Brett, Reginald Baliol, second Viscount Esher 1852-1930, government official, was born in London 30 June 1852, the elder son of William Baliol Brett, afterwards first Viscount Esher [qv.], master of the Rolls, by his wife, Eugénie, daughter of Louis Mayer, an Alsatian. His mother, a step-daughter of Colonel John Gurwood [qv.], the editor of Wellington's dispatches, belonged to the D'Orsay-Blessington circle and also had influential friends in Paris. Reginald Brett was educated at Eton, where A. C. Ainger was his tutor, and where he came under the influence of William Johnson Cory [qv.], and at Trinity College, Cambridge. At both he made important friendships and developed social as well as political and literary interests. In 1879 he married Eleanor, third daughter of Sylvain Van de Weyer, the Belgian minister in London, who was a close friend of Queen Victoria.
As private secretary to the Marquess of Hartington for seven years (1878-1885), the last three of them spent at the War Office, Brett lived in a society which still retained something of the Disraeli atmosphere; knowing everybody, handling confidential affairs touching great men, freely suggesting ideas and actions to ministers, generals, viceroys, and in touch also with literature and the stage. In 1880 he was elected to parliament in the liberal interest as one of the members for Penryn and Falmouth, but at the general election of 1885 he unsuccessfully contested Plymouth and never stood again. Maintaining his friendships, Brett withdrew to Orchard Lea near Windsor Forest, where he was admitted to the queen's private circle; entertained, wrote some minor books, mainly biographical, kept for a time a small racing stable and breeding stud, shot, and fished. But sport was never his passion, and after ten rather aimless years the civil service attracted him. In 1895 his school friend Lord Rosebery, then prime minister, after Brett had refused to enter diplomacy, made him secretary of the Office of Works. He showed such practical talents in improving the domestic arrangements of the royal residences and in superintending the diamond jubilee of 1897 (in which year he was made C.B.) that the queen held him to his post when he succeeded his father as second viscount in 1899, and again, when, in 1900, he was offered the permanent under-secretaryship at the War Office. Esher had already (1899) refused the same post at the Colonial Office under Mr. Chamberlain, and the governorship of Cape Colony, declining to work in leading-strings. The queen created him K.C.V.O. in December 1900 just before her death. After so long a reign, memories of a sovereign's funeral and coronation were dim; he mastered the precedents, and took charge of both ceremonies with complete success.
Queen Victoria had made Esher one of her intimate friends, and she often visited Orchard Lea informally. King Edward VII gave him close friendship and wider scope, in connexion with the new civil list, as secretary of the committee of the Queen Victoria Memorial fund, as deputy constable and lieutenant-governor of Windsor Castle (1901), and as editor, in collaboration with Arthur Christopher Benson [qv.], of Selections from the Correspondence of Queen Victoria (1907). Esher also published The Girlhood of Queen Victoria in 1912. Whatever he touched succeeded, and the king's confidence seemed boundless.
In the universal anxiety about the state of the army, its reform became with Esher an obsession. He saw that the key to it lay in the rejected proposals of the Hartington commission of 1890: viz. no commander-in-chief, a War-Office council on the Admiralty model, and an inspector-general; and he at once sought the ear of the king. He retired from the Office of Works and was created K.C.B. in 1902. In the same year he was made a member of the royal commission appointed, under the chairmanship of the ninth Earl of Elgin [qv.], to inquire into the military preparations for and conduct of the South African War. Esher commented on the commission's proceedings in daily letters to the king, who by the end of the year had accepted his views. Although general War Office reform was outside the commission's reference, Esher appended to its report (July 1903) a note formulating his proposals. The prime minister, Mr. Balfour, Esher's lifelong friend, assured of the king's support, definitely approved the policy without further debate, and asked Esher to become secretary of state for war in order to carry it through. Esher would not re-enter politics, but proposed to do the work as chairman of a prime minister's committee, independent of the secretary of state about to be appointed, Mr. Arnold-Forster. The War Office Reconstruction Committee, generally known as the Esher Committee, was set up accordingly, with Admiral Sir John (afterwards Baron) Fisher [qv.] and Colonel Sir George Clarke (formerly secretary of the Hartington commission, and afterwards Baron Sydenham) as members and Lieutenant-Colonel (afterwards Lieutenant-General Sir) Gerald Ellison as secretary. On 11 January 1904, a fortnight after Clarke's return from the governorship of Victoria, Part I of the Report proposed in outline the creation of an Army Council on Admiralty lines, and an inspector-general of the forces. The Committee would go no further until this had been accepted. That done, and the Council formally constituted (6 February), it produced in quick succession Parts II (26 February) and III (9 March), containing detailed proposals, claiming that they followed logically from the action already taken, and insisting that the Report should be accepted as an organic whole, without any alteration. It was, in fact, approved as it stood. It made two important improvements on Esher's note, namely, the provision of a permanent naval and military secretariat for Mr. Balfour's Committee of Imperial Defence, on which political and service chiefs sat together under the prime minister, and the creation of a General Staff for the army. With the internal working of the War Office (of which Esher's experience was out of date and the other members had none) the Committee dealt less successfully, and many of its recommendations, designed to remove financial control, were founded on errors of fact, and after due trial abandoned within five years. Esher's note had put the adjutant-general first of the military members of the newly-formed Army Council, and the director-general of military intelligence, head of an incomplete thinking department, last. The Committee created a chief of the general staff, ranking first, charged with everything pertaining to operations of war and to training, and furnishing to commanders, in war and peace, staffs trained in such duties. This all-important change was a complete reversal of recent War Office evolution, in which peace and personal considerations had destroyed system. Under the Duke of Cambridge (who commanded in chief 1856-1895) the adjutant-general, as his chief staff officer, had been allowed to swallow whole the surveyor-general (Lord Cardwell's business head) and to eat the quartermaster-general (Wellington's right-hand man) leaf by leaf, that empty title being transferred to a soldier purveyor of transport and supplies. Operations had dropped out of sight. In the field, similarly, there had been a factotum chief staff officer; no clear line had been drawn between command and the business of supply; and no organized operations staff had existed. Accustomed in India to a quartermaster-general, in Wellington's sense of the term, at the head of the operations staff, and to an adjutant-general dealing with personnel and discipline, Lord Roberts [qv.] had been shocked to find this state of things prevailing in South Africa. At the War Office, therefore, on becoming commander-in-chief (1901), he had overruled opposition and ordered the preparation of a staff manual on Wellingtonian lines. Colonel Ellison, who had worked out the ground-plan of this under Roberts's orders before being appointed secretary to the Esher Committee, produced it to the Committee, which adopted it entire and distributed War Office duties accordingly, only changing the title of Roberts's quartermaster-general to that of chief of the general staff. Thus Esher's uncompromising dictatorship combined with Roberts's initiative to produce a true General Staff which, expanded later by Lord Haldane [qv.] into the Imperial General Staff, embracing India and the Dominions, built up the armies of the British Empire during the European War of 1914-1918.
His committee dissolved, Esher joined the Committee of Imperial Defence in its search for an improved army system, becoming a permanent member of it in 1905, just before political changes transferred the secretaryship of state for war to Lord Haldane. His support of Lord Fisher's case for a stronger navy brought upon him a personal attack by Kaiser Wilhelm II. A conscriptionist, Esher yet saw that the voluntary system must have full trial, and he gave Haldane invaluable support in his army reforms, commending them to the king as the best work accomplished since Cardwell's secretaryship (1868-1874); and he became the very active chairman (1909-1913) and later (1912-1921) president of the London County Territorial Force Association. His position at this period is perhaps best described as liaison between king and ministers. He gave advice freely, but all action was taken constitutionally by the responsible minister. Neither Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's succession as prime minister in December 1905 nor the accession of King George V in May 1910 caused any interruption of this relation.
An admirable committee man, Esher was in great demand for boards such as those of the British Museum (of which he was a king's trustee), the Imperial College of Science (of which he was governor), and the Wallace Collection; but after two years' trial of haute finance in the City he abandoned it as uncongenial (1904). He was created G.C.V.O. (1905) and G.C.B. (1908), sworn a privy councillor (1922), and appointed keeper of the king's archives (1910) and governor and constable of Windsor Castle (1928); but he refused the viceroyship of India in 1908 and an earldom at some date not known to his family. From September 1914 onwards he was in France on a confidential mission, at the request of Lord Kitchener, subsequently renewed by Mr. Asquith and by Mr. Lloyd George. The documents relating to it remain under seal in the British Museum until 1981 together with Esher's diaries for the first half of the War and other papers, but it is known that in 1917-1918 he was present at conferences with French ministers on military matters.
After the return of peace in 1919, Esher devoted much time to literature and published some more biographical books, including Ionicus (1923), an informal biography of William Johnson Cory. He died suddenly 22 January 1930 at his London house, leaving a widow, two sons, and two daughters. His family life was peculiarly happy, and, in particular, his relations with his younger son, Maurice, even while at Eton, as revealed in Esher's published Journals and Letters, were rather those of a brother than a father. He was succeeded as third viscount by his elder son, Oliver Sylvain Baliol (born 1881).
Inheriting marked ability, great social gifts, and influential connexions, Esher possessed all the qualifications for success in public life except the conviction that it was worth while. The first Viscount Esher had been spurred, by love and by lack of independent means, to set his foot on the path that led him to professional eminence; the second, whose dislike of the dust of the arena outweighed his liking for power, might have returned to the earlier Brett tradition of enjoying life as it came, without effort, had not his association with the royal family pointed a way to the power without the dust, and justified him in recording, when refusing the viceroyalty, that, with his opportunity of influencing vital decisions at the centre, India for him would be (it sounds vain, but it isn't) parochial. This influence he exercised behind a curtain, seeking neither personal advancement nor the interests of a political party, but only the public good as he saw it—and his vision was acute. His work on the committee which goes by his name and his effective backing of Lord Haldane's army reforms at a critical juncture made no mean contribution to the Allied victory of 1918.
There are three portraits of Lord Esher at Watlington Park, Oxfordshire, painted by Julian Storey, Edmund Brock, and Glyn Philpot in or about 1885, 1905, and 1925 respectively.
Maurice V. Brett, Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher (to 1910), 2 vols., 1934;
C. H. Dudley Ward, A Romance of the Nineteenth Century, 1923;
Sir Gerald Ellison, Lord Roberts and the General Staff, in the Nineteenth Century, December 1932;
Contributor: C. Harris.