Royal Navy obituary in the Times newspaper
Royal Navy obituary in the Times newspaper

Royal NavyObituaries

The following obituary for Arthur Knyvet Wilson appeared in the Times newspaper.

Obituary in the Times newspaper
26 May 1921


Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson, V.C., died yesterday afternoon at Beech Cottage, Swaffham, Norfolk, at the age of 79. A great admiral, he maintained his keen interest in the Navy up to the time of his death. In 1911 he dad retired after 56 years’ service, but on the outbreak of the war. he came forward to give his advice at the Admiralty, and he continued to do so throughout the struggle.

Arthur Knyvet Wilson, younger son of the late Rear-Admiral George Knyvet Wilson, was born on March 4, 1842, at Swaffham, in Norfolk. He entered the Navy in 1855, and served as a midshipmen in the Algiers during the Crimean War, receiving the Crimean and Turkish medals with the Sebastopol clasp. In 1856, while still a midshipman, he was appointed to the Raleigh, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Sir Henry Keppel, the hero of the Fatshan Creek, and well known in his later years as an ever-youthful veteran and the friend of King Edward VII. Wilson went out in the Raleigh to China, but as the ship was wrecked and lost on an unknown rock early in the following year he was appointed to the Calcutta, the famous nursery of future flag officers, then flying the flag of Sir Michael Culme -Seymour, the Commander-in-Chief on the China Station. He took part in the capture of Canton in December, 1857, and in the destruction of the Peiho forts in May, 1858, receiving the Chinese medal with two clasps.

In 1866 he attended a gunnery course at Whale Island, and in the following year he was again appointed as an additional lieutenant to the flagship of the China Station, and his services were lent for a time to the Japanese Government as an instructor to the youthful Navy of Japan. Wilson was appointed in 1876 to the staff of the Vernon, the torpedo school ship at Portsmouth, and only relinquished the post on his promotion to the rank of captain in the spring of 1880.

How the V.C. was Won.

In 1881 Wilson was appointed to the Hecla, a sea-going depôt and repair ship for torpedo craft, which during his commission was attached to the Mediterranean Fleet. He was present at the bombardment of Alexandria, and took an active part in the subsequent operations on shore. On February 29, 1884, he was present with the Naval Brigade at El Teb, and there won the Victoria Cross for an act of gallantry which was described by the late Sir Redvers Buller as one of the most courageous he had ever witnessed. It was described as follows in the official record published in the Gazette:-
“This officer on the staff of Rear-Admiral Sir William Hewett, at the battle of El Teb, on February 29, attached himself during the advance to the right half battery, Naval Brigade, in the place of Lieutenant Royds, R.N., mortally wounded. As the troops closed on the enemy’s Krupp battery, the Arabs charged out on the corner of the square and on the detachment who were dragging the Gardner gun. Captain Wilson then sprang to the front and engaged in single combat with some of the enemy, thus protecting his detachment till some men of the York and Lancaster Regiment came to his assistance with their bayonets. But for the action of this officer Sir Redvers Buller thinks that one or more of his detachment must have been speared. Captain Wilson was wounded, but remained with the half battery during the day.”
Captain Wilson’s sword was broken in his single-handed effort to stay the Arab rush, but he held his ground and fought the enemy with his lists. He received the Suakin and El Teb clasps, and the officers of the Vernon presented him with a sword ”in admiration of his gallantry at the battle of El Teb.” In July, 1884, he relinquished the command of the Hecla, and early in the following year he commissioned the Raleigh as flagship of Sir W.J. Hunt-Grubbe on the Cape of Good Hope Station. In 1886 he was appointed Assistant Director of Torpedoes on the staff of the Director of Naval Ordnance, Captain (afterwards Lord) Fisher, whom he was subsequently to succeed as First Sea Lord of the Admiralty.

From the Admiralty Wilson was transferred in 1888 to the command of the Vernon at Portsmouth, and remained in that command until the beginning o! 1892. He had been made C.B. at the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, and from 1892 till his promotion to flag rank in July, 1895, he was an A.D.C. to the Queen. His last command as a captain was in the Sanspareil, to which he was appointed on leaving the Vernon.

Secret Torpedo Manoeuvres.

Shortly after his promotion to flag rank Wilson was appointed to conduct the torpedo manoeuvres of 1895, with his flag flying in the Hermione. These were the first manoeuvres in which destroyers were largely employed, and the special object of the exercises was to test the capacity of this new type of vessel to keep in check the menace of the torpedo boat. It is characteristic of that passion for secrecy which Wilson displayed throughout his career as an admiral that these operations were treated as strictly confidential, and no official report of their nature and results was ever published. But there is no doubt that under so consummate a tactician as Wilson they must have been highly instructive.

In 1896 Wilson was again afloat in command of a squadron taking part in the manoeuvres of that year with his flag flying in the Sanspareil, which he had previously commanded as a captain in the Mediterranean. In 1897 he received his first appointment to the Board of Admiralty as Third Sea Lord and Controller in succession to Sir John Fisher. He discharged the duties of that office with characteristic assiduity and efficiency, but its work was probably not very congenial to him. Although he was endowed with marked mechanical aptitudes and displayed no little inventive skill - he was the inventor of double-barrelled torpedo tubes and the originator of the adaptation of the searchlight for the purposes of distant signalling in the daytime, and in a moment of not very happy inspiration he took charge of the abortive operations for the salvage of the battleship Montagu, which was wrecked on the rocks of Lundy Island - his native bent was rather for executive command afloat rather than for administrative duties on shore, and he returned to the sea in 1901, when he was appointed to the command of what was then known as the Channel Fleet, attaining the rank of vice-admiral within a few weeks of his appointment. From that time forward, he was continuously employed in the highest commands afloat, until in the spring of 1907 he finally hauled down his (flag as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet.

During his long and brilliant period of supreme command Wilson achieved an unrivalled reputation alike as a fleet commander, a strategist, and a tactician. He conducted tactical exercises innumerable, handling the largest fleets with matchless intrepidity and skill; and never getting the worst of it in any manoeuvres in which he took part. On one occasion one of the umpires appointed to adjudicate on the manoeuvres and appraise their results is understood to have declared that Wilson's dispositions were faultless.

First Sea Lord.

Wilson attained the rank of admiral in 1905. In 1902 he had received the K.C.B. and he was advanced to the G.C.B. in 1906, having been made a G.C.V.O. in the previous year. When he hauled down his flag in 1907 he was within a few days of the age at which an admiral is retired. But the State was not yet to be deprived of his invaluable services. By a special Order in Council he was promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, which gave him five more years of service on the active list of the Navy. After two years of well-earned repose, spent at his home at Swaffham, in Norfolk, he was offered the post of First Sea Lord of the Admiralty in succession to Lord Fisher. It was generally believed that he was extremely reluctant to accept the offer, and only yielded to the strong pressure brought to bear on him by King Edward. He had earned his repose, and thoroughly enjoyed it, busying himself in country pursuits, and it was nothing but a sense of duty to his King and country that could have induced him to resume official harness and responsibility. "No appointment," we wrote at the time of his final retirement, "could have been more acceptable to the Service at large. Lord Fisher’s régime, strenuous and stimulating as it was, had stirred many a fierce controversy, the fires of which were still smouldering when Sir Arthur Wilson succeeded him. The latter’s mission was to extinguish these fires without quenching the energy they had evoked. His tried sagacity, his imperturbable silence, and his indefatigable but unobtrusive industry were invaluable at such a juncture. He took the helm, made no immediate alteration of course, and skilfully steered the ship, into more tranquil waters." Little was known or heard of him except that he was quietly and steadily doing his work, and that all was well with the Navy under his firm, competent, and sagacious guidance.

Call for a War Staff.

There was one direction in which he was less eager to move than the Government which employed him. The need for creating a War Staff for the Navy had been strongly urged in the report of a sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence appointed to consider certain grave charges against the administration and policy of the Board of Admiralty which had been addressed by Lord Charles Beresford (afterwards Lord Beresford) to the Prime Minister. Some inchoate steps were taken by the Board of Admiralty in this direction before Lord Fisher left the Board, but no further progress was made during Sir Arthur Wilson’s tenure of office. He was a man of infinite self-reliance, with a passion for keeping his own counsel, and to such a man the need of a staff to do work which he felt perfectly competent to do himself and was not likely to let anyone else do for him might well seem to be no very urgent one. At any rate, no War Staff was initiated in his time, and his reluctance to move in that direction was apparently shared by Mr. McKenna, the First Lord under whom he served. But in the autumn of 1911 a state of International tension arose over the Affairs of Morocco, and it became necessary for the Government seriously to consider the naval and military measures to be taken in the contingency of the country being involved in war. In the view of the Government the need for a War Staff at the Admiralty was emphasized by their survey of the situation, and as a consequence Mr. Churchill was appointed First Lord and charged with the special mission of proceeding forthwith to the further development and adequate organization of the War Staff desiderated by the Beresford Committee.

Sir Arthur Wilson was approaching the end of his term of office. His final retirement under the age regulations would take effect on his 70th birthday, March 4, 1912. He preferred to retire at once, so as to leave the new First Lord free to proceed with the measures he contemplated with a new Board which would not be dislocated within a few months by the withdrawal from it of its principal professional member. It may be that inclination seconded this laudable preference, but it was officially explained at the time that his retirement was due to no dissatisfaction of the Government with his discharge of the duties of his office. He was offered a peerage on his retirement, but characteristically declined it. He afterwards received the Order of Merit.

"Old ’Ard ’eart."

Sir Arthur Wilson’s whole life was entirely absorbed in and devoted to the Sea Service. On the morrow of his final retirement The Times said:- "Perhaps no flag officer since the late Sir Geoffrey Hornby has made his influence so deeply felt throughout the Navy as the late First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. He was universally regarded as the finest strategist and tactician of his time, a man who never spared himself, and for that reason never failed to get out of others as much work and as good work as it was in them to do. It was not enforced work, however; it was willing and faithful service inspired by his example and cheerfully rendered out of homage to his commanding personality. Silent, self-centred and never self-seeking, he represented the best spirit of the Service he adorned so long."

Yet his personality was somewhat austere, and, a man of iron constitution and stoic endurance himself, he seemed at times to have little consideration, for the harmless foibles of less robust temperaments. He was known to the bluejackets as "Old ’Ard ’Eart" - a sobriquet which embodies a kindly appreciation and a shrewd criticism. His personal ascendancy was great, even formidable; and though it would be too much to say that he ruled by fear rather than by love, yet it is perhaps true that his methods of command were rather those of St. Vincent than those of Nelson.

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