Posted by: Dr Churchill | September 15, 2017

What would Winston Churchill Do? (Chapter 34)

Now we must return to the events that led to Lord Fisher’s sensational
resignation on the 15th of May, which brought down the Government.

Ten days prior to these events, the Army had stormed the rocky beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Dardanelles straits of Turkey, in a replay of the ancient Greeks storming Troy and precipitating the long Ten Year conflict of the Trojan war, as described by Homer, in the grand poems of Ilyad and Odyssey — the two great classical books that every schoolboy from Harrow and Eaton, and all those studying at Oxford had to read in the original Hellenic language that Homer, the poet historian, had used to compose this historically correct epic, a few Millennia ago.

Lost to us though, through the ages, the heroic saga makes grave mention of the human cost and the suffering of this epic conflagration — and similar to its predecessor campaign of the Greeks against the Trojans, the British forces managed a landing at a grave cost of twenty thousand men, and for that, they had only secured a precarious and flimsy foothold bellow the rocky promontories of the straits, that rained artillery shells and bullets on top of them rained down from the German gunners assisted by their Turkish allies.

Indeed the landings of Gallipoli, were a veritable mess…

Lord Fisher regarded the situation with increasing alarm, because in his mind, the combined operation was taking place too late, the vital element of surprise was gone, and the Turks had had ample time to fortify their defenses with vast scores of German assistance, and commanding officers, men, and materiel. Therefore it was logical and obvious, that the military operations in Gallipoli, would be long and costly for the British regardless of the outcome.

Still in the upper British Naval administration circles, two conflicting opinions were gathering strength, and both of them had their supporters and detractors fighting a political influence proxy battle, at the same time that the Dardanelles campaign was unfolding overseas…

The first militarily incorrect yet honorable position, was that the Navy should once again attempt to force the Straits because of the severe losses the Army was sustaining.

The second militarily correct position, was that the Navy should on no account attempt an operation until the Army had effectively occupied the shores of the straits.

Churchill like a good politician stood between the two views. But what he failed to see is that this “middle ground” or sitting on the fence as it might be described — made him a bad military strategist…

Because at that time, Winston was indeed in favour of a limited operation. He wanted the Fleet to engage the forts of the “Dardanelles Narrows” and test their supposed shortage of ammunition, as it had been communicated through intelligence. Except that the intelligence the First Lord of the Admiralty had gathered, was dated. Since, the Turks had gone from shortages of shells to a plethora of armaments and a sea of artillery shells, because during the lull of the battle — the Germans had used the German controlled railroads, directly from the munitions factories of Ruhr to Constantinople, via German allied Bulgaria, in order to bring in ample stores of munitions and war materiel, and thus they would be able to defend the straits for a whole year if need be… without further supplies.

Yet at the same time, he believed that the Turkish-German minefields in the Dardanelles straits, could somehow be swept clean of mines, so that the Navy vessels could advance towards Constantinople.

However, Lord Fisher was adamantly opposed to these two options, since e was strongly against Naval action until the Army had secured the shores, and he was determined, this time, that his view would prevail. He also distrusted Winston’s plan, for he felt that if the operation were successful, the latter would insist on penetrating the Sea of Marmara. The old Admiral was under an added strain because of the increasing German submarine menace inside the home waters, and because he had also received good intelligence that these submarines would soon make their appearance in the Mediterranean and bedevil his forces in the Aegean, and those participating in the Gallipoli campaign.

Then the German submarines, sunk the great ship Lusitania — an event that greatly heightened his anxieties about the whole affair.

Consequently, on the 12th of May Lord Fisher declared that he was no longer
prepared to risk the Queen Elizabeth at the Dardanelles, and demanded her
return to the Grand Fleet. Lord Kitchener was furious. In a stormy meeting he accused the Navy of deserting the Army. Lord Fisher announced flatly that: “Either the Queen Elizabeth left the Dardanelles that afternoon, or he left the Admiralty that night.” Lord Fisher won his point and was proved right; a dummy ship equipped to represent the Queen Elizabeth was left at the Dardanelles while the real vessel came home. Two weeks later the dummy was torpedoed and sunk. On the same day that Lord Fisher had his altercation with Kitchener, he sent a memorandum to Winston, and the Prime Minister stating his reasons for refusing to allow a Naval attack to take place until the Army was in occupation of the shores.

He enclosed the following covering letter to the Prime Minister:

“My dear Prime Minister,”

“It will be within your recollection that you saw me and the First Lord
of the Admiralty in your private room, prior to a meeting of the War
Council (28 January, 1915), to consider my protest against the Dardanelles
undertaking when it was first mooted. With extreme reluctance, and
largely due to the earnest words spoken to me by Kitchener, I by not
resigning (as I now see I should have done) remained a most unwilling
beholder (and, indeed, a participator) of the gradual draining of our Naval
resources from the decisive theatre of the war. The absence, especially at
this moment, of destroyers, submarines, and minesweepers (which are
now) at the Dardanelles most materially lessens our power of dealing with
the submarine menace in home waters a menace daily becoming greater
as foreshadowed in the print I submitted to you six months before the war.”

“I have sent the enclosed memorandum to the First Lord, and I ask for it
to be circulated to the War Council.”

Churchill and Lord Fisher talked things over that evening and as a
result the latter seemed more content. But on the next day, the quarrel
flared up again.

Lord Fisher wrote the Prime Minister once more:

“My dear Prime Minister,”

“Thank you for your letter of yesterday, in which you state that you
had been given to understand that an arrangement had been come to
between the First Lord and myself, and you kindly added that you were
very glad. But I regret to say that within four hours of the pact being con-
cluded, the First Lord said to Kitchener “that in the event of the Army’s
failure, the Fleet would endeavour to force its way through”, or words to
that effect. However, for the moment, with your kind assurance of no
such action being permitted, I remain to do my best to help the Prime
Minister in the very biggest task any Prime Minister ever had not
excepting Pitt and his Austerlitz! Still, I desire to convey to you that I
honestly feel that I cannot remain where I am much longer, as there is an
inevitable drain daily (almost hourly) on the resources in the decisive
theatre of the war. But that is not the worst. Instead of the whole time of
the whole of the Admiralty being concentrated on the daily increasing
submarine menace in home waters, we are all diverted to the Dardanelles,
and the unceasing activities of the First Lord, both by day and night, are
engaged in ceaseless prodding of everyone in every department afloat and
ashore in the interest of the Dardanelles Fleet, with the result of the huge
Armada now there, whose size is sufficiently indicated by their having as
many battleships out there as in the German High Seas Fleet! Therefore
this purely private and personal letter, intended for your eye alone and not
to be quoted, as there is no use threatening without acting, is to mention
to one person who I feel ought to know that I feel that my time is short.
13 May, 1915″

The quarrel between the two men had now reached its climax. Each
had has toes dug in. Churchill was determined that the Navy should
continue to take part in the Dardanelles operation, and Fisher was deter-
mined that it should not. Both were ready to get rid of the other if it
proved necessary. On 14 May the War Council met and Fisher reiterated
his views, declaring that he had been against the Dardanelles from the
start. That afternoon Winston wrote to the Prime Minister: “I must ask you to take note of Fisher’s statement today that he “was against the Dardanelles and had been all along” or words to that effect.
The First Sea Lord has agreed in writing to every executive telegram on
which the operations have been conducted; and had they been imme-
diately successful, the credit would have been his. But I make no complaint
of that. I am attached to the old boy and it is a great pleasure to me to
work with him. I think he reciprocates these feelings. My point is that a
moment will probably arise in these operations when the Admiral and
General on the spot will wish and require to run a risk with the Fleet for a
great and decisive effort.”

“If I agree with them, I shall sanction it, and I cannot undertake to be paralysed by the veto of a friend who whatever the result will certainly say: “I was always against the Dardanelles.””

“You will see that in a matter of this kind someone has to take the responsibility.”

“I will do so provided that my decision is the one that rules
and not otherwise.”

“But I wish now to make it clear to you that a man who says, “I dis-
claim responsibility for failure,” cannot be the final arbiter of the measures
which may be found to be vital to success.”

“This requires no answer and I am quite contented with the course of Affairs.” That evening Churchill and Fisher had another long interview, and
once again appeared to have settled their differences. Fisher was adamant
that no more reinforcements should go to the Dardanelles, and Churchill
apparently agreed. When the old Admiral returned to his room he called
his Naval Assistant saying: “You need not pack up just yet” he told him. He went
on to say that “the matter of reinforcements was not settled with the First
Lord” and added “but I suppose he will soon be at me again.”

That night, however, Winston sent the Admiral a long minute. Paragraph 6 contained a fatal sentence. “In view of the request of the Vice-Admiral, I consider that two more “E” boats should be sent to the Dardanelles. When Winston Churchill’s secretary brought the minute to Fisher’s Naval Assistant he asked, ‘How do you think the old man will take it? The Naval Assistant said that he had no doubt whatever that Lord Fisher would resign instantly, if he received it. Winston Churchill’s secretary took it away, then came back and said that the First Lord was certain that Lord Fisher would not object to his proposals, but that, in any case, it was necessary that they should be made. Lord Fisher resigned his office of First Sea Lord the following morning.

Lord Fisher’s resignation caused a sensation. First he went to Lloyd George
who was just leaving Downing Street for the week-end and said: “I want to speak
to you. I have resigned. I can stand it no longer. Our ships are
being sunk, while we have a Fleet in the Dardanelles which is bigger than
the German Navy. Both our Army and Navy are being bled for the
benefit of the Dardanelles.” Then the old Admiral, smouldering and indignant, retired to his official residence which adjoined the Admiralty. He
pulled down the blinds and refused to admit anyone. Mr McKenna, who
had preceded Churchill as First Lord, forced his way in, and tried to argue
with him, but Fisher was adamant.

Winston now began to realize the political storm he would have to
face if the First Sea Lord remained obdurate and he wrote him a long and
persuasive letter, which gives some idea of the pressure Churchill was willing to apply. ‘In order to bring you back to the Admiralty I took my
political life in my hands as you well know, the letter began. This
assertion was something of an exaggeration, for Winston had brought
Fisher back largely to fortify his own position. ‘You then promised to
stand by me and see me through,’ he continued. ‘If you now go at this
bad moment and therefore let loose on me the spite and malice of those
who are your enemies even more than-they are mine, it will be a melancholy ending to our six months of successful war and administration. The
discussions that will arise will strike a cruel blow at the fortunes of the Army now struggling on the Gallipoli Peninsula and cannot fail to invest
with an air of disaster a mighty enterprise which with patience can, and
will, certainly be carried to success. ‘Many of the anxieties of the winter are past The harbours are protected, the great flow of new construction is arriving. We are far stronger at home than we have ever been, and the great reinforcement is now at hand.

“I hope you will come and see me to-morrow afternoon. I have a pro-
position to make to you, with the assent of the Prime Minister, which
may remove some of the anxieties and difficulties which you feel about the
measures necessary to support the Army at the Dardanelles.”

“Though I stand at my post until relieved, it will be a very great grief
to me to part from you; and our rupture will be profoundly injurious to
every public interest.”

Lord Fisher wrote Winston the following reply:

“YOU ARE BENT ON FORCING THE DARDANELLES AND NOTHING WILL TURN YOU FROM IT. NOTHING. I know you so well. I could give you no better proof of my desire to stand by you than my having remained by you in this Dardanelles business up to the last moment, against the strongest conviction of my life.”

“YOU WILL REMAIN AND I SHALL GO, for it is better so. Your splendid stand on my behalf I can never forget when you took your political life in your hands, and I have really worked very hard for you in return my utmost; but there is a question beyond all personal obligations. I assure you, it is only painful to have further conversations. I have told the Prime Minister I will not remain. I have absolutely decided to stick to that decision. Nothing will turn me from it. You say with much feeling that it will be a very great grief to you to part from me. I am certain that you know in your heart no one has ever been more faithful to you than I have since I joined you last October. I have worked my very hardest.”

It is well known that people seldom see themselves as others see them.
Winston knew that he had many political enemies but he did not seem to
understand the intensity of the feeling against him. This was curious in
view of the savage attack which the Tory Press had launched during the
previous few weeks, largely inspired by high ranking Army officers in
France who were violently opposed to what they called “side-shows.” The
Conservatives had been hostile ever since Antwerp, but now the Morning
Post outdid itself. Almost daily they struck out at Winston under a series
of headlines: “The Amazing Amateur.” “The Amateur Admiral.” “Politician
versus Expert.” “Too Much Churchill.” Some idea of the virulence of their
campaign may be seen from an extract printed on 30 April: “Winston Churchill is still his own Party, and the chief of the partisans. He still sees himself as the only digit in the sum of things, all other men as mere ciphers, whose function it is to follow after, and multiply his personal value a million-fold. He has not ceased to be the showman of a one-man show. He is nonetheless true to himself because, indulged by the larger opportunities of world-wide war, his instinct for the melodramatic has blossomed into megalomania.”

Winston discounted these attacks as ordinary Tory propaganda. But he
lived so much in a world of his own, the world of great and stirring events,
that he made the mistake of forgetting he was a politician and, as such,
dependent on the confidence of his Parliamentary colleagues.

He attended the House of Commons infrequently and only as a matter
of form. “He failed in 1915” wrote Lord Beaverbrook, “because he showed
himself too confident to be prudent. He neither tied the Liberals to him
nor conciliated the Tories.”

The day after Fisher’s resignation Winston dined with the Prime
Minister. He told the latter that Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson had agreed
to serve under him as First Sea Lord, and showed him the list he had
drawn up of the new Board of Admiralty. Asquith approved the names
and assured Winston of his support.

But in the meanwhile, other events were taking place. Bonar Law, the
Leader of the Conservative Opposition, had learned of Lord Fisher’s
departure and at once went to see Lloyd George at 8 Downing Street.
He told him bluntly that the Conservatives were not willing to continue
to support the Government unless Winston Churchill left the Admiralty. Lord
Fisher was the darling of the Tory Party; Winston was its bete noire. Why
should they allow a man they admired to be sacrificed for a man they
utterly distrusted? He said flatly he would be unable to control the storm
in the House of Commons. “Of course” replied Lloyd George, “we must
have a Coalition, for the alternative is impossible. He took him by the
arm and led him through the private passage to 10 Downing Street where
they had an interview with Mr Asquith.”

Winston was ignorant of these proceedings and on Monday appeared
at the House ready to announce his new Board. The next forty eight hours
were filled with bitter disappointments for him. First of all, Asquith and
Lloyd George informed him that a Coalition Government was being
formed and that, as part of the bargain the Tories had demanded his
removal from the Admiralty. Just as they were breaking this news to him
a message came asking him to return to his office at once on urgent
business. He hurried back to learn that the German High Seas Fleet was
emerging. Was the great battle in the North Sea at last to be fought?
Churchill gave orders for every available ship to be dispatched to the
scene of action. Perhaps he would return to the House to announce a
great victory. If so, could they let Him go? One can imagine the anxious
and tense hours he passed; but by morning it was clear that the Germans
were not looking for a fight; they had returned to their bases.

On Tuesday it was certain that nothing could save Winston Churchill’s position, yet he still clung to hope. Lord Beaverbrook called on him at the Admiralty with F. E. Smith, and later wrote: “One felt rather as if one had been invited to come and look at fallen Antony. What a creature of strange moods; he is always at the top of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression. That Tuesday night he was clinging to the desire of retaining the Admiralty as though the salvation of England depended on it. I believe he would even have made up with Lord Fisher, if that had been the price of remaining there. Nonetheless, so little did he realize the inwardness of the whole situation, that he still hoped…”

As well as hoping, he wrote a long and pleading letter to Bonar Law.
This was a strange act, for Bonar Law was more implacable in his dislike
and distrust of Winston than almost any other Tory. A melancholy, humdrum, unimaginative man, Law was utterly devoid of gaiety or exuberance. Winston’s flamboyant personality was anathema to him. He regarded him as a boastful buccaneer, upon whom no reliance could ever be placed.
Besides, he found it hard to forgive Winston’s patronizing airs. Lord
Beaverbrook, who, as Max Aitken, was Bonar Law’s closest friend and
confidant, gives an example of the interchanges that took place between the
two men when Winston Churchill was at the height of his power as First Lord, and Law was merely the Leader of the Opposition.

“The words which you now tell me you employed,” wrote Winston Churchill in a letter to Law, “and which purport to be a paraphrase, if not an actual quotation, are separated by a small degree of inaccuracy and misrepresentation from the inaccuracy and misrepresentation of the condensed report.”
And on another occasion: “I resist all temptation to say, I told you so!”
Lord Beaverbrook goes on to say that he never heard Bonar Law use but one kind of language about Churchill: “I consider Winston Churchill a formidable antagonist. Nonetheless, I would rather have him in opposition to me than on my side.”

It was obvious to everybody but Winston that Bonar Law was immovable. Nevertheless, Winston sent him a letter containing the following
extracts: “Admiralty, Whitehall. 17 May, 1915. My dear Bonar Law; The rule to follow is what is best calculated to beat the enemy and not what is most likely to please the newspapers. The question of the Dardanelles operations and my differences with Fisher ought to be settled by people who know the facts and not by those who cannot know them. Now you and your friends, except Mr Balfour, do not know the facts. On our side only the Prime Minister knows them. The policy and conduct of the Dardanelles operations should be reviewed by the new Cabinet.
Every fact should be laid before them. They should decide and on their
decision the composition of the Board of the Admiralty should depend.”

“My lips are sealed in public, but in a few days all the facts can be placed
before you and your friends under official secrecy. I am sure those with
whom I hope to work as colleagues and comrades in this great struggle,
will not allow a newspaper campaign necessarily conducted in ignorance
and not untinged with prejudice to be the deciding factor in matters of
such terrible import.”

“Personal interests and sympathies ought to be strictly subordinated. It
does not matter whether a Minister receives exact and meticulous justice.
But what is vital is that from the outset of this new effort we are to make
together we should be fearless of outside influences and straight with each
other. We are coming together not to work on public opinion but to wage
war: and by waging successful war we shall dominate public opinion.”

“I would like you to bring this letter to the notice of those with whom
I expect soon to act: and I wish to add the following: I was sent to the
Admiralty four years ago. I have always been supported by high pro-
fessional advice; but partly through circumstances and partly no doubt
through my own methods and inclinations, an exceptional burden has
been borne by me. I had to procure the money, the men, the ships and
ammunition; to recase with expert advice the war plans; to complete in
every detail that could be foreseen the organization of the Navy.”

“Many Sea Lords have come and gone, but during all these four years
(nearly) I have been according to my patent “solely responsible to Crown
and Parliament” and have borne the blame for every failure; and now I
present to you an absolutely secure Naval position; a Fleet constantly and
rapidly growing in strength, and abundantly supplied with munitions of
every kind, an organization working with perfect smoothness and
efficiency, and the seas upon which no enemy’s flag is flown.”

“Therefore I ask to be judged justly, deliberately and with knowledge.
I do not ask for anything else.”

Lord Beaverbrook tried to use his influence with Bonar Law on Winston Churchill’s behalf but to no avail. The following reply came from the Conservative leader: “My dear Churchill, I thank you for your letter which I shall show to my friends beginning with Austen Chamberlain; but, believe me, what I said to you last night is inevitable.”
Once again Lloyd George proved a staunch friend. He begged Asquith
to offer Winston an important office such as the Colonies or the India
Office, but Asquith insisted that the Conservatives would not hear of anything but a minor post, and that the Duchy of Lancaster was the best he
could do. “It was a cruel and unjust degradation,” wrote Lloyd George. “It
was quite unnecessary in order to propitiate them to fling him from the
masthead whence he had been directing the fire, down to the lower deck
to polish the brass.”

Just before Winston moved out of the Admiralty — Lord Riddell called
on him and found him harassed and worn. “I am the victim of a political
intrigue. I am finished,” he said. Riddell replied: “Not finished at forty,
with your remarkable powers!” “Yes,” he said. “Finished in respect of all I
care for the waging of war: the defeat of the Germans. I have had a
high place offered to me a position which has been occupied by many
distinguished men, and which carries with it a high salary. But all that
goes for nothing. This is what I live for. I have prepared a statement of
my case, but cannot use it.” Riddell then asked him if he thought Asquith
had been weak in the conduct of the war. “Terribly weak,” said Winston.
“Supinely weak. His weakness will be the death of him.”

Lord Fisher was not recalled as First Sea Lord. He might have been, had he not made an astonishing mistake. While the Prime Minister was looking for a successor to Winston Churchill — Fisher suddenly took up his pen and wrote him an extraordinary memorandum: “If the following six conditions are agreed to, I can guarantee the successful termination of the war, and the total abolition of the submarine.” Fisher then laid down a series of preposterously dictatorial terms, such as these: “That Winston Churchill is not in the Cabinet to be always circumventing me. Nor will I serve under Mr Balfour. That Sir Arthur Wilson left the Admiralty as his policy is totally opposed to mine, and he accepted the position of First Sea Lord in succession to me, that there should be a new Board of Admiralty and so forth.” The memorandum ended with a P.S.: “The 60 per cent of my time and energy which I have exhausted on nine First Lords in the pas,t I wish in the future to devote to the successful prosecution of the war. This is the sole reason for these six conditions. These six conditions must be published verbatim so the Fleet will know my position.”

Needless to say Lord Fisher’s resignation was accepted. And thus the
quarrel between two brilliant, impulsive and autocratic men of genius
came to its sorry end.

Churchill accepted the sinecure office of the Duchy of Lancaster, which
carried no departmental work, in order that he could remain a member
of the War Council and press for the continuance of the Gallipoli cam-
paign. He believed, and believed rightly, that Turkey was the key to the
war, and he wanted the Government to persevere with courage. In
November, however, the military losses were so heavy and hope of success
so limited, the Council decided on a final evacuation. The tragic story had
ended, and Winston Churchill was not to be included in the new War Committee
which was being formed to replace the War Council. He decided that he
could no longer remain in ‘well-paid inactivity and that the time had
come for him to join his regiment in France. He resigned his office and on
15 November made a farewell speech to the House of Commons which
filled twenty-two columns of Hansard. He began by telling his listeners
that he was entering upon ‘an alternative form of service to which no
exception can be taken, and with which I am perfectly content. Then he
went on to offer a vindication of his record over the previous fourteen
months, mainly centred on the Dardanelles. I have gone through this
story in detail in order to show and to convince the House that the Naval
attack on the Dardanelles was a Naval plan, made by Naval authorities on
the spot, approved by Naval experts in the Admiralty, assented to by the
First Sea Lord, and executed on the spot by Admirals who at every stage
believed in the operation … I will not have it said that this was a civilian
plan, foisted by a political amateur upon reluctant officers and experts.

The speech was warmly received and Winston Churchill sat down amid a hubbub of congratulations and ‘Hear hears’ that might almost be described as cheers. But as so often happens after dramatic occasions, a cool and critical
reaction set in. As Members reflected on what he said their doubts came
creeping back. They felt he had spoken the truth but not the whole truth,
and a week later The Times ran a four-column letter by the foremost
correspondent of the day, Ashmead Bardett, with the headline: “Mr Winston Churchill’s Defence A Criticism.” The letter pointed out a number of discrepancies in Winston’s explanation, and restored to many readers the
same opinions they had held before his vindication.

Three days after the speech, on 18 November, 1915, Major Winston Churchill
of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry was home preparing his unifirm, on the eve of his departure for the trenches of the War in France.

Lord Beaverbrook who had dropped in to the Churchill household, in order to pay his farewell respects, had this to say about the scene of abject commotion and chaos: “The whole household was upside down while the soldier-statesman was buckling on his sword. Downstairs Mr Eddie Marsh, his faithful and long time secretary was in tears. Upstairs, Lady Randolph Churchill, was in a state of despair at the thought of her brilliant son being relegated to the bloody trenches. Mrs Clementine Churchill seemed to be the only person who remained calm, collected, and efficient.”

The next day Winston landed at the French port of Boulogne…

To be continued:

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