Born in 1859 in Southampton, John Jellicoe joined the Royal Navy in 1872 as a cadet. He saw active service in Egypt in 1882 and during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. In China he was shot in the chest during the attempt to relieve the British Legation in Peking and invalided home. In 1905 he moved to the Admiralty and was appointed Director of Naval Ordnance. In 1907, he was made a rear admiral and knighted. The following year as Sir John Jellicoe, he became Third Sea Lord and in 1911 moved up to Second Sea Lord.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, he was given the acting rank of admiral and took command of the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
The Royal Navy's Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow 1916, painting by Lionel Wyllie
The First World War
Jellicoe's cautious approach during the opening years of the war was criticised by those who wanted a major battle against the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea – a 'new Trafalgar' to win the war. But a more aggressive policy was naturally a more risky one. Winston Churchill famously commented that Jellicoe was 'the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon'.
Official portrait of Lord Jellicoe, c 1925 (l) Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Jellicoe GCB OM GCVO 1918, painting by Glyn Philpot RA (r)
The Battle of Jutland
In May 1916, the British and German fleets met for the only time during the war – in an indecisive encounter at the Battle of Jutland. Although Britain lost more ships, the German fleet sustained greater damage. British claims of victory were perhaps justified by the German decision to stay in port for the remainder of the war. Nevertheless it was no Trafalgar, and Jellicoe was criticised for allowing the High Seas Fleet to escape.
In the aftermath of Jutland, Admiral David Beatty replaced Jellicoe as commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe was promoted to First Sea Lord in December 1916, but left office on 24 December 1917 after a serious disagreement with the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. In 1918 Jellicoe was made a viscount and the following year he became Admiral of the Fleet.
HMS Warspite and HMS Malaya during the Battle of Jutland
After his career in the Navy, Jellicoe served as Governor General of New Zealand from 1920 to 1924 and was made an earl.
The Royal British Legion was formed in 1921 and following the death in 1928 of the Legion's first president, Earl Haig, Jellicoe was the natural choice as his successor. He had served as Vice President since 1926 and as Haig was Army, having a naval representative was appropriate for the tri-service charity. As president he was active and unassuming, visiting as many Legion branches as he possibly could while always taking care to minimise any costs to the Legion's purse. He continued in the role of president until he resigned due to ill health in 1932.
Nick Jellicoe, grandson of Lord Jellicoe, said: "At first he was reluctant to take the position because, in the light of the huge losses on the ground of the First World War, he felt that it might be more suited to someone from the Army rather than the Navy. However, it was quite clear that it was nothing to do with which service he came from; it was much more to do with his commitment as a person. He took it as a very personal responsibility and duty – these people had given their all and he would try to give his utmost back to the Legion.”
His straightforward manner had endeared him to Legion members and he was made Vice Patron.
Lord Jellicoe died on 20 November 1935 at age 76. His body is interred beside the body of Horatio Nelson in St Paul's Cathedral, London.