"Rosy Wemyss, Admiral of the Fleet: the Man who created Armistice Day" by John Johnson-Allen is a simply outstanding biography of a man whose abilities and achievements deserve to be much better recognised than they are. Well-written and superbly-researched, this is a book that successfully brings to life both its subject and the world he lived in.
Admiral of the Fleet Rosslyn Erskine Wemyss, 1st Baron Wester Wemyss, GCB, CMG, MVO was known throughout the Royal Navy as "Rosy" and it seems fitting that's the name he's known by in the title of this book. He was born into the Wemyss family, whose ancestral seat is at Wemyss Castle in Fife, overlooking the Firth of Forth.
Rosslyn Wemyss joined the Navy at the age of 13 in 1877, at the same time as Prince George, the younger son of the Prince of Wales, and they became lifelong friends. After they left Dartmouth they joined their first ship together and sailed around the world for the next two years. In his early career, this friendship found him posted to serve on two ships for Royal Tours abroad and on two of the Royal Yachts. In 1915, by then a Rear Admiral, he was sent to create a naval base at Mudros, to serve the Gallipoli campaign and was in command of the landings and then the evacuation of all the troops. The evacuation was so successful that only one man was lost from the approximately 140,000 who were taken off the beaches.
From there, he was sent to Port Said to command the East Indies and Red Sea Station. For the next 18 months, the main thrust of his command was supporting the Arab Revolt and helping T.E. Lawrence and the Arabs, under Emir Feisal, to oust the Turks from all the ports on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. Without his support, the Arab Revolt would have collapsed and the legend of Lawrence of Arabia would not have been created. In 1917 he returned to the United Kingdom to become Deputy First Sea Lord, stepping up to the post of First Sea Lord at the end of the year.
We were very struck by the conclusion of the foreword to this book, written by a former first sea lord: "This book shows clearly that in many ways Wemyss was more a naval officer of the 21st century than of the 19th into which he had been born." That sums the man up well. To a generation brought up in the belief that British military leadership in the First World War was encapsulated by the phrase "lions led by donkeys" it's something of a revelation to read of a man whose quiet efficiency seems to have been untainted by excesses of ambition or ego. The report he wrote of the evacuations he oversaw in Gallipoli - an extremely well managed conclusion to a disastrous campaign - is fascinating reading.
We were also very struck by the accounts, written by both Wemyss himself and a member of his staff, of the proceedings of the discussions that brought about a cessation of hostilities in World War One on 11 November 1918.