Robert Keith Arbuthnot, Fourth Baronet
Rear-Admiral SIR Robert Keith Arbuthnot, Fourth Baronet, K.C.B., M.V.O., Royal Navy (23 March, 1864 – 31 May, 1916) was an officer of the Royal Navy. He is chiefly remembered today for being killed at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, when he led most of his First Cruiser Squadron to destruction against the German High Sea Fleet. Arbuthnot had a reputation of being a martinet, but he enjoyed almost universal respect because he would never ask anyone to perform a task he himself could not do.
Early Life & Career
Arbuthnot was born in Alderminster, Worcs. on 23 March, 1864, the eldest son of Sir William Wedderburn Arbuthnot, Third Baronet (1831–1889) and major, 18th hussars, and his wife, Alice Margaret (d. 1889), fourth daughter of the Reverend Matthew Carrier Tompson, rural dean and vicar of Alderminster, Worcestershire. At the examination for Naval Cadetships in the Royal Navy, Arbuthnot placed forty-second out of the successful batch of forty-six. He entered the training ship Britannia at Dartmouth on 15 July, 1877 and left on 24 July, 1879. He then joined the Blanche on the North America and West Indies Station on 25 July, remaining aboard until 31 March 1880. In the meantime he was rated Midshipman, on 23 December, 1879. He transferred to the Northampton, before returning to the Blanche on 8 March, 1881, where he remained until 10 July. After the customary foreign service leave he was appointed to the Minotaur, in the Channel Squadron, on 27 October. The Minotaur paid off on 23 December, and on 10 January, 1882, Arbuthnot was appointed to the Northumberland, until he was appointed to the Amethyst on 21 March, off Brazil. On 23 December, 1883 he was given the rank of Acting Sub-Lieutenant, and in 1884 he returned to Britain.
Fisher later described Arbuthnot as "a favourite Midshipman of mine."
Arbuthnot was appointed to H.M.S. Excellent on 11 March, 1884 for his examinations for the rank of Lieutenant, which took place at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. In his examinations, he took a second class certificate at the College, a first class in torpedoes, a first class in gunnery, and a first class in pilotage. On 30 August, 1885, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. He received the Goodenough Medal for 1885, awarded to the Sub-Lieutenant who in the Lieutenancy's examinations came first in gunnery, so long as he obtained a first class certificate in seamanship.
A minute of 23 September, 1889, records:
See letter from him dated 11.9.89., as to Capt. Wilson's refusal to forward his application for leave to go through Gymnastic course at Aldershot. Informed that to say "he considers his case to be one of pure personal injustice" is improper & subversive of discipline.
In June, 1893, Captain Lambton recorded of him that he was, "A most deserving officer - first rate Gymnastic instructor."
In January, 1895:
Grave displeasure expressed at serious dereliction of duty in leaving Sub Lieut. Ricketts in charge of the "Centurion" as Officer of the Watch at night (in harbour) knowing him to be Drunk & incapable of performing his duty.
By June, however, he had earned, "T.L. approval at manner in which diving operations were carried out at Wei-hai-wei." In December, "Satisfaction [was] expressed as to useful report on Defences of Yangtze River." In September, 1896, "T.L. thanks conveyed for instructive report on Japanese Establishments at Kure."
He served as Flag Captain (1903–4) to Admiral Sir John Fisher when the latter was Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. While there, he had a revealing conversation with Fisher which he committed to paper, and left as a letter to be delivered to Fisher in the event of Arbuthnot dying before him. On 22 February, 1904, Arbuthnot was appointed a Member of the Fourth Class of the Royal Victorian Order (M.V.O.) on the occasion of the King's visit to Portsmouth.
Arbuthnot became the breaker-in of new warships for a while, being appointed first to command the new armoured cruiser Hampshire in July 1905, then of the new battleship Lord Nelson on 9 September, 1907.
At a dinner held by the Auto-Cycle Union on 20 January, 1910, Arbuthnot made a speech "containing a serious attack on Germany + on the Government of Great Britain." The consequences of this misstep came before the month was out. On his first day as First Sea Lord, Arthur K. Wilson, sent for Arbuthnot and told him: "Captain Arbuthnot, I much regret that my first duty as First Sea Lord is to relieve you of your command. Good morning."
However, Arbuthnot was soon appointed to the Admiralty submarine committee (March–December) and then Commodore of the Third Destroyer Flotilla, a position he held from 1910 to 1912, flying his flag in Boadicea. Lieutenant Bruce Fraser joined the Boadicea soon after Arbuthnot's appointment, and recorded:
- In those days we had to wear a stiff shirt all day, regardless of working conditions. Then we took to wearing what-do-you-call-'ems, dickies; but Sir Robert came out one day, looked at the first officer he saw - he was the Commander, too - and he went up to him, pulled out the dicky and threw it away over the side. No more dickies!
On another occasion Fraser observed two facets of Arbuthnot's character:
- One day we'd sighted something about 50 miles off; and when it was reported Sir Robert said "Why do you take this lying down - he doesn't know what he's talking about!" So I retired hastily. But the next thing I knew, Sir Robert came up to me and said "I'm very sorry, you were quite right."
- At this time I had a friend called Coltart, a very humourous young chap. Every month we had to walk 20 miles and sign a chit to prove we'd done it; and this young chap went to a dance instead, which Sir Robert went to as well. So he came down early to get off to the ship. He found the Admiral's barge waiting there, and said "The Admiral's still dancing; will you give me a lift off?" So they took him off, and when they came back they found that Sir Robert had run down, only to find no barge waiting. When he came off - I was officer of the watch - he said to me "Put this young man under arrest!" And he was put under arrest. Sir Robert let him off the next morning.
On 2 March, 1911 he was appointed a Naval Aide-de-Camp to King George V, in place of Bernard Currey, promoted to flag rank. He was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral on 13 July, 1912, vice Briggs.
Arbuthnot had an awesome reputation as one of the great characters of the Royal Navy, feared by many if not most, but also given grudging admiration and respect. He is generally described as a martinet who insisted on following regulations to the letter without deviation and his harsh discipline on a few occasions got him in trouble with the Admiralty. His publication A Commander's Order Book for a Mediterranean Battleship (1900), over 300 pages in length, became notorious. Nevertheless officers with distinguished careers ahead of them, such as Ernle Chatfield and Andrew Cunningham, came to respect him and the former found him a good friend. Much of this respect was due to the fact that Arbuthnot would not ask anything of anyone that he was not prepared to do himself. He was probably best remembered for his passion—some would say obsession—with physical fitness, which many thought was carried to seemingly grotesque lengths. When commander in a cruiser on the South American station he had midshipmen as part of a seven-point daily exercise run over the mast-head while he timed them with a stop-watch. As commodore in the destroyer flotilla he required ships' companies to land under arms and cover 5 miles in a set period of time. He excelled in a variety of sports and was also a passionate devotee of motorcycling. In 1908, having been given leave by the Navy, he became the first private owner to enter the Isle of Man Open Tourist Trophy ("TT"), coming in third place on a 3½ hp Triumph single. The same race was notable in being the first where an average speed of 40 mph was attained. Arbuthnot himself finished the race in 4:07:57.0 with an average speed of 38.26 mph. He asserted that only men with "guts", a quick eye and a clear mind could compete successfully in motorcycle trials - he himself competed in hillclimbing and won awards for it.
Angus Cunninghame Graham, who served in Orion as a Sub-Lieutenant, later recalled of Arbuthnot;
- Robert Arbuthnott, [sic] who had been a destroyer man, was one of the strictest disciplinarians among our senior officers. All ratings dress had to be correct to the smallest detail and officers had to wear stiff-fronted shirts and cuffs which we found to be an annoying imposition, but fortunately laundries would do them at a reasonable price in those days. Although one had to watch one's step when he was about, he was a genuine, courageous, dedicated officer who had the respect of everyone. He set great store on physical fitness, taking exercise on every occasion and inviting the midshipmen to his cabin to box with him. I was thankful to be a sub-lieutenant as boxing has never been one of my pursuits.
In the same passage Cunninghame Graham also wrote of Arbuthnot's Flag Captain, Frederic Dreyer: "He was obviously scared of his Admiral and seemed unwilling to assert his rights as a captain of his own ship in which Sir Robert was only a rather formidable lodger."
On 16 December, 1914 Arbuthnot was in a position where initiative might have achieved important results; but his rigid adherence to discipline stifled his naturally aggressive instincts and a rare opportunity was lost. The Admiralty knew from intelligence that German battle cruisers would raid the north-east coast and they attempted to spring a trap with Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty's battle cruisers and Commodore William Goodenough's First Light Cruiser Squadron supported by Sir George Warrender's dreadnought squadron. However, the Admiralty's intelligence was incomplete for they failed to realize that the high sea fleet would also be out in support and at one point the six dreadnoughts of Warrender and Arbuthnot were perilously close to fourteen dreadnoughts and eight pre-dreadnoughts. Fortunately, the Germans in the squally weather and poor visibility turned away after clashing with Warrender's advance screen of destroyers, convinced that this was the entire Grand Fleet. Warrender's squadron might have intercepted one group of German light cruisers and destroyers returning from the raid. Arbuthnot reported them in sight after noon but, despite the entreaties of his flag captain Frederic Dreyer, who had trained Orion's turrets on the leading German cruiser, refused to open fire until he had received orders from Warrender to do so. Warrender, however, merely reported the sighting and sent three armoured cruisers in pursuit. The Germans escaped and Dreyer believed from his subsequent silence over the incident that Arbuthnot regretted his rigid adherence to orders.
On 17 January, 1915, Arbuthnot left the Second Battle Squadron for command of the First Cruiser Squadron, four large but now obsolete armoured cruisers. When it was decided to form a Second Battle Cruiser Squadron in March Jellicoe recommended Arbuthnot be appointed instead of William C. Pakenham as proposed, wiring to Churchill, "He possesses Pakenham's tenacity with more brains and skill." On 11 September Jellicoe noted in a letter to the First Sea Lord, Sir Henry B. Jackson: "There is trouble in the 1st Cruiser Squadron. I put Burney on to investigate for the day. Arbuthnot is one of the finest fellows in the world, but somehow can't run a squadron. His ideals are too high & he can't leave people alone. He would be invaluable when there is fighting. I have the highest possible opinion of him & if any more flag officers are needed there [in the Fleet], I suggest sending him & breaking up his squadron between 1st [surely a mistake] & 2nd C.S's. But I will write further when I get Burney's report." On 19 October Jellicoe wrote to Jackson advising the breaking up of the First Cruiser Squadron: "All is now well in the Warrior, but I find today that Arbuthnot is still — although to a much lesser extent — centralising the work too much in himself. He does not seem able to understand the objections to this & therefore, in spite of his many fine qualities I think it as well that the change should be made."
In 1915 Arbuthnot proposed that submarines be equipped with aircraft stowed in watertight containers, a proposal which was considered by an Admiralty sub-committee. Historian R. D. Layman considered that such a suggestion refuted Marder's assertion that Arbuthnot was "without much imagination."
At the Battle of Jutland on 31 May, 1916 Arbuthnot, flying his flag in the armoured cruiser Defence, showed that this time he was not lacking in initiative. Arbuthnot's squadron had formed the starboard half of the Grand Fleet's cruiser screen and, while the fleet was deploying and Beatty's battle cruisers and the Fifth Battle Squadron were in the process of rejoining Jellicoe after their initial engagement with the German battle cruisers, Arbuthnot moved out into the space between the major fleets with three cruisers to engage the advancing German light cruisers. Unfortunately he came into close contact with the German battle cruisers and dreadnoughts, who poured a devastating fire into his cruisers. Defence blew up and sank with all hands, Warrior survived badly damaged but later sank while under tow. Exactly what Arbuthnot had been trying to accomplish has been a matter of debate ever since. Much has been made of an earlier conversation with Chatfield (then captain of the Lion) in which Arbuthnot declared his intention in battle of taking up his assigned position at the rear of the battle fleet by proceeding down the engaged rather than disengaged side, but Jellicoe's deployment to port would have eliminated the need to do this since Arbuthnot's squadron would have been close to its assigned position. He may have thought that his duty was to assist Beatty although he actually disturbed the latter's movements by interrupting his fire and causing a near collision with the Lion. He was apparently concentrating his fire on the crippled light cruiser Wiesbaden when the heavy German ships appeared. Arbuthnot's end was spectacular and, while none can deny his great gallantry, the sacrifice of his life and over a thousand of his men was unfortunate.
Seeking to explain Arbuthnot's actions in the Battle of Jutland is difficult. As Rear-Admiral in the Second Battle Squadron, Arbuthnot apparently told the crew of Orion that he would take his ships into "paint-scraping range," which is an interesting insight. His friend Ernle Chatfield wrote in his memoirs:
Many have wondered why the gallant Arbuthnot so manœuvred his squadron of armoured cruisers. The truth, I think, is this: He was an old friend of mine, we had not lost touch since my midshipman's days in the "Warspite" and had played together in the United Service Rugby team for two years. He had been Commander in the "Royal Sovereign" in the Mediterranean Fleet when I was in the "Cæsar", and Captain of the "Lord Nelson" when I was in the "Venerable". In the spring of 1916 I had lunched with him on board the "Defence" at Scapa, and had confided in him, as I had often done, my thoughts on gunnery matters. After lunch we had gone for a walk on the mainland and it was during this walk he told me how he intended to manœuvre his squadron in action.
He was stationed on one of the wings of the Battle Fleet during the "approach", as is called the period before the deployment into line of battle. But after his deployment, his squadron was stationed in rear of the battle-line. Should, therefore, the Battle Fleet deploy towards the wing on which he was stationed, it would be necessary for him to move his squadron to the opposite flank, a distance of about five miles. He could, he said, either do this by passing down the disengaged side of the Battle Fleet, which would, he felt, be a dull performance, or he could pass down on the engaged side between the two opposing Fleets. I said I thought he should go down the disengaged side. If he went between the Fleets he might find himself in a highly dangerous position, but what was even more, his smoke might well interfere with the fire of our Battle Fleet at a critical time. He was inclined to pooh-pooh both these objections, and I realised he was determined to go down between the two Fleets, which he said could only take a few minutes. He was a gallant soul; at sea and in sport nothing daunted him. He was one of those very special types that the Navy produces. He was accomplished at all games. He captained the Navy at Rugby and cricket, was a great runner and unbeatable in his prime over an obstacle course. An advocate of physical training, which he was largely responsible for introducing into the Navy; a strict disciplinarian, and difficult to serve; yet a staunch friend and without serious thought outside his duty.
When I saw the First Cruiser Squadron steaming across my bows, I recalled this conversation. His fate I had not foreseen.
A Royal Marine Light Infantry officer in Duke of Edinburgh, Lieutenant (later General Sir) Leslie C. Hollis, later recalled:
Admiral Arbuthnot, the Commander of the squadron, had made it abundantly clear in addresses to those under his command that on encountering the enemy he would press forward.
(1) that he saw the disabled Wiesbaden in such a position that he thought she might try and torpedo the Battle Cruisers and so he thought it his duty to sink her (2) that a shell may have killed all on the fore bridge so that there was no one to give the order to alter course or (3) that a shell might have destroyed the steering gear.
Hamilton himself referred in his diary to the actions of the First Cruiser Squadron as a "mad rush for the enemy the reason for which it is so difficult to understand."
It is difficult to judge what Robert Arbuthnot & all those cruisers were doing—Poor Robert—anyway I expect he died perfectly happy in a blaze of glory and gallantry.
He was posthumously appointed an Additional Member of the Military Division, or Companion, of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in the King's Birthday Honours on 3 June, 1916, which was subsequently antedated to 30 May.
On 15 September he was posthumously appointed an Additional Member of the Second Class, or Knight Commander, in the Military Division of the Order of the Bath (K.C.B.). Lady Lina Arbuthnot passed away after a long illness on 29 May 1935 at Hindhead, leaving one daughter, Mrs. Anthony John Anson. Due to a lack of entrants in 1937 the Auto-Cycle Union was forced to discontinue the Arbuthnot Trophy Trial.
- ↑ "Naval Cadetships" (News). The Times. Saturday, 30 June, 1877. Issue 28982, col A, p. 14.
- ↑ Arbuthnot Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. [Arbuthnot Service Record.] p. 249.
- ↑ Letter of 9 June, 1916. Jellicoe Papers. British Library. Add. MSS. 71556. f. 108.
- ↑ The London Gazette: no. 25507. p. 4131. 1 September, 1885.
- ↑ The Navy List (October, 1915). p. 854.
- ↑ ADM 196/87. f. 143.
- ↑ ADM 196/87. f. 143.
- ↑ ADM 196/87. f. 143.
- ↑ ADM 196/87. f. 143.
- ↑ The London Gazette: no. 26809. p. 4. 1 January, 1897.
- ↑ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 27448. p. 4198. 26 June, 1902.
- ↑ The London Gazette: no. 27650. p. 1245. 26 February, 1904.
- ↑ Mackie, Colin. ROYAL NAVY WARSHIPS.
- ↑ The Navy List (October, 1908). p. 342.
- ↑ Arbuthnot Service Record. p. 250.
- ↑ Lowis. Fabulous Admirals. p. 136.
- ↑ 17.0 17.1 Quoted in Humble. Fraser of North Cape. p. 23.
- ↑ "Naval Appointments" (Official Appointments and Notices). The Times. Monday, 13 March, 1911. Issue 39531, col E, p. 4.
- ↑ The London Gazette: no. 28627. p. 5182. 16 July, 1912.
- ↑ Isle of Man Weekly Times. 29 September, 1908. p. 4.
- ↑ "Correspondence". The Naval Review XIV (No. 1): 208.
- ↑ 22.0 22.1 Cunninghame Graham. Random Naval Recollections. p. 22.
- ↑ Dreyer. The Sea Heritage. pp. 103-104.
- ↑ ADM 196/42. f. 202.
- ↑ Telegram No. 444 of 1 March, 1915. Churchill Papers. Churchill Archives Centre. CHAR 13/62/1.
- ↑ Jackson Papers. National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth: 255/4/23.
- ↑ Jackson Papers. National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth: 255/4/29.
- ↑ Layman. Naval Aviation in the First World War. p. 38.
- ↑ Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. II. p. 442.
- ↑ McBride. p. 379.
- ↑ Chatfield. Navy and Defence. pp. 145-146.
- ↑ Hollis. p. 21.
- ↑ Diary entry for 9 June, 1916. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/106.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Keyes Papers. I. p. 365.
- ↑ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29608. p. 5553. 3 June, 1916.
- ↑ The London Gazette: no. 29618. p. 5732. 9 June, 1916.
- ↑ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29751. p. 9070. 15 September, 1916.
- ↑ "Obituaries". The Times, Thursday, 30 May, 1935; p. 18; Issue 47077; col D.
- ↑ "Royal Navy". The Times. Wednesday, 28 July, 1937. Issue 47748, col D, p. 19.
- Anon (February 1926). "Correspondence". The Naval Review XIV (No. 1): pp. 208–209.
- Arbuthnot, Commander Sir R. K., Bart., R.N. (1901). Details and Station Bill for a Battleship. Portsmouth: J. Griffin & Co.
- Arbuthnot, Rear-Admiral Sir R. K., Bart., M.V.O. (1913). Commander's Order Book for a Mediterranean Battleship. Portsmouth: Gieves's.
- Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet Alfred Ernle Montacute (1942). The Navy and Defence: The Autobiography of the Lord Chatfield Vol. I. London: William Heinemann Ltd.
- Dreyer, Admiral Sir Frederic C. (1955). The Sea Heritage: A Study of Maritime Warfare. London: Museum Press Limited.
- Hollis, General Sir Leslie (1956). One Marine's Tale. London: Andre Deutsch.
- Humble, Richard (1983). Fraser of North Cape. London: Routledge.
- Keyes, Admiral of the Fleet Roger John Brownlow, First Baron Keyes (1972). Halpern, Paul G.. ed. The Keyes Papers. Volume I. London: Navy Records Society.
- Lowis, Commander Geoffrey L. (1959). Fabulous Admirals and Some Naval Fragments. London: Putnam.
- Marder, Arthur Jacob (1965). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904–1919: 1917: The War Years to the Eve of Jutland. Volume II. London: Oxford University Press.
- McBride, Keith (1990) "The Dukes and the Warriors" Warship International (No. 4): pp. 362-393.
- "R.F.P.", "S.D.S." (February 1935). "Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Keith Arbuthnot, Bart., K.C.B., M.V.O.". The Naval Review XXIII (No. 1): pp. 107–119.
- The National Archives. ADM 196/87.
- The National Archives. ADM 196/42.
- The National Archives. ADM 196/20.
| Preceded by
Rosslyn E. Wemyss
| Rear-Admiral in the
Second Battle Squadron
1913 – 1915
| Succeeded by|
Arthur C. Leveson
| Preceded by
Sir A. Gordon H. W. Moore
| Rear-Admiral Commanding, First Cruiser Squadron
1915 – 1916
| Succeeded by|