The Progress of the Dardanelles Plan—Failure of other Alternatives—Change in Lord Fisher’s View—The Strength of the Grand Fleet—Minutes—Lord Fisher’s Memorandum of January 25—The Russian Reply about the Dardanelles—My Memorandum of January 27—Increasing Strength of the Grand Fleet—Its Legitimate Task—Interview with the Prime Minister—The War Council of January 28—General Support for the Dardanelles Plan—Lord Fisher’s Behaviour—His Final Consent—Pressure and Reluctance—The Extent of the Admiralty Commitment—The Passive Hypothesis.
Up to about January 20 there seemed to be unanimous agreement in favour of the naval enterprise against the Dardanelles. War Office, Foreign Office, Admiralty seemed by their representatives to be equally in earnest. The War Council had taken its decision. It is true it was not a final or irrevocable decision. It authorized and encouraged the Admiralty to survey their resources and develop their plans. If these plans broke down in preparation, it would be quite easy for us to report the fact to the War Council and go no farther. But the staff work continued to progress smoothly, and all the Admirals concerned appeared in complete accord. It was not until the end of January, when negotiations with the French and Russian Governments were far advanced, when many preparations had been made, when many orders had been given and when many ships were moving with his full authority, that Lord Fisher began to manifest an increasing dislike and opposition to the scheme.
Meanwhile the possibilities of a British naval offensive or of amphibious action in Northern waters were becoming continually more remote. Correspondence with Sir John Jellicoe showed the Commander-in-Chief averse from anything in the nature of an attack upon Borkum or an attempt to enter the Baltic. To strengthen our naval forces by every conceivable means, to add every new vessel to the Grand Fleet and to remain in an attitude of inactive expectancy was the sum and substance of the naval policy advocated from this quarter. At the same time the opposition of General Joffre to Sir John French’s plans for an advance in force along the Belgian coast brought that project also to an end. It was clear that no serious naval offensive would take place in the Northern theatre for an indefinite period, and that any plans which might gradually be perfected for such an offensive would derive no encouragement from the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet.
All this made me only the more anxious to act in the Mediterranean. That seemed to be the direction reserved for our surplus ships and ammunition, by the failure or postponement of other alternatives. It was the only direction in which we had a practical plan, properly worked out by the staff, and supported by a powerful consensus of naval and political opinion.
were to be assigned to the Mediterranean theatre, he began to dwell again upon the weakness of his fleet and the insufficiency of his margins. And now for the first time he found a ready listener in the First Sea Lord. Lord Fisher’s sudden dislike of the Dardanelles project seemed to arise at this time largely and even primarily from his reluctance to undertake the bombardment and blocking in of Zeebrugge. This operation appeared all the more necessary now that the Army had abandoned their intention of the coastal advance. It was strongly urged by the War Council, by the Admiralty Staff and especially by Sir Arthur Wilson. ‘If we do not block the Zeebrugge canal,’ Sir Arthur had written on January 4, ‘I think we shall inevitably lose more ships and also many transports. If we had done it last time we bombarded, we should not have lost Formidable. We cannot keep ships entirely locked up in harbour without deterioration. So far very few of our losses have been incurred while the ships have been employed in any active operations.’ I was in cordial agreement with this doctrine. Ultimately, as every one knows, the blocking of Zeebrugge had to be carried out under circumstances of infinitely greater difficulty and after we had suffered grievous injury. The First Sea Lord, finding himself entirely alone on the question, became very much disturbed. His dislike of the Zeebrugge operation was extended not only to the Dardanelles plan, but to all plans of naval attack on hostile coasts which were not combined with large land forces, and ultimately he expressed opinions which seemed opposed to any form of naval intervention in any quarter. This was a great change, at variance both with his earlier and later attitudes, and I was concerned to observe it.
Lord Fisher’s arguments did not take the form of criticizing the details of either operation in question. He did not, for instance, deal with the gunnery aspects of the Dardanelles, or with any purely technical aspect, in regard to which any valid argument would have had to be met, or the plan abandoned. It was about the safety of the Grand Fleet and its margin of superiority that he now professed to be seriously perturbed. This was a subject with which I was extremely familiar. Had we not been two months before over the whole ground together in the discussions of November with the Commander-in-Chief? There was no real substance in the apprehensions with which I was now confronted. An important fact however lay behind them. Lord Fisher had on reflection, on second thoughts, on some prompting or other, turned against the operation which he had hitherto willingly supported. Nevertheless matters had moved forward to a point where mere vague misgivings could not be allowed to paralyse action. Good reasoning or new facts were required. It was not as if the Carden plan involved any great hazard or cost. As long as it was adhered to, losses must be limited and the operation could be broken off at any moment. Meanwhile the demonstration would give the Grand Duke the help he so sorely needed, and would influence the situation in the Balkans. It was in this light that I dealt with the Grand Fleet question in the following minutes which arose in the first instance over the need of providing Vice-Admiral Carden with at least one battle-cruiser to counter the Goeben.
January 19, 1915.
First Sea Lord.
I have been looking into the question of the Grand Fleet, in view of the attached telegram [from the Commander-in-Chief]. Since the war began, Commander-in-Chief has lost Audacious, and has gained Erin, Agincourt, Emperor of India, Benbow, Tiger and Indomitable. He has, therefore, 5 more Dreadnoughts, including four of the most powerful afloat, than he had at the outset.
To-day’s Pink List shows that after Superb has gone, he has 21 Dreadnought battleships. Monarch is ready to rejoin, making 22. He has 5 battle-cruisers available now that Queen Mary is refitting, making 27 Dreadnoughts to a maximum German possible 21. On this line of battle his broadside is much more than double that of the enemy. In addition, he has 7 out of the 8 ‘King Edwards.’ His Second Cruiser Squadron is quite unmatched on the enemy’s side.
In addition to the above, he has recently been reinforced by Warrior, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh, Leviathan, and Donegal. He has had his light cruisers increased by Gloucester, Yarmouth, Galatea, and Caroline; while since the beginning of the war the enemy have lost Magdeburg, Köln, Mainz, to say nothing of Yorck and Ariadne. He is about to be reinforced further by Minotaur, Defence, Hampshire, Cumberland, and the whole of the First Destroyer Flotilla, with the light cruiser Fearless. He has altogether at present under his orders 70 destroyers and 3 destroyer leaders, of which 56 are fit for service and 14 refitting. Altogether he has now available for service 23 cruisers and light cruisers, and 6 refitting. Moreover, the whole of the commerce blockade has been taken off his hands by the addition to his force of 23 armed merchant cruisers and 8 boarding vessels.
In these circumstances his telegram attached… ought certainly not to affect our dispositions.
It is of the greatest possible importance that the Indefatigable should have her defects attended to at once, and that Admiral Carden should have a few days at Malta to make various preparations for the work entrusted to him. Inflexible is the only ship that can promptly relieve him, and I certainly think she ought to do this as arranged.
Australia has been diverted from Gibraltar, and will carry out repairs to her propeller at home. She will therefore be available in home waters.
W. S. C.
January 20, 1915.
First Sea Lord.
You seem to have altered your views, since taking office, about the relative strengths of the British and German Grand and High Sea Fleets. In November you advised the removal of Princess Royal, Inflexible, and Invincible, together with 8 ‘King Edwards’ and 5 ‘Duncans,’ a total of 16 capital ships, from the Grand Fleet, some for temporary duties of importance, but the battleships for permanent service in the south. The dispositions were carried out. Since then the Commander-in-Chief has received back the 8 ‘King Edwards’ and the Princess Royal; he has gained the Indomitable; he has received the Warrior, Duke of Edinburgh, Black Prince, Gloucester, Yarmouth, Caroline, Galatea, Donegal and Leviathan, together with 16 destroyers additional, and, I think, about 50 extra trawlers and yachts. These are immense additions to his strength, and I know of no new circumstances which have arisen or of reinforcements which have reached the enemy which ought to make us anxious now if we were not anxious before these great additions reached Sir John Jellicoe.
However, in view of your minute and of the importance of reassuring the Commander-in-Chief so far as possible, it seems to me that the following arrangements might be made:—
1. The 1st Destroyer Flotilla to join the Grand Fleet as soon as Penelope and Inconstant arrive at Harwich. (We cannot allow our forces there to be reduced till we are powerless even to reconnoitre the enemy.)
2. Galatea, Caroline, Cordelia and Phaeton to form a new Light Cruiser Squadron for the Grand Fleet as soon as possible.
3. The 1st Cruiser Squadron to be retained by the Commander-in-Chief until the new Light Cruiser Squadron has been formed.
4. I cannot understand his complaint about Hannibal and Magnificent. These vessels have been asked for to prevent barrier-breaking ships approaching the booms, and as defences against destroyer attack. The 6-inch guns of the Crescent and Royal Arthur, now on their way North, are ample for this purpose, and there can be no need whatever for 12-inch-gun ships in those positions. The Commander-in-Chief’s views about the complements should, however, be met, the complements strengthened accordingly, and the two present captains of the Magnificent and Hannibal transferred to the new vessels.
5. As soon as convenient, the 2 ‘Lord Nelsons’ and the 6 remaining ‘Formidables,’ forming the 5th Battle Squadron, should be transferred from Portland to Rosyth, where they could set the 3rd Battle Squadron free to rejoin the Commander-in-Chief at Scapa or Cromarty….
6. [already printed in preceding chapter.]
7. The refit of Invincible should be accelerated to the utmost. The necessary additional fitters asked for should be sent from home to Gibraltar. The Inflexible can sail for home on February 12. Australia can stand by to reinforce the Grand Fleet in case of a casualty until either Invincible or Inflexible has got home.
I hope you will consider that these measures meet the case put forward in your minute.
W. S. C.
Lord Fisher accepted these arrangements but returned to the charge on the question of destroyers, admittedly our weakest point.
January 20, 1915.
As you rightly say, it is of the highest importance to reassure the Commander-in-Chief. I would like on his behalf [in accordance with his views] so frequently reiterated to me, to press for the return of Blenheim and Destroyer Flotilla from Dardanelles, replacing them by French destroyers. The whole Turkish naval force is quite a negligible quantity even with German officers (with the Goeben knocked out, as we know her to be!), and therefore French destroyers and French submarines, if more are wanted, should be called upon. The Australian submarine ought to come home to the much required submarine duties in the North Sea. I understand she is the best we have and [it is] therefore inexcusable to waste her on the Turks.
I could not agree to this, as of course it would have paralysed the Dardanelles Fleet and destroyed the plans which the staff were maturing. At the same time Sir Arthur Wilson continued to press for action against Zeebrugge in pursuance of his minute of January 4.
This double pressure brought matters to a head.
January 25, 1915.
I have no desire to continue a useless resistance in the War Council to plans I cannot concur in, but I would ask that the enclosed may be printed and circulated to its members before the next meeting.
MEMORANDUM BY THE FIRST SEA LORD ON THE POSITION OF THE BRITISH FLEET AND ITS POLICY OF STEADY PRESSURE.
January 25, 1915.
At recent meetings of the War Council projects have been discussed for joint naval and military operations against places on the coast as well as for similar operations by the Navy alone. Up to the present, however, no clear statement has been made at the War Council as to what our naval policy in this war is to be. Some statement of principle appears a fundamental necessity to any decision in regard to naval action against coast fortifications.
Our naval policy must be regulated by that of the enemy. It is the policy of Germany to avoid a decision at sea and to keep the command in dispute as long as possible while they concentrate their offensive powers on the army ashore. This defensive attitude has been adopted deliberately, notwithstanding that it has involved the sacrifice of the whole of the German mercantile shipping and oversea trade, and has subjected Germany for six months to the whole pressure of our sea power. This tremendous sacrifice has been imposed on Germany by two causes: first by her numerical inferiority to our fleet; and second because an unsuccessful action and the destruction of the High Sea Fleet might place Germany in a position of naval inferiority to Russia and expose the Baltic coast to invasion; and since the time of Frederick the Great, Germany has always been nervous of this flank, but on this subject I have presented another paper.
The deliberate adoption of the defensive, being contrary to the tradition of German military policy, and involving such sacrifices and losses, must be most galling to the German people. They only await a favourable moment to pass from the defensive to the offensive. They have already endeavoured without success to scatter our naval strength by attacks on our trade, and not much more successfully to reduce our main strength by submarines and mines.
Of all strategical attitudes that of a naval defensive as adopted by Germany is the most difficult to meet and the most deeply fraught with danger for the opposing belligerent, if he is weak ashore as we are, and his enemy strong ashore as Germany is. Nevertheless, all through our history we have had to encounter similar situations. The policy of the French in nearly all our naval wars was the policy which Germany has now adopted. Our reply to-day must be the same as our reply was then, namely, to be content to remain in possession of our command of the sea, husbanding our strength until the gradual pressure of sea power compels the enemy’s fleet to make an effort to attack us at a disadvantage.
In the Seven Years’ War the French preserved their fleet from a decision for five years. Nelson was off Toulon for two years. By comparison, the six months during which Sir John Jellicoe has had to wait are short, and they have been relieved by incidents which have considerably diminished the enemy’s forces.
The pressure of sea power to-day is probably not less but greater and more rapid in action than in the past; but it is still a slow process and requires great patience. In time it will almost certainly compel the enemy to seek a decision at sea, particularly when he begins to realize that his offensive on land is broken. This is one reason for husbanding our resources. Another reason is that the prolongation of war at sea tends to raise up fresh enemies for the dominant naval power in a much higher degree than it does on land owing to the exasperation of neutrals. This tendency will only be checked by the conviction of an overwhelming naval supremacy behind the nation exercising sea power.
We play into Germany’s hands if we risk fighting ships in any subsidiary operations such as coastal bombardments or the attack of fortified places without military co-operation, for we thereby increase the possibility that the Germans may be able to engage our fleet with some approach to equality of strength. The sole justification of coastal bombardments and attacks by the fleet on fortified places, such as the contemplated prolonged bombardment of the Dardanelles Forts by our fleet, is to force a decision at sea, and so far and no farther can they be justified.
So long as the German High Sea Fleet preserves its present great strength and splendid gunnery efficiency, so long is it imperative and indeed vital that no operation whatever should be undertaken by the British Fleet, calculated to impair its present superiority, which is none too great in view of the heavy losses already experienced in valuable ships, and in valuable officers and men, whose places cannot be filled in the period of the war (in which respect the Navy differs so materially from the Army). Even the older ships should not be risked, for they cannot be lost without losing men and they form our only reserve behind the Grand Fleet.
Ours is the supreme necessity and difficulty of remaining passive except in so far as we can force the enemy to abandon his defensive and to expose his fleet to a general action. In the French wars we aimed at this by cutting off the enemy’s trade, and by joint naval and military operations against his territory.
We are already to a great extent carrying out the first method. To cut off the enemy’s trade we ought to aim at a complete closing of the North Sea, and the declaration of a blockade. The machinery of a blockade is already established and maintained between Scilly and Ushant, and between the Hebrides and Norway. It is remarkable and beyond all praise and admiration how our patrols have, in the furious gales that have continuously raged all this winter, so completely blocked the passages into the North Sea as to identify every steamer that has sailed from foreign ports for the North Sea. Difficulties with neutrals and adherence to an obsolete international law based on the conditions of a century ago, and quite inapplicable to technical developments of modern naval warfare, have alone prevented us from declaring an actual blockade.
The second method of forcing the fleet out, that is to say, by attacks on the enemy’s territory, is difficult. Attacks on German colonies are not sufficient to tempt it out and joint operations against continental Germany are impracticable in view of the enemy’s strength in submarines.
It has been said that the first function of the British Army is to assist the fleet in obtaining command of the sea. This might be accomplished by military co-operation with the Navy in such operations as the attack of Zeebrugge or the forcing of the Dardanelles, which might bring out the German and Turkish fleets respectively. Apparently, however, this is not to be. The English Army is apparently to continue to provide a small sector of the allied front in France, where it no more helps the Navy than if it were at Timbuctoo.
Being already in possession of all that a powerful fleet can give a country we should continue quietly to enjoy the advantage without dissipating our strength in operations that cannot improve the position.
This paper was not, I think, except for the last few characteristic sentences, Lord Fisher’s own composition. It had been prepared in accordance with his directions. It was, of course, absolutely counter to all my convictions. No one, certainly, wished to ‘dissipate our strength in operations that cannot improve the position.’ To write thus was to beg the question. But the naval policy emerging from its last sentence would have condemned us to complete inactivity. It was no doubt the policy pursued by the Commander-in-Chief and the Admiralty after I quitted office. It was the policy which led directly to the supreme submarine peril in 1917.
Meanwhile on the 26th arrived the Russian reply to my telegram informing the Grand Duke of the Dardanelles plans. Sir Edward Grey forwarded it to me with the following remarks:—
‘This is the Russian reply about Dardanelles. It shows that, though Russia cannot help, the operation has her entire goodwill and the Grand Duke attaches the greatest importance to its success.
‘This fact may be used with Augagneur to show that we must go ahead with it and that failure to do so will disappoint Russia and react most unfavourably upon the military situation, about which France and we are specially concerned just now….’
Sir George Buchanan to Sir Edward Grey.
January 25, 1915.
General Williams has sent me memorandum by Grand Duke to the following effect on proposed operations against Dardanelles:—
Memorandum begins by stating appeal to Allies for help was made because H.I. Highness was determined not to weaken forces operating against Germans and Austrians. Appeal was not accompanied by any suggestion as to the method of execution as Russia had not the means of directly assisting in carrying out a plan of action against Turkey.
Russian Dreadnoughts were not finished; they had no submarines of modern type and only an insufficient number of swift Destroyers. Their Fleet was therefore not more than equal of Turkish Fleet and that only when all the ships were together. Russian ships only carry four days’ coal and coaling at sea in the Black Sea was rendered impossible in the winter by bad weather. The nearest Russian Base was moreover 24 hours from the entrance of the Bosphorus. Guns of the Bosphorus batteries as compared both in number and power with those placed in Russian ships were such as to give little hope of a successful attack by the latter.
Reinforcement of Black Sea Squadron by Dreadnought Imperatritza Marie, by submarines of modern type, and by Destroyers would of course change all this; but these reinforcements would not be completed until the month of May.
The most effective assistance which could be given to Allied Fleet after forcing of Straits would be for Russia to land troops. This was, however, impossible as it would necessitate at least two Army Corps being withdrawn from the principal theatre of war. This was, memorandum continues, clear and truthful statement of Russia’s position, and of the reasons which prevented her from helping the Allies, great as was her desire to do so.
Memorandum concludes by stating in opinion of the Grand Duke any military action against Turkey of the kind contemplated would be bound to have important results for the Allied cause. It could not be hoped to crush Turkey in the Caucasus—even capture of Erzerum would not effect object. But a successful attack against Turkey would react on the principal enemy (German) line; it would paralyse Turkey; and would infallibly be a deciding factor in determining the attitude of neutral States in the Balkans.
In forwarding me above memorandum, General Williams stated in conversation with himself the Grand Duke had spoken in very much the same sense as above, but that H.I. Highness had strongly emphasized telling effect which successful carrying out of operations contemplated would have on Turkey and Balkans.
I now addressed myself to the First Sea Lord’s paper which I forwarded to the Prime Minister with the following reply, of which I sent Lord Fisher a copy.
MEMORANDUM BY THE FIRST LORD.
January 27, 1915.
The main principle of the First Sea Lord’s paper is indisputable. The foundation of our naval policy is the maintenance in a secure position of a Battle Fleet with all ancillary vessels capable at any time of defeating the German High Sea Fleet in battle, and reserved for that purpose above and before all other duties. This principle has been and will be fully and strictly observed.
The ships engaged in Sunday’s action [the Dogger Bank] on both sides represented very fairly, so far as individual quality is concerned, the classes of vessels which would be opposed in a general fleet action. The event proved that a superiority of 5 to 4 in our favour is decisive. On these terms the German ships thought of nothing but retreat, and the British of attack. Very heavy loss was inflicted upon the Germans: one ship was sunk out of 4, and 2 other ships most severely damaged. Had the action been fought out, the destruction of the others was certain.
We are now no longer in the region of mere speculation. The relative qualities of seamanship and gunnery of the two sides have been put to the test and reveal no inferiority on our part, while the superiority of the 13.5-inch gun and the effect of heavier metal generally has now been shown. There is therefore every reason to believe that the best 21 British battleships and battle-cruisers could defeat decisively at even numbers the 21 German Dreadnoughts. Any British ships additional to this number must be regarded as an insurance against unexpected losses by mine and torpedo.
On the declaration of war the maximum numbers available in Home Waters on both sides were: Great Britain, 24+2 ‘Lord Nelsons’; Germany, 21. Since then the following capital units have joined the Fleet: Queen Elizabeth, Erin, Agincourt, Benbow, Emperor of India, Tiger, Indomitable; and the following will join during the next month: Inflexible, Invincible, and perhaps Australia; against which we have lost Audacious. In addition to these the Grand Fleet and Harwich Striking Force have been strengthened by eighteen cruisers and thirty-six destroyers.
Meanwhile the German Fleet in Home Waters has received no new accession of strength and has suffered the following losses in modern ships: Blücher, Magdeburg, Köln, Mainz, and 10 or 12 Destroyers.
It should be recognized that the progressive improvement in types has been so marked that ships over 12 years old can only play a secondary part in the war. Their speed would probably prevent them from participating in the main action, except against each other, and would expose them to almost certain destruction if overtaken by the latest types. However, in this pre-Dreadnought class we have also an immense superiority. The 8 ‘King Edwards’ are already a part of the Grand Fleet, and it can be strengthened at any time by the addition of the 2 ‘Lord Nelsons’ and the 6 remaining ‘Formidables.’ This fleet would easily and certainly destroy the whole of the German pre-Dreadnought battle fleet.
During the course of the present year 8 battleships, 5 of over 26-knots speed and the whole armed with 15-inch guns, constituting a squadron probably capable of fighting by itself the two best squadrons of the German Navy, will be available for reinforcement or replacement of casualties. Since the war commenced 8 light cruisers have already been commissioned for service in Home Waters; 8 more will be delivered in the next three months, and 4 more in the three months after that. All these cruisers are superior in speed and gun power to any of the German light cruisers afloat. There will also be available during the year 56 destroyers, between 50 and 75 submarines, 24 small gunboats for subsidiary duties, together with other miscellaneous auxiliary vessels. It is therefore certain that the strength of the Grand Fleet, which was originally sufficient, has now been greatly augmented and will continually increase. The first principle laid down by the First Sea Lord is thus most fully met.
The second vital function of the Navy is the protection of trade and the control of sea communications. All German cruisers and gunboats abroad have been sunk, blocked in, or interned, with the exception of the Karlsruhe and Dresden, which are hiding. There are great doubts as to the efficiency of the Karlsruhe, of whom nothing has been heard for nearly three months. There are believed to be 2 German armed merchantmen at large (the Kronprinz Wilhelm and Prinz Eitel Friedrich). All the rest of the 42 prepared for arming and which it has been intended to let loose on the trade routes have been blockaded, interned, sunk, or captured. To deal with the 2 German cruisers and the 2 armed liners which are not yet run down, there are now, apart from Home Waters and the Mediterranean, the following British vessels:—
10 armoured or large cruisers.
31 light cruisers (including 2 in Suez Canal).
19 armed merchant cruisers (4 in Red Sea included).
19 self-defensive armed merchantmen.
In addition to the British ships available, there is the Japanese Navy and such French and Russian ships as are outside the Mediterranean and their respective home waters.
Meanwhile the other functions of the Navy, viz., the control of the English Channel and its approaches, the patrol of the Straits of Dover, the patrol flotillas of the East Coast, and the special Harwich Striking Force, are all provided for.
Over and above all the foregoing, and after meeting all purely naval claims, we have available the following battleships completely manned and supplied with their own ammunition and its reserve:—
1 ‘Royal Sovereign.’
Between the beginning of April and the end of July we shall also receive 14 heavily armoured, shallow-draught Monitors; 2 armed with two 15-inch guns, 4 armed with two 14-inch guns, and 8 armed with two 12-inch guns. These last 8 will be armed by taking the turrets out of 4 of the ‘Majestics.’ It is this force which it is proposed to use for special services and for bombarding as may be necessary from time to time in furtherance of objects of great strategic and political importance, among which the following may be specifically mentioned:—
1. The operations at the Dardanelles;
2. The support of the left flank of the Army;
3. The bombardment of Zeebrugge; and later on
4. The seizure of Borkum.
It is believed that with care and skill losses may be reduced to a minimum and certainly kept within limits fully justified by the importance and necessity of the operations. It cannot be said that this employment of ships which are (except the ‘Duncans’) not needed and not suited to fight in the line of battle, conflicts with any of the sound principles of naval policy set forth by the First Sea Lord. Not to use them where necessary because of some fear that there will be an outcry if a ship is lost would be wrong, and, if a certain proportion of loss of life among officers and men of the Royal Navy serving on these ships can achieve important objects of the war and save a very much greater loss of life among our comrades and allies on shore, we ought certainly not to shrink from it.
W. S. C.
The First Sea Lord could not in his heart feel at all anxious about the Grand Fleet margin. He knew that I knew his real convictions about it. He did not attempt to continue the discussion on a false basis: but he expressed an intention of not attending the War Council which was fixed for the next day—the 28th. This was, of course, impossible. I insisted that he should be present, and arranged for a private meeting for both of us with the Prime Minister before the Council. To this Lord Fisher consented.
We repaired accordingly to Mr. Asquith’s room twenty minutes before the War Council was to meet. No written record of this discussion has been preserved, but there is no dispute about it. ‘Save in respect of some points of slight importance as regards the precise language used,’ say the Dardanelles Commissioners, ‘the accounts given us by Mr. Asquith and Lord Fisher, as regards what occurred at this private meeting, tally.’ Lord Fisher indicated very briefly his objections to both the Zeebrugge and Dardanelles schemes, and indicated his preference for a great operation in the Baltic or for a general advance of the Army along the Belgian coast with strong naval support. Lord Fisher, say the Dardanelles Commissioners, ‘did not criticize the attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula on its own merits. Neither did he mention to the Prime Minister that he had any thought of resigning if his opinions were overruled.’ This is quite true. I contended that both Zeebrugge, and the Dardanelles scheme should be undertaken, but that if either were to be dropped it should be Zeebrugge, to which the First Sea Lord seemed more particularly opposed. The Prime Minister, after hearing both sides, expressed his concurrence with my views, and decided that Zeebrugge should be dropped but that the Dardanelles should go forward. Lord Fisher seemed on the whole content, and I went downstairs with him under the impression that all was well.
The Council was already waiting. Colonel Hankey’s record of the discussion which followed has already been made public in the Report of the Dardanelles Commission.
‘Mr. Churchill said that he had communicated to the Grand Duke Nicholas and to the French Admiralty the project for a naval attack on the Dardanelles. The Grand Duke had replied with enthusiasm, and believed that this [attack] might assist him. The French Admiralty had also sent a favourable reply, and had promised co-operation. Preparations were in hand for commencing about the middle of February. He asked if the War Council attached importance to this operation, which undoubtedly involved some risks?
‘Lord Fisher said that he understood that this question would not be raised to-day. The Prime Minister was well aware of his own views in regard to it.
‘The Prime Minister said that, in view of the steps which had already been taken, the question could not well be left in abeyance.
‘Lord Kitchener considered the naval attack to be vitally important. If successful, its effect would be equivalent to that of a successful campaign fought with the new armies. One merit of the scheme was that, if satisfactory progress was not made, the attack could be broken off.
‘Mr. Balfour pointed out that a successful attack on the Dardanelles would achieve the following results:—
‘It would cut the Turkish army in two;
‘It would put Constantinople under our control;
‘It would give us the advantage of having the Russian wheat, and enable Russia to resume exports;
‘This would restore the Russian exchanges, which were falling owing to her inability to export, and causing great embarrassment;
‘It would also open a passage to the Danube;
‘It was difficult to imagine a more helpful operation.
‘Sir Edward Grey said it would also finally settle the attitude of Bulgaria and the whole of the Balkans.
‘Mr. Churchill said that the naval Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean had expressed his belief that it could be done. He required from three weeks to a month to accomplish it. The necessary ships were already on their way to the Dardanelles. In reply to Mr. Balfour, he said that, in response to his inquiries, the French had expressed their confidence that Austrian submarines would not get as far as the Dardanelles.
‘Lord Haldane asked if the Turks had any submarines.
‘Mr. Churchill said that, so far as could be ascertained, they had not. He did not anticipate that we should sustain much loss in the actual bombardment, but in sweeping for mines some losses must be expected. The real difficulties would begin after the outer forts had been silenced, and it became necessary to attack the Narrows. He explained the plan of attack on a map.’
This record does not, however, complete the story. During the Council an incident occurred which has subsequently obtained much publicity. Here is Lord Fisher’s own account:—
9th Meeting of War Council, January 28, 1915, 11.30 a.m.
(Note.—Before this meeting the Prime Minister discussed with Mr. Churchill and Lord Fisher the proposed Dardanelles operations and decided in favour of considering the project in opposition to Lord Fisher’s opinion.)
Mr. Churchill asked if the War Council attached importance to the proposed Dardanelles operations, which undoubtedly involved risks.
Lord Fisher said that he had understood that this question was not to be raised at this meeting. The Prime Minister knew his (Lord Fisher’s) views on the subject.
The Prime Minister said that, in view of what had already been done, the question could not be left in abeyance.
(Note.—Thereupon Lord Fisher left the Council table. He was followed by Lord Kitchener, who asked him what he intended to do. Lord Fisher replied to Lord Kitchener that he would not return to the Council table, and would resign his office as First Sea Lord. Lord Kitchener then pointed out to Lord Fisher that he (Lord Fisher) was the only dissentient, and that the Dardanelles operations had been decided upon by the Prime Minister; and he urged on Lord Fisher that his duty to his country was to go on carrying out the duties of First Sea Lord. After further talk Lord Fisher reluctantly gave in to Lord Kitchener and went back to the Council table.)
It must be emphasized here, as well as in regard to Lord Kitchener’s statement to the War Council dated May 14, 1915, that Lord Fisher considered that it would be both improper and unseemly for him to enter into an altercation either at the War Council or elsewhere with his chief Mr. Churchill, the First Lord. Silence or resignation was the right course.
After the meeting was over, we adjourned for several hours. Although the War Council had come to a decision with which I heartily agreed, and no voice had been raised against the naval plan, I thought I must come to a clear understanding with the First Sea Lord. I had noticed the incident of his leaving the table and Lord Kitchener following him to the window and arguing with him, and I did not know what was the upshot in his mind. After luncheon I asked him to come and see me in my room and we had a long talk. I strongly urged him not to turn back from the Dardanelles operation; and in the end, after a long and very friendly discussion which covered the whole Admiralty and naval position, he definitely consented to undertake it. There never has been any dispute between us subsequently as to this. ‘When I finally decided to go in,’ said Lord Fisher to the Dardanelles Commissioners,’ I went the whole hog, totus porcus.’ We then repaired to the afternoon War Council Meeting, Admiral Oliver, Chief of the Staff, coming with us and I announced on behalf of the Admiralty, and with the agreement of Lord Fisher, that we had decided to undertake the task with which the War Council had charged us so urgently. This I took as the point of final decision. After it, I never looked back. We had left the region of discussion and consultation, of balancings and misgivings. The matter had passed into the domain of action.
I am in no way concealing the great and continuous pressure which I put upon the old Admiral. This pressure was reinforced by Lord Kitchener’s personal influence, by the collective opinion of the War Council, and by the authoritative decision of the Prime Minister. It was a pressure not only of opinion, which was overwhelming, but of arguments to which he could find no answer. Moreover, there was in addition on the technical side a very great weight of support at the Admiralty. ‘Naval opinion was unanimous,’ said Lord Fisher afterwards, ‘Mr. Churchill had them all on his side. I was the only rebel.’
Was it wrong to put this pressure upon the First Sea Lord? I cannot think so. War is a business of terrible pressures, and persons who take part in it must fail if they are not strong enough to withstand them. As a mere politician and civilian, I would never have agreed to the Dardanelles project if I had not believed in it. I would have done my utmost to break it down in argument and to marshal opinion against it. Had I been in Lord Fisher’s position and held his views, I would have refused point blank. There was no need for him to resign. Only the First Sea Lord can order the ships to steam and the guns to fire. First Sea Lords have to stand up to facts and take their decisions resolutely at the moment of choice. To go back on a decision after an enterprise has been launched, risks run and sacrifices made, is quite a different matter. During the period of choice, a man must fight for his opinion with the utmost tenacity. But once the choice has been made, then the business must be carried through in loyal comradeship.
Let us now see exactly what it was the Admiralty had committed itself to do.
We had undertaken to begin a serious bombardment of the Dardanelles forts, and to attempt, without the aid of an army, by a new and gradual method of piecemeal reduction, to fight our way slowly into the Marmora. But we believed we could withdraw from this operation at almost any stage if the difficulties and the Turkish resistance proved unexpectedly great. And so far as the Admiralty was concerned—apart, that is to say, from general considerations of policy and prestige—we could indisputably have broken off the operation at any point; and we did in fact do so, to my great regret, after March 18. Further, the ships we proposed to risk were almost all of them valueless for any other purpose. Four of them, indeed, had already been condemned to be scrapped, and most of the others were of similar type. Had they not been used in this way they would have rusted in our southern dockyards. They were only fit for subsidiary bombarding operations. They were surplus to all the vessels by which our supremacy at sea was maintained. It would have been simple murder of their crews to put them where modern German battleships might catch them. They were quite useless for a fleet action. Yet here in the Dardanelles these old vessels might, if all went well, change the history of the world, cut the Turkish Empire in two, paralyse its capital, unite the Balkan States against our enemies, rescue Serbia, help the Grand Duke in the main operations of the war, and by shortening its duration save countless lives.
We had undertaken this operation, not because we thought it was the ideal method of attack, but because we were told that no military force was available, and in response to the appeals for help from Lord Kitchener and the Grand Duke. We had undertaken it with our surplus resources after we had successfully and fully discharged and provided for all those great duties of the Navy, the safety of the British Isles, the clearance of the seas, the protection of commerce, the transportation of troops—for which perhaps the Admiralty deserved some measure of confidence and gratitude. So far as I am concerned, I undertook this task out of a sincere wish to aid the common cause and to make the weight of the Navy tell as effectively as possible. This, I thought, was my duty.
I have asked myself in these later years, What would have happened if I had taken Lord Fisher’s advice and refused point blank to take any action at the Dardanelles unless or until the War Office produced on their responsibility an adequate army to storm the Gallipoli Peninsula? Should we by holding out in this way have secured a sufficient army and a good plan? Should we have had all the advantages of the Dardanelles policy without the mistakes and misfortunes for which we had to pay so dearly? The Dardanelles Commissioners, studying the story from an entirely different angle, obviously felt that if there had been no naval plan in the field, there would later on have been a really well-conceived and well-concerted amphibious attack. No one can probe this imaginary situation very far, and it is impossible to pronounce. But I think myself that nothing less than the ocular demonstration and practical proof of the strategic meaning of the Dardanelles, and the effects of attacking it on every Balkan and Mediterranean Power, would have lighted up men’s minds sufficiently to make a large abstraction of troops from the main theatre a possibility. I do not believe that anything less than those tremendous hopes, reinforced as they were by dire necessity, would have enabled Lord Kitchener to wrest an army from France and Flanders. In cold blood, it could never have been done. General Headquarters, and the French General Staff would have succeeded in shattering any plan put forward so long as it was a mere theoretical proposal for a large diversion of force to the Southern theatre. At one moment they would have told us that, owing to the Russian failure, great masses of Germans were returning to the West to deliver an overwhelming offensive: at another that they could not spare a round of ammunition and were in desperate straits for the want of it: at a third, that they had a wonderful plan for a great offensive which would shatter the German line and drive them out of a large portion of France. All these arguments were in fact used, and their effect was, as will be seen, to cripple the Dardanelles operations even after they had actually begun. How much more would they have overwhelmed any paper plan for an Eastern campaign. There would have been no Dardanelles with its hopes, its glories, its losses and its ultimate heart-breaking failure.
But who shall say what would have happened instead? A few weeks’ more delay in the entry of Italy into the war, and the continuance of the great Russian defeats in Galicia, would have rendered that entry improbable in the extreme. A few more months’ acceleration of the Bulgarian declaration of war against us, and the whole of the Balkans, except Serbia, might have been rallied to the Teutonic standards. The flower of the Turkish Army, which was largely destroyed on the Gallipoli Peninsula, would certainly have fought us or our allies somewhere else. The destruction of the Russian Army of the Caucasus could not have been long averted. I do not believe that by adopting the negative attitude we should ever have got our good and well-conceived amphibious operation. We should have got no operation at all. We should have done nothing, and have been confronted with diplomatic and military reactions wholly unfavourable throughout the Southern and Eastern theatre. Searching my heart, I cannot regret the effort. It was good to go as far as we did.
Not to persevere—that was the crime.