), of a Scottish landed family with estates on the Firth of Forth. His family had “a strong naval heritage”, with a grandfather who had been flag-lieutenant to Edward Pellew in 1808, and a mother who was a grand-daughter (wrong side of the blanket) of the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. Rosy entered Britannia in 1877 in the same term as Prince George, later King George V, with whom he remained on friendly terms.  He became known as a ‘Court Officer’, and served twice in one or other of the Royal Yachts, and was second-in-command of HMS Ophir when she acted as the Royal Yacht for the world tour of Prince George (by now the Prince of Wales) and Princess Mary and for the later royal tour in HMS Balmoral Castle, a Union Castle liner ‘taken up from trade’, because the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert, was incapable of ocean voyages.  (His royal passenger should have been his friend, the Prince of Wales, but King Edward VII had died, George had become King, and so the Duke of Connaught had gone instead).

He had an exciting time as a Midshipman in 1879 in the ‘Flying Squadron’ (= Indo-Pacific group deployment) when his ship was almost given up for lost in the southern ocean crossing from the Cape to Australia; but otherwise his career was unremarkable – he kept out of the Beresford-Fisher spat in the first decade of the 20th century and he never commanded a Dreadnought – his battleship command as a captain was of Albion, a Canopus class pre-Dreadnought in the home fleet, and that for only six months.  But he was the first captain of RNC Osborne and had responsibility for the start of training at RNC Dartmouth. One of his contemporaries said of him that he was “a great and loyal friend, a modest and exceptionally intelligent officer, with great tact and honesty, and with a great quantity of friends and very few enemies”.

During WW1 he was most successful as C-in-C East Indies, supporting T E Lawrence as he chased the Turks out of Arabia, and he became Deputy 1SL to Jellicoe, and when Jellicoe was ousted at the end of 1917, it was natural for him to step up to 1SL; hence he was in post when the Germans sought an armistice, and he represented the Allied Navies at those negotiations, and also the RN in the preliminary discussions for the Versailles peace conference which followed as soon as President Woodrow Wilson could get to Europe. He and his wife were unusual in making their home in France, and it was there that he died in 1933. This book fills a gap in our knowledge of the careers of 20th century Navy 1SLs.  The only other biography of ‘Rosy’ is a Life and Letters collected and edited by his wife in 1935.