- Cowman, Ian, Dr
- History - general, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
“The position of the Naval Board has not been satisfactory for some time …. On my taking office I soon discovered that this essential harmony was entirely absent, personal friction, and, indeed, hostility, existing in its stead, and these had assumed such proportions that the members as a whole were not on speaking terms, apart from the intercourse necessary for the discharge of official duties….I became convinced of the futility of peace so far as Hughes-Onslow was concerned…
It is not the right of any officer to dictate to the Government as to whom it should employ, or whom it should cease to employ….
His personal demeanour; his attitude at the Board as witnessed by myself; the impossibility of carrying on any business at the table owing to his excitable temperament, unless I was prepared to spend half my time trying to prevent a row….
It was only as a last resort that I took action, when Captain Hughes-Onslow wrote several minutes which were offensive, not to me, but to his colleagues on the Naval Board.“1
With such words Senator Edward Millen, Australian Minister for Defence, sought to explain to Parliament why on the 2 October 1913 it had been necessary to dismiss the Second Naval Member of the Royal Australian Navy from its official governing body, the Naval Board, and to terminate his appointment by an Order in Council. The action seemed all the more shocking – for the parent-client relationship between the fledgling, newly independent, but still essentially colonial Australia and the Mother Country meant worshipful admiration in many quarters of all that was British, and there was already an overwhelming emphasis if not dependence on British expertise within the Royal Australian Navy itself. Less than half the personnel were actually Australian, and the vast majority of command positions were held by Royal Navy officers. Of some 2,244 officers and ratings listed in 1913, 763 were on loan directly from the Royal Navy, 357 were from other Imperial navies, 461 came from Imperial services other than the Navy, and 663 were locally recruited.2
The Governor-General Lord Denman in his correspondence summarising the dispute provided the clearest view of the ‘official’ position when he wrote to British authorities:
…the more I hear from outside sources the more I am convinced that Senator Millen was amply justified in terminating Captain Hughes-Onslow’s appointment. Since I came here I have done what I could socially and in other ways for R.N. officers who have taken service in the Royal Australian Navy. I have given some assistance to Rear Admiral Sir George Patey, as I think he himself would admit. I should have been glad to have found any excuses for Captain Hughes-Onslow but it seems to me that it is his own temperament which has been the cause of the difficulties in which he has been involved.3
As far as the Governor- General was concerned the dismissal had been brought about directly because of ‘the latter’s rudeness and overbearing conduct, which had split the Navy Board, for the fourth member, Captain Clarkson, had been inclined to side with Captain Hughes-Onslow.‘ The effect of this split had ‘jeopardised the administration of the Department‘:
From what I have learned of this matter in conversation with my Ministers, from other sources and from my own observation, I have come to the conclusion that Captain Hughes-Onslow is in many respects a capable man with a good knowledge of his work and sound ideas, but he so entirely lacks tact and discretion, and ability to work with other people, that it was quite impossible for the Navy Board to carry on its duties with him as a member. Captain Hughes-Onslow’s services were terminated by an Order in Council.
In my opinion the Minister was justified in dispensing with Captain Onslow’s services, though possibly his method of doing so may be open to criticism.’4
Captain Hughes-Onslow’s own opinions about the dismissal were as equally damning if not more vitriolic:
‘I came to Australia under a definite agreement for two years, and I have been officially garrotted because I would not allow myself to be maligned, and because I would not connive in defrauding the personnel, so as to curry favour with the Minister and enable the Estimates to be cut down …. all constitutional practice and all idea of justice has been grossly violated… .The privilege of Parliament has never been more scandalously and flagrantly abused…. I have been practically represented as a hooligan, unfit for official life and summarily dismissed ….I have made formal requests and one demand for an enquiry, but they have all been refused, because the facts will not bear investigation from the ministerial point of view.’ 5