John Arbuthnot Fisher was one of the last great fighting sailors, in the tradition of Nelson, Frobisher and Drake. He first went to sea as a midshipman with the British Royal Navy at the age of thirteen.He survived this often cruel and demoralising apprenticeship, and went on to fight as an eighteen year old third lieutenant with the White Rajah of Sarawak, Brooke, who was engaged in the business of sweeping the multitudinous pirates of Sumatra from the South China Sea. Fisher survived that too.
Brooke (q.v.) described the fierce young man as ‘cool, calm and collected’ in battle. The Sumatran pirates knew all about the cutlass-swinging youngster too, and considered him almost as dangerous as them.
Fisher was of course trained under sail, and by the age of twenty he knew a great deal about how to use the winds, currents, shoals and great rollers of the Pacific Ocean. He could navigate with a sextant, compass, the use of the stars, and dead reckoning. He was already a true sailor, and a much respected leader of men.
He was also an eager enthusiast in the study and use of new techniques, for example – the torpedo. His personal drive (and like Nelson, adroit use of self-publicity) won Fisher rapid promotion. In 1899 he had earned a reputation as a bellicose delegate to the Hague Peace Conference.
He became Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean in the same year, 1899, and stayed in this post until 1902. During this time he revolutionised training and tactics in the British Navy. He served as First Sea Lord from 1903 to January 1910, and was therefore responsible for preparing the fleet to meet the growing German menace in the North Sea. At 58 years old his personality was fiery, and woe betide any subordinate who did not have every fact at his fingertips when working with Fisher. It was Fisher who changed the war game at sea by encouraging the building of the ‘Dreadnoughts’, armoured steam-driven heavily-armed ships of prodigious size.
Though John Fisher was recognised by press and people as the greatest admiral since Nelson, his ferocity, ambition and zeal naturally made him many enemies. Jealousy is as rampant in the Navy as in any other force. He had a serious dispute in private with an inferior sailor, the Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet, Lord Charles Beresford.
Fisher retired in 1910, but was asked to come back as First Sea Lord by Winston Churchill in October, 1914. It could never have worked, as Churhcill and Fisher were much too similar in temperament to be able to work together in harmony. When Churchill insisted on moving ships of the line to the Mediterranean in preparation for his (disastrous) Gallipoli Campaign, Fisher was angered beyond measure and resigned (1915. He died after the First War, in 1920, almost eighty years old.
Some paintings of Admiral Fisher show him with an abnormally large nose. If had a snorter as large as it represented, it only shows that he followed a truly British nasal tradition.