Book: The World Crisis, Vol. 2: 1915

Previous: XIV. The First Defeat of the U-Boats
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CHAPTER XV
THE INCREASING TENSION

Suspense—Lord Fisher’s Attitude—Sir John Jellicoe’s Health—Question of his Successor—The Battle Cruiser Fleet—Correspondence with Lord Fisher—Lord Fisher and the Sea Lords—His Position Defined—Difficulties and Friction—Further Correspondence with Lord Fisher—The Munition Crisis—Lord Kitchener and his Colleagues—Grave Embarrassments—Admiralty and War Office Compared—Growing Political Discontent.

April was a month of painful and harassing suspense. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Army was repacking at Alexandria; Admiral de Robeck’s attention was absorbed in preparation for the landing. The Turks were concentrating, organizing and fortifying. Italy and the Balkans trembled in the balance. Our relations with the United States were most delicate. The position on and behind the Russian front caused profound anxiety. A complete breakdown in the methods of munition supply by the War Office plainly impended. The political situation grew tense.

After March 18 the attitude of the First Sea Lord had become one of quasi-detachment. He was greatly relieved that the burden had now been assumed by the Army. He approved every operational telegram which I or the Chief of the Staff drafted for him. In the end he assented to whatever steps were considered necessary for the proper support of the Army. But while he welcomed every sign of the despatch of troops, he grudged every form of additional naval aid. He endeavoured repeatedly to turn my mind from the Dardanelles back to the Northern theatre, where, however, there could not be any serious naval operation on our initiative for many months. He evinced increasing concern about the situation in the North Sea.

Although I did not share Lord Fisher’s anxiety, real or assumed, about the North Sea, I thought this month of April was a critical one. The Germans must know that we had a very considerable fleet, including some of our best modern ships, withdrawn from the main and for the Navy decisive theatre. We hoped that they would believe that the forces at the Dardanelles were even larger than they were. We had sent several of the dummy battleships to the Mediterranean, hoping thereby to tempt the enemy to battle in the North Sea.

The War Staff orders for the attack on the Dardanelles approved by Lord Fisher contained the following passage: ‘A number of merchant vessels have been altered to represent “Dreadnought” battleships and cruisers, and are indistinguishable from them at 3 or 4 miles distance… They should be used with due precaution to prevent their character being discovered, and should be shown as part of the Fleet off the entrance to the Dardanelles, as if held in reserve. They may mislead the Germans as to the margin of British strength in Home Waters.’

We now know that they completely deceived the Turks, who identified and reported one to Germany as the Tiger. When I saw the First Sea Lord cordially agree in such a policy of courting battle, I could not take very seriously his general attitude of apprehension. He knew perfectly well that we were strong enough to fight, and no one would have been better pleased had the battle begun.

After the action of the Dogger Bank Sir John Jellicoe became seriously indisposed and had to undergo a minor, though trying, surgical operation on shore. I could not help feeling that the somewhat gloomy views he had taken in January had a physical cause besides the continuous strain of labour and responsibility which he had borne since the outbreak of war. Although we did not see eye to eye on various questions, and adopted a somewhat different standard of values, I retained the greatest admiration for his gifts and qualities both as an organizer and as a seaman. I therefore advised His Majesty to mark his eminent services by conferring upon him the Grand Cross of the Bath.

During his illness I wished to make Admiral Beatty Acting Commander-in-Chief, giving him for this purpose a seniority superior to that of Admiral Burney, who was the next senior officer to Sir John Jellicoe, but whose health at this time was also somewhat affected by the rigours of service. I hoped that if Admiral Beatty held the command of the Grand Fleet for several weeks, the naval objections to his want of seniority—he was still only a Rear-Admiral—would pass away and he would be accepted thenceforward as the recognized Second-in-Command and as the obvious successor to Sir John Jellicoe should ill-health prevent that officer from resuming his duties, or should any other cause make his transference to the Admiralty or to some other sphere desirable. I obtained Lord Fisher’s concurrence in this most important decision. I was forced however to abandon my intention for the time being, because Admiral Beatty and his battle-cruisers could not be moved from the Forth, and it proved impossible to surmount the technical difficulties of his exercising the supreme command of the main Fleet while it remained at Scapa. I therefore contented myself as an interim measure with giving him a seniority as Acting Vice-Admiral, which made him senior to any other officer who could conceivably be involved in any operation which might arise in the North Sea while the Grand Fleet continued so far from the scene of action.

I also devised and carried through the formation of the Battle Cruiser Fleet. This organization was to consist of three squadrons, each of three battle-cruisers, each attended by a light cruiser squadron of four of our latest and fastest vessels, together with the M flotilla of our swiftest destroyers. The central conception of this force was Speed. It presented a combination of Speed and Power far superior to any naval force at the disposal of the Germans. In the first instance, most of the light cruisers belonged to the Town class and could not steam more than 27 knots; but the Arethusas were now coming rapidly into commission, and would effectually improve the speed of the squadrons. In order to form this Fleet I telegraphed to the Commonwealth Government, asking them to place the Australia at our disposal. This they did with the utmost goodwill and characteristic loyalty to the general interest.

My relations with the First Sea Lord continued pleasant, intimate and always frank. They cannot be better followed in this period of increasing tension than in our correspondence. His comments on a report from Sofia showed that we both viewed the Bulgarian question from the same angle.

Lord Fisher to Mr. Churchill.

February, 26, 1915.

As I have always (before the Balkan War and when Admiral in the Mediterranean) been an ‘out and out’ Bulgarian, this paper has my deepest sympathy and fullest concurrence with the Bulgarian Minister of War. We have done nothing else this whole war but lose opportunities! As I told you last night, the one most awful thing in war is ‘the careful man’! He’s the man with the one talent! Shove him into outer darkness where there is grinding and gnashing of teeth!

First Lord.

March 3, 1915.

I concur in your proposal to remit this question [the projected attack upon Borkum] for careful study by Sir A. K. Wilson, with whom I have on many occasions discussed it in general terms. (The whole problem depends on the efficiency of our arrangements for protection against submarines—an effective means of protection is not yet in sight.)

This operation would necessarily await the trend of events in the Dardanelles. We must know what forces remain before embarking on a new undertaking.

We are now committed to the Dardanelles at all costs so must anyhow wait till middle of May, by which time events in Holland may quite change the position and indicate Terschelling as our base.

March 4, 1915.

The more I consider the Dardanelles the less I like it! No matter what happens it is impossible to send out anything more, not even a dinghy! and why the hostile submarine has not appeared is a wonder.

March 12, 1915.

W. R. Hall came to me last night with this idea:—The German best battleships rush the Dover Straits (dropping mines behind them) and get [to] the Dardanelles and gobble up our ships and then refuge at Constantinople! Colliers en route arranged at Cartagena if necessary, and Jellicoe PERFORCE more than 24 hours behind all the way! Afterwards they (the Germans) gobble up the Russian Fleet in the Black Sea and bombard as convenient Odessa! Varna! Constantinople!!! etc., etc….

MORAL.—Carden to press on! and Kitchener to occupy the deserted forts at extremity of Gallipoli and mount howitzers there….

March 16, 1915.

The decisive theatre remains and ever will be the North Sea. Our attention is being distracted. Schleswig-Holstein and the Baltic are not living with us now….

March 19.

Let not our eyes be too much off the main theatre.

I hope Bax-Ironside has prevented ammunition and submarines passing through to Constantinople.

March 20, 1915.

        Dardanelles.
16     English Destroyers.
6     Torpedo Boats.
6     French Destroyers.
         
28

I count up 28 destroyers and torpedo boats at Dardanelles, and in view of the very narrow entrance of the Dardanelles and restricted area of operations this is infinitely a bigger proportion than we have at home; but all the same we ought to press the French to send more destroyers and more light cruisers. It’s ridiculous what little the French do! And what good [is] their keeping a force on the Syrian Coast? I have only one anxiety; the German and Austrian submarines—when they appear the game will be up! That’s why I wish to press on the military co-operation and get a base at Cape Helles anyhow. It will be three weeks before the military can do anything according to present arrangements.

Aprils 2, 1915.

Let us hope that the Dardanelles will be passed and over by the desired date to your honour and glory, and that the Bulgarians… will be… the first in… so getting Salonika and Kavalla and Macedonia generally as their reward! I EARNESTLY HOPE THIS MAY RESULT! Had the Greeks come in all would have been well without doubt. (Did you see that a Bulgarian General strongly urged an alternative disembarking place for our troops? Does Kitchener know?)

We cannot send another rope yarn even to de Robeck. WE HAVE GONE TO THE VERY LIMIT!!! And so they must not hustle and should be distinctly and most emphatically told that no further reinforcements of the Fleet can be looked for! A failure or check in the Dardanelles would be nothing. A failure in the North Sea would be ruin. But I do not wish to be pessimistic, and let us hope that Gallipoli ain’t going to be Plevna, or that de Robeck will be ‘Duckworthed.’

April 5, 1915.

From Maguire’s report the Inflexible is far worse than Lion, so will be quite three months hors de combat! The war may be over by then if Holland comes in! I do not think you are sufficiently impressed by Cambon’s warning as to Holland! We ought to have every detail organized to move in a moment to Texel. You are just simply eaten up with the Dardanelles and cannot think of anything else! Damn the Dardanelles! They will be our grave! …

On April 7 the Second, Third and Fourth Sea Lords asked Lord Fisher by minute to reassure them on certain points connected with the conduct of the war. Was he satisfied that we were not putting in jeopardy the principle that the Grand Fleet should be always in such a position and of such strength that it could be at all times ready to meet the entire Fleet of the enemy with confident assurance as to the result? The attack on the Dardanelles, they said, was probably from the point of view of high policy quite correct, but could we afford the loss in ships and the expenditure on ammunition? They observed that we had already ‘lost, or more or less demobilized, ten battleships (including Inflexible).’ It was true they were mostly old ones and that, on the other hand, we had added and should shortly add seven. The Germans, however, had lost none and had added six. Was the First Sea Lord satisfied with the rate of progress of battleship completion? Was the prospect of obtaining supplies of ammunition sufficiently good to ensure there being enough available for the use of the Grand Fleet in view of the expenditure involved by the operations in the Dardanelles? In conclusion the Sea Lords asked Lord Fisher to assure them that the whole policy had his concurrence, and that he was satisfied with it.

Lord Fisher replied formally by minute the same day. He stated that he was entirely in agreement with the fundamental principle of the maintenance of the strength of the Grand Fleet.

‘The Dardanelles operation’ (he continued) ‘is undoubtedly one, the political result of which, if successful, will be worth some sacrifice in matériel and personnel; it will certainly shorten the period of the war by bringing in fresh Allies in the Eastern theatre, and will break the back of the German-Turkish alliance, besides opening up the Black Sea.

‘It was with hesitation that I consented to this undertaking, in view of the necessarily limited force of ships which could be devoted to it, of the shortage of shell and cordite, and of the factor of uncertainty which must always obtain when ships attack land fortifications and mined areas under their protection.

‘But, as you state, these high points of policy must be decided by the Cabinet; and in this case the real advantages to be gained caused me eventually to consent to their view, subject to the strict limitation of the Naval Forces to be employed so that our position in the decisive theatre—the North Sea—should not be jeopardized in any one arm.

‘I am of opinion at the present time that our supremacy is secure in Home Waters and that the forces detached are not such as to prejudice a decisive result should the High Seas Fleet come out to battle. But at the same time I consider that we have reached the absolute limit, and that we must stand or fall by the issue, for we can send out no more help of any kind. I have expressed this view very clearly to the First Lord, and should there at a later period be any disposition on the part of the Cabinet to overrule me on this point, I shall request my Naval colleagues to give their support in upholding my view….

‘I am satisfied with the position at present and in the near future, but shall, of course, be more satisfied when we get the battleships back from the Dardanelles.

‘The supply of cordite is very far from satisfactory. We cannot, however, stop the Dardanelles operations on this account and must accept the temporary reduction of the reserve of two outfits which it entails, exercising the greatest economy in expenditure of 15-inch and other critical calibres. But all extraneous sources of expenditure must be cut off at once.’

The position of the First Sea Lord is thus very clearly defined. He is seen to be formally and deliberately identified with the enterprise. When notice was given of a Parliamentary question asking whether the First Sea Lord had agreed to the attack of March 18, he wrote across the draft answer: ‘If Lord Fisher had not approved of this operation, he would not now be First Sea Lord.’ There is therefore no dispute upon the main issue. But it was not possible, having gone so far, to say, ‘I will not send another rope yarn.’ Great responsibilities had been incurred: a most serious operation impended; the Army was about to land. It was imperative that it should be properly supported. Subject to the paramount requirement of our safety in the North Sea, everything that was needed and could reasonably be spared, had to be given. Admiral de Robeck now telegraphed for a number of officers to assist in the landing. Lord Fisher was reluctant to accede to this request, and wished also to impose restrictions upon the employment not only of the Queen Elizabeth, but also of the Agamemnon and Lord Nelson, which would to a very large extent have deprived the Army of their support. I could not honourably agree to this, and my view was accepted. But every officer, every man, every ship, every round of ammunition required for the Dardanelles, became a cause of friction and had to be fought for by me, not only with the First Sea Lord but to a certain extent with his naval colleagues. The labour of this was enormous, but although in the end I allowed no request which reached me from the Fleet to pass unheeded, the process was exhausting. I have no doubt that many requests perished before they reached me, or were not proffered because it was known they would not be welcome. All the time there were ample supplies of ammunition and many powerful naval reinforcements available which could have been sent without affecting our security in the North Sea. This is proved by the fact that they were subsequently sent on a far greater scale than was now in question, without evil consequences or undue risk and by a different Board of Admiralty.

I did my best to allay the anxieties of the Sea Lords about ammunition without paralysing the operations.

April 18, 1915.

Secretary.

…….I agree that only the supreme need of the Army could justify any slackening in naval production or diversion of supplies—even in 12 and 14 pr. ammunition; and that no decision to this effect should be taken without a formal Board decision.

The Bombarding Ships as a rule do not fire the Grand Fleet ammunition. Where one ship or one or two monitors are concerned I cannot agree that in one specific class of ammunition a rigid rule should be maintained and should be held to spoil operations by which the fate of the war is vitally affected. But on the general principle of the reserve for Grand Fleet ships not being reduced below what it was at the outbreak of war, I am, subject to the exceptions above mentioned, fully agreed.

If my naval colleagues would like to discuss this matter at a Board meeting, they should tell the Secretary and I will have it put on the agenda for Thursday.

W. S. C.

Mr. Churchill to Lord Fisher.

April 11, 1915.

A telegram has been sent (enclosed) about Queen Elizabeth. Personally I think it superfluous, but since you wish it I concur.

I do not consider that at this critical, moment it would be right to harass the Admiral by imposing any restrictions on his use of Agamemnon and Lord Nelson.

There is no reason for withdrawing your confidence from him because of the Inflexible. He had already ordered Canopus to go the whole way with her, when you very prudently telegraphed. Anyhow, I am told by the experts that either Talbot or Canopus could equally carry away any available hawsers.

It appears to me indispensable to send the Admiral Captain Phillimore and the officers he requires for the vital and critical operation of landing the troops. See his last telegram. I am sure you will agree that this authorization should go first thing to-morrow. It ought to have gone to-night; but I do not wish to act without you even in the smallest matter.

Seriously, my friend, are you not a little unfair in trying to spite this operation by side winds and small points when you have accepted it in principle? It is hard on me that you should keep on like this—every day something fresh: and it is not worthy of you or the great business we have in hand together.

You know how deeply anxious I am to work with you. Had the Dardanelles been excluded, our co-operation would have been impossible. It is not right now to make small difficulties or add to the burden which in these times we have to bear.

Excuse frankness—but friends have this right, and to colleagues it is a duty.

Lord Fisher to Mr. Churchill.

April 12, 1915.

I did not get your upbraiding letter till after I had written to you about Inflexible being repaired at Gibraltar, which still seems desirable.

Never in all my whole life have I ever before so sacrificed my convictions as I have done to please you!—THAT’S A FACT! Whoever told you that the Talbot was as good as a battleship to tow Inflexible must have been hypnotized by you—nor is it correct that de Robeck had given orders before the Admiralty telegram. Off my own bat I suggested the immediate despatch of Lord Nelson and Agamemnon (hoping they would shield Elizabeth and Inflexible!). De Robeck will hoist his flag in the Lord Nelson you may be sure, instead of the Vengeance, his former Flagship. For the work in hand the Vengeance quite as good for close action. Nevertheless I say no more. The outside world is quite certain that I have pushed you, and not you me I So far as I know the Prime Minister is the solitary person who knows to the contrary. I have not said one word to a soul on the subject except to Crease and Wilson and Oliver and Bartolomé, and you may be sure these four never open their mouths!

Indirectly I’ve worked up Kitchener from the very beginning via Fitzgerald.

I think it’s going to be a success, but I want to lose the oldest ships and to be chary of our invaluable officers and men for use in the decisive theatre.

April 20, 1915.

I am quite sick about our submarines and mines and not shooting at Zeppelins (who never can go higher than 2,000 yards and light cruisers bound to bring them down). Really yesterday had it not been for the Dardanelles forcing me to stick to you through thick and thin I would have gone out of the Admiralty never to return, and sent you a postcard to get Sturdee up at once in my place. You would then be quite happy!!!

Since the beginning of the year the disquietude of several of the principal members of the War Council about the supply of munitions for the Army had been continually increasing. Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Balfour, who with Lord Kitchener and me were members of a Cabinet Committee set up in January to investigate the position, were insistent that the measures of the War Office were in no way proportioned to our needs. Many hundreds of thousands of men had joined the colours and were now in training. The expansion of the British Army to 70 or even to 100 divisions had been designed, yet rifles had not been ordered to supply more than two-thirds of the men actually recruited. The orders placed for artillery were utterly inadequate. The new and special requirements of the war seemed still further neglected. No effective organization for the production of machine guns on the scale on which they were needed had been even planned. The supplies of shell of all kinds, particularly high explosive, and the provision of medium and heavy artillery were on a pitifully small scale. The manufacture of trench-mortars, bombs, and hand grenades was hardly begun.

When complaint was made to Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and his advisers replied that every factory and source of supply was working to its utmost power, and that the orders already given were far in excess of the capacity to produce, and that the deliveries even of the reduced amounts were enormously in arrear. This was true, but not exhaustive. It was urged that measures out of all proportion to anything previously conceived must be taken to broaden the sources of supply. The War Office replied that they had already done everything that was possible at the moment, and that the fruits of their exertions would not be apparent for many months. They adduced a great number of examples of their action and showed the orders they were placing abroad, principally in America and Japan. All this was still regarded as quite insufficient, and the argument on both sides became fierce.

The critics contended that the Ordnance and Contract branches of the War Office knew nothing whatever about the production of munitions on the gigantic scale required, and that they were far too small and weak a body to deal with these immense and complicated problems of manufacture and industry. They pointed out that the War Office specifications drawn in the leisurely and thrifty days of peace were so arbitrary and narrow that they aggravated the difficulties of mass production, and were at the moment in some cases arresting the whole supply of certain weapons. For instance, the specifications for the wheels of the field guns were so particular that only one firm was able to produce them; the wood chosen for the rifle stocks was of a kind most limited and difficult to obtain; the fuses of the shells were needlessly complex, etc. To this the War Office rejoined that they could not put inferior weapons in the hands of the troops, that soldiers alone could be the judges of the quality, character and quantity of the weapons and equipment of the Army. They declared they could not take the responsibility of allowing these vital matters to pass out of the domain of the professional soldiers into the hands of civilians, politicians or business men, however well meaning and enthusiastic. Thus on both sides the fires were banked up, and temperature and pressure rose together.

The stress increased with every week that passed. The demands of the Army grew incessantly. Each new division that took the field began to consume munitions of every kind on growing scales. Great numbers of troops at home were seen utterly unequipped. From the front flowed a torrent of complaints. Simultaneously the outputs fell hopelessly below the promises of the contractors. Lord Kitchener dreaded to send fresh divisions to the front even when they were equipped, for fear of revealing still further the inadequacy of the main plant by which they could be nourished. He made every conceivable personal exertion, but nothing in his training as a soldier or as an administrator had fitted him to organize this mighty and novel sphere. His assistants were few and rigid, and he himself took a strict view of the importance of military control.

From the indignation which was freely expressed to me by my colleagues during this month of April, I could not doubt that an explosion of a very violent kind was approaching. The Admiralty was in an easier position. We had maintained in peace incomparably the largest Navy in the world, and our sources of supply were upon the same scale. The British Army, on the other hand, was based on Arsenals narrowly measured by our tiny peace establishments. The Navy had expanded from a broad basis to perhaps double its size; the Army from its restricted basis had been called upon to expand to the equivalent of ten or fifteenfold. At the outbreak of the war we had placed very large orders for everything that the Navy needed with the great firms and dockyards which stood behind the Fleet. I had kept alive the Coventry Works by special measures in 1913, thus giving us a new additional source of heavy gun production. Even before Lord Fisher came to the Admiralty in November, 1914, we had set on foot, in accordance with maturely considered pre-war plans, a great volume of production. The old Admiral’s impulse and inspiration supervened on this with cumulative effect. We were thus able, readily and easily, to cope with the developments which the course of the war and the progress of invention required. Already in January and February we were at full blast, and on the whole well ahead with our work in every department. Our task had not been comparable in difficulty with that of the War Office. In fact our very efficiency by absorbing much of the existing capacity for armament production aggravated their troubles. Still, the fact remained that the War Office were not solving their problems, and that there was no prospect of their doing so upon the existing lines.

Growing wrath and fear were not confined to the War Council. Lord Kitchener’s embarrassments compelled him to restrict in the most drastic terms the demands of the Armies in the field in respect of all the supplies they needed most. He saw himself forced to give rulings upon the proportion of machine guns, high explosive shell and heavy artillery which seemed absurd and almost wicked to those who did not know his difficulties. Tension grew between the staff at General Headquarters and the War Office. The Army at the front carried its complaints through innumerable channels to Parliament and the Press; and though patriotism and the censorship prevented public expression, the tide of anxiety and anger rose day by day.

Well would it have been if in the solemn moment when we first drew the sword, a National Government resting on all parties had been formed. In those August days when our peaceful and, but for the Navy, almost unarmed people stood forth against the Aggressor, all hearts beat together. There was a unity and comradeship never after equalled. All were ardent for the Cause, and there had been no time to make mistakes in method. Then was the moment to have proclaimed National Government and National Service together. This was certainly my wish. But the moment was lost. The Conservative Party, its power magnified in the atmosphere of war, was left free from all responsibility to watch the inevitable mistakes, shortcomings, surprises and disappointments which the struggle had in store. Its leaders had held themselves hitherto under a public-spirited restraint, silent but passionate spectators. They could endure the strain no longer. Thus both from within and from without, at the War Office and in the Admiralty, in France and at the Dardanelles, tension grew into crisis, and crisis rose to climax.

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Next: XVI. The Battle of the Beaches