The War Council of May 14—Lord Kitchener’s Reproaches—My Reply—After the Council—The Necessary Measures—Minutes—A Conversation with Lord Fisher—The Italian Crisis—The Despatch of the British Cruisers—Lord Fisher’s Point of View—Resignation of Lord Fisher—Correspondence—A New Combination—The Issue in the House of Commons—Mr. Lloyd George Intervenes—Mr. Asquith’s Action—Sortie of the High Seas Fleet—Orders to the Grand Fleet—One Day—The Naval Situation at Dawn on May 18—Progress of the Political Crisis—Public Reaction—Sir Arthur Wilson’s Letter—Correspondence with the Prime Minister—My Relations with the Prime Minister—Mr. Asquith and the House of Commons—The Formation of the First Coalition Government—A Visit of Ceremony—Sir Arthur Wilson’s Persistent Refusal—The Interregnum—Carrying On—Telegrams and Letters—The U-Boat Menace in the Ægean—My Letter to Mr. Balfour—I leave the Admiralty—The Naval Position—The Inheritance.
The War Council of May 14 was sulphurous. We were in presence of the fact that Sir Ian Hamilton’s army had been definitely brought to a standstill on the Gallipoli Peninsula, was suspended there in circumstances of peril, was difficult to reinforce, and still more difficult to withdraw. The Fleet had relapsed into passivity. Lord Fisher had insisted on the withdrawal of the Queen Elizabeth: German submarines were about to enter the Ægean, where our enormous concentrations of shipping necessary to support the Dardanelles operations lay in a very unprotected state. At the same time the failure of the British attacks in France on the Aubers Ridge was unmistakable. Sir John French’s army had lost nearly 20,000 men without substantial results, and General Headquarters naturally demanded increased supplies of men and ammunition. The shell crisis had reached its explosion point—the shortage had been disclosed in The Times that morning—and behind it marched a political crisis of the first order. The weakness and failure of Russia were becoming every month more evident. Intense anxiety and extreme bad temper, all suppressed under formal demeanour, characterized the discussion.
Lord Kitchener began in a strain of solemn and formidable complaint. He had been induced to participate in the Dardanelles operations on the assurances of the Navy that they would force the passage. Now they had abandoned the attempt. Most particularly had his judgment been affected by the unique qualities of the Queen Elizabeth. Now she was to be withdrawn: she was to be withdrawn at the very moment when he had committed his army to a great operation on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and when that army was struggling for its life with its back to the sea. Lord Fisher at this point interjected that he had been against the Dardanelles operations from the beginning, and that the Prime Minister and Lord Kitchener knew this fact well. This remarkable interruption was received in silence. The Secretary of State for War then proceeded to survey other theatres of the war in an extremely pessimistic mood. The army in France was firing away shells at a rate which no military administration had ever been asked to sustain. The orders which had been placed for ammunition of every kind were all being completed late. The growing weakness of Russia might at any time enable the Germans to transfer troops to the West and resume the offensive against us. Thirdly, he proceeded to dilate upon the dangers of invasion. How could he tell what would happen? Great Britain must be defended at all costs, all the more if other affairs miscarried. In these circumstances he could not send Sir John French the four new divisions he had promised him: they must be reserved for home defence.
When he had finished, the Council turned to me—almost on me. I thereupon spoke in the sense of the series of arguments with which the preceding chapters should have familiarised the reader. If it had been known three months before that an army of from 80,000 to 100,000 men would be available in May for an attack on the Dardanelles, the attack by the Navy alone would never have been undertaken. Though matters had gone badly in many quarters and great disappointments had been experienced, there was no reason for despondency or alarm, still less to make things out worse than they were or to take unreasonable action. The Naval operations at the Dardanelles did not depend and had never depended upon the Queen Elizabeth. They had been planned before it was known that she would go. She was now to be withdrawn because of the danger of submarines to so invaluable a ship. She would be replaced by monitors and other specially designed vessels better suited in many respects to bombarding operations and largely immune from submarine attack. The naval support of the army would in no way be affected. It was no good exaggerating the value of the Queen Elizabeth, or supposing that a great operation of this kind could turn on a single vessel. As for the shell shortage, that would remedy itself if we made the greatest exertions and did not meanwhile embark on premature offensives without adequate superiority in men, guns or ammunition. Lastly, what was this talk about invasion? The Admiralty did not believe that any landing in force could be effected; still less if effected, that it could be sustained and nourished. What grounds were there for supposing that the enemy, now fully committed to the eastward effort against Russia, would spin round and bring troops back to invade England or attack the Western Front? And how many would they bring, and how long would it take? Stop these vain offensives on the Western Front until the new armies were ready and sufficient ammunition was accumulated. Concentrate the available reinforcements upon the Dardanelles and give them such ammunition as was necessary to reach a decision there at the earliest possible moment. Discard these alarms about the invasion of an island no longer denuded of troops as in 1914, but bristling with armed men and guarded by a fleet far stronger relatively than at the beginning of the war and possessed of sources of information never previously dreamed of. Let Sir John French have the new divisions for which he had asked, but otherwise remain on the defensive in France.
I am not quoting the actual words in either case, but their gist. The sense is fully sustained by the abbreviated records. These considerations appeared to produce a definite impression upon the Council. We separated without any decision. My arguments were, however, accepted almost in their entirety by the Coalition Administration which came into existence a few weeks later, and every one of the suppositions on which they rested was vindicated by events. The departure of the Queen Elizabeth did not prevent the naval support of the army at Gallipoli nor its supply by sea. The British and French offensives in France continued to fail over a much longer period than this account covers, with ever-increasing bloody slaughter and the fruitless destruction of our new armies. The Germans did not and could not arrest their drive against Russia, which was in fact on the eve of its full intensity. They did not come back to the West, nor was it physically possible for them to do so for many months to come. They did not invade England: they never thought of invading England at this period, nor could they have done it had they tried.
However, events were now to supervene in the British political sphere which were destined fatally to destroy the hopes of a successful issue at the Dardanelles and preclude all possibility of a speedy termination of the war.
After the Council I wrote the following letter to the Prime Minister which I think shows exactly where I stood:—
Mr. Churchill to the Prime Minister.
May 14, 1915.
I must ask you to take note of Fisher’s statements to-day that ‘he was against the Dardanelles and had been all along,’ or words to that effect. The First Sea Lord has agreed in writing to every executive telegram on which the operations have been conducted; and had they been immediately successful, the credit would have been his. But I make no complaint of that. I am attached to the old boy and it is a great pleasure to me to work with him. I think he reciprocates these feelings. My point is that a moment will probably arise in these operations when the Admiral and General on the spot will wish and require to run a risk with the Fleet for a great and decisive effort. If I agree with them, I shall sanction it, and I cannot undertake to be paralysed by the veto of a friend who whatever the result will certainly say, ‘I was always against the Dardanelles.’
You will see that in a matter of this kind someone has to take the responsibility. I will do so—provided that my decision is the one that rules—and not otherwise.
It is also uncomfortable not to know what Kitchener will or won’t do in the matter of reinforcements. We are absolutely in his hands, and I never saw him in a queerer mood—or more unreasonable. K. will punish the Admiralty by docking Hamilton of his divisions because we have withdrawn the Queen Elizabeth; and Fisher will have the Queen Elizabeth home if he is to stay.
Through all this with patience and determination we can make our way to one of the great events in the history of the world.
But I wish now to make it clear to you that a man who says, ‘I disclaim responsibility for failure,’ cannot be the final arbiter of the measures which may be found to be vital to success.
This requires no answer and I am quite contented with the course of affairs.
I spent the afternoon completing my proposals for the naval reinforcement of the Dardanelles and for the convoying of the two divisions with which I understood and trusted Sir Ian Hamilton was to be immediately reinforced. Here are the minutes and telegrams.
Minute by the First Lord.
First Sea Lord.
Chief of Staff.
May 14, 1915.
Although there is good reason to hope that a speedy termination may be reached, it would now be prudent to assume that the operations against the Dardanelles will not take less than three months, and to make all preparations on that basis. If success is obtained earlier, so much the better; but let us make sure that it is not deferred longer. The operations have now reached a point where they may easily develop into a great siege similar to that of Port Arthur, though not so formidable. Our preparations should therefore consider and cover the following points:—
1. The provision of siege artillery, which could be used against the semi-permanent works, and the mounting on shore of heavy long-range naval guns which can, from the existing positions held by our troops, bring accurate fire to bear on the permanent defences.
2. The provision of landing stages of a semi-permanent character of Sedd-el-Bahr and Gaba Tepe, with cranes, lines of railway, and all other facilities for handling large and heavy traffic.
3. Protection against the enemy’s submarines by means of the establishment of regular lines of indicator nets watched by drifters, joining up Imbros with the Gallipoli Peninsula, and providing permanent protection along the western coast. In these tideless waters, and with the great quantity of indicator nets coming to hand, there should be no difficulty in this.
4. The battleships of the bombarding fleet should go by turns to Malta, and there be fitted with the best steel trelliswork protection against mines which can be devised. While the present lull in the operations continues there can be no need to keep the whole fleet at the Dardanelles, and every opportunity should be taken to afford the ships the necessary protection.
5. Seventy aeroplanes and seaplanes will be required, and preparations must be made to work up to this. Some of the heaviest seaplanes capable of carrying and dropping 500-lb. bombs are to be included. I will settle the details of this last provision personally with the Director of the Air Division.
W. S. C.
Minute by the First Lord.
First Sea Lord.
Chief of Staff.
May 14, 1915.
1. The fifth 15-inch howitzer, with fifty rounds of ammunition, should go to the Dardanelles with the least possible delay, being sent by special train across France and re-embarked at Marseilles. Let me have a time-table showing by what date it can arrive at the Dardanelles.
The two 9·2-inch guns will go to the Dardanelles, either in the two monitors prepared for them or separately, for mounting on shore. This will be decided as soon as we hear from Vice-Admiral de Robeck.
2. The following nine heavy monitors should go in succession to the Dardanelles, as soon as they are ready:—
Admiral Farragut, General Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Lord Clive, Prince Rupert, Sir John Moore, General Craufurd, and Marshal Ney.
The first six of the 9·2-inch monitors should also go, unless the Admiral chooses to have two of their guns for work on shore, in which case the first four only will go. A time-table should be prepared showing the dates on which they can be despatched and will arrive. They can calibrate on the Turks. All necessary steps for their seaworthiness on the voyage should be taken.
In the case of the 9·2-inch monitors, it may be found better to send the actual guns out to Malta separately.
It is clear that when this large accession of force reaches the Vice-Admiral, he should be able to spare a portion of his battleships for service in Home waters; but it may be better to see how the monitors work and what use they are to him before raising this point.
3. Four of the ‘Edgars,’ with special bulge protection against the mine and torpedo, are now ready. They carry twelve 6-inch guns each, and supply the medium armament which the monitors lack. They would be specially useful for supporting the army at night, without risk from torpedo attack. They would also be useful at a later stage in passing a small torpedo-tube [mounted on shore] or escorting other ships that were passing. We have not found any satisfactory employment for them here. It is not necessary to provide crews for them. Working parties, which can take them out, will be sufficient. The Admiral can man them from his large fleet for any special service that may be required. They should start as soon as possible.
Let me have a report on the manning possibilities as defined above, and times by which they can arrive.
It will be for consideration, when these vessels are on the spot, whether a valuable ship like the Chatham should not be released for other duties.
4. The Third Sea Lord will make proposals for providing anti-mine protection for a proportion of the battleships employed, on the lines proposed at our discussion.
W. S. C.
Although there could be very little doubt about what naval reinforcements were needed, I did not want the demands to fall upon Lord Fisher with a shock. I therefore went into his room in the evening to talk over the whole position with him. Our conversation was quite friendly. He did not object to any of the particular measures proposed, but as usual he did not like the steady and increasing drain on our resources and the inflection given to our campaign by the growing demands of the Dardanelles. I then said to him that it was really not fair for him to obstruct the necessary steps at the Dardanelles and then, if there was a failure, to turn round and say, ‘I told you so, I was always against it.’ He looked at me in an odd way and said, ‘I think you are right—it isn’t fair.’ However, he accepted the minutes and we parted amicably.
Into this extraordinary period, when intense situations succeeded each other with dazing rapidity, another event was now to break. Following the method which I had adopted since Lord Fisher came to the Admiralty, I resumed work in my room at about 10 o’clock that night. The Italian crisis was at its height. The Italian Government had resigned in consequence of the opposition to Italy entering the war, and this enormous and brilliant event which we had regarded as almost settled more than a fortnight before, now appeared once again to be thrown into the melting-pot. A little before midnight the Italian Naval Attaché, an officer ardently devoted to the cause of the Allies, asked to see me. He was accompanied by Admiral Oliver, who had a file of papers. The Naval Attaché said that the uncertainty and convulsions now prevailing in Rome made it vital that the arrangements for naval co-operation which had been conceived a week before in Paris should be brought into immediate effect. Under these arrangements we were to send inter alia four light cruisers to reinforce the Italian Fleet in the Adriatic. These cruisers were to reach Taranto by daybreak on the 18th. The Naval Attaché urged that their arrival should be accelerated. If they could arrive by the morning of the 16th, definite naval co-operation between Great Britain and Italy would be an accomplished fact, and this fact might well be decisive.
As I had myself negotiated the Naval Convention with Italy in Paris, I was of course fully acquainted with every detail. I had procured the First Sea Lord’s agreement to all its terms, including the despatch of the four cruisers. These cruisers had been detailed. Fisher’s green initial directing their movement was prominent on the second page of the file. No question of principle was involved by accelerating their departure by forty-eight hours. It did not come within the limits of the working arrangement which Fisher and I had made with each other, viz., to take no important step except in consultation. It never occurred to me for a moment that it could be so viewed, nor did the Chief of the Staff suggest that we should wake up the First Sea Lord. He would begin his letters at about 4 o’clock in the morning and he would get the file then. I therefore approved the immediate despatch of these cruisers and wrote, as I had done in similar cases before, ‘First Sea Lord to see after action.’
For more than ten years I believed that this phrase was the spark that fired the train. We are assured however by Lord Fisher’s biographers that he never saw the Italian paper until after he had resigned. Admiral Bacon in his Life of Lord Fisher, basing himself upon the first-hand evidence of Captain Crease, states explicitly that the fact that I had on this night proposed to the First Sea Lord the sending of two more submarines to the Dardanelles in addition to the reinforcements we had agreed upon in the evening, was ‘the last straw.’ If this be true the pretext is not the less scanty. But the cause behind the pretext was, as these pages may perhaps have shown, substantial.
The old Admiral, waking in the early morning, saw himself confronted again with the minutes proposing the reinforcements for the Dardanelles which he knew he could not resist. He saw himself becoming ever more deeply involved in an enterprise which he distrusted and disliked. He saw that enterprise quivering on the verge of failure. He saw a civilian Minister, to whom indeed he was attached by many bonds of friendship, becoming every day a hard and stern taskmaster in all that was needed to sustain the hated operation. He saw the furious discontents of the Conservative Party at the shell shortage and the general conduct of the war. He saw a Field-Marshal in uniform at the head of the War Office, while he, whose name was a watchword throughout the country, was relegated to a secondary place, and in that place was compelled by arguments and pressures he had never been able to resist, but had never ceased to resent, to become responsible for operations to which he had taken an intense dislike. The hour had come.
When I awoke the next morning, Saturday, I received no morning letter from the First Sea Lord. This was unusual, for he nearly always wrote me his waking thoughts on the situation. I had to go over to the Foreign Office at about nine o’clock and was kept there some time. As I was returning across the Horse Guards’ Parade, Masterton-Smith hurried up to me with an anxious face—‘Fisher has resigned, and I think he means it this time.’ He gave me the following note from the First Sea Lord:—
May 15, 1915.
After further anxious reflection I have come to the regretted conclusion I am unable to remain any longer as your colleague. It is undesirable in the public interests to go into details—Jowett said, ‘never explain’—but I find it increasingly difficult to adjust myself to the increasing daily requirements of the Dardanelles to meet your views—as you truly said yesterday I am in the position of continually vetoing your proposals.
This is not fair to you besides being extremely distasteful to me.
I am off to Scotland at once so as to avoid all questionings.
I did not, however, at first take a serious view. I remembered a similar letter couched in terms of the utmost formality earlier in the year on the air raids, and he had threatened or hinted resignation both in letters and in conversation on all sorts of matters, big and small, during the last four or five months. I was pretty sure that a good friendly talk would put matters right. However, when I got back to the Admiralty I found that he had entirely disappeared. He was not in the building; he was not in his house. None of his people knew where he was except that he was going to Scotland at once. He had sent a communication to the other Sea Lords which they were engaged in discussing at a meeting of their own.
I went over to the Prime Minister and reported the facts. Mr. Asquith immediately sent his Secretary with a written order commanding Lord Fisher in the name of the King to return to his duty. It was some hours before the First Sea Lord was discovered. He refused point-blank to re-enter the Admiralty or to discharge any function. He reiterated his determination to proceed at once to Scotland. He was, however, at length persuaded to come and see the Prime Minister. I was not present at the interview. After it was over Mr. Asquith told me that he thought he had shaken him in his intention, but that he was very much upset. He advised me to write to him, adding, ‘If you can get him back, well and good; but if not it will be a very difficult situation.’ The correspondence which follows tells its own tale. I tried my best. Again and again I had persuaded him by the written word. It was useless.
Mr. Churchill to Lord Fisher.
May 15, 1915.
The only thing to think of now is what is best for the country and for the brave men who are fighting. Anything which does injury to those interests will be harshly judged by history, on whose stage we now are.
I do not understand what is the specific cause which has led you to resign. If I did I might cure it. When we parted last night I thought we were in agreement. The proposals I made to you by minute were, I thought, in general accord with your views; and in any case were for discussion between us. Our personal friendship is and I trust will remain unimpaired.
It is true the moment is anxious and our difficulties grave. But I am sure that with loyalty and courage we shall come through safely and successfully. You could not let it be said that you had thrown me over because things were for the time being going badly at the Dardanelles.
In every way I have tried to work in the closest sympathy with you. The men you wanted in the places you wanted them—the ships you designed—every proposal you have formally made for naval action, I have agreed to.
My own responsibilities are great, and also I am the one who gets the blame for anything that goes wrong. But I have scrupulously adhered to our original agreement that we should do nothing important without consulting each other. If you think this is not so, surely you should tell me in what respect.
In order to bring you back to the Admiralty I took my political life in my hands—as you know well. You then promised to stand by me and see me through. If you now go at this bad moment and thereby let loose upon me the spite and malice of those who are your enemies even more than they are mine, it will be a melancholy ending to our six months of successful war and administration. The discussions which will arise will strike a cruel blow at the fortunes of the army now struggling on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and cannot fail to invest with an air of disaster a mighty enterprise which with patience can and will certainly be carried to success.
Many of the anxieties of the winter are past. The harbours are protected, the great flow of new construction is arriving. We are far stronger at home than we have ever been, and the great reinforcement is now at hand.
I hope you will come to see me to-morrow afternoon. I have a proposition to make to you, with the assent of the Prime Minister, which may remove some of the anxieties and difficulties which you feel about the measures necessary to support the army at the Dardanelles.
Though I shall stand to my post until relieved, it will be a very great grief to me to part from you; and our rupture will be profoundly injurious to every public interest.
Lord Fisher to Mr. Churchill.
May 16, 1915.
MY DEAR WINSTON,—
The Prime Minister put the case in a nutshell when he stated to me yesterday afternoon the actual fact that I had been dead against the Dardanelles operation from the beginning! How could it be otherwise when previously as First Sea Lord I had been responsible for the Defence Committee Memorandum stating the forcing of the Dardanelles to be impossible! You must remember my extreme reluctance in the Prime Minister’s room in January to accept his decision in regard to the Dardanelles, and at the War Council held immediately afterwards I stated in reply to a question by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Prime Minister knew my views and I left the matter to him to explain.
Ever since (as I fear to your great annoyance) I have been, as you truly said the other day, in the unpleasant position of being antagonistic to your proposals, until the series of fresh naval arrangements for the Dardanelles you sent me yesterday morning convinced me that the time had arrived for me to take a final decision—there being much more in those proposals than had occurred to me the previous evening when you suggested some of them.
YOU ARE BENT ON FORCING THE DARDANELLES AND NOTHING WILL TURN YOU FROM IT—NOTHING. I know you so well! I could give you no better proof of my desire to stand by you than my having remained by you in this Dardanelles business up to this last moment against the strongest conviction of my life as stated in the Dardanelles Defence Committee Memorandum.
You will remain and I SHALL GO—It is better so. Your splendid stand on my behalf I can never forget when you took your political life in your hands, and I really have worked very hard for you in return—my utmost—but here is a question beyond all personal obligations. I assure you it is only painful having further conversations. I have told the Prime Minister I will not remain. I have absolutely decided to stick to that decision. Nothing will turn me from it. You say with much feeling that it will be a very great grief to you to part from me—I am certain you know in your heart no one has ever been more faithful to you than I have since I joined you last October. I have worked my very hardest.
Mr. Churchill to Lord Fisher.
May 16, 1915.
I am touched by the kindness of your letter. Our friendship has been a long one. I remember how in 1908 you tried to bring me to the Admiralty as First Lord. When I eventually came in 1911 I proposed to the Prime Minister that you should return to your old position, and only the difficulties which your enemies were likely to make at that time prevented the accomplishment of my first wish. As it was I followed your guidance in the important decisions which have given us the 15-inch gun and Jellicoe to-day.
Six months ago in the crisis of this great war you came to my aid; since then we have worked together in the very closest intimacy. One difficulty after another has been surmounted; vast schemes of new construction have been carried through; and tremendous reinforcements are now approaching the fleet. Over the whole range of war policy and naval administration there is nothing that I know of on which we are disagreed—except the series of events which have led us into the ‘Dardanelles.’ Even there we are agreed upon the immediate steps, for I shall not press any wish about reinforcements beyond the point to which you were willing to go—namely, the six earliest monitors. We are now fully agreed that the fleet is not to attempt to rush the Narrows, but is to support the army in its gradual advance upon the forts by land. Orders in this sense have been given with which you were in complete accord.
It seems to me that the only course now is to hold on, to go slow, putting as many ships as possible in Malta and the Canal, out of harm’s way, and using the destroyers which are out there to hunt the submarines and convoy the army corps which is now starting. If you came into the Admiralty to-morrow for the first time and looked at the problem as it is now, you would advise this as the only practical course.
You must feel as I do and as the War Council decided that whoever may be responsible for the original step, to withdraw now cannot be contemplated.
The announcement of your resignation at this juncture will be accepted everywhere as proof that the military operations as well as the naval at the Dardanelles have failed. The position of the army which has suffered a loss of 30,000 men in a joint operation will be jeopardized. The admission of failure at the Dardanelles, for so your resignation would be exploited all over the world, might prove the deciding factor in the case of Italy, now trembling on the brink. The knowledge of these facts forces me, not for my own sake (for the fortunes of individuals do not matter now), to appeal to you not to make your resignation operative until at least Italy has declared herself, for which the latest date is the 26th. Meanwhile Sir Arthur Wilson could, if you desire it, do your work.
There ought to be no reproaches between us, and you, my friend, must at this moment in your long career so act that no one can say you were unmindful of the public interests and of the lives of the soldiers and sailors.
In any case, whatever you decide I claim in the name of friendship and in the name of duty, a personal interview—if only for the purpose of settling what explanation is to be offered to Parliament.
Lord Fisher to Mr. Churchill.
May, 16, 1915.
As usual your letter is most persuasive, but I really have considered everything and I have definitely told the Prime Minister that I leave to-morrow (Monday).
Please don’t wish to see me. I could say nothing as I am determined not to. I know I am doing right.
It was no use persisting further, and I turned to consider new combinations. I was by no means sure that I should not be confronted with the resignation of the other three Sea Lords. On the Sunday morning, however, I learned that Sir Arthur Wilson had been consulted by the Sea Lords and that he had informed them that it was their duty to remain at their posts and that no case for resignation had arisen. I was led by this fact to ask Sir Arthur Wilson whether he would be willing himself to fill the vacancy of First Sea Lord. He asked for an hour to consider the matter, and then to my gratification, and I will add surprise, he informed me that he would do so. By Sunday at noon I was in a position to reconstitute the Board of Admiralty in all respects. I then motored down to the Prime Minister, who was in the country. I told him that Lord Fisher’s resignation was final, and that my office was at his disposal if he required to make a change. He said, ‘No, I have thought of that. I do not wish it, but can you get a Board?’ I then told him that all the other Members of the Board would remain, and that Sir Arthur Wilson would take Lord Fisher’s place. I understood him to assent to this arrangement. Later his private secretary mentioned in conversation that the situation resulting from the shell shortage disclosure and the resignation of Lord Fisher was so serious that the Prime Minister thought the Unionist leaders would have to be consulted on the steps to be taken. I saw from this that the crisis would not be by any means confined to the Admiralty. Mr. Asquith asked me to stay and dine, and we had a pleasant evening amid all our troubles. I returned that night to London.
On Monday morning I asked Mr. Balfour to come to the Admiralty. I told him Lord Fisher had resigned, and that I understood from the Prime Minister that he would approve the reconstruction of the Board of Admiralty with Sir Arthur Wilson as First Sea Lord. I told him Sir Arthur Wilson was willing to accept office and that all the other Members of the Board would remain. I said that if these arrangements were finally approved by the Prime Minister that afternoon, I would make an immediate announcement to the House of Commons and court a debate. Mr. Balfour was indignant at Lord Fisher’s resignation. He said that it would greatly disturb his Unionist friends and that he would himself go and prepare them for it and steady their opinion. Nothing could exceed the kindness and firmness of his attitude. I spent the rest of the morning preparing my statement for Parliament, expecting a severe challenge but also to be successful. I still had no knowledge whatever of the violent political convulsions which were proceeding around me and beneath me.
I went down to the House with the list of my new Board complete, fully prepared to encounter the debate. Before seeing the Prime Minister I looked into the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s room. Mr. Lloyd George then made to me the following disclosure. The leaders of the Opposition were in possession of all the facts about the shell shortage and had given notice that they intended to demand a debate. The resignation of Lord Fisher at this juncture created a political crisis. Mr. Lloyd George was convinced that this crisis could only be surmounted by the formation of a national Coalition Government. He had accordingly informed the Prime Minister that he would resign unless such a Government were formed at once. I said that he knew I had always been in favour of such a Government and had pressed it at every possible opportunity, but that I hoped now it might be deferred until my Board was reconstituted and in the saddle at the Admiralty. He said action must be immediate.
I then repaired, as had been arranged, to the Prime Minister. He received me with great consideration. I presented him with the list of the new Board. He said, ‘No, this will not do. I have decided to form a national Government by a coalition with the Unionists, and a very much larger reconstruction will be required.’ He told me that Lord Kitchener was to leave the War Office, and then added, after some complimentary remarks, ‘What are we to do for you?’ I saw at once that it was decided I should leave the Admiralty, and I replied that Mr. Balfour could succeed me there with the least break in continuity; that for several months I had made him a party to all our secrets and to everything that was going forward; and that his appointment would be far the best that could be made. The Prime Minister seemed deeply gratified at this suggestion, and I saw that he already had it in his mind. He reverted to the personal question. ‘Would I take office in the new Government, or would I prefer a command in France?’ At this moment the Chancellor of the Exchequer entered the room. The Prime Minister turned to him. Mr. Lloyd George replied, ‘Why do you not send him to the Colonial Office? There is great work to be done there.’ I did not accept this suggestion, and the discussion was about to continue when the door again opened and a secretary entered with the following message for me: ‘Masterton-Smith is on the telephone. Very important news of the kind that never fails has just come in. You must come back to the Admiralty at once.’ I repeated this information to my two colleagues and quitted them without another word.
It took only five minutes to get to the Admiralty. There I learned that the whole German Fleet was coming out. All its three Battle Squadrons, both Scouting Groups and 70 destroyers were involved. A message from the German Commander-in-Chief to the Fleet contained the phrase ‘Intend to attack by day.’ The political crisis and my own fate in it passed almost completely out of my mind. In the absence of the First Sea Lord, I sent for Admiral Oliver, the Chief of the Staff and the Second Sea Lord, Sir Frederick Hamilton, and we together issued orders for the Grand Fleet and all other available forces to proceed to sea. I was determined that our whole power should be engaged if battle were joined, and that the enemy’s retreat should be intercepted.
Admiralty to Commodore (T) and Captain (S).
May 17, 3.40 p.m.
Cancel previous arrangements. All light cruisers, destroyers and submarines prepare for sea at once and await orders.
Admiralty to Commander-in-Chief Home Fleets; 1st Battle Squadron, Invergordon; Battle Cruiser Fleet and 3rd Battle Squadron, Rosyth.
Grand Fleet is to prepare for sea at once.
Admiralty to Senior Naval Officer Submarines, Yarmouth.
Send all available submarines to Lat. 53° 35′ N., Long. 5° 0′ E., at once.
A destroyer will be sent to communicate orders to them. Should no orders reach them within four hours of arrival at position ordered, they are to proceed to Lat. 53° 56′ N., Long. 6° 35′ E., and spread 3 miles apart East and West.
Admiralty to Admiral of Patrols.
Recall all auxiliary patrols from Dogger Bank immediately.
Admiralty to Commander-in-Chief Home Fleets, Vice-Admiral 3rd Battle Squadron, Vice-Admiral 1st Battle Squadron, and Vice-Admiral Battle Cruiser Fleet.
May 17, 1915, 5 p.m.
[After explaining the situation and transmitting our information, this telegram proceeded:—]
Grand Fleet including battle cruisers are to rendezvous at 4 a.m. to-morrow in Lat. 57° 14′ N., Long. 0° 18′ E. Light Cruiser Squadrons should proceed to Lat. 56° 40′ N., Long 1° 0′ E., as soon as possible and look out.
Admiralty to all East Coast Patrol Centres.
Recall auxiliary Patrol vessels to the vicinity of the War Signal Stations.
Admiralty to Rear-Admiral, Dover.
Send five submarines to Harwich as soon as possible to follow the orders of Senior Naval Officer, Harwich….
Admiralty to Rosyth, Nore, Dover and Admiral of Patrols.
Have all submarines under way and ready for service outside their ports and in easy communication by visual signals at 3.30 a.m. to-morrow. All available destroyers and scouts are also to be in readiness.
To Admiral of Patrols only.
Illustrious is to be ready for action at anchor with steam up at 3.30 a.m. Brilliant and scouts are to be under weigh inside Spurn Point at 3.30 a.m.
Admiralty to Rear-Admiral, Dover.
Send the Tribal destroyers to join Commodore (T) and follow his orders. He will be patrolling on a line west from the mouth of the Texel at daylight to-morrow and they should join him as soon after daylight as possible. Warn destroyers that Commodore (T) has submarines with him.
Admiralty to Commander-in-Chief.
Four submarines will be in Lat. 53° 35′ N., Long. 5° 0′ E. by noon to-morrow.
Commodore (T) with four light cruisers and about fifteen destroyers will be patrolling from the Texel to a position 40 miles west of Texel from daylight to-morrow supported by eleven submarines.
Coast defence destroyers and submarines will be under weigh and in visual communication with War Signal Station at daylight to-morrow.
First Lord to Commander-in-Chief.
It is not impossible that to-morrow may be The Day. All good fortune attend you.
A detailed review of our available strength showed that the position at the moment was exceptionally good. Our margins were everywhere at their maximum. I requested Sir Arthur Wilson and the Second Sea Lord, Sir Frederick Hamilton, to sleep in the Admiralty at my house in order that we might be ready in concert to face the crisis which the dawn might bring. I did not return to the House of Commons but remained continuously in the Admiralty. Late that evening a red box came round from the Prime Minister enclosing a note stating that he had determined to form a Coalition Government and requesting all Ministers to place their resignations in his hands that same night. I complied with this request in the following letter:—
Mr. Churchill to Mr. Asquith.
May 17, 1915
…So far as I am concerned, if you find it necessary to make a change here, I should be glad—assuming it was thought fitting—to be offered a position in the new Government. But I will not take any office except a military department, and if that is not convenient I hope I may be found employment in the field.
I am strongly in favour of a National Government, and no personal claims or interests should stand in its way at the present crisis. I should be sorry to leave the Admiralty, where I have borne the brunt, but should always rely on you to vindicate my work here.
Having despatched this, I went to bed. In the morning I had prepared for a Parliamentary ordeal of the most searching character; in the afternoon for a political crisis fatal to myself; in the evening for the supreme battle on the sea. For one day it was enough.
With the earliest daylight I went down to the War Room. From 3 a.m. onwards our directional stations had begun to pick up the Enemy Fleet. The German Fleet Flagship was found to have been in Lat. 53° 50′ N., Long. 4° 20′ E., at 2.9 a.m. She was thus some 126 miles westward of Heligoland and about 40 miles from Terschelling Island. All the Fleets were at sea. The Grand Fleet with its attendant squadrons and flotillas was hastening to the southward. Commodore Tyrwhitt with the Harwich flotillas, reinforced by the Dover destroyers and supported by eleven submarines, was off the Texel watching the narrow seas. It was only in southern waters that the enemy could strike an effective blow, such as attempting to block Calais or Boulogne. If this were their purpose the Harwich Force could either have attacked them by night, or drawn them into pursuit to the southward by day over a line of submarines. If by any means the German Fleet could be delayed in southern waters, the opportunity would be afforded to the Grand Fleet of blocking their return to German ports, either off Terschelling or by the eastern route into the Heligoland Bight. The situation after dawn was therefore for some time of the highest interest.
We got no further indication of the enemy’s movements till 7 a.m. It then appeared that he had altered course and was steering south-east instead of west. All our faces fell together. Unless he turned again towards us, we should not be able to scoop him into our net. The morning wore on amid confusing indications. At 9 o’clock we learned that the German light cruiser Danzig had met with an accident—presumably from a mine—in 54° 40′ N., 7° 5′ E. Gloom settled on the War Room. This was much nearer the German coast. At last, at about half-past ten, it became certain that the German Fleet was on its way home. It had in fact—as far as we now know—been covering the laying of the minefields on the Dogger Bank which came into existence from this date. This operation being completed, the German Fleet re-entered the Heligoland Bight before our submarines could reach their intercepting position. The episode was over. All our fleets, squadrons and flotilla turned morosely away to resume their long-drawn, unrelenting watch, and I awoke again to the political crisis.
But my hour had passed, and during the afternoon, and still more the following day, I learned from a sure source that my position was being viewed with increasing disfavour by those into whose hands power had now fallen. I was not included in their conclaves, which proceeded with the utmost animation from hour to hour. The Unionist leaders on coming to the aid of the nation at this juncture made no conditions as to policy, but stipulated for half the places and patronage. Mr. Asquith had therefore to dispense with half his former colleagues. Those whose actions in the conduct of the war were held to have produced this disagreeable result were naturally the object of resentment in Liberal circles. Up till Monday night it had been under discussion whether Lord Kitchener should not be transferred from the War Office to some great position similar to that of Commander-in-Chief; but on Tuesday it was realized that his hold on the confidence of the nation was still too great for any Government to do without him. On Wednesday, Mr. Asquith issued the reassuring statement that both Lord Kitchener and Sir Edward Grey would remain in their respective posts.
On Friday the 21st, when Lord Northcliffe published an attack upon the War Minister of a vehement character, there was a spontaneous movement of public anger in many parts of the country, and the offending newspaper was burned upon the Stock Exchange. In the wake of these emotions it was natural that the vacant Garter should be bestowed upon Lord Kitchener, and he was at the same time awarded the Grand Cordon of the Belgian Order of Leopold. His rehabilitation was therefore complete. I alone was held to blame for all the upheaval and its discontents.
The more serious physical wounds are often surprisingly endurable at the moment they are received. There is an interval of uncertain length before sensation is renewed. The shock numbs but does not paralyse: the wound bleeds but does not smart. So it is also with the great reverses and losses of life. Before I had realized the intensity with which political irritation was being focused on me, I had resigned myself to leaving the Admiralty. But on the Wednesday evening an incident occurred which profoundly affected my feelings and judgment. One of the Sea Lords informed me that Sir Arthur Wilson, who had already provisionally assumed the duties of First Sea Lord, had written to the Prime Minister declining to serve under any First Lord except me.
Sir Arthur Wilson to the Prime Minister.
May 19, 1915.
DEAR MR. ASQUITH,—
In view of the reports in the papers this morning as to the probable reconstruction of the Government, I think I ought to tell you that although I agreed to undertake the office of First Sea Lord under Mr. Churchill because it appeared to me to be the best means of maintaining continuity of policy under the unfortunate circumstances that have arisen, I am not prepared to undertake the duties under any new First Lord, as the strain under such circumstances would be far beyond my strength.
A. K. WILSON.
This utterly unexpected mark of confidence from the old Admiral astounded me. His reserve had been impenetrable. I had no idea how he viewed me and my work. Certainly I never counted on the slightest support or approbation from him.
I was greatly disturbed and now found it very hard indeed to leave the Admiralty. In the midst of general condemnation, violent newspaper censures, angry Lobbies, reproachful colleagues, here at any rate was a judge—competent, instructed impartial—who pronounced by action stronger than words not merely an acquittal but a vindication. I knew well the profound impression which Sir Arthur Wilson’s action, had it been made public, would have produced upon the Naval Service. It would instantly have restored the confidence which press attacks, impossible to answer, had undermined. In no other way could the persistent accusations of rash, ignorant interference by the civilian Minister in the naval conduct of the war be decisively repelled. I felt myself strong enough with this endorsement to carry forward to eventual success the great operations to which we were committed. I felt that working with Wilson and Oliver, the First Sea Lord and the Chief of the Staff linked together as they were, we should again have re-established that unity, comradeship and authority at the summit of the Admiralty with which alone the risks could be run and the exertions made which were indispensable to victory. The information which had reached me was confidential and could not then be disclosed to the public by me. It was not disclosed by the Prime Minister.
In judging my relations with Mr. Asquith at this time, it must be remembered that every action of mine in opening and pressing the operations at the Dardanelles had been taken with his full knowledge, approval and support. There was no question of reluctant assent or inadvertent acquiescence obtained from a partially-informed chief by a scheming subordinate. In fact, as has been shown, the supreme decision which Lord Fisher resented so violently had been given personally by the Prime Minister and could only have been given by him; and apart from this Mr. Asquith was always and has always remained a convinced believer in the policy of the attack upon the Dardanelles. I do not write this in any spirit of personal reproach. I knew only too well at the time what were Mr. Asquith’s own difficulties. He had up till then, during the many years of our association, treated me with the utmost kindness; and I knew well that if he had had the power, he would have ruled the event far differently. The emergencies of the time were too grave and the forces and pressures operating upon individuals too violent for ordinary conditions to apply. Therefore there never was and never has been the slightest personal recrimination upon the subject. My criticism is on general and public grounds.
I am confident that had the Prime Minister, instead of submitting to the demand of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to form a Coalition Government, laid the broad outlines of his case, both naval and military, before both Houses of Parliament in Secret Session, he and the policy he was committed to would have been supported by large majorities. The impressive recital of all that the War Office had achieved under Lord Kitchener would greatly have mitigated the complaints on what had been neglected. I am sure I could have vindicated the Admiralty policy. Moreover on May 23, towering over domestic matters, came the Italian declaration of War against Austria. The Prime Minister’s personal share in this event was a tremendous fact. I am certain that had he fought, he would have won; and had he won, he could then with dignity and with real authority have invited the Opposition to come not to his rescue but to his aid. On such a basis of confidence, comradeship and respect a true national coalition could have been formed to carry on the war, and Mr. Asquith would have been spared that interlude of distrustful colleagues, of divided or more often mutually paralysing counsels and of lost opportunities, which reached its end in December, 1916.
I wish here to record the opinion that Parliament is the foundation upon which Governments should rely, and that the House of Commons in particular has a right to be informed and consulted on all great occasions of political change. The only safe course is that men engaged as members of a Cabinet in an agreed and common policy should stand or fall by a vote of the House of Commons taken after full debate. Departure from these simple fundamental principles led to a disastrous breakdown, at a most critical moment, of the whole machinery for carrying on the war. It led to delay in taking urgent action, which delay, as will presently appear, was fatal in its consequences.
It was only when Mr. Asquith’s Memoirs appeared in 1928 that Lord Fisher’s ultimatum to the Government was made public. Nothing could more clearly, or more cruelly, expose the mental distress and wild excitement into which the strain of war had plunged the old Admiral. Nothing could portray more vividly the volcano upon which I had been living and upon which grave decisions of war and policy had been pursued.
Lord Fisher had written:—
‘If the following six conditions are agreed to, I can guarantee the successful termination of the war, and the total abolition of the submarine menace.
I also wish to add that since Lord Ripon wished, in 1885, to make me a Lord of the Admiralty, but at my request made me Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes instead, I have served under nine First Lords and seventeen years at the Admiralty, so I ought to know something about it.
(1) That Mr. Winston Churchill is not in the Cabinet to be always circumventing me. Nor will I serve under Mr. Balfour.
(2) That Sir A. K. Wilson leaves the Admiralty, and the Committee of Imperial Defence, and the War Council, as my time will be occupied in resisting the bombardment of Heligoland and other such wild projects. Also his policy is totally opposed to mine, and he accepted the position of First Sea Lord in succession to me, thereby adopting a policy diametrically opposed to my views.
(3) That there shall be an entirely new Board of Admiralty as regards the Sea Lords and the Financial Secretary (who is utterly useless). New Measures demand New Men.
(4) That I should have complete professional charge of the war at sea, together with the sole disposition of the Fleet and the appointment of all officers of all ranks whatsoever.
(5) That the First Lord of the Admiralty should be absolutely restricted to Policy and Parliamentary Procedure, and should occupy the same position towards me as Mr. Tennant, M.P., does to Lord Kitchener (and very well he does it).
(6) That I should have the sole absolute authority for all new construction and all dockyard work of whatever sort whatsoever, and complete control over the whole of the Civil Establishments of the Navy.
P.S.—The 60 per cent, of my time and energy which I have exhausted on nine First Lords in the past I wish in the future to devote to the successful prosecution of the war. That is the sole reason for these six conditions. These six conditions must be published verbatim, so that the Fleet may know my position.’
It is needless to say that this amazing document was answered only by the curt acceptance of Fisher’s resignation.
The formation of the new Government proceeded haltingly. Although by what was naïvely called a ‘Self-Denying Ordinance’ it was agreed between the party leaders that no Member of Parliament on either side who was serving at the Front should be included in the Administration, the adjustment of party and personal claims raised at numerous points obstinate difficulties. Though I was left alone at the Admiralty, I was fully informed of every phase in this intricate and by no means entirely edifying process. It is no part of my purpose to unfold these matters here: their chronicle may be safely left to the Grevilles and Crokers, of which posterity, and possibly even our own generation, are not likely to be destitute.
It was during this interval that I had the honour of receiving a visit of ceremony from Lord Kitchener. I was not at first aware of what it was about. We had differed strongly and on a broad front at the last meeting of the War Council. Moreover, no decision of any importance on naval and military affairs could be taken during the hiatus. We talked about the situation. After some general remarks he asked me whether it was settled that I should leave the Admiralty. I said it was. He asked what I was going to do. I said I had no idea; nothing was settled. He spoke very kindly about our work together. He evidently had no idea how narrowly he had escaped my fate. As he got up to go he turned and said, in the impressive and almost majestic manner which was natural to him, ‘Well, there is one thing at any rate they cannot take from you. The Fleet was ready.’ After that he was gone. During the months that we were still to serve together in the new Cabinet I was condemned often to differ from him, to oppose him and to criticize him. But I cannot forget the rugged kindness and warm-hearted courtesy which led him to pay me this visit.
By the 21st it was decided that Mr. Balfour was to come to the Admiralty. In accordance with what I knew were the Prime Minister’s wishes, I endeavoured to persuade Sir Arthur Wilson to serve under him. He remained obdurate. No arguments would move him. He was at some pains to explain that his decision arose out of no personal consideration for me, but solely because he felt he could not undertake the burden without my aid. All the same, there seemed to be a quite unwonted element of friendliness in his demeanour, and this was proved a year later during the Parliamentary inquiry into the Dardanelles. Not only did he then give evidence which was of the greatest possible assistance to me, but he drew up in a single night the cogent paper, already quoted in a previous chapter, on the technical gunnery aspects of the plan we had followed, and cast his ægis and authority over an enterprise which everybody was by then eager to condemn.
On the evening of the 21st I reported to the Prime Minister:—
‘I have tried very hard but without success to persuade Sir Arthur Wilson to hold himself at Mr. Balfour’s disposition. In these circumstances I would advise Sir Henry Jackson.’
This proposal was adopted, and meanwhile the process of Cabinet-making gradually completed itself. Mr. Asquith was good enough to offer to me the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. This office is a sinecure of much dignity. I should certainly not have felt able to accept it but for the fact that he coupled with it the promise that I should be a member of the War Council, or War Committee, of the Cabinet. I felt that thus situated I should be able to bring whatever knowledge I had acquired to the service of the Dardanelles expedition, and that it was my duty to aid and succour it by any effective means still left to me. I remained in the new Government so long as this condition was observed.
It was not till the 26th that the full list of the Government was announced and Ministers changed offices and kissed hands. The interval was full of anxiety. No councils were held on war matters and all questions of policy had necessarily to be reserved for the decision of the new Cabinet. No more troops were sent to the Dardanelles, and only day to day decisions could be taken. There was no First Sea Lord. In these circumstances I did the best I could.
First Lord to Vice-Admiral de Robeck.
May 15, 1915.
What is the position of the smoke apparatus? Very good results have been achieved here and are being daily improved. What plant have you got actually with you? Have you had time to see how it works? We have also developed here a white smoke apparatus made by chemical action, which is very dense and effective. This can be fitted in a few hours to destroyers and torpedo boats. Surely a device of this kind would be invaluable for blanketing off the enemy’s searchlights if at any time the night sweeping of the minefield was resumed? Also both the black smoke made by burning oil from cones and the white smoke can be turned on and off at will. See that General Hamilton knows all about this. With the choice of positions enabling attack to be made from so many points of the compass, it might be possible to use the oil smoke apparatus on shore. The Government have also decided to use poisonous gas freely against the Germans. What do you and the General think about using this against the Turks? They will very likely use it against you.
Secondly, the Third Sea Lord is preparing designs of a simple form of mine protection which consists roughly of a light steel wire trellis-work fitted round the ship. Ships could go by turns to Malta to be fitted with this in dry dock. I cannot understand why we have not done this before in the case of ships not required for general seagoing purposes but for a special operation in landlocked waters.
Thirdly, you have not yet answered about the two 9-inch guns for landing on shore. Although we hope progress will be swift, every precaution must now be made on a three-months’ basis, so that whatever happens we see finality in our task. Nine-inch guns mounted even in our existing positions would enable accurate fire to be brought on many of the forts. A 12-inch gun on a railway mounting will be ready in July, and all preparations will be made to send it to you if the result is not achieved sooner.
Fourthly, what is being done about establishing strong semi-permanent landing stages with cranes, railway lines, etc.? This ought surely to be undertaken without delay, good contractors being employed. I am not sure how far this is our business or the army’s; but if you let me know how the position stands, I can easily arrange harmonious action from here.
Fifthly, fifty miles more indicator net, a portion of which is 120ft. deep, is being despatched at once, together with additional drifters to lay and watch it. It should be possible for you to make a large zareba from Gaba Tepe, through Imbros, to Kum Kale or thereabouts, within which your ships can act with comparative safety.
Sixthly, I am making arrangements to have a very strong reinforcement of aircraft sent out, including machines which will carry 500 lb. bombs, more than equivalent to a 15-inch high explosive shell. Have you considered the propriety and expediency of an air raid upon Constantinople? The shipping in the harbour, the German Embassy, the Government buildings, the arsenal, etc., would be fair objects of attack, and the moral effect on the population would be serious. We cannot possibly spare you any more destroyers, but the question of more submarines is being considered.
Admiralty to Vice-Admiral de Robeck.
May 16, 1915.
We doubt as many as three German submarines being in the Mediterranean. One is more probable, but there may be two. The others may be Austrians. But it seems essential to review the situation. The leading brigades of the new army corps should arrive towards the end of the month, and the whole force be completed about a fortnight later. In this interval it should not be necessary to keep the whole fleet in an exposed position. If you can spare them from aiding the military operations, some of your ships might go to the Canal or to Malta, where they would be in safety pending a general attack. Eight or ten of your destroyers must be used as escorts to the transports from Gibraltar onwards if you can spare them. We cannot spare any. The policy is to get through this interval with the minimum of loss while helping the gradual advance of the army. Please telegraph your views, and also what ships you will be able to keep behind the net at Mudros or in other safe places. The safe convoying of the troops is now a vital matter.
A few personal messages may perhaps be included here. I telegraphed to my brother, who held a position on Sir Ian Hamilton’s Staff, as follows:—
Mr. Churchill to Major John Churchill.
May 18, 1915.
Fisher has chosen to resign at this awkward moment largely on Dardanelles question, and very large changes involving my leaving the Admiralty are in progress. But I am quite sure that your two friends will be well supported, that the enterprise will be carried through and that the results will pay for all. I shall be in a position to help indirectly.
Sir John French to Mr. Churchill.
May 20, 1915.
I hear you are worried and troubled which grieves me very much. I do not think a word of sympathy is ever out of place, and I only send this one word to assure you that I am always with you in deep affection and admiration. You know you are always welcome here.
Mr. Churchill to Lord Haldane.
May 21, 1915.
I reproach myself with not having been to see you. I trust the vile Press Campaign, of which you have been made the object, will not prevail against the loyalty of your lifelong friends. I am so short of credit at the moment that I can only make an encouraging signal, but you must take the will for the deed.
Mr. Churchill to Major John Churchill.
May 23, 1915.
I have accepted the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with a seat in the Cabinet, and on the War Council: this will enable me to watch over the Dardanelles. Mr. Balfour follows me here to my great relief, and Fisher does not return. Although I am down, the policy goes on, and will be well supported.
Mr. Churchill to Major John Churchill.
May 26, 1915.
I hope our friend [Sir Ian Hamilton] will ask for all the troops he needs. K. is very friendly to the Dardanelles and means to make it go through; but I am afraid of troops coming in so slowly that you will have to fight the whole Turkish Army in relays. Therefore, I strongly urge that all that is wanted should be asked for boldly. The new Cabinet will be partial to broad decisions, and now is the time.
Sir John French to Mr. Churchill.
May 29, 1915.
I grieve very much on account of all the worries that beset you. You have always spoken to me of the rest and happiness it gives you to be with the Army in the Field. Can you manage to come over again when the P.M. leaves, and try to detach yourself for the moment from these troubles and annoyances? A view of the troops and the enemy will change your perspective…. Dark days come to all of us in turn and it is then we want to turn for help and sympathy to affectionate friends—and you have many here.
Early on the morning of the 26th—my last at the Admiralty—arrived the sinister news that the Triumph had been torpedoed and sunk at the Dardanelles by a German submarine. However, my task was over, and before setting out for Buckingham Palace I wrote the following letter to the statesman on whom the burden of Admiralty affairs was now placed:—
Mr. Churchill to Mr. Balfour.
May 26, 1915.
I leave you one task of great difficulty which requires your immediate attention, viz., the protection of the Dardanelles fleet against submarine attack. Do not underrate the gravity of this danger. Unless it can be coped with, there are no limits to the evil consequences. For nearly a fortnight I have not had the authority to make important decisions. Your fresh mind and calm judgment will give the impulse which is necessary. I set out the following notes for what they are worth:—
1. The military operations should proceed with all possible speed, so that the period of danger may be shortened. Whatever force is necessary, can be spared and can be used, should be sent at once, and all at once.
2. Until decisive operations on land can be resumed, the Fleet must remain in the safety of Mudros Harbour—or the Suez Canal. Such ships as are required to cover the troops should, until the netted lighters arrive, be protected by colliers and empty transports lashed alongside.
3. As soon as possible ships must be provided which are immune from torpedo attack. As specified in my minute of the 13th instant to the First Sea Lord, the nine heavy monitors should go out as soon as each is ready; and the four ‘Edgars’ which have been fitted with bulges, and which supply the medium battery for bombarding purposes, should be sent at once. Nearly a fortnight has been lost in regard to the ‘Edgars’ by the interregnum here. Until these vessels arrive, and while no decisive land operations are in progress, the exposure of ships should be kept to the absolute minimum.
4. At least 100 trawlers and drifters, with 100 miles of indicator net, and eight more destroyers (which should on the way out escort transports) should be sent; in addition to all the other measures which have been taken, and of which you will be told.
5 The protection against submarines must take the form of developing a great netted area around the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, occupied by large numbers of armed trawlers and seaplanes always ready. I want to emphasize the fact that action must be drastic and on a large scale. Much has been done already.
6. The measures to watch and net the mouth of the Adriatic, and to search for submarine bases in Asia Minor, to mine-in likely bases, to develop a system of intelligence regardless of expense, all of which are now in progress, must be pressed forward.
7. Punishment must be doggedly borne.
From the bottom of my heart I wish you success in this and all other anxious business which has been thrust upon you, and which you have so loyally and courageously undertaken.
Thus ended my administration of the Admiralty. For thirty-four months of preparation and ten months of war I had borne the prime responsibility and had wielded the main executive power. The reader who has persevered thus far in this account will realize the difficulties that were coped with, the hazards that were encountered, the mistakes that were made, and the work that was done. Dubious years, many misfortunes, enormous toils, bitter disappointments, still lay before the Royal Navy. But I am entitled at this point in the story to place on record the situation and condition in which the mighty instrument of our sea power and of our salvation passed into the hands of my successors. At no moment during all the wars of Britain had our command of the seas been more complete, and in no previous war had that command been asserted more rapidly or with so little loss. Not only had the surface ships of the enemy been extirpated from the oceans of the world; not only in the North Sea had his fleets and squadrons been beaten, cowed and driven into port; but even the new and barbarous submarine warfare had been curbed and checked. For more than a year to come the German High Seas Fleet scarcely quitted its harbours, and even when they did so, it was with no intention of fighting a battle and in the unfounded hope that they could return unperceived or unmolested. For eighteen months their submarine campaign was virtually suspended. In spite of modern complications which have been explained, the economic blockade of Germany was established and maintained, so far as it rested with the Navy, with the utmost strictness: scarcely any ship that the Navy had authority to touch ever passed our far-spread cordons. The maintenance of the armies in France and in the East proceeded every month on a vaster scale, without the slightest substantial hindrance upon their communications becoming apparent to our commanders at the Front. The mercantile fleets of Britain and of her allies moved with freedom in all directions about the seas and oceans: and an insurance rate of 1 per cent. left a substantial profit to the Government Fund. These conditions lasted during all the year 1915 and up to the last quarter of the year 1916. There never was in all the history of war such an unchallenged reign of sea power.
Meanwhile the British Navy was growing continually and rapidly in strength. The fruits of the exertions which had been made before and since the outbreak of the war were being reaped with each successive month. Battleships, battle cruisers, light cruisers in dozens, submarines in scores, destroyers in hundreds, small craft in thousands, were being armed and built, and were coming into commission in an unceasing and broadening tide. The manning arrangements to meet this enormous new construction were perfected for a year in advance. Every requirement known to the naval science of the day in guns, in torpedoes, in shells, in explosives, in propellent, in coal, in oil, and in auxiliary services had been foreseen and provided for in harmonious relation to the expansion of our naval power. At the Admiralty we were in hot pursuit of most of the great key inventions and ideas of the war; and this long in advance of every other nation, friend or foe. Tanks, smoke, torpedo-seaplanes, directional wireless, cryptography, mine fenders, monitors, torpedo-proof ships, paravanes—all were being actively driven forward or developed. Poison gas alone we had put aside—but not, as has been shown, from want of comprehension. Even for the new submarine campaign, not to burst upon us for nearly eighteen months, the principal safeguarding measures had already been devised: the multitudes of vessels were building; the decoy ships were at work.
Moreover the true war leaders of the Navy had already emerged from the ranks of peace-time merit; and in Beatty, Keyes, Tyrwhitt, Pakenham, and I must add Lewis Bayly—though under a temporary cloud—we had masters of the storm capable of rivalling upon the seas and against the enemy’s coasts the exploits of the famous sailor figures of the past. There remained only to devise and perfect those schemes of naval offensive which in spite, and indeed by means of, modern science and invention would have liberated the pent-up skill and daring of our officers and men. There was also at hand that prolonged interlude of ease and tranquillity upon salt water in which every plan could be worked out with sure and deliberate study.
From all this reward and opportunity Fisher, by his own impulsive, fatal act, and I, through causes which these pages expose, were forever disinherited. We lingered on, helpless spectators, until the period of halcyon weather came fearfully to an end and the very life of the State was plunged again into supreme hazard on the seas.