Effects of the Landing at Home and Abroad—Italy about to enter the War—The Anglo-French-Italian Naval Convention—Resumption of the Allied Offensive in France—Battle of Aubers Ridge—A Casualty Clearing Station—The Sinking of the Lusitania—Consequences—On Board the Queen Elizabeth—Admiral de Robeck’s Resolve—His Telegram of May 10—New Factors in the Decision—Apparition of the German Submarines—I wish to renew the Attack on the Minefields—Lord Fisher’s Agitation—His Memorandum of May 11—Correspondence with him—Disjointed Resolves—Withdrawal of the Queen Elizabeth—Lord Kitchener’s Anger—His Dispute with Lord Fisher—An Arrangement Effected—Telegrams to Admiral de Robeck.
In spite of the fact that the Army was brought to a standstill, the great event of the landing continued to produce its impression throughout Europe. Italy, Greece, Roumania, Bulgaria assumed that now that large allied forces were definitely ashore, they could and would be reinforced from the sea until the Turkish resistance was overcome. The Italian momentum towards war proceeded unchecked: and the Balkan states continued in an attitude of strained expectancy. At home the growing political crisis underwent a distinct set-back. The leaders of the Opposition had been advised by high authorities in France that the operation of landing would fail and that the troops would be repulsed at the beaches with disastrous slaughter. They were of course greatly relieved when these predictions were falsified, and there was for the moment a corresponding easement of tension.
On May 5, while the battle on the Peninsula was still undecided, I had to go to Paris for a purpose of great importance. The negotiations with Italy which had been proceeding during March and April had in its last fortnight assumed a decisive character. On April 26 the Treaty of London, by which Italy agreed to come into the war, had been signed. On May 4 Italy denounced the Triple Alliance, and thereby made public her change of policy. Sir Edward Grey had on medical advice taken a brief spell of rest at the beginning of April, and the Prime Minister for ten days grasped the Italian business in his own hands with downright vigour. On the Foreign Secretary’s return the advantage gained had been zealously pursued. The terms of the secret treaty which resulted in the entry of Italy into the war have long since been made public. They reveal with painful clearness the desperate need of the three Allies at this juncture. Locked in the deadly struggle, with the danger of the Russian collapse staring them in the face, and with their own very existence at stake, neither Britain nor France was inclined to be particular about the price they would pay or promise to pay for the accession to the alliance of a new first-class power. The Italian negotiators, deeply conscious of our anxiety, were determined to make the most advantageous bargain they could for their country.
The territorial gains which Italy was to receive on her frontiers, in the Adriatic, and from the Turkish Empire were tremendous. These political prizes were to be supplemented by Military and Naval conventions of the utmost importance. The British Fleet was actively to co-operate with the Italians in the Adriatic, and the Russians were to continue a vigorous offensive with at least 500,000 men against Austria in Galicia. Thus guaranteed both by sea and land, Italy seemed safe to advance and appropriate the enormous prizes for which she had stipulated. The hopes and calculations which inspired these arrangements were soon to be falsified. Those who launch out upon the stormy voyage of war can never tell beforehand what its length or fortunes will be, or in what port they will at last drop anchor. Within a fortnight of the signature of the Military Convention, Mackensen had fallen upon the Russians along the Dunajecs, the battle of Gorlice-Tarnau had been fought, and the Russian Armies were everywhere in retreat and recoil. The apparition of Yugo-Slavia as a strong new power at the end of the war rendered the conditions which Italy had exacted in the Adriatic obviously inapplicable. And lastly Turkey, beaten in the war, has risen resuscitated and virtually intact from the disasters of the peace. It was not to an easy war of limited liability and great material gains that Italian statesmen were to send their countrymen. Italy, like the other great combatants, was to be drenched with blood and tears. Year after year, her soil invaded, her manhood shorn away, her treasure spent, her life and honour in jeopardy, must she struggle on to a victory which was to bring no complete satisfaction to her ambitions. But though the calculations of statesmen had failed, the generous heart of the Italian nation proved not unequal to the long trials and disappointments of the struggle, nor unworthy to sustain amid its mocking fortunes the ancient fame of Rome.
As it seemed vital that no hitch nor delay should obstruct the signing of the Naval Convention, I proceeded to Paris armed on behalf of the Admiralty with plenary powers. The Italian apprehension was that if as the result of victory Russia established herself at Constantinople, and if Serbia also gained a great increase of territory, these combined Slavonic powers would develop a strong naval base on or off the Dalmatian coast. The prospect which had arisen from the Dardanelles operations, of Russia possessing Constantinople, forced Italy to make the greatest exertions to secure her own position in the Adriatic, which would have been irretrievably compromised by an allied victory in which Italy had taken no part. We therefore spent two days in intricate discussions between the French and the Italians about the naval bases which Italy was to secure on the Dalmatian coast in the treaties following a victorious war. Among these their most important claim was for what was called the Canal of Sabioncello. This strip of good anchorage for the largest vessels between two long islands, out of gunfire from the shore, and half-way down the Adriatic, presented indeed every ideal condition for an Italian Naval Base. But there were many other claims, and whenever the discussion seemed to prove discouraging to the Italians we threw the British trident into the scale, offering to agree to the request not only for cruisers and flotillas but for a squadron of battleships as well. Since it seemed that Admiral de Robeck had definitely abandoned the attempt to force the Dardanelles, his fleet had clearly ships to spare. In the end a complete agreement was reached between the naval authorities of the three countries. The Italians insisted on having British battleships, and the French without taking offence at this, agreed to replace a British Squadron taken from the Dardanelles by an equal number of their own vessels.
I left Paris early on the morning of the 7th, intending to pass a day at Sir John French’s Headquarters on my way back to England. Arrived at St. Omer on the evening of the 7th, I learnt two things. Sir Ian Hamilton’s telegrams showed that he was in full battle and that no decision was yet manifest on the Peninsula. Secondly, Sir John French intended to begin a general attack directed against the Aubers Ridge in conjunction with the French Army operating on his right against the Souchez position, and this momentous event was fixed for daybreak on the 9th. I therefore stayed to see one battle, glad to keep my mind off the other.
As the reader is aware, I was at this time convinced that the task set to the British and French troops was impossible. The Germans in their front were almost equal in strength, intensely fortified, and fully prepared. The preliminary wire cutting by shrapnel bombardment had shown them exactly the gaps through which the assaulting troops were to be launched, and one could not doubt that every preparation had been made to mow them down. Moreover the British supplies of shell were extremely limited, and the high explosive needed to shatter the German trenches was practically non-existent. I made every effort in my power without incurring unjustifiable risks to view the battle. But neither far off from a lofty steeple nor close up on the fringe of the enemy’s barrage was it possible to see anything except shells and smoke. Without actually taking part in the assault it was impossible to measure the real conditions. To see them you had to feel them, and feeling them might well feel nothing more. To stand outside was to see nothing, to plunge in was to be dominated by personal experiences of an absorbing kind. This was one of the cruellest features of the war. Many of the generals in the higher commands did not know the conditions with which their troops were ordered to contend, nor were they in a position to devise the remedies which could have helped them.
On the evening of this day I witnessed also the hideous spectacle of a large casualty clearing station in the height of a battle. More than 1,000 men suffering from every form of horrible injury, seared, torn, pierced, choking, dying, were being sorted according to their miseries into the different parts of the Convent at Merville. At the entrance the arrival and departure of the motor ambulances, each with its four or five shattered and tortured beings, was incessant; from the back door corpses were being carried out at brief intervals to a burying party constantly at work. One room was filled to overflowing with cases not worth sending any farther, cases whose hopelessness excluded them from priority in operations. Other rooms were filled with ‘walking wounded’ all in much pain, but most in good spirits. For these a cup of tea, a cigarette, and another long motor journey were reserved. An unbroken file of urgent and critical cases were pressed towards the operating room, the door of which was wide open and revealed as I passed the terrible spectacle of a man being trepanned. Everywhere was blood and bloody rags. Outside in the quadrangle the drumming thunder of the cannonade proclaimed that the process of death and mutilation was still at its height.
In these days also came in the news of the sinking of the Lusitania. This gigantic liner had for some months definitely returned to passenger service, and had made several round trips across the Atlantic in that capacity. In the first week of May she was returning to Liverpool from New York, having on board nearly 2,000 persons all non-combatants, British and American. Included in her cargo was a small consignment of rifle ammunition and shrapnel shells weighing about 173 tons. Warnings that the vessel would be sunk, afterwards traced to the German Government, were circulated in New York before she sailed. On May 4 and 5 while she was approaching the British Isles, German U-boats were reported about the southern entrance to the Irish Channel and two merchant ships were sunk. Further reports of submarine activity in this area came in on the 6th. In consequence repeated and specific warnings and information were transmitted from the Admiralty wireless station at Valentia.
May 6, 12.5 a.m. To all British ships.
…Avoid headlands. Pass harbours at full speed. Steer mid-channel course. Submarines off Fastnet.
May 6, 7.50 p.m. To Lusitania.
Submarines active off south coast of Ireland.
May 7, 11.25 a.m. To all British ships.
Submarines active in southern part of Irish Channel. Last heard of south of Coningbeg Lighthouse. Make certain Lusitania gets this.
May 7, 12.40 p.m. To Lusitania.
Submarines five miles south of Cape Clear proceeding west when sighted at 10 a.m.
All these messages were duly received.
The Admiralty confidential Memorandum of April 16, 1915, contained the following passage:
‘War experience has shown that fast steamers can considerably reduce the chance of successful surprise submarine attack by zigzagging, that is to say, altering the course at short and irregular intervals, say in ten minutes to half an hour. This course is almost invariably adopted by warships when cruising in an area known to be infested with submarines. The underwater speed of a submarine is very low, and it is exceedingly difficult for her to get into position to deliver an attack unless she can preserve and predict the course of the ship attacked.’
In spite of these warnings and instructions, for which the Admiralty Trade Division deserve credit, the Lusitania was proceeding along the usual trade route without zigzagging at little more than three-quarter speed when, at 2.10 p.m. on May 7, she was torpedoed eight miles off the Old Head of Kinsale by Commander Schweiger in the German submarine U.20. Two torpedoes were fired, the first striking her amidships with a tremendous explosion, and the second a few minutes later striking her aft. In twenty minutes she foundered by the head, carrying with her 1,195 persons, of whom 291 were women and 94 infants or small children. This crowning outrage of the U-boat war resounded through the world. The United States, whose citizens had perished in large numbers, was convulsed with indignation, and in all parts of the great Republic the signal for armed intervention was awaited by the strongest elements of the American people. It was not given, and the war continued in its destructive equipoise. But henceforward the friends of the Allies in the United States were armed with a weapon against which German influence was powerless, and before which after a lamentable interval cold-hearted policy was destined to succumb.
Even in the first moments of realizing the tragedy and its horror, I understood the significance of the event. As the history of the Great War is pondered over, its stern lessons stand forth from the tumult and confusion of the times. On two supreme occasions the German Imperial Government, quenching compunction, outfacing conscience, deliberately, with calculation, with sinister resolve, severed the underlying bonds which sustained the civilization of the world and united even in their quarrels the human family. The invasion of Belgium and the unlimited U-boat war were both resorted to on expert dictation as the only means of victory. They proved the direct cause of ruin. They drew into the struggle against Germany mighty and intangible powers by which her strength was remorselessly borne down. Nothing could have deprived Germany of victory in the first year of war except the invasion of Belgium; nothing could have denied it to her in its last year except her unlimited submarine campaign. Not to the number of her enemies, nor to their resources or wisdom; not to the mistakes of her Admirals and Generals in open battle; not to the weakness of her allies; not assuredly to any fault in the valour or loyalty of her population or her armies; but only to these two grand crimes and blunders of history, were her undoing and our salvation due.
Meanwhile in the Flagship at the Dardanelles the most vehement discussion had been taking place.
Since March 18, two distinct currents of opinion had flowed in high naval circles. The forward school had been more than ever convinced that the quelling of the forts, the sweeping of the minefield, and ultimately the forcing of the Straits were practicable operations. They had no doubt whatever that the Fleet could make its way through into the Marmora. They had continually impressed upon the Admiral the duty of the Navy to attempt this task. Grieved beyond measure at the cruel losses that the Army had sustained, out of all proportion to anything expected, they felt it almost unendurable that the Navy should sit helpless and inactive after the orders they had received and the undertakings made on their behalf. They therefore pressed their Chief to propose to the Admiralty the renewal of the naval attack.
All these pressures and the spectacle of the Army’s torment produced their effect upon a man of the courage and quality of Admiral de Robeck. He finally resolved to send a telegram to the Admiralty expressing his willingness to renew the naval attack. The telegram bears the imprint of several hands and of opposite opinions. But apparently, as we now know, all present at these conferences in the Queen Elizabeth believed that the telegram would be followed by immediate orders for battle from the Admiralty. Admiral Guépratte, the French Commander, telegraphed to the Minister of Marine showing that he fully expected to be launched in decisive attack and asking for an additional and stronger ship to reinforce the French squadron. All the naval staff and commanders rested, therefore, under the impression of a great and sublime decision in pursuance of which they would readily face every risk and endure every loss.
Vice-Admiral de Robeck to Admiralty.
May 10, 1915.
The position in the Gallipoli Peninsula.
General Hamilton informs me that the Army is checked, its advance on Achi Baba can only be carried out by a few yards at a time, and a condition of affairs approximate to that in Northern France is threatened. The situation therefore arises, as indicated in my telegram 292:—
‘If the Army is checked in its advance on Kilid Bahr, the question whether the Navy should not force the Narrows, leaving the forts intact, will depend entirely whether the Fleet could assist the Army in their advance to the Narrows best from below Chanak with communications intact or from above cut off from its base.’
The help which the Navy has been able to give the Army in its advance has not been as great as was anticipated, though effective in keeping down the fire of the enemy’s batteries; when it is a question of trenches and machine guns the Navy is of small assistance; it is these latter that have checked the Army.
From the vigour of the enemy’s resistance it is improbable that the passage of the Fleet into the Marmora will be decisive and therefore it is equally probable that the Straits will be closed behind the Fleet. This will be of slight importance if the resistance of the enemy could be overcome in time to prevent the enforced withdrawal of the Fleet owing to lack of supplies.
The supporting of attack of Army, should the Fleet penetrate to the Sea of Marmora, will be entrusted to the cruisers and certain older battleships including some of the French, whose ships are not fitted for a serious bombardment of the Narrows, this support will obviously be much less than is now given by the whole of the Fleet.
The temper of the Turkish Army in the Peninsula indicates that the forcing of the Dardanelles and subsequent appearance of the Fleet off Constantinople will not, of itself, prove decisive.
The points for decision appear to be:—
First—Can the Navy by forcing the Dardanelles ensure the success of the operations?
Second—If the Navy were to suffer a reverse, which of necessity could only be a severe one, would the position of the Army be so critical as to jeopardize the whole of the operations?
This message deserved very attentive study. It was clearly intended to raise the direct issue of the renewal of the naval attempt to force the Straits. In it Admiral de Robeck balanced the pros and cons, on the whole with an emphasis on the latter. But at the same time he intimated unmistakably his readiness to make the attempt if the Admiralty gave the order. His telegram caused me much perturbation. I was of course, as always, in favour of renewing the naval attack. But the situation at this moment was very different from what it had been in March and April, and in pursuance of Admiral de Robeck’s decision of March 22 we were now following another line of policy. Three important events had taken place.
First, the Army had been landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula with a loss of nearly 20,000 men. That army was, it is true, arrested, but Lord Kitchener had told me that he intended to reinforce it with the whole Army Corps for which Sir Ian Hamilton had asked. The landing under fire had always been the feature in the operation most to be dreaded. It had been accomplished, and it seemed that since the Turks had not been able to prevent the landing, they would certainly fail to stop the further advance of the Army, if the ample reinforcements which were available were rapidly poured in. There were, therefore, at this moment reasonable prospects of carrying the military operations through to success if adequate military reinforcements were sent with promptitude.
Secondly, Italy was about to enter the war. The Anglo Italian Naval Convention which we had just signed obliged us to send four battleships and four light cruisers to join the Italian Fleet in the Adriatic. I had undertaken this on the basis which had ruled ever since March 22 that Admiral de Robeck had definitely abandoned the naval attack and that we were committed to fight the issue out by military force. The withdrawal of these ships from Admiral de Robeck’s fleet, although mitigated by French reinforcements, was incompatible with a decision to make a determined or even desperate effort to force the Dardanelles by ships alone.
Thirdly, what we had so long dreaded had at last come to pass. The German submarines had arrived in the Ægean. One or perhaps two, or even three, were reported on different occasions in the neighbourhood of the Dardanelles. The position of the Queen Elizabeth became one of exceptional danger, and the security of the whole Fleet at the Dardanelles was affected to an extent which could not be readily measured. Moreover, if the Fleet succeeded in forcing the passage and arrived in the Marmora, it would be harassed in that sea by German submarines. Though this fact was not conclusive, the action of the Fleet would be impeded and, on the assumption that the Straits closed up behind it, its effective strategic life would be to a certain extent curtailed.
Furthermore, the responsibilities of the Fleet now that the Army was landed and heavily engaged were very greatly increased. As Admiral Oliver pithily put it—‘On March 18 the Fleet was single, now it has a wife on shore.’
All these considerations were present in my mind. Their cumulative effect was very great. Of course if Admiral de Robeck continued willing to make a decisive attack, it would be possible in a few weeks to recreate the conditions which would enable him to do so. Our naval resources were enormous and increasing almost daily. We could by the middle of June have raised his fleet to a greater strength than ever, and have perfected in every detail the preparations for the attempt. Moreover, by then we should have known where we stood with the German submarines in the Ægean and what that menace amounted to. For the moment, however, the arguments against decisive naval action were very weighty.
On the other hand, I was extremely anxious for a limited operation. I wished the Fleet to engage the forts at the Narrows and thus test the reports which we had received about the shortage of ammunition. Under cover of this engagement I wished the Kephez minefield to be swept and got out of the way. These were perfectly feasible operations now that the mine-sweeping force was thoroughly organized, and the Dardanelles fleet, although reduced, was ample for their purpose. The elimination of the Kephez minefield would in itself begin to imperil the communications of the army the Turks were building up on the Peninsula.
I could see, however, that Lord Fisher was under considerable strain. His seventy-four years lay heavy upon him. During my absence in Paris upon the negotiations for the Anglo-Italian Naval Convention, he had shown great nervous exhaustion. He had evinced unconcealed distress and anxiety at being left alone in sole charge of the Admiralty. There is no doubt that the old Admiral was worried almost out of his wits by the immense pressure of the times and by the course events had taken. Admiral de Robeck’s telegram distressed him extremely. He expected to be confronted with the demand he hated most and dreaded most, the renewal of the naval battle and fighting the matter out to a conclusion.
On the morning of the 11th we discussed the situation together. I endeavoured repeatedly to make it clear that all I wanted was the sweeping of the Kephez minefield under cover of a renewed engagement of the forts at the Narrows, and that I had no idea of pressing for a decisive effort to force the Straits and penetrate the Marmora. However, I failed to remove his anxieties. No doubt he felt that if the operation were successful, the case for the main thrust in a subsequent stage would be enormously strengthened; and no doubt this was true. The Kephez minefield was his as well as the Turks’ first line of defence. After our conversation the following letters passed between us:—
May 11, 1915.
With much reluctance, in view of our conversation of this morning, I feel compelled to send you the enclosed formal memorandum of my views respecting the Dardanelles, as it is essential that on so vital a point I should not leave you in any doubt as to my opinion.
I have had no communication with Sir A. Wilson or Sir H. Jackson on the subject whatever.
May 11, 1915.
In view of the recent intelligence of the position of affairs at the Dardanelles, I desire formally to put on record my views as to the subsequent progress of the operations. This is necessary because of the suggestion that you have made to me, that it may be expedient and a wise operation of war that the Fleet should again essay to attack or rush the Dardanelles Forts without assistance from the Army.
Our deliberations on the subject of these operations have been conducted either in personal conference or by the interchange of informal notes, and there is therefore no official record of the views that I have from time to time expressed. Although I have acquiesced in each stage of the operations up to the present, largely on account of considerations of political expediency and the political advantage which those whose business it is to judge of these matters have assured me would accrue from success, or even partial success, I have clearly expressed my opinion that I did not consider the original attempt to force the Dardanelles with the Fleet alone was a practicable operation.
I have always insisted that the North Sea is the proper theatre of operations of our Fleet, since there alone is it possible for the enemy to cause us irreparable disaster or for us to gain a decisive victory. For this reason I have looked with misgivings on the steady drain of our naval force to the Dardanelles during the last four months, whether the operations were to be conducted in conjunction with the Army or not. This collection of forces in the Mediterranean has been carried out so gradually that it has been difficult for me to decide at what point danger was threatened in the North Sea; yet each successive increment to the Fleet in the Mediterranean has appeared essential to the success of the local operations. Nevertheless, I was compelled finally to write to you some few weeks ago that I considered we had reached finality, and that no further depletion of our forces in Home Waters was permissible without grave risk in the principal theatre of the naval war.
Yesterday evening you sent me a draft telegram for my concurrence, giving a proposed reply to the telegram received from Vice-Admiral de Robeck earlier in the day. The general tone of this telegram implied that the Board of Admiralty might be prepared to sanction the Fleet undertaking further operations against the Forts irrespective of the Army being unable to advance beyond their present positions. I made an amendment, without which I was not able to concur in this telegram being sent, inserting the words ‘A naval attack cannot even be considered until the Italians, etc., etc.’ I have not heard from you whether this telegram, or any, has actually been sent. I presume not, as I have seen no copy. But it is clearly in my mind that you yourself would be prepared to sanction such a proceeding.
I therefore feel impelled to inform you definitely and formally of my conviction that such an attack by the Fleet on the Dardanelles Forts, in repetition of the operations which failed on March 18, or any attempt by the Fleet to rush by the Narrows, is doomed to failure, and, moreover, is fraught with possibilities of disaster utterly incommensurate to any advantage that could be obtained therefrom.
In my opinion we cannot afford to expose any more ships to the risk of loss in the Dardanelles, since the ships there, though not consisting in the main of first line units, are the reserve on which we depend entirely for supremacy in the event of any unforeseen disaster. Ships sent up to the Sea of Marmora before the Forts had been occupied by the Army would be exposed to great danger, in my opinion, both in getting there and after their arrival.
Before the naval attack on March 19, I expressed the opinion at the War Council that the whole operation, if pressed to a conclusion, would entail a loss of twelve battleships. Three battleships of the Allies were sunk on the 19th, and two others very seriously damaged, although they never came to really close quarters with the powerful batteries at the Narrows and never got close enough to attempt to cross a permanent minefield. If we now try to rush the Narrows, we shall first have to silence and completely control the fire of the very heavy batteries situated there, and then to force our way through minefields. The experience we have gained up to date does not encourage me to think that there is any reasonable prospect even of silencing the guns; the gunners will retire from them until we are to such close quarters that they cannot miss, and then the guns will be fired at hulling range.
The sweeping of the mines in the Narrows is an operation which, in my opinion, experience has shown not to be possible, even after the batteries have been silenced, until the heights on either side have been occupied by the military.
Even after the Narrows are forced we have still to deal with the Nagara group of forts, and there will certainly be further minefields beyond the Narrows and in the Sea of Marmora. Consequently, in addition to the heavy ships, we must pass up a sufficient force of mine-sweepers, without which the large ships will be powerless and caught in a deadly trap.
Finally, even if the Fleet or a portion of it is rushed through to the Marmora, it will not be possible to keep it supplied with coal or munitions or to push an Army up to co-operate with it; and as you yourself so pertinently pointed out in the early discussions on this question, a Fleet by itself can effect very little at Constantinople. Moreover, it would again lose disastrously in returning through the Dardanelles, merely repeating Duckworth’s fiasco. We are dealing this time with highly scientific and skilled and trained Germans, and we cannot gamble on any possibility of inefficiency on the part of the defence.
There is the further menace of German submarines daily drawing nearer to the Dardanelles, and certainly acquainted with the minefields and able to pass into the Marmora, where they would deal destruction to any of our ships.
For the above brief reasons I cannot, under any circumstances, be a party to any order to Admiral de Robeck to make an attempt to pass the Dardanelles until the shores have been effectively occupied. I consider that purely naval action, unsupported by the Army, would merely lead to heavy loss of ships and invaluable men, without any reasonable prospect of a success in any way proportionate to the losses or to the possible further consequences of those losses. I therefore wish it to be clearly understood that I dissociate myself from any such project.
Mr. Churchill to Lord Fisher.
May 11, 1915.
You will never receive from me any proposition to ‘rush’ the Dardanelles: and I agree with the views you express so forcibly on this subject. It may be that the Admiral will have to engage the forts and sweep the Kephez mine-field as an aid to the military operations; and we have always agreed in the desirability of forcing them [the enemy] to fire off their scanty stock of ammunition. But in view of Hamilton’s latest telegrams, this is clearly not required now. And it is my most earnest hope on public and still more on personal grounds that any real issue when presented will find us—as always hitherto—united. That shall be my only endeavour.
We are now in a very difficult position, whether it is my fault for trying, or my misfortune for not having the power to carry through, is immaterial. We are now committed to one of the greatest amphibious enterprises of history. You are absolutely committed. Comradeship, resource, firmness, patience, all in the highest degree will be needed to carry the matter through to victory. A great army hanging on by its eyelids to a rocky beach and confronted with the armed power of the Turkish Empire under German military guidance: the whole surplus fleet of Britain—every scrap that can be spared—bound to that army and its fortunes as long as the struggle may drag out: the apparition of the long-feared submarine—our many needs and obligations—the measureless advantages, probably decisive on the whole war, to be gained by success.
Surely here is a combination and a situation which require from us every conceivable exertion and contrivance which we can think of.
I beg you to lend your whole aid and good will; and ultimately then success is certain.
Lord Fisher to Mr. Churchill.
May 12, 1915.
Until the military operations have effectively occupied the shores of the Narrows, etc., no naval attack on the minefield can take place. But your letter does not repudiate this, and therefore, in view of our joint conversation with the Prime Minister prior to March 18, I have sent him a copy of my memorandum to you.
With reference to your remark that I am absolutely committed, I have only to say that you must know (as the Prime Minister also) that my unwilling acquiescence did not extend to such a further gamble as any repetition of March 18 until the Army had done their part.
Thus it will be seen that never after March as were the Admiralty and the Naval Commander-in-Chief able to come to a simultaneous resolve to attack. On the 21st all were united. Thereafter, when one was hot the other was cold. On March 23 and 24 the Admiralty without issuing actual orders pressed strongly for the attack, and the Admiral on the spot said ‘No.’ On May 10 the Admiral on the spot was willing, but the Admiralty said ‘No.’ On August 18, under the impression of the disaster at Sulva Bay, the Admiralty raised the question again and authorized the Admiral to use his old battleships to the fullest extent, and the Admiral met them by a reasoned but decisive refusal. Lastly, in the advent of the final evacuation Admiral Wemyss, who had succeeded to the command, armed with plans drawn up in the most complete detail by Commodore Keyes for forcing the Straits, made vehement appeals for sanction to execute them: and this time the Admiralty refused.
The bad news which came in from Russia, from France and from the Dardanelles at this time, and the impression I had sustained while with the Army, led me to issue the following general minute to all Admiralty Departments:—
Secretary and Members of the Board.
May 11, 1915.
Please inform all heads of Departments in the Admiralty that for the present it is to be assumed that the war will not end before December 31, 1916. All Admiralty arrangements, and plans should be prepared on this basis, and any measures for the strengthening of our naval power, which will become effective before that date, may be considered. This applies to all questions of personnel, ships, armaments and stores, and to the organization and maintenance of the Fleet and Dockyards, which must be adapted to a long period of continually developing strength without undue strain. I await proposals from all departments for the development and expansion of their activities.
W. S. C.
I also minuted Director of Transports.
May 11, 1915.
You have been told to make arrangements for carrying three infantry brigades of a division, plus 1,000 drafts, with their first line transports and horses to the Dardanelles, starting on the 17th instant at the latest, and employing for this purpose among other vessels the Aquitania and the Mauretania. The Artillery and all other details of the complete division are to go at the earliest moment, which will be when the first transports return from the Mediterranean.
In addition to this sufficient transports are to be brought home from the Mediterranean at once to take another complete Infantry division to the Dardanelles; these should be ready to sail not later than the 30th instant.
Submit at once your scheme for these movements, notifying the military authorities, and taking all necessary steps in anticipation of further sanction.
W. S. C.
On the night of May 12th the Goliath was torpedoed and sunk in the Dardanelles by a Turkish destroyer manned by a German crew. This event determined Lord Fisher to bring the Queen Elizabeth home, and he made upon me a most strenuous counter-demand to that effect. I did not myself object to this. The first two 14-inch gun Monitors (then named Stonewall Jackson and Admiral Farragut) were now ready; and I agreed with the First Sea Lord that the Queen Elizabeth should return, if they and other Monitors, two battleships of the ‘Duncan’ class, and certain additional vessels, were sent to replace her. He was very much relieved at this and was grateful. The position into which we had got was most painful. He wished at all costs to cut the loss and come away from the hated scene. I was bound not only by every conviction, but by every call of honour, to press the enterprise and sustain our struggling Army to the full.
I had now to break the news to Lord Kitchener. I invited him to come to a conference at the Admiralty on the evening of May 13. We sat round the octagonal table; Lord Kitchener on my left, Lord Fisher on my right, together with various other officers of high rank. As soon as Lord Kitchener realized that the Admiralty were going to withdraw the Queen Elizabeth, he became extremely angry. His habitual composure in trying ordeals left him. He protested vehemently against what he considered the desertion of the Army at its most critical moment. On the other side Lord Fisher flew into an even greater fury. ‘The Queen Elizabeth would come home; she would come home at once; she would come home that night, or he would walk out of the Admiralty then and there.’ Could we but have exchanged the positions of these two potentates at this juncture, have let Kitchener hold the Admiralty to its task, and sent Fisher to the War Office to slam in the reinforcements, both would have been happy and all would have been well. Such solutions were beyond us. I stood by my agreement with the First Sea Lord, and did my utmost to explain to Lord Kitchener that the Monitors would give equally good support with far less risk to naval strength. I recounted to him the vessels we were sending, and offered him the most solemn guarantees—in which I was supported by the Naval Staff—of our resolve to sustain the Army by the most effectual means. I thought he was to some extent reassured before he left.
The orders to the Queen Elizabeth went accordingly. I telegraphed to Admiral de Robeck to counteract any depressing effects from this temporary reduction of his forces, coming on top of the withdrawal of the four battleships for the Adriatic to meet the provisions of the Anglo-Italian Naval Convention. Anyhow, Italy was about to join us. A powerful fleet and a regular army of nearly two million men were about to be hurled into the scale against the Teutonic Powers. Only patience and firmness were needed to carry everything through to success. It was plainly impossible, in view of the withdrawals of ships, to make an immediate renewal of the naval attack. I therefore agreed with Lord Fisher in the following series of telegrams.
Admiralty to Vice-Admiral de Robeck.
Two more infantry divisions with other reinforcements leave about 17th and 30th. Meanwhile arrival of German submarines in Turkish waters makes it undesirable to expose Queen Elizabeth. We are therefore sending you at once instead Exmouth and Venerable, and also, before the end of the month, the first two new monitors, Admiral Farragut and Stonewall Jackson, with 2 14-inch guns apiece, an effective range of 20,000 yards, firing a 1,400-pd. high-explosive shell, 10-feet draught, and special bulges against mine and torpedo.
You will be able to use the two monitors much more, freely for all purposes, as they have been specially built for this work.
Queen Elizabeth is to sail for home at once with all despatch and utmost secrecy. You should make out she has gone to Malta for a few days and will return.
Secondly, an Anglo-Franco-Italian naval convention has been signed which requires us to provide four battleships for service with the Italian fleet as soon as the French squadron under your command is raised to a total of six battleships. Queen, London, Implacable, Prince of Wales, under Rear-Admiral Thursby, will, as soon as the French ships arrive, proceed to Malta in readiness for service with the Italian fleet in the Adriatic.
Thirdly, aforesaid convention also provides that four British light cruisers from your fleet are to go to Malta for service in the Adriatic as soon as the French cruisers under your command reach total of four. Independently of this, we are sending you Cornwall and Chatham. Names of French vessels and dates of arrival will be telegraphed to you later. It is probable they will arrive before June 1.
The utmost secrecy is to be observed in all these rearrangements, and no one except General Hamilton and your Chief of Staff is to be informed until actual movements take place.
Admiralty to Vice-Admiral de Robeck.
May 12, 1915, 9.50 p.m.
329. Personal and Secret. From First Lord.
I hope you will not be discouraged by the recall of the Queen Elizabeth and the unavoidable changes in your fleet consequent on the Italian Convention.
The two monitors will go anywhere, and you will be able to use them with freedom.
They are the last word in bombarding vessels.
I am determined to support you and the army in every way to the end of your task, and I am quite sure that the result will amply repay the sacrifices and anxieties of the struggle.
Admiralty to Vice-Admiral de Robeck.
May 13, 1915, 8.40 p.m.
343. From First Lord. Secret and Personal. Your 490.
We think the moment for an independent naval attempt to force the Narrows has passed, and will not arise again under present conditions. The army is now landed, large reinforcements are being sent, and there can be no doubt that with time and patience the Kilid Bahr plateau will be taken. Your rôle is therefore to support the army in its costly but sure advance, and to reserve your strength to deal with the situation which will arise later when the army has succeeded with your aid in its task. We are going to send you the first six monitors as they are delivered, and you will find them far better adapted to this special work than the old battleships. You will later receive telegrams about increased provision of nets against submarines, about fitting special anti-mine protection to some of your battleships, and about landing heavy guns.
On these telegrams—the last we ever sent together—Lord Fisher and I parted for the night.