A Retrogression—The Sea Coast Plan—Correspondence with Sir John French—Joffre’s Opposition—The Futile Offensives of December—The Risks of Petty Operations—Further Correspondence—Sir John French Perseveres in his Plan—The New Year Opens Ill—The Loss of the Formidable—Repercussions of the Loss of the Formidable—Difficulties increase with Delay—German Naval Policy—Admiral von Pohl’s Memorandum—The Kaiser’s Decisions—German Under-Sea and Air Plans—The Zeppelin Menace—Lord Fisher’s Distress—Reprisals—His First Resignation—Incorporation of the New Armies in the British Expeditionary Force—My Minute of January 6—My Letter to Sir John French of January 8—Abandonment of the Plan, January 23—The End of the Sea Coast Project.
As soon as the battle of Ypres-Yser was decided in favour of the Allies, i.e. about the third week in November, 1914, Sir John French wished to make an advance in conjunction with the Belgian Army along the sea coast from Nieuport towards Ostend and Zeebrugge. This project was a limited and local operation not at all to be confused with the great strategic alternatives which previous chapters have examined. It appealed very strongly both to Lord Fisher and Sir Arthur Wilson. The Admiralty War Staff were increasingly apprehensive of the dangers of a hostile submarine base developing at Zeebrugge from which our cross-Channel communications would be continually harassed. I had always wished to see the British Army with its left hand on the sea, nearest to its home, and with its left flank guarded by the Navy. I saw in this the prospect of close and effectual co-operation between Fleet and Army out of which the amphibious operations in which I was a believer might develop. If the Army was resolved to attack, and thought the ground practicable, surely the sea flank with strong naval support offered the most hopeful chances and the most fruitful results. We therefore at the Admiralty all looked in one direction and made haste to offer every possible support to Sir John French in his desires.
Neither Lord Kitchener nor the War Council were opposed to these ideas. On the contrary, they united British opinion—professional and political, naval and military, War Office and General Headquarters. General Joffre, however, did not think well of the plan and pointed to the capture of the Wytschaete Ridge as a more hopeful solution. The French Government also on political grounds showed themselves strongly opposed to allowing the British armies to occupy the sea flank, or to acquire a close association with the Belgian forces. Although every point in the line where troops of different nations were in contact was a point of special weakness—a joint in the harness (une soudure)—the French authorities, civil and military alike, insisted on multiplying them by keeping a large French force between the British and the Belgians. These measures were not wholly inspired by the merits of the military situation.
In consequence, the coastal operation was delayed from week to week, and with every week that passed the German fortified lines grew stronger and their batteries on the sea front became more powerful. The letters and extracts which follow tell the tale with an authenticity that no subsequent writings can claim.
After a visit to Sir John French, during which he explained to me fully all his plans and wishes, I wrote as follows:—
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
December 8, 1914.
Kitchener agrees entirely with your view. We held an immediate conference with the Prime Minister and Sir E. Grey; and as the result the strongest possible telegram is being drafted. The Admiralty attach the greatest importance to the operation, and will aid in every way. We are already making the necessary preparations on an extensive scale. Later I will let you have very full and clear details. The combination must be perfect.
K. proposes to let you have the 27th Division in time.
I hope you will continue to press the new plan hard, both here at home and on the French generals….
I am putting some experimental shields in hand, and will let you know about them later.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
December 10, 1914.
The tides are favourable from the 14th onwards, but firing would begin later each day. A gale would interrupt the naval operations.
Two battleships are all that can work off Ostend and Nieuport at one time. But arrangements would be made to replace any sunk or set on fire and to maintain the bombardment night and day as required. In addition three monitors, two gunboats, and six destroyers will be used. Total heavy guns twenty-six, of which nine are very heavy. See attached note by the Chief of the Staff.
This force should be sufficient to support the advance of the Army on Ostend.
Sir John French to Mr. Churchill.
December 10, 1914.
…So far all seems to go well: but I fear Joffre and Foch will make difficulties. The preparations for a forward move, commenced as I told you when you were here, had even then proceeded farther than I thought, and I’m afraid we must carry this through now from our present position.
I am in close consultation with Foch and shall hear at once what view Joffre takes. But if he agreed to an immediate change of our position the forward move now projected (and for which troops have been moved into position) would have to be postponed for several days. He will hardly agree to this and I’m not altogether sure that, from a general point of view, he would be right in incurring the delay….
This letter foreshadowed the weak and partial offensive about to be directed by French and British forces against the Wytschaete and Messines positions, the capture of which would, according to the French High Command, automatically disengage the coast.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
December 11, 1914.
I have sent you to-day a Memo through Kitchener showing in some detail the form naval assistance on the flank could take.
I was disappointed by your letter and do not quite know what is purposed now. But I wish you all good fortune in the coming battle from the depth of my heart. Your difficulties are great. All of us must look only to the great conclusion.
You must use the Navy or not as circumstances require. All our arrangements will be complete by the 15th. But weather introduces an element of uncertainty.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
December 13, 1914.
Of course we are disappointed here at the turn events have taken, but we shall do our best to help the French in their feeble secondary ‘dog-in-the-manger’ attack on the left flank. The risks to the ships are much greater than they were last time. Many heavy guns are in position on the sea front, and there are at least three submarines at Zeebrugge.
Unless there is a genuine push made on the flank we cannot hang about day after day amid these perils.
The operations prescribed by General Joffre ended in futility and loss. Especially was this so on the British front. The unfortunate troops were ordered to leave their trenches and assault the enemy’s strongly wired and defended lines without it being possible to give them more than an exiguous and totally inadequate artillery support. They waded and plodded slowly through the indescribable winter bogs of No Man’s Land under cruel rifle and machine-gun fire. None penetrated the enemy’s line, few reached the German wire, and those that did remained there till they died and mouldered. Similar scenes were witnessed on the main French sector of attack.
On the coast the French operations were on the smallest scale, and our supporting ships were exposed to much danger without adequate purpose.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
December 19, 1914.
We are receiving almost daily requests from the French for naval support on the Belgian coast. We regret we are unable to comply. The small vessels by themselves cannot face the new shore batteries, and it is not justifiable to expose battleships to submarine perils unless to support a land attack of primary importance. If such an attack is delivered, all the support in my memorandum forwarded to you through the Secretary of State for War will, of course, be afforded. I should be glad if you would explain this to General Foch, as it is painful to the officers concerned to have to make repeated refusals.
When the failure of the land attacks became apparent, I wrote:—
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
December 28, 1914.
I hope you will now get to the sea flank. I am very sorry about the losses. It was hard that you should have been made to fight it out on that line. I expect the enemy got it as bad.
About the motor-buses and other of my small interests now in your charge. I have said to Kitchener, ‘Do what you like with them. It is a matter of honour and fair play.’ We shall now see what that works out at.
I hope you will take good care of your health and not let yourself be vexed by trifles—as I am fool enough to be. But still I try. All will go well: and the day will come when we shall have ‘finally beaten down Satan under our feet.’ Till then in all directions, and on all occasions, count on your sincere friend.
Mr. Churchill to the Prime Minister.
December 29, 1914
When Kitchener declared there was nothing in front of us but ‘boys and old men,’ he was wrong, and when you and I agreed there was a fine and terrible army in our front, we were right. It has taken 5,000 men and more, in killed and wounded, to prove the simple fact.
I understand that Joffre told French he could take over the whole line from La Bassée to the sea as soon as he had the troops. At least two more corps are required and these cannot, I presume, be supplied before March. In my judgment the flank move is a very different job from what it was when we first talked of it six weeks ago. The whole front and angle right up to the Dutch frontier is fortified line behind line; and although you can get on along the coast, the advantages to be gained are reduced as much as the difficulties are augmented—like the Sibylline Books (note the classic touch)….
Sir John French to Mr. Churchill.
December 31, 1914.
This is in reality only a hurried line to wish you all good luck for 1915; but as I am writing I want to tell you quite privately how far my plans have progressed towards the object we both have so much at heart, namely a powerful advance Eastward along the coast, supported by the Navy.
I went to see Joffre on Sunday and had a long talk with him. He agreed in principle to the British Troops acting in conjunction with the Belgians on the left flank of the Allied line next to the sea; and it was arranged that I was to relieve all the French Troops to the north of me as quickly as the reinforcements coming to me would allow.
As, however, I now feel myself at liberty to enter into negotiations for combined action with the King of the Belgians, I have begun to do so through Bridges; and I have a scheme which, if the King will only accept, should enable me to take over the line within the next two or three weeks and find a sufficient reserve to enter energetically upon a land advance.
I feel I am writing rather in enigmas, but I do not like to tell you anything in detail until I am sure that the King of the Belgians will give his consent. But if my suggestions are accepted and the plan comes off, I can assure you there will be a land force of sufficient size to justify a vigorous Naval support and to give good promise of success.
The New Year opened for the Admiralty under queer and stormy skies. We have seen how Vice-Admiral Bayly had been brought from the Grand Fleet to command the 5th Battle Squadron at the Nore, and how this squadron was to become the nucleus of a specially trained bombarding fleet, through which it was hoped to develop the means of a naval offensive. The Admiral came down from the North by no means enamoured of a change which gave him a squadron of ‘Formidables’ in place of the ‘Dreadnoughts’ which he had commanded. Like most sailors, his heart was with the Grand Fleet; but he addressed himself to his new work with his customary zeal. He sought permission from the Admiralty to take his squadron into the Channel for a cruise. He passed the Straits in daylight under flotilla escort arranged from the Admiralty and spent December 31 exercising off Portland. The flotilla, after seeing him through the Straits, left him at dusk to return to Dover, and no evil consequences had occurred during the daylight. The ships turned westward down channel after dark and by 2 a.m. were approaching the Start. The wind and sea were rising, but the moon shone brightly. The speed was 10 knots and the course direct, not zigzag. A German submarine, cruising on the surface of the Channel, unobserved in the moonlight amid the dancing waves, fired a torpedo with fatal effect against the Formidable, the last ship of the line. In two hours and a half the vessel sank with the loss of Captain Loxley and over 500 officers and men, the highest forms of discipline and devotion being observed by all ranks.
This melancholy news reached the Admiralty with the light of New Year’s Day. Lord Fisher was indignant at the manner in which the squadron had been handled. The explanations which were demanded of the Admiral were not considered satisfactory by his naval chiefs. To my extreme regret, both on personal and on far wider grounds, it was decided to remove him from his command. I therefore appointed him to the control of Greenwich College, where he remained for some time.
Under the impression of the sinking of the Formidable, the First Sea Lord and the Admiralty Staff advised that a formal and official communication should be made to the Military authorities. Accordingly:—
The First Lord of the Admiralty to the Secretary of State for War for transmission to the Commander-in-Chief, British Expeditionary Army.
January 1, 1915.
The battleship Formidable was sunk this morning by a submarine in the Channel. Information from all quarters shows that the Germans are steadily developing an important submarine base at Zeebrugge. Unless an operation can be undertaken to clear the coast, and particularly to capture this place, it must be recognized that the whole transportation of troops across the Channel will be seriously and increasingly compromised.
The Admiralty are of opinion that it would be possible, under cover of warships, to land a large force at Zeebrugge in conjunction with any genuine forward movement along the seashore to Ostend. They wish these views, which they have so frequently put forward, to be placed once again before the French commanders, and hope they may receive the consideration which their urgency and importance require.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
January 1, 1915.
It was a great delight to me to get your letter of good wishes for the New Year, which I reciprocate from the bottom of my heart. Our friendship though begun late has grown strong and deep, and I feel sure it will stand with advantage all the tests of this remarkable time.
The coast business is I think more difficult now; and if done we must concert the naval measures with you to a nicety. Zeebrugge I feel sure should at the critical moment—and as the thong of your attack—be assailed from the sea; and then kick back towards Ostend.
I had to ask Kitchener to send you a telegram to-day about the serious danger developing there by the submarine base. To-day it has cost us a fine ship and 600 lives. I think the telegram will strengthen your hands. I shall look forward to your full schemes. We shall be ready to run great risks in your support….
I have not got over those cruisers being missed. [On December 16.] It is a recurring pang. Really, with all your stress, your affair is not such a tricky one as ours. At least you can get results in proportion to your strength, whereas the caprice of fortune disposes absolutely with us of our strongest units.
I hope you feel as the result of your visit here how profoundly the Government appreciate the valiant and splendid part you have played, and enabled the British Army to play.
On December 27, 1914, the German Emperor called for a short memorandum on the future employment of the German naval forces including submarines and aircraft. In response to this Captain Zenker, Admiral von Pohl’s Staff Officer, drew up the next day a comprehensive paper. He began by re-stating the main principles which up to this date had governed all the German naval conduct, viz. to hold back the main body until a favourable opportunity occurs for a decisive action; to endeavour to bring about an equalisation of forces by operations of the auxiliary forces; to endeavour by attacks on the enemy’s coast to induce the British to accept action in an area desired by the Germans. He proceeded to criticise the results which this policy had as yet achieved:—
‘In spite of the successes of our submarines and minelaying vessels off the enemy’s coast, no appreciable damage has been done to his heavy forces. The detrimental effect of our mining operations on enemy trade has not been sufficient to cause the British to try to block the German Bight in order to catch our commerce destroyers as they come out. The two cruiser attacks on the English coast resulted in no appreciable gain of a purely military nature, and in spite of their great political effect they have caused no change in the naval strategy of the enemy.’
He predicted that the submarine and mining operations and occasional attacks on the English coast would in all probability prove still less effective, and would result in greater German losses in the future on account of ‘appropriate counter measures.’ From this he concluded that the German Fleet ought to make every effort to bring the enemy Fleet into action; ‘if possible, when his forces are divided; if not, when they are all together.’ For this purpose the High Sea forces should ‘proceed to sea very much more frequently than hitherto, and should not be afraid to remain on occasions outside the German estuaries and mine fields for several days together.’ The submarines should be used more intimately in conjunction with the battle fleet. He pointed out that if a British attack were launched against the Heligoland Bight and British submarines were employed in besetting the estuaries at that time, the German Fleet would incur losses before it could put to sea and come into action. ‘It is therefore advisable that the Fleet should be at sea as much as possible and that it should take the risks involved rather than merely defend the coasts and allow its fighting strength and readiness for action to diminish more and more.’
This Memorandum, after being duly edited, was submitted to the Emperor by Admiral von Pohl and the German Chancellor at an audience with the Emperor, from which Admiral von Tirpitz was excluded, on January 9, 1915. Admiral von Pohl’s main conclusion was that ‘while continuing the mining and submarine offensive in an energetic manner, a general permission should be accorded to the Commander-in-Chief, High Sea Fleet, to act on his own initiative more than hitherto as regards measures he may consider necessary for the attainment of the German aims.’ The next day in response to this the Emperor authorised the following instruction:—
‘The Commander-in-Chief of the High Sea Fleet is hereby authorised to make frequent advances in the North Sea on his own initiative, with the object of cutting off advanced enemy forces or of attacking them with superior strength. As far as possible the Commander-in-Chief is to avoid encounters with superior enemy forces, as in the present circumstances the High Sea Fleet has the added importance of being a valuable political instrument in the hands of the All Highest War Lord; an unfavourable outcome of a naval action would therefore be a particularly serious matter. Proposed advances on a large scale as far as the enemy’s coast are to be reported beforehand to His Majesty the Kaiser.’
Captain Zenker was much disgusted at this ruling.
‘His Majesty’s decision,’ he wrote to his Chief, Admiral von Pohl, ‘as worded by the Chief of the Naval Cabinet, amounts in my opinion to a direct rejection of Your Excellency’s proposal. This decision will not lead the Commander-in-Chief to make any fundamental change in his conduct of the war, and a fundamental change is essential if the Fleet is not to forfeit its military and political importance in an ever-increasing degree. As long as the “preservation” of the Fleet is to be the chief guide for its conduct, no energetic offensive can be commenced; offensive operations will become “more dangerous” owing to the natural strengthening of the enemy’s counter-measures, and our first endeavour will still be the endeavour “to get back to the estuaries as quickly and safely as possible.”’
This protest did not evoke any further observations from superior or supreme authority. And, as predicted by Captain Zenker, the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral von Ingenohl, made no change in principle in his naval policy. In fact he ‘raised objections to almost every suggestion of offensive operations.’ He declared it to be almost impossible to win partial success against portions of the British Fleet. He minimised the danger of ‘getting rusty’ from staying in harbour, and he deprecated any German offensive ‘beyond her half of the North Sea,’ as that would be doing ‘exactly what Great Britain has consistently desired since the beginning of hostilities.’ To make certain that the Emperor’s new ‘Muzzling order’ was thoroughly obeyed, Admiral von Pohl thought it necessary to add the following: ‘No offensive is to be carried as far as the enemy’s coast with the object of fighting a decisive action there.’ Thus the Emperor, the Chief of the Naval Staff, and the Commander-in-Chief himself were all united in a chorus of caution.
It is extraordinary that such decisions and instructions should have heralded within a fortnight an extremely imprudent and inconsequent excursion.
Admiral von Pohl’s memorandum to the Emperor had further proposed the submarine attack on merchant shipping:
‘The commerce blockade against England is to be begun as soon as possible, so that its effect may not be minimised by the accumulation of food-stuffs and raw materials which has been started. The Chancellor agrees with me in regarding a submarine blockade as one of the most effective measures to secure our war aims with respect to Great Britain. He considers, however, that it cannot be made use of until the issue on land has been decided in our favour, after which there will be no further likelihood of Neutral Powers going over to our enemies. It is my opinion that in order to attain our military aims we ought to make use of a weapon placed in our hands without paying any regard to neutrals…. An effective blockade that really harms Great Britain will tend rather to make neutrals hesitate still further before going over to our enemies.’
On this the Emperor’s decision was as follows:—
‘The submarine war against commerce is to be postponed temporarily until the present ambiguity of the political situation is cleared up. The decision of the All Highest is then to be sought once more. Meanwhile the submarines are to be prepared for war against commerce.’
Lastly, Admiral von Pohl recommended ‘sending airships to attack England in the months of January and February, when the weather is suitably calm and cool.’ The first objectives were to be ‘those parts of London which are of military importance and the military establishments on the lower reaches of the Thames…. Buildings of historical interest and private property should be spared as much as possible.’
The imperial decision was:—
‘London itself is not to be bombed at present; attacks are to be confined to the dockyards, arsenals, docks (those near London also) and military establishments of a general nature (also Aldershot Camp if there are no German prisoners there).’
The Naval Staff interpreted this to mean that the docks in the east of London were to be attacked.
So excellent was our Intelligence Service that reports of what was passing in the minds of the German Naval Staff reached us even before Admiral von Pohl’s memorandum had been laid before the Emperor. The danger of an air attack on London appeared so imminent and our means of resisting it so ineffectual that I felt bound to send the following warning to the Cabinet on New Year’s Day:—
January 1, 1915.
Information from a trustworthy source has been received that the Germans intend to make an attack on London by airships on a great scale at an early opportunity. The Director of the Air Department reports that there are approximately twenty German airships which can reach London now from the Rhine, carrying each a ton of high explosives. They could traverse the English part of the journey, coming and going, in the dark hours. The weather hazards are considerable, but there is no known means of preventing the airships coming, and not much chance of punishing them on their return. The unavenged destruction of non-combatant life may therefore be very considerable. Having given most careful consideration to this subject, and taken every measure in their power, the Air Department of the Admiralty must make it plain that they are quite powerless to prevent such an attack if it is launched with good fortune and in favourable weather conditions.
I attach a paper by the Director of the Air Department.
W. S. C.
The paper set forth in exact detail and at length all that we had done and were doing, and showed how many months must intervene before any real means of defence or even of retaliation could be brought into existence. This situation preyed on the mind of the First Sea Lord. He believed that a catastrophe was impending and that he would be held partly responsible. He proposed to me that we should take a large number of hostages from the German population in our hands and should declare our intention of executing one of them for every civilian killed by bombs from aircraft. I, on the other hand, felt sympathy for these helpless people—‘puppets of fate’ as one of them mournfully described himself—and had from the very beginning of the war urged publicly a merciful attitude towards them. Shooting them in droves or threatening to do so would not make the slightest difference to the German action, and would only stain our reputation. I was therefore offended to receive from Lord Fisher the following official minute:—
January 4, 1915.
There is no defence except reprisals to be officially announced beforehand to the German Government.
As this step has not been taken I must with great reluctance ask to be relieved in my present official position as First Sea Lord because the Admiralty under present arrangements will be responsible for the massacre coming suddenly upon and unprepared for by the public.
I have allowed a week to elapse much against my judgment before taking this step to avoid embarrassing the Government. I cannot delay any longer.
I thought it necessary to reply as follows:—
Mr. Churchill to Lord Fisher.
January 4, 1915.
The question of aerial defence is not one upon which you have any professional experience. The question of killing prisoners in reprisal for an aerial attack is not one for the Admiralty, and certainly not for you to decide. The Cabinet alone can settle such a matter. I will bring your view to their notice at our meeting to-morrow. After much reflection I cannot support it. I am circulating a paper giving the facts about a Zeppelin raid as far as we can estimate them.
I hope I am not to take the last part of your letter seriously. I have always made up my mind never to dissuade anyone serving in the Department over which I preside from resigning if they wish to do so. Business becomes impossible on any other terms
But I sympathize with your feelings of exasperation at our powerlessness to resist certain forms of attack; and I presume I may take your letter simply as an expression of those feelings.
This letter received no reply; but later in the day when I met the Admiral he appeared in the best of tempers. He did not refer to the incident, and our work together proceeded as usual. Lord Fisher has narrated his part in this incident in his book, or I should not have referred to it here. But it may well have counted in the general balance of our relationship.
But with the discussions about the coastal advance there was soon mingled a very sharp dispute between the War Office and General Headquarters upon the system by which the new units should when trained be incorporated in the armies already in the field. Lord Kitchener and Sir John French found themselves at complete variance on this. The Secretary of State wanted to employ his new armies at least in Divisions. The Commander-in-Chief wished to break them up and mix them by battalions with the seasoned troops. I inclined to the views of the Commander-in-Chief, but I did all I could to promote a settlement between the two high authorities concerned.
Mr. Churchill to Mr. Asquith.
January 6, 1915.
I have read the memorandum from Sir John French which you showed me this morning. I do not feel convinced that the organization which the Commander-in-Chief outlines is the best which could be devised for utilizing the troops of the new army. But I think there is a great deal to be said for the principle which Sir John French advocates, of intermingling units from the new armies with those of the regular forces now serving in the field. It is undesirable that British armies serving side by side in one theatre of the war should show great differences in character, experience, and training; and that the British line should be maintained at one part over a very large front by army corps which have seen all the hardest fighting, while another equally large section of the front is to be held by an army or armies who come entirely new to active service, whose training though excellent has been very short, and who necessarily lack in their brigade, divisional, and army corps staffs, officers of the highest professional experience. Such a system might produce very great unevenness in the line; would certainly not give the new troops the best chance of distinguishing themselves; and may easily, through a retirement of so large a section of the line, lead to a general defeat. The problem is no doubt a difficult one; but I think that the preponderance of military opinion in this and other countries would advocate the formation of an army in the field whose army corps at any rate, and probably whose divisions, were equal in quality. I can quite understand the misgivings of a Commander-in-Chief who contemplates one portion of his forces consisting entirely of new troops and inexperienced staffs, while the other consists exclusively of tried and seasoned units under the staffs who have been in continual contact with the actual conditions of the present war. I believe also that it would be taken as a great compliment by the troops of the new army if they were to be brigaded with, and enabled to serve alongside of the regular battalions who have covered themselves with so much distinction. I cannot consider that it would be a reasonable thing to segregate the two forces. It might easily lead to a very unpleasant rivalry and friction between ‘French’s Army’ and ‘Kitchener’s Army,’ instead of all serving harmoniously together as the British Army. The danger seems to me to be serious and real, and I think we should take timely steps to avoid it. The sound and accepted principle of military organization is undoubtedly that young troops should be brigaded with seasoned troops, and that young troops specially need experienced and trained staff organization. Marked differences between large portions of an army are detrimental to military efficiency, and add an immense complication to its tactical employment.
Acting on the above principle, I think it was a pity that the three divisions of British troops from India, the 27th, 28th, and 29th, which consist exclusively of regulars serving with the colours without any admixture of reservists, should have been sent abroad without any admixture into their cadres of the well-trained recruits of the new armies. If every company in these three divisions had been divided into two and then raised to full strength by the addition of an equal number of soldiers from three divisions of the new army, we should have had six divisions almost immediately ready which would have been almost as good as the original divisions mobilized in England on the declaration of war, and certainly far more ready to take the field immediately than any homogeneous force raised since August. As it is, the thirty-six battalions of these three divisions do not contain a single reservist, and differ in that respect from every other unit employed by any country in the field. It seems to me a waste of our very small number of regular soldiers serving with the colours to use them concentrated in this way instead of using them as cadres on which to build the excellent material now coming to hand. This however, is a digression, though it illustrates the same principle.
On the other hand, I agree entirely with Lord Kitchener that the new armies and the territorials should not be absorbed piecemeal into the existing army and I should deprecate in principle any departure from the accepted and well-known organization of brigades, divisions, and army corps. Marked and serious divergence of opinion between the Commander-in-Chief and the armies in the field on the one hand, and the Secretary of State and the forces raised in England on the other, ought to be prevented. I would therefore propose for your consideration, and subsequently for that of the Cabinet, a middle course. As soon as the first new army is ready to go out, let two battalions from every brigade of the first new army change places with two battalions of the corresponding brigades of the first army now in the field. This would secure an absolutely even level over the whole of the thirty-six brigades; and if there was a proper interchange of officers between the regular and new staffs, two armies would have been created exactly equal in quality, both of a very high standard, and both directed by experienced staffs, instead of one veteran and professional army, and the other recruit and emergency army. When the second new army was ready to go out, the same process should take place with the second regular army. I am sure that this is the right way, and the only way to attain a large homogeneous army capable of acting together against the enemy in April and May; and I do not think any considerations of sentiment, still less any supposed rivalry between the army now training at home and the army now in the field, ought to prevent us from taking the best steps open to us to increase our military power.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
January 8, 1915.
Your memorandum was circulated to the Cabinet and the War Council. Kitchener also read to the War Council this morning the correspondence you have just sent me. No one could say that he did not place us fairly in possession of your views. Your letter in answer to his made a profound impression. On the other hand he demurred very strongly to sending the fifty-two territorial battalions, saying that their despatch now would dislocate all his arrangements for the future, whether in regard to the expansion of the army for foreign service, or the provision for home defence. He also read a letter from you, written a few days before your memorandum, about artillery ammunition, and proved, I thought successfully, that it was physically impossible to satisfy these requirements. Both these conditions, i.e. the fifty-two battalions and the ammunition, were, he said, according to you indispensable to the coast offensive. Secondly, he adduced a great mass of evidence showing the probability of a renewed German assault upon the Anglo-French lines in the near future, against which every preparation must be made. To this end he was going to send you the 28th and 29th Divisions and the Canadians in the course of the next six weeks. In view of this very strong case, the opinion was that we had no choice but to await this new attack before attempting an offensive move ourselves. Great doubt was thrown, and naturally exists here, on the ability and even the intention of Joffre to make a really strong offensive himself; and even if his offensive were launched, it was said that the coast attack by the British would not be an integral part of his plans.
The Prime Minister, while not dissenting from the general opinion, stated that he had written to you hoping that you could come over early next week, provided the military situation permitted. I strongly urge you to do this if you can. Another meeting of the War Council will be held, at which you and, I gather, any officer you might bring with you, would be present. The question of how the new army was to be interwoven with the existing army was not discussed at length. I send you a note which I have prepared on the subject, a copy of which I have given to the Prime Minister and to Kitchener. Kitchener tells me that he certainly contemplates the mingling of the armies by divisions, but does not want to go beyond this, and that anyhow he does not want any public announcement at the present time which would impair the enthusiasm and esprit de corps of the new forces….
I am bound to say that I do not think that anyone could complain of the way in which Kitchener stated your position, though the differences of view were apparent. If you find it possible to come over, I expect we can get to a general agreement. If not, I will come over to Dunkirk and we can meet at Furnes. My only desire is to keep us all together, and to see that you are properly sustained in your great task. If it is true that the Germans are going to attack, then it would be much better to give them another good bleeding before clearing the coast, urgent though that be. But is it true? I send you one or two other papers of interest, which please treat as entirely personal and secret. Above all, my dear friend, do not be vexed or discouraged. We are on the stage of history. Let us keep our anger for the common foe. I have kept Freddie back to bring this to you, and am sending him over in a destroyer to-night.
Don’t fail to come if you possibly can. I can fetch you at Calais or Boulogne any time after dark, and bring you here with the utmost speed and little risk.
In reply Sir John French declared his intention to come to England, adding that the expectations of a German attack were according to his Intelligence Service unfounded. He was still set upon the coastal advance. On January 23, he wrote that he had had a long conference with General Joffre, the chief point of which was, ‘that the French do not attach anything like so much importance to the coast operation as we do, and what they really want above all things is to be completely relieved in the North and their troops set free to strengthen their line elsewhere and support a possible offensive movement.’
…it was finally arranged that I should only employ one British Corps (instead of two) for any offensive operation I might want to undertake, and use the other to relieve more French troops. In view of the situation as I know it to be really, I think this was quite a just and right compromise.
I may tell you therefore, finally, that I am prepared to commence a joint operation between the 10th and 15th March; the forces employed will probably be one British Cavalry Corps, one British Army Corps, De Mitry’s detachment of about 10,000, whatever Naval land contingent you can give me, and the bulk of the Belgian Army. This force will be supported by (I hope) four or five 9.2-inch howitzers and as many of the 15-inch guns as you will have let me have by that time. Whether we can do all that we intended to do (i.e. secure a line of entrenchments stretching across from Dixmude to the Dutch Frontier) depends upon the result of my investigations (now being carried out) of our ability to inundate a large part of the country….
Just as I am sending this letter I hear that the arrival of the 9.2-inch howitzers is to be delayed for three or four weeks. I really think this is too bad. We must have power to keep down the enemy’s long-range artillery fire and at present we have only got this one 9.2-inch howitzer and the eight 6-inch guns. May I appeal to you and Bacon to come to the rescue and send us one or two of the 15-inch guns which you are preparing? You see in all my troubles I fall back upon you.
I accepted this postponement as equivalent to the final shelving of the plan: and this was eventually the result.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
January 24, 1915.
…Of course your decision is a heavy blow to us. But I am not going to waste time and strength about choses jugées.
Two 15-inch howitzers complete with 150 rounds of ammunition for the two will be at your disposal in France thoroughly equipped on February 15, if you claim them through the War Office. Thereafter we work up from ten to fifteen rounds a day….
Thus ended the Sea Coast project. It petered out like so many other schemes in this period of various devices and invariable indecision. Whether it would have succeeded or not, no one can tell. The chances certainly diminished with every day that passed. All that can be said is that it offered a far more promising theatre for British operations than those to which they were subsequently confined. It brought the Army and Navy together and seemed to enable us to give the Army some of that heavy artillery support of which they stood, and were long to stand, bitterly in need. Including the landing at Zeebrugge with all its risks, it still held the field in British military thought up to the year 1917. At that time our resources of all kinds had greatly increased, but so also had those of the enemy.
Meanwhile other events had been occurring, and other prospects had come into view, destined to spring from words into action, and thereafter, as they developed, to devour every other alternative plan.