Posted by: Dr Churchill | September 14, 2017

What Would Winston Churchill Do? (Chapter 33)

The shots fired against the Archduke of Austria into his open car, killing him along with his young wife Sophie, while touring Sarajevo Bosnia, were heard loud and clear all around the World. It is proven now that this preordained terrorist action, is what gave the Germans their much wanted pretext for starting the Great war that ended five empires…

Indeed many today believe that it was the Germans who paid and armed the terrorists with the weapons that allowed them to effect this royal assassination.

Yet regardless of whose hidden arm actually pulled the trigger, results matter, since Peace was torn asunder, because upon hearing the news of the royal couple’s assassination by the terrorist, the Austro-Hungarian empire issued an annexation ultimatum to Serbia, who in turn as expected — refused to accept the harsh terms flung at her, and the next day Austria declared war.

The following day, the Russians began to mobilize on the Austrian frontier, and three days later, Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia to disperse her troops, and then immediately declared war. On the 3rd of August — this time without any declarations — Germany invaded Belgium and France.

Ten tense and fearful days had passed between the Austrian ultimatum and the German invasion. During this time the British Cabinet was overwhelmingly pacifist. Every attempt was made to stop the conflagration from spreading, every hope was sustained, and every argument was advanced, about “Why Britain could remain aloof.” However, England had guaranteed Belgian neutrality; and when the news was received that German troops were pouring through Flanders all thought of peace vanished. An ultimatum was sent to Germany demanding her withdrawal from Belgium within twenty-four hours. When the chimes of Big Ben struck eleven on the warm summer evening of the 4th of August — Britain was at war.

“Winston had played his part well.” Lord Fisher said that he had prophesied repeatedly that 1914 was the crucial year. As a result the Fleet was not sent on its usual manoeuvres to the North Sea. Instead, Churchill had ordered a full mobilization exercise, which meant putting not only the main Fleet, but the ships all the and men of the Second and the Third Reserve Fleets, on active service footing.
This exercise took place in the middle of July. It ended on the 17th and 18th of July in a grand review of the Fleet by the King, at the Spithead naval base.

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After this exercise, the normal course of events, would have been the dispersal of all the men. Instead, on the 20th of July, the newspapers carried an Admiralty notice: “Orders have been given to the First Fleet, which is concentrated at Portland, not to disperse for naval leave for the present. All vessels of the Second fleet are remaining at their home ports, in proximity to their balance crews.”

The following week when Austria attacked Serbia, Winston acted rather quickly. With the assent of Sir Edward Grey he gave instructions for the Fleet to take up its station in Scottish waters, at Scapa Flow, opposite the German Fleet, in order to prevent it being bottled up in the face of a surprise attack. The operation was carried out in the greatest secrecy, as the ships moved through the Straits of Dover at night, with their fires “banked,” sailing in total silence, under full darkness…

During the ten days that the Government debated the terrible issue of war and peace, Churchill was the strongest force for intervention in the Continent, within the Cabinet. While his colleagues hesitated, worried and prevaricated in uncertainty — Winston Churchill was longing to act. Prime Minister Asquith describes Winston in his memoirs as “being very bellicose, demanding instant mobilization.” On Friday, the 31st of July — Winston Churchill asked his friend, F. E. Smith, to sound his Conservative leaders on the question of coalition in case the Liberal Government remained hopelessly divided. Bonar Law refused to consider coalition unless he was approached by the Prime Minister himself, but made it clear that the Administration could count on loyal Conservative support.

Early the first Saturday in August, Germany declared war on Russia. Churchill,
on his own authority and without the sanction of the Cabinet, which at any rate, he received the following morning, had ordered the full mobilization of the
Fleet. Lord Beaverbrook describes Winston Churchill’s reactions when he heard the news of the fateful act. Beaverbrook had been invited with Mr F. E. Smith to Admiralty House for dinner and bridge. “Suddenly an immense dispatch box was brought into the room. Churchill produced his skeleton key from his pocket, opened the box and took out of it a single sheet of paper . . . On that sheet was written the words “Germany has declared war against Russia.”

“He rang for a servant and asking for a lounge coat, stripped his dress
coat from his back, saying no further word. He left the room quickly. He was not depressed; he was not elated; he was not surprised. Certainly he exhibited no fear or uneasiness. Neither did he show any signs of joy. He went straight out like a man going to a well-accustomed job. In fact, he had foreseen everything that was going to happen so far that his temperament was in no way upset by the realization of his forecast. We have suffered at times from Winston Churchill’s bellicosity. But what profit the nation derived at that crucial moment from the capacity of the First Lord of the Admiralty for grasping and dealing with the war situation.”

Not many months later, in one of the bleakest periods of his career, Lord Kitchener was to say to him: “There is one thing that nobody can take away from you: The fact that the Fleet was ready.”

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By this time, Winston’s star had been rising steadily for eight years, and when war broke out he stood as one of the three most powerful men in Britain. He was only thirty nine years old, yet he was head of the greatest fighting service, of the greatest Empire, in the world. Fortune was smiling as far as his own opportunities were concerned and the path ahead seemed straight and sure. He was a forceful orator, an accomplished writer and an able administrator. He was blessed with boundless energy. He enjoyed the close friendship of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the admiration of the Prime Minister. With his dazzling gifts and his pugnacious spirit it seemed certain that he would play a leading role in the great struggle against Germany, and even his enemies began to reckon on him as a probable successor to Prime Minister Asquith.

But Fortune is a fickle mistress…

Only ten months later he was dismissed from the Admiralty and five months after that he was excluded from the War Cabinet. His power was broken, and he had no further voice in the conduct of the war. Even though Lloyd George brought him back into the Government in 1917, he never regained the great position he held at the outset. He was given a purely administrative job, while questions of high
policy were carefully shielded from his influence. His contribution to World War I, therefore, was sensational but brief.

But the Question remains: “What brought about Churchill’s downfall?”

The answer undoubtedly lays with Winston Churchill’s personality.

The Tories still hated and mistrusted him and lost no opportunity to discredit him; but leaving politics aside, Churchill was not popular as a man. His parliamentary colleagues recognized his genius but they did not warm to him for the simple reason that he offended their “amour propre.” Ideas, not people, interested him, and his absorption with his own affairs, and his own opinions, at times could be almost childlike, in its vanity and intensity. He treated his colleagues to brilliant monologues, but the fact that he seldom wanted to hear their views in exchange, often left them ruffled, and offended, while he, in turn, was completely oblivious to their reactions. This was the insensibility of the headstrong child, warm-hearted, and generous when taken to task, but too utterly engrossed in his own pursuits to have much heed for other people or their opinions. This insensibility was a serious defect in a democratic statesman, whose task it was not only to expand ideas but to persuade others to follow them. As a result Churchill was unable to command the personal sympathy and loyalty necessary from his colleagues, in order to sustain him through the inevitably precarious times, that in Politics come with the regularity of the ebb & flow of tides.

But let us allow the events of that day unfold, and inform the story…

At the outbreak of hostilities Winston Churchill’s Navy was more than ready. Yet its’ main task was to ensure the safe transport of the British Expeditionary Force to France, which it did without the loss of a single life. Winston was eager and bellicose. He was brimming over with ideas and longed for a show-down. The Grand Fleet patrolled the North Sea majestically, challenging the German Navy to come out and fight. But why wait for them, asked Churchill? What about a raid on the German ships in the Heligoland Bight? As a result a plan was drawn up and put into operation with brilliant success. Two flotillas of British destroyers and cruisers made a sudden drive near the island of Sylt, sank one cruiser, smashed two others and crippled three more. They also sank a
destroyer…

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Churchill declared triumphantly that: “The nose of the bulldog has been slanted backwards, so that he can breathe without letting go.”

The Army was not having such a successful time. The Germans had thrown their whole strength into the attack against France, and were staking everything on one conclusive gamble: the complete destruction of French military power. At the end of three weeks, a million men of the French Army were falling back on Paris, leaving the Channel ports dangerously exposed. Surprise and alarm swept through England, but Churchill was not dismayed. In order to reassure his colleagues he reprinted the memorandum he had written in 1911 which predicted these very happenings, but went on to declare confidently that by the fortieth day the Germans would be fully extended, which would allow the Allies to stage a counterstroke. He sent a copy of the memorandum to Sir John French, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who replied in a letter on the 10th of September: “What a wonderful forecast you made in 1911. I don’t remember the paper, but things have turned out, almost exactly as you said. I have shown it to a few of my staff.”

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Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was worried. As the Allied line fell back in France he began to fear that the Germans might strike at London by zeppelin raid. Three-quarters of the planes the English possessed were under the control of the War Office and were being used in support of the retreating armies. The other quarter, were planes that Churchill himself had scraped together in 1912 and 1913 to form a “Naval Air Service” and were now under the jurisdiction of the Navy, and therefore lying idle…
Consequently Lord Kitchener asked Winston if he would undertake the aerial defence of Great Britain, and the latter eagerly assented. This led to a series of unusual events, some comic, and some tragic, which contributed to Winston Churchill’s final downfall.

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It also led to an invention destined to revolutionize modern warfare the birth of the Tank.

This is how the tank idea came into being: Churchill knew that if the
German zeppelins were to be destroyed they must be attacked in their
hangars. In those days aeroplane engines were not strong enough to reach
the height at which zeppelins flew in the necessary time.

Aviation was in its infancy, night flying was only beginning, and location of aircraft by sound-waves, today known as radar — was not then yet discovered and the technology was far from developed. Churchill, therefore, set up air bases at Dunkirk and Calais, as near to the enemy lines as possible. From then on intrepid pilots in uncertain machines conducted innumerable sweeps over Cologne, Dusseldorf, Friedrichshafen and Cuxhaven; and before twelve months had passed the Royal Naval Air Service could claim to have destroyed no less than six of the great gas-filled monsters.

The era of the Zeppelins was over…

However, it soon became apparent that Winston Churchill’s new air bases were in danger of direct attack from German patrols. Winston immediately ordered a hastily improvised armoured car equipped with a machine gun.
Next he ordered the formation of armoured car squadrons under the Admiralty. But once again difficulties arose. German cavalry units succeeded in warding off these mobile attacks by digging themselves in behind trenches. And as the days passed the trenches stretched out further and further, until they finally reached the sea. There was no way for the cars to get round them.

Winston refused to bow to such an obstacle. Something must be done at once to “beat the trench.” On 23 September, he wrote a letter to Admiral Bacon, the General Manager of a large ordnance works, asking for a design of an armoured car that could cross trenches by means of a folding, portable bridge. He explains in his book, ‘The World Crisis:’ “The air was the first cause that took us to Dunkirk, the armoured car was the child of the air, and the tank its grandchild.”

Admiral Bacon produced the design, but the armoured car with the portable bridge was never manufactured; for, a month later, the Admiral showed Churchill a caterpillar tractor which he decided was more suitable. This, too, had a folding bridge. He ordered several of these machines to be made but when the first one was tested in May 1915 the Admiralty perversely rejected it, because it could not descend a four-foot bank or go through three feet of water.

However, Winston had other irons in the fire. Some idea of his persistence may be gathered from a letter which he wrote in January 1915 to the Director of the Air Division: “I wish the following experiment made at once: Two ordinary steam-rollers are to be fastened together side by side by very strong steel connections, so that they are to all intents and purposes one roller covering a breadth of at least twelve to fourteen feet.
If convenient, one of the back inside wheels might be removed and the other axle joined up to it. Some trenches are to be dug on the latest principles somewhere near London in lengths of at least 100 yards, the earth taken out of the trenches being thrown on each side, as is done in France.
The roller is to be driven along these trenches one outer rolling wheel on each side, and the inner rolling wheel just clear of the trench itself. The object is to ascertain what amount of weight is necessary in the roller to smash the trench in. For this purpose as much weight as they can possibly draw should be piled on to the steamrollers and on the framework buckling them together. The ultimate object is to run along a line of trenches, crushing them all flat and burying the people in them.”

This experiment also failed. The steamrollers merely bogged down in the center and refused to budge.

 

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But Winston persevered. The following month he talked to an Army major who suggested the creation of huge “land battleships.” This idea led to the formation of the Landships Committee of the Admiralty under whose auspices two designs were finally produced, one on large wheels, the other on a caterpillar tractor. He ordered eighteen of these machines to be built at a cost of 70,000 pounds. The money was not authorized by the Treasury, but Winston assumed the responsibility himself.

 

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Imagine that. Winston was willing to bankrupt himself, in order to get the Naval engineers, to built the first tanks, because his great vision was to save lives in the horrible trench warfare.

 

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When he was dismissed from the Admiralty a few months later, his successor cut down the order to one. This one was the exact prototype of the tank used for the first time in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

 

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Churchill began the war as Asquith’s, blue eyed boy, but his triumphs were short lived. Before eight weeks had passed his position with the Prime Minister had begun to deteriorate. According to Lord Beaverbrook, who was a close friend of the most powerful political figures of the day, the thing which first attracted Asquith’s attention and made him doubt in the long run whether Churchill was a ‘wise war counsellor’ was the Dunkirk Circus. This project was born from the fear, which persisted for many months, that the Germans might capture the Channel ports. On the 16th of September, Marshal Joffre asked Lord Kitchener if a brigade of Marines could be sent to Dunkirk to reinforce the garrison and give the enemy the idea that British, as well as French troops, were operating in the area. Once again Kitchener turned to Churchill, and once again Churchill agreed.

 

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The Marines were sent across the Channel and Winston requisitioned fifty motor omnibuses from the streets of London to give them the necessary mobility. Soon British detachments were showing themselves in Ypres, Lille, Tournai and Douai. The Marines suffered no casualties and had a good deal of fun; so did the First Lord of the Admiralty.
Winston began to spend a good deal of time in France inspecting his air bases and thinking up new escapades for his Circus.

 

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It is not difficult to understand the criticism that began to arise. Why wasn’t the fellow at his desk in the Admiralty where he belonged, the Tories began to growl, instead of racing off to France poking his nose into other people’s business, and making himself ridiculous?

“Armored cars, and London buses? What on earth did they have to do with the Navy?”

Even his colleagues in the Government began to be annoyed. “There were, on more than one occasion” wrote Lord Beaverbrook, “unexplained absences on the part of the First Lord of the Admiralty, which were often inconvenient and caused a growing sense of annoyance among other members of the Government.”

The Prime Minister, who at the outset had approved of the “Circus”, found himself tolerating these absences and trying to conceal the whereabouts of his colleague from other Ministers.

Subsequently he discovered that he must take charge at the Admiralty during an absence of Churchill. On a later occasion still he could not find the First Lord when the date of the sailing of a New Zealand contingent was at stake so that, Asquith complained: “A very serious delay in dispatching this force occurred.”

Asquith soon saw that, and the ‘Dunkirk Circus’ was wound up.

Then an unfortunate incident occurred. On the 21st of September Churchill delivered a flamboyant speech, in which he made a boastful and unwise observation that was destined to be flung back at him for years to come: “So far as the Navy is concerned we cannot fight while the enemy remains in port. … If they do not come out and fight they will be dug out like rats from a hole” he cried. The English public did not like this sort of talk. They recognized the Germans as a formidable foe, and had an uneasy feeling that Winston was tempting fate. Their reaction was swiftly justified, for the very next day three British ships, the Aboukir, the Hogue, and the Cressy, which were steaming along on patrol duty off the Dutch coast, were torpedoed and sunk.

As it turns out, in reality, Churchill had ordered the withdrawal of this “livebait” squadron three days earlier, and if his order had been carried out promptly — the submarine attacks and the resultant loss of men, ships, and munitions, would have been avoided. Of course this would not be known widely at the time but the military and all those on command knew of this quite well…

However, his hubristic speech had indeed been a political gaffe, and with the naval disaster following promptly on it’s heels — placed Winston in a ridiculous light. Hybris was never tolerated in England, and his opponents had every right to seize on the incident and discredit him, but one Tory M.P., Captain Bowles, circulated an outrageous pamphlet which contained this preposterous statement: “The loss on 22 September of the Aboukir, the Cressy, and the Hogue, with 1,459 officers and men killed, occurred because, despite the warnings of the admirals, commodores and captains, Winston Churchill refused, until it was too late, to recall them from a patrol so carried on, as to make them certain to fall victims to the torpedoes of an active enemy.”

Shortly after this sensation, the Antwerp episode damaged Winston Churchill’s stained reputation and diminished standing amongst his colleagues, even further…

Once again he undertook a mission at Lord Kitchener’s request. This is what he wrote many years later in The World Crisis: “I seem to have been too ready to undertake tasks which were hazardous or even forlorn. I believed, however, that the special knowledge which I possessed and the great authority which I wielded at this time of improvisation, would enable me to offer less unsatisfactory solutions of these problems than could be furnished in the emergency by others in less commanding positions.”

Thus Churchill was driven on by his supreme self-assurance, into positions which wiser statesmen might have avoided. The circumstances were these: The Battle of the Marne, fought between 6th and 16th of September over an 180 mile front — had flung the Germans back from the Marne to the Aisne, and severely damaged their hope for a speedy victory.
There was however, one more chance for the Germans to regain the upper hand, and that would entail the immediate capture of Antwerp, because this would enable them to sweep to the Channel ports, and perhaps roll up the Allied line causing them total defeat, and surrender. Consequently the Kaiser gave an imperative order for the capture of Antwerp, regardless of cost, and on the 28th of September the German howitzers began their bombardment of the city. The heavy fortifications were destroyed with astonishing ease, and four days later the King of the Belgians sent out an urgent call for aid writing that, “If reinforcements did not arrive at once — the Belgian Army might be captured intact. Plans to evacuate the city were already in hand.”

 

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Churchill was on his way to Dunkirk when this desperate news was received. He raced back to London and attended a conference at Lord Kitchener’s house. Kitchener explained that reinforcements would not be ready for three or four days; could Churchill hurry to Antwerp, explain the position to the King and Prime Minister, and urge them to hold on with the help of a brigade of Marines until further aid arrived?

Once again Winston Churchill said yes, and departed. Foolhardy yet courageous, was this course; but Winston took it none the less.

The English Prime Minister Asquith was not in London when this decision was taken but made the following entry in his diary: “I was away but Grey, Kitchener and Winston held a late meeting and, I fancy, with Grey’s rather reluctant consent, the intrepid Winston set off at midnight and ought to have reached Antwerp about nine o’clock. He will straight away see the Belgian Ministers. Sir J. French is making preparations to send assistance by way of Lille. I had a talk with Kitchener this morning and we are both anxiously awaiting Winston’s report. I do not know how fluent his French is, but if he is able to do justice to himself in a foreign tongue, the Belges will have to listen to a discourse the likes of which they have never heard before. I cannot but think that he will stiffen them up.”

The Prime Minister was correct in his opinion. Winston’s arrival at Belgian Headquarters in the uniform of an Elder Brother of Trinity House had a slightly comic flavour about it, but his force and his eloquence put new “heart” into the Belgians, and strengthened their resolve to fight on.

This is what an American war correspondent, wrote of Winston’s arrival in the besieged city: “At one o’clock in the afternoon, a big drab-coloured touring-car filled with
British Naval officers drove down the Place de Mer, its horn sounding a hoarse warning, took the turn into the March-aux-Souliers on two wheels, and drew up in front of the hotel. Before the car had fairly come to a stop the door was thrown violently open and out jumped a smooth-faced, sandy-haired, stoop-shouldered, youthful-looking man in a sharp naval Trinity House uniform, full of gleaming brass buttons and golden thread.”

“As he darted into the crowded lobby which, as usual in the luncheon hour, was filled with Belgian, French and British staff officers, diplomatists, Cabinet Ministers, and correspondents, he flung his arms out in a nervous characteristic gesture, as though pushing his way through a crowd. It was a most spectacular entrance, and reminded me for all the world of a scene in a melodrama where the hero dashes up bare-headed on a foam flecked horse, and saves the heroine, or the old homestead, or the family fortune as the case may be.”

“The Burgomaster stopped him, introduced himself, and expressed his anxiety regarding the fate of the city. Before he had finished Churchill was part way up the stairs. “I think everything will be all right now, Mr Burgomaster,” he called in a voice which could be distinctly heard throughout the lobby. “You needn’t worry. We’re going to save the
city.””

“Although the outer defences of Antwerp had been smashed, the water supply cut, and guns, ammunition and entrenching materials were running low, Winston succeeded in convincing the Belgian staff that with the help that was arriving it was possible to hang on for some time yet.”

 

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When Jack Seely, the ex-Secretary of State for War, arrived from Sir John French’s Headquarters to report on the situation, he wrote: “From the moment I arrived it was apparent that the whole business was in Winston’s hands. He dominated the whole place, the King, Ministers, soldiers, sailors. So great was his influence that I am convinced, that with twenty thousand British troops he could have held Antwerp against almost any onslaught.”

Winston had the same belief himself. If only he were in command he was certain the city could be saved. He was thrilled by the situation and, as with all things that captured his imagination, absorbed in it, to the exclusion of all else. Consequently he sent a message to the Prime Minister which seemed sensible to him but struck his colleagues as extraordinary. He asked Asquith to relieve him of his post at the Admiralty and give him the proper rank, so that he could take over the military command himself.
“I am sure this arrangement will afford the best prospects of a victorious result to an enterprise in which I am deeply involved” he added confidently.

Asquith gasped at the impertinence of an ex subaltern of cavalry asking to command major generals, and so did most of the Cabinet. However, it is interesting to note that Kitchener had a more open mind on the subject: “I will make him a major-general if you will give him the command” he told Asquith.

The Prime Minister remained obdurate. That night he wrote in his diary: “I at once telegraphed to him warm appreciation of his mission and his offer, with a most decided negative, saying that we could not spare him at the Admiralty. I had not meant to read it at the Cabinet but, as everybody, including Kitchener, began to ask how soon he was going to return, I was at last obliged to do so. Winston is an ex-Lieutenant of Hussars and would, if his proposal had been accepted, have been in command of two distinguished major-generals not to mention brigadiers, colonels, etc., while the Navy are only contributing their light brigade.”

In the meantime Winston had wired Kitchener to send two Naval brigades, which he knew could be dispatched at once. This detachment amounted to about six thousand men, inexperienced, ill-equipped and only partially trained. once they arrived, they fought stubbornly and well, and played a vital role in prolonging the resistance, but before the battle ended, nine hundred of the men were taken prisoner, and another two and a half battalions crossed into Holland by mistake, and were captured and interned…

Antwerp fell, in only five days after Winston’s arrival.

But according to the British official history of the war these five days were of incalculable value. “Until Antwerp had fallen, the troops of the investing force were not available to move forward to Ypres and the coast; and though, when they secured Zeebrugge and Ostend without struggle, they were too late to secure Nieuport and Dunkirk and turn the Northern flank of the Allies, as was intended. What seems incredible is that Kitchener failed to grasp the strategic significance of Antwerp, whereas young Winston Churchill fully understood, that serious strategic point, both in the map, as well as in the drama of the warring tactics.”

 

But gong back to Winston’s misadventure in Antwerp; today’s military historians declare that Antwerp would have held, if Lord Kitchener had sent even one measly division of seasoned Territorial soldiers, who were available nearby. Yet General Kitchener had completely underestimated the importance of holding onto Antwerp, and this shows that apart from his lack of overall geographical understanding of the strategic situation away from the immediate battlefield; like many other professional soldiers of his day — he had a disdain for the Territorial Soldiers, so, incongruously enough, he allowed Winston to try his luck with his half-trained Naval brigades and without any seasoned military reinforcements.

And of course, at the time it was impossible for the public to gauge the full significance of the five days of added resistance. People only saw the obvious facts: “Churchill had dashed over to Belgium in an effort to save a city, and a few days later the city had capitulated.”

Furthermore, to the layman it seemed an act of incredible folly to fling raw and badly equipped recruits into the battle. Even the Prime Minister’s son, Brigadier-General Asquith, who took part in the Antwerp fighting, condemned Winston on this account, and this is what his father the Prime Minister, wrote in his diary: “I had a long talk with my son after midnight, in the course of which he gave a full and vivid account of the expedition to Antwerp and the retirement. Marines, of course, are splendid troops and can go anywhere and do anything, but Winston ought never to have sent the two Naval brigades. I was assured that all the recruits were being left behind, and that the main body at any rate consisted of seasoned Naval Reserve men. As a matter of fact, only about a quarter were Reservists and the rest were a callow crowd of the most raw recruits, most of whom had never fired off a rifle while none of them had ever even handled an entrenching tool.”

The Antwerp expedition damaged Winston’s reputation badly. The Conservative Press was beginning to attack him savagely: “Winston Churchill’s characteristics make him in his present position a danger and an anxiety to the nation” stated the Morning Post on the issue of the 15th of October.

It was apparent that even the Prime Minister was losing confidence in him. Although Mr Asquith was still amused by the latter’s highly original approach to military matters, a derisory note was now creeping into his diary. Even so, it is difficult to suppress a smile when one reads the Prime Minister’s account of an interview with Churchill shortly after his return from Belgium: “I have had a long call from Winston who, after dilating in great detail on the actual situation, became suddenly very confidential and implored me not to take a conventional view of his future.”

“Having, as he says, tasted blood these last few days he is beginning, to feel like a tiger, and to crave for more, and begs that sooner or later, and the sooner the better, he may be relieved of his present office and put in some kind of military command. I told him that he could not be spared from the Admiralty.” He scoffed at that, alleging that: “The naval part of the business is practically over, as our superiority will grow greater and greater every month.”

“His mouth waters at the thought of Kitchener’s Armies. Are these glittering commands to be entrusted to dugout trash, bred on the obsolete tactics of twenty-five years ago, mediocrities who have led a sheltered life, mouldering in military routine?”

“For about an hour he poured forth a ceaseless invective and appeal, and I much regretted that there was no shorthand writer within hearing, as some of his un-premeditated phrases were quite priceless. He was, however, three parts serious, and declared that a political career was nothing to him, in comparison with military glory.”

Indeed by now, Winston Churchill’s prestige had declined sharply during the first three months of the war, in which these events took place. Much of the blame heaped on him was unfair, but those are the travails of history, to those that dare to stick up above other men, and to take risks that others fear to even contemplate…

The truth was that Winston Churchill had rendered valuable services to his country consistently, and in many innovative and inventive ways: “Churchill’s small but gallant Naval Air Force was busy scouting for enemy zeppelins and destroying them wherever they found them. Winston’s Dunkirk Circus had fooled the Germans into believing that their flank was threatened by forty thousand men and finally stimulated a German retreat. Winston Churchill’s prolongation of the resistance of Antwerp delayed the enemy’s movement towards Ypres and prevented the capture of Dunkirk.”

Thus it appears that the mounting criticism against Churchill was almost entirely due to his self-assured manner.

All his life he had irritated people by his privately held belief in his own importance. But now that he was in a position of great power, his humour, his exuberance of spirit, and his supreme self-confidence had become an almost overwhelming liability, and he seemed to be indulging in a form of exhibitionism and daring, that appeared as tempting fate, much to the dismay of his colleagues; who watched his exploits, not only with annoyance, and jealousy, but also with ever growing alarm.

Many of these alarmed individuals, including the Prime Minister, genuinely began to doubt Winston’s suitability as a Cabinet Minister, because to the outsiders, he seemed risky, rash, and unstable. And here is the evidence listed: “First there was the speech about “digging the German rats out of their holes” the day before three British ships were sunk. Then the spectacle of the First Lord rushing back and forth from Dunkirk like an excited schoolboy instead of leaving the direction of his private ‘Circus’ to someone else.
Even at the Admiralty the strongest English card — things were not going too well. It was felt that Churchill was wielding far too much authority over the Navy for a civilian, largely due to the indulgent attitude of the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, father of the present Lord Mountbatten. Prince Louis, it was believed, lacked the necessary vigour and decision to control the dynamic politicians, and Churchill was now dubbed “the amateur Commander-in-Chief.””

As the problems confronting the Navy increased, so did criticism. His problems were mounting as it was recorded in the dailies: “The German ships Emden and Konigsberg were sinking Allied ships in the Indian Ocean. Their sister ships, Goeben and Breslau, had successfully slipped into the Sea of Marmara. And the third pair of destroyers, the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, were menacing the Allied shipping off the west coast of Africa.”

Winston was boldly attacked and for the first time realized that his position at the Admiralty was far from secure. Besides this, criticism of Prince Louis was mounting; not, however, because of the latter’s work as First Sea Lord, but for the cruel reason that he was of German origin.

Winston Churchill knew that he could not defend Prince Louis much longer, against the rising tide of anti-German feeling; he knew, also, that it was imperative to bolster his own position.

He therefore sent for Lord Fisher.

 

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This was written by Lord Beaverbrook: “Churchill co-opted Fisher to relieve pressure against himself, but he had no intention of letting anyone else rule the roost. Here, then, were two strong men of incompatible temper, both bent on autocracy. It only required a difference of opinion on policy to produce a dash, and this cause of dissension was not long wanting.”

However, at first the Churchill-Fisher union, proved a distinct success.

Within a few weeks of swinging into action it scored a notable victory.

Lord Fisher took over as First Sea Lord just as the British Navy was sustaining a sharp defeat.

A cruiser squadron was attacked in overwhelming force off the coast of Chile, by five German warships under the brilliant command of Admiral von Spee.

The British Admiralty was blamed for having sent as a reinforcement, an old battleship capable of steaming at thirteen knots only.

 

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Lord Fisher acted with characteristic force, dispatching the great battlecruisers, HMS Invincible, and the HMS Inflexible, directly to the scene of the action, although this meant seriously weakening the Grand Fleet.

Some idea of Fisher’s extraordinary drive and strength of command, may be gathered from the fact that these two ships were undergoing repairs when their sailing orders arrived. Word came back to the First Sea Lord that the date of their departure would have to be delayed.

To this setback, the old Admiral replied with force to the Admirals and the ship captains that: “They could sail with the workmen onboard if necessary — but sail they would — immediately.”

 

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And indeed these two magnificent battlecruisers sailed off, and went straight towards the Falkland islands, where they ran straight into the German admiral von Spee’s naval attack force. This was achieved by a brilliant stroke of Fisher’s strategic planning, based on advanced intelligence, fortunate ingenuity, and pure British luck.

Immediately admiral Spee’s famously invincible naval squadron, that included the German battleships Gneisenau, and the Scharnhorst, were engaged in battle, and were swiftly annihilated. Admiral von Spee and his two sons were amongst thousands of other sailors, who were killed.

Lord Fisher’s and consequently also Winston’s triumph was complete.

The country was ringing with his praise and Winston wrote to him: “My dear Fisher, this was your show, and your luck. I should have sent only HMS Greyhound and HMS Defence. These would have done the trick. But it was a great coup. Your flair was quite true. Let us have some more victories together and confound all our enemies abroad and (don’t forget) at home.”

 

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At about this same time Fisher wrote to a friend: ‘I am working hard. … It is long and arduous to get back to a good position with a consummate good player for an enemy. But I’m trying. Let him not that putteth his armour on, boast himself, like him that taketh it off.’

Churchill and Fisher agreed not to take any action without each other’s knowledge. They manned the Admiralty for the whole of the twenty four hours around the clock — forming what they called a “perpetual clock.” Fisher rose at four in the morning and finished his work in the early afternoon. Winston began in the late morning and worked through the night. Winston wrote his minutes in red ink, and Fisher in green, and both referred to them as the Port and Starboard Lights.

Both men had great stores of intelligence and respected each other. This made for a great working relationship — and a string of successes, as long as they both agreed on the aims and the means of achieving those aims…

 

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Lord Fisher had strong ideas on strategy. He believed that the fighting in France would prove a fatal deadlock. The proper way to end the war, he argued, was to carry out a huge combined naval and military operation in the Baltic, and place an army behind the enemy’s lines. An enormous naval programme had been authorized by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Fisher now extended it, and began to concentrate on the design of special ships for his Baltic plan. Churchill supported him and the two men agreed that the operation should take place some time in 1915.

Thus, for the first two months, the old Admiral and the young politician worked in close harmony. Then suddenly a fly appeared in the ointment. Turkey had entered the war on Germany’s side two months previously. On the 2nd of January, 1915, an urgent appeal was received from the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia for the Allies to take some action in the Middle East that would draw off Turkish pressure from the Caucasus.
Lord Kitchener pondered over the request but said that he could not spare troops from France. He wrote to Winston: “I do not see that we can do anything that will seriously help the Russians in the Caucasus. The only place where a demonstration might have some effect on stopping reinforcements going East would be the Dardanelles. We shall not be ready for anything big for some months.”

 

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Churchill at once seized upon the idea of forcing the fortresses that flanked the narrow Straits of the Dardanelles by a naval operation alone. This idea had been contemplated more than once in the past but had always been abandoned because it was considered too risky. Although Lord Fisher consented to the plan his instincts were against it and the
quarrel that gradually developed between himself and Winston was the greatest political sensation of World War I. It brought Asquith’s Liberal Government tumbling down; it ended Lord Fisher’s naval career; and it resulted in the curt dismissal of Churchill from the Admiralty.

The failure of the attack on the Dardanelles was the most tragic episode of the First World War. And blame for the failure, fastened on Winston, and pursued him all the way to World War II. Shortly after he became Prime Minister in 1940, a Conservative politician who had fought at Gallipoli, remarked grimly: ‘Whatever Winston does, he does on a colossal scale; he’ll either pull us through in a colossal way, or we’ll have a colossal muck up like the Dardanelles.

What makes the failure seem even more tragic today is the fact that when the first war ended and evidence from both sides was available, most experts came to the conclusion that if a combined military and naval attack had been launched against the Dardanelles it would have succeeded. As a result Turkey would have capitulated, Bulgaria would have been prevented from joining Germany, Russia would not have collapsed, and in all
probability World War I, would have ended in 1915, saving millions of lives.

What is the truth of this bitter, half-forgotten story?

Was Churchill really responsible or merely the scapegoat for the mistakes of others?

The root of the trouble lay in the haphazard, almost amateurish way in which high political decisions were reached in the opening period of the war.

“During the first two months . . . there was no established War Council” wrote Lloyd George in his Memoirs. ‘There were sporadic and irregular consultations from time to time between the Secretary of State for War and the First Lord, between each of them individually and the Prime Minister and, now and again, between the two War Lords and the Prime Minister sitting together. The Foreign Secretary was occasionally brought
in. The War Council was not set up until 25 November, and it replaced the Committee of Imperial Defence, an Advisory body composed of the Prime Minister and five or six other Ministers.

This irregular method of consultation was remarkable enough; but even more remarkable was the fact that, although Churchill had encouraged a spirit of cooperation with the War Office, there was no machinery for consultation between chiefs of staff of the two great services. There was no committee of military and naval experts to study joint planning, or review joint strategy for the war campaigns. As it was, the two services operated, from a technical point of view, in watertight compartments, while questions of strategy became an open tussle between all those who held strong views. In the autumn of 1914, Winston was in favour of a combined attack on Turkey. Lord Fisher was pressing his plan for an amphibious attack in the Baltic. Lloyd George was loudly in favour of an offensive in the Balkans. And Lord Kitchener believed the decisive theatre for the war, was in France.

Indeed this seemed like a madhouse.

Yet, Lord Kitchener dominated the scene, because he was admired, feared, and respected. As a professional soldier raised to the office of Secretary of State for War, he was virtually a General, a Commander-in-Chief, and a Cabinet Minister, all rolled into one.

Besides this, Kitchener, had an immense following in the country.

He was the hero of the British public and no government would have dared to oppose him and face his resignation. As a result, even when a War Council was set up by the Prime Minister, his voice predominated.

Although the Council included such eminent men as Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Arthur Balfour, the Leader of the Conservative Opposition, and the Marquis of Crewe, Secretary of State for India, the only two members who could talk to Kitchener with authority were the Prime Minister,
Mr Asquith, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Thus the main responsibility for the war rested in effect with these three men.

But despite the fact that Winston was on an equal political footing with Kitchener, he was well aware that he lacked the War Minister’s prestige and authority, because, not only did the great old soldier have the backing of the British public, but the fact that he was a famous general in Egypt when Churchill was an unknown subaltern, gave him an automatic ascendancy.

Also, Kitchener remembered how the young subaltern Winston Churchill had begged him to join his army in 1898, and how, as Commander-in-Chief, he had said “NO” and still Winston had come anyway, and he also bitterly recalled how when the campaign was over, Winston had criticized him for “desecrating the tomb of the horrid Mahdi, who had deserved that since he had murdered all the English people in Sudan, and especially General Gordon.”

But all these incidents were respectably buried in the past, and now both men, regarded each other with genuine good will, collegiate warmth, and mutual esteem. Nevertheless, Kitchener could not help Winston as a subordinate, and as a result did not encourage any real equality or intimacy. Besides, he was cold and reserved by nature, and did not make friends easily. Naturally silent, he disliked communicating his views to anyone save his own military staff.

Winston on the other hand was a born talker, warm and volatile, bubbling over with political and strategic ideas which he liked to develop in conversation. Neither one was attracted to the personality of the other, and the barrier of temperament added one more obstacle in the way of close cooperation between the two fighting services.

 

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This was the background of the story that opened on 2nd of January, 1915, when the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia asked for a diversion in the Middle East to ease Turkish pressure on Russian troops in the Caucasus. Kitchener wrote Churchill a memorandum suggesting a Naval “demonstration” at the Dardanelles. But Lord Fisher at once came forward with a plan for a combined operation which called for seventy five thousand troops. This scheme was promptly rejected, for Kitchener repeated emphatically that no divisions could be spared from the European theatre, because every British soldier must be held in reserve in case of an early spring offensive.

Winston began to study the possibilities of a purely naval assault. He had always believed that an attack on Turkey was the right strategy. But there seemed so little hope of persuading Kitchener to consider it that he had lately given his support to Lord Fisher’s project for a combined offensive in the Baltic. Now it seemed as though events were playing into his hands, and he returned to the idea of an operation in the Middle East with high enthusiasm.

Lord Fisher’s discarded scheme for the Dardanelles had included a naval attack on the outer fortresses of the long, curving straits which led into the Sea of Marmara, on the far shores of which rose Constantinople, the old Byzantine Greco-Roman imperial city that today was called Istanbul, and it was the Turkish capital. The strategic advantages of a successful assault at once became illuminated in Winston’s mind. If the fleet could get past the many fortresses that dotted the steep banks of the Straits and force its way into
the Sea of Marmara, Constantinople might capitulate, and the Allies would be able to join hands with their Russian Allies. Arms could be shipped in and wheat sent out. Besides, the whole Balkan area would be neutralized, leaving Germany and Austria fighting alone.

The more Winston thought of the project the more enthusiastic he became. On the 3rd of January, he wired Admiral Garden, commanding at the Dardanelles: “Do you think that it is a practicable operation to force the Dardanelles opened, by the use of ships alone? It is assumed that older battleships would be employed, that they would be furnished with minesweepers and that they would be preceded by colliers or other merchant vessels as
sweepers and bumpers. The importance of the results would justify severe loss. Let me know what your views are. Two days later Garden replied: “I do not think that the straits of Dardanelles can be rushed, but they might be forced by extended operations with a large number of ships.” This was not a particularly enthusiastic answer, but it was sufficiently encouraging for Churchill. He wired back asking the Admiral to draw up a plan of attack, which he received a week later.

Admiral Garden’s outline was divided into four parts; first the destruction of the outer defences; second, the intermediary defences; third, the defences of the Narrows; and fourth, the sweeping of a clear channel through the minefields and into the Sea of Marmara. From this moment on, Winston was wholeheartedly in favour of an attack by ships alone, and set out determinedly to put the plan into operation. Mr Lloyd George wrote in his Memoirs: “Mr Winston Churchill has been in constant touch with Lord Kitchener and when the former has a scheme agitating his powerful mind, as everyone who is acquainted with his method knows quite well, he is indefatigable in pressing it upon the acceptance of everyone who matters in the decision. … Indeed, he was prepared to act without waiting for an immediate dispatch of troops. His proposal was a purely naval operation in its initial stages.”

On 13th of January the War Council met. Winston put forward his project and all the members, with the exception of Lloyd George, agreed to it. Lord Fisher and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson were present and made no comment. The conclusions of the Ministers resulted in the following directive: “The Admiralty should prepare for a naval expedition in February to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula with Constantinople as its objective.”

This is what Lord Fisher commented caustically some time later: “This meeting of the 13th is now famous for both the importance and the confusion of its decisions. At that time there was no Cabinet Secretary, and Cabinet Minutes were not taken. As a result neither Lord Fisher nor Admiral Wilson were aware, that any decision had been taken. Very likely the Prime Minister went and wrote it down when the meeting was over.” The Prime Minister, however, claimed that he read it out before the meeting adjourned, but that perhaps Lord Fisher and Admiral Wilson had already left. The next point of confusion was the fact that half the members of the Council were under the impression that the Navy had been ordered merely to prepare for an expedition, while the other half, including Winston Churchill, assumed that definite approval had been given. The third point of confusion concerned the directive itself. The instructions given to the Admiralty to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula with Constantinople as its objective, “were odd to the point of grotesqueness, if a purely Naval expedition was envisaged … it was obviously an impossible task for a fleet acting by itself.”

This is what Cruttwell wrote in a standard History of the Great War: “It was not until Lloyd George became Prime Minister that a Secretariat was established. Winston, however, speculated that if the Fleet could force its way into the Sea of Marmara, the Greek Army might join the Allies. Furthermore, he speculated, that a revolution might take place in Constantinople. He told the War Cabinet that he believed victory could be won without military aid. The Army, he declared, would only come in to “reap the fruits.””

The Sea Lords, on the other hand, regarded the project in an entirely different light. In the Naval Staff conferences that were held at the Admiralty between the 3rd and the 13th of January, not a single Naval expert favoured the attack by ships alone. All of them expressed a strong preference for a combined operation, and on the very day that Churchill first wired Admiral Garden — Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, a high authority at the Admiralty, wrote a memorandum in which he stated: “Assuming the enemy squadrons destroyed and the batteries rushed, they would be open to the fire of field
artillery and infantry and to torpedo attack at night, with no store ships with ammunition, and with no retreat without re-engaging the shore batteries, unless these had been destroyed while forcing the passage. Though they might dominate the city and inflict enormous damage, their position would not be an enviable one, unless there were a large military force to occupy the town.”

How, then, did Winston persuade the Admirals to agree to the Naval operation? He swung them over on the grounds, first, that it was vital to take some action that would help the Russians; second, that the strength of the Grand Fleet would be unimpaired, for only old battleships unfit for service in the North Sea would be used; and third, and most important, that if the operation did not prove successful the Navy could withdraw at
any time. On these conditions the Admirals consented, without enthusiasm. But at the same time that Winston was assuring the Sea Lords that they could break off the bombardment whenever they wished, he sent the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia a telegram on the 19th of January, saying: “It is our intention to press the matter to a conclusion.’ Thus from the very beginning the politician and the Admirals were at cross purposes; and the rift made itself more and more apparent as each week passed.”

First of all, soon after the meeting on the 13th of January, Lord Fisher’s lukewarm consent began to harden into opposition. He strongly urged Churchill not to proceed with the Naval plan unless the Army agreed to immediately send troops, and make it a joint operation. He could not say that the Naval bombardment would fail, but he had little faith in it, and now he began to fear that the expedition might interfere with his own pet project amphibious operations in the Baltic. He wrote to the Prime Minister that
he did not want to attend any more War Councils, and in a private meeting with Asquith and Churchill on 28 January, he told them both that he was becoming increasingly opposed to the Dardanelles.

Since he did not base his objections on the technical difficulties involved but on his preference for his Baltic operation, the two men finally persuaded him. to attend the War Council meeting which was being held the same morning.

 

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However, when the old Sea Lord saw that the Dardanelles expedition was receiving its final blessing, he rose from the table and walked over to the window on the verge of resignation. Lord Kitchener followed him and persuaded him to remain at his post. That same afternoon Churchill and Fisher thrashed the subject out again, and the young politician finally secured the old sailor’s support on the grounds, emphasized again, that the Navy could break off the operation when it liked. Thus the struggle between the two men continued, with one buoyant and confident, and the other doubtful and seriously disapproving.

Two and a half weeks later, Lord Kitchener made an announcement which changed the whole complexion of the operation. Early in February he told the War Council that the situation in France had altered and he felt he might be able to send troops to aid the Naval attack after all Lord Fisher at once took heart and weighed in eagerly with a letter to Winston: “I hope you were successful with Kitchener” he wrote. on the evening of the 16th of February, in getting divisions sent to Lemnos tomorrow. Not a grain of wheat will come from the Black Sea unless there is military occupation of the Dardanelles, and it will be the wonder of the ages that no troops were sent to co-operate with the Fleet with half a million soldiers in England. The war of lost opportunities!!! Why did Antwerp fall? The Haslar boats might go at once to Lemnos, as somebody will land at Gallipoli some time or another.”

Churchill comments on this letter in ‘The World Crisis:’ “I still adhered to the integrity of the Naval plan.”

The rest of the story is well known. For a week Kitchener vacillated, then finally decided to commit troops to the operation, and on the 24th of February informed the War Council that ‘if the Fleet did not get through the Army would see the business through. The effect of a defeat in the Orient would be very serious, he added, and there could be no turning back; and this, of course, altered the whole basis on which the Admiralty had consented to the proposition.

 

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Kitchener sent General Birdwood, and a few weeks later, Sir Ian Hamilton, to the scene of action, in order to report on developments. The Fleet had opened its bombardment of the fortresses on 19 February. For the first ten days all went well, the outer fortresses fell and the attention of the world became riveted on the action. Then suddenly progress stopped. The Turks were putting up a much stiffer resistance and the minesweeping trawlers were unable to stand the fire. General Birdwood telegraphed to Kitchener: “I am very doubtful if the Navy can force the passage unassisted. The following day he sent another telegram: ‘I have already informed you that I consider the Admiral’s forecast is too sanguine, and … I doubt his ability to force the passage unaided.”

However, on 18 March, Admiral de Robeck, who had assumed the Command of the Fleet from Admiral Garden, who was suddenly taken ill, massed all his ships for a decisive attempt. The forts were subjected to an intense bombardment which lasted nearly all day, and by 4 p.m. such damage had been inflicted the enemy had practically ceased firing. As the ships steamed forward victory seemed in sight, but suddenly the vessels struck a row of mines, three were sunk, and four put out of action. This meant that nearly half the Fleet was crippled. Admiral de Robeck wired the Admiralty that “The plan of attack must be reconsidered and means found to deal with floating mines, but that he hoped to renew the operations in a few days time.”

But during the course of the next four days he changed his mind. At a conference on the 22nd he told General Sir Ian Hamilton that “He was now quite clear” he could not get through without a large military force. In order to maintain communications when the Fleet penetrated the Sea of Marmara all gun positions guarding the Straits must be destroyed, and he had come to the conclusion that only a small percentage could be
rendered useless by attack from ships.” Hamilton had already formed a similar impression himself and wired Kitchener three days earlier, “I am being most reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the Straits are not likely to be forced by battleships as at one time seemed probable.”

 

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Churchill received De Robeck’s decision with consternation. He drew
up a telegram ordering De Robeck to continue the attack but Lord Fisher
and the other Admirals refused to send it, declaring that they were not
willing to overrule the Commander on the spot. Naval operations were
never resumed, and from then on the attack became a purely military
affair.

As everyone knows, it ended in heart-breaking failure.

First of all, five long precious weeks were allowed to lapse between the
breaking off of Naval operations and the initial assault of the Army; and
during these weeks, while rumours spread that a military force was gathering, the Turks feverishly strengthened their defences. When troops finally stormed the Gallipoli beaches on 25 April the precious element of surprise was gone, and they were unable to capture vital key points. Then, a week or so later, German submarines began to appear in the Mediterranean, and the Admiralty ordered its most valuable and powerful battleship home. Gradually the Navy pulled out and left the whole task to the Army,
which struggled on the rocky beaches, overlooked by high cliffs in the hands of the enemy, for eight desperate months with an ever-mounting death roll. In December 1915 Gallipoli was evacuated with a cost of a quarter of a million French and British casualties.

 

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But long before the final evacuation, the British public was aware that something was wrong. People saw the Naval attack had failed and assumed that the Army had been called in to pull the Navy’s chestnuts out of the fire. If troops were available why hadn’t they been sent earlier? Who was responsible for the whole blundering idea of an attack by ships alone?

Churchill makes a powerful case for himself in The World Crisis. This brilliant and fascinating book is half history and half autobiography. Sometimes the narrative sweeps forward on a tide of facts, sometimes on a long swell of argument and opinion. The book was written not only to present the events of the time, but to silence the author’s critics and vindicate his statesmanship.

 

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Winston’s account of the Dardanelles reaches an impressive climax, for after the war facts and figures were collected from the enemy, and it became known for certain that the Turkish gunners in the Dardanelles forts had only enough ammunition to fight one, or possibly two, more actions such as that on 18 March. “The Turkish Commander in the Dardanelles was weighed down by a premonition of defeat” writes the official historian. “More than half the ammunition had been expended, and it could not be replaced. The antiquated means of fire control had been seriously interrupted. The Turkish gun crews were demoralized and even the German officers present had, apparently, little hope of successful resistance if the Fleet attacked the next day … A German journalist describes the great astonishment of the defenders of the coastal forts when the attack suddenly ceased. He records that the German Naval gunners who were manning the batteries at Chanak told him later that they had made up their minds that the Fleet would win, and that they themselves could not have held out much longer.”

But even if the Fleet, or what was left of the Fleet, had forced the Straits and sailed into the Sea of Marmara, what would have happened then? Would Constantinople have fallen? Could the Navy have sustained its position?

 

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The greatest authority on the subject, General Liman von Sanders, the German Commander-in-Chief of the Dardanelles defence, who is usually quoted by the historians and whom Winston Churchill himself quotes in other contexts, did not believe that a breakthrough would have been decisive. Obviously feathering his own nest, he claimed this:
“In my opinion even if the Allied Fleet had been successful in breaking
through the Dardanelles and victorious in a sea-fight in the Sea of Marmara, its position would have been scarcely tenable unless the entire shore of the Straits of the Dardanelles were strongly occupied by enemy forces.”
“Should the Turkish troops be successful in holding their positions along
the shores of the Straits, or should they be successful in recapturing these,
then the necessary flow of supplies through ships and colliers would be rendered impossible. Measures of defence taken rendered a landing by troops near Constantinople, who might have lived on the country, almost without prospect of success.”

 

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“A decisive success could only be. gained by the enemy if a landing by
troops upon a great scale occurred either simultaneously with the break-
through by the Fleet or if it preceded this. A landing by troops following
the breakthrough would have been obliged to renounce artillery support
by the Fleet which would have had to occupy itself with other tasks.”

However, the argument as to whether or not the ships could have got
through, and if they had got through whether or not Constantinople
would have fallen, must always remain in the realms of speculation. No
one will ever know the answer. But this is not the main point. Experts
agree that a combined operation against the Dardanelles would have
succeeded. If Winston had not been captivated by the idea of a Naval
attack alone, and had exercised more patience in working out the scheme,
would a co-ordinated plan have emerged?

 

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“I have asked myself in these later years,” Winston writes in The World Crisis, “what would have happened if I had taken Lord Fisher’s advice and refused point blank to take any action at the Dardanelles unless or until the War Office produced on their responsibility an adequate army to storm the Gallipoli Peninsula?”

“Should we, by holding out in this way, have secured a sufficient army and a good plan?”
“Should we have had all the advantages of the Dardanelles policy without the mistakes and misfortunes for which we had to pay so dearly?”

He goes on to say that although no one can probe this “imaginary situation” he does not think that anything less than the “oracular” demonstration and practical proof of the strategic meaning of the Dardanelles, would have made men
sufficiently conscious of the importance of an attack on Turkey, to agree
to send troops.

 

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This, however, is a weak defence, for it must be remembered that on the 16th of February, only two and a half weeks after the Naval operation had received sanction from the War Council, and three days before the bombardment actually began, Kitchener declared that the possibility of sending troops was opening up. If Winston had paused then, as both the brilliant naval innovator Lord Fisher, and Sir Henry Jackson, begged him to do, there is every reason to believe that a combined operation might have been planned and put into operation.

In 1916, Parliament authorized the setting up of a Royal Commission, composed often of the ablest and most distinguished men in public life, “for the purposes of inquiring into the origin, inception, and conduct of operations of war in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli.” Lord Kitchener died before he could give evidence, but the Commissioners made it clear that the three most responsible members of the War Council were the Prime Minister, the War Minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty. They then went on to say: ‘We do not think that the War Council were justified in coming to a decision without much fuller investigation of the proposition which had been suggested to them that “the Admiralty should bombard and take Gallipoli Peninsula with Constantinople as its objective.”

We do not consider that the urgency was such as to preclude a short adjournment to enable the Naval and military advisers of the Government to make a thorough examination of the question. We hold that the possibility of making a surprise amphibious attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula offered such great military and political advantages that it was mistaken and ill-advised to sacrifice this possibility by hastily deciding to undertake a purely Naval attack which from its nature could not attain
completely the object set out in the terms of the decision.

 

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The Royal Commission declared that Churchill had not been guilty of any “incorrect” behaviour, and had always acted with the concurrence, unwilling though it may have been, of his naval advisers.

Their final judgment was that although he bore a heavy responsibility he did not bear it alone. Asquith and Kitchener were just as much to blame. But the other judgment, that of his colleagues within the House of Commons — was far more severe. Mainly because they knew that Winston Churchill, was the most dynamic member of the trio. They also knew that he possessed formidable powers of persuasion. This unique and formidable power, coupled with his impetuosity — they claimed — made him a danger to the country.

Imagine that…

He may not have been solely responsible, but without him, they argued, the whole disastrous operation would never have taken place. As far as strategy was concerned, he was right.

Tactically, he blundered. The methods of the plan’s execution, and his erratic and less than courageous executive officers failed him, and that is what “killed him” in the estimation of both Parliament and Society.

Thirty years later Winston Churchill went on to write: “I was ruined for the time being over the Dardanelles, and a supreme enterprise was cast away, through my trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation of war, from a subordinate position. Men are ill-advised to try such ventures.”

To be continued:


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