STRAITS British Policy towards the Ottoman Empire and the Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign © 1997-2005 Geoffrey Miller





STRAITS : British policy towards the Ottoman Empire and the Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign © Geoffrey Miller



Map of Turkey
STRAITS British Policy towards the Ottoman Empire and the Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign © 1997-2005 Geoffrey Miller



Chapter 23




Fisher’s Folly




 Admiral Sir John Fisher

Admiral Sir John Fisher


On that same Saturday, 2 January, Hankey gained an important adherent to his cause: the First Sea Lord. Fisher informed Hankey that ‘Winston spontaneously gave me your paper to read and I went for it “tooth & nail”! be agst it! He [Churchill] says it’s too far from the main theatre of war &c, &c — all rot!’ This is my advice to you and then you will win!’ Fisher’s advice was that Sir William Robertson should command the expedition which would include all the Indian troops currently serving in France together with ‘at least’ 75,000 seasoned troops ‘from Sir John French’s army’; and that the expedition should embark from Marseilles, ostensibly for Egypt, while feints were made at Haifa and Alexandretta. The feint at Alexandretta should then become ‘a real occupation…as it’s a vital spot for us in view of the Mesopotamian oil fields, the most abundant in the world & in direct railway communication with the Baghdad Railway.’ The main landing of the allied army should take place at Besika Bay, to be accompanied by a Greek landing of 100,000 troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Finally, Fisher declared, ‘Our fleet to force the Dardanelles when our Besika Army makes its main attack & to go in for Gallipoli.’ Hankey was admonished to do his ‘spade work vigorously’ with Asquith, Grey, Lloyd George, Balfour and Crewe while Fisher undertook to handle Churchill and Kitchener.[1]

                Fisher began his ‘attack’ the next day, Sunday 3 January, and it produced immediate, if unexpected results. In typically vivid fashion Fisher wrote to Churchill, ‘I CONSIDER THE ATTACK ON TURKEY HOLDS THE FIELD! — but ONLY if it’s IMMEDIATE! However, it won’t be!’ He complained of the War Council (‘When did we meet last? & what came of it???’) and imagined ‘We shall decide on a futile bombardment of the Dardanelles which wears out the irreplaceable guns of the Indefatigable which probably will require replacement — what good resulted from the last bombardment? Did it move a single Turk from the Caucasus?…’ The reference to the ‘futile bombardment’ of November, whether intentional or not, would have got Churchill’s dander up immediately. Then Fisher again sketched his plan as outlined to Hankey the previous day with some minor differences and one vitally important change. The First Sea Lord now proposed that, in addition to the Greeks, the Bulgarians (then neutral) should go for Constantinople while the Roumanians (also neutral) teamed up with the Russians and Serbs to attack Austria. Crucially, however, his final condition was altered. Instead of the previous day’s advice to Hankey – ‘Our fleet to force the Dardanelles when our Besika Army makes its main attack & to go in for Gallipoli…’ – Fisher now wrote, ‘Sturdee forces the Dardanelles at the same time [as the various military operations] with Majestic class & Canopus class! God bless him!’[2] These were, of course, pre-dreadnought battleships that could readily be spared. Why, within 24 hours, Fisher made these changes it is impossible to say; he had earlier dispatched Sturdee, who he abhorred, to the Falkland Islands to get him out of the Admiralty and had been peeved when Sturdee returned a hero. Was this another attempt to spike Sturdee by giving him an assignment that, this time, was bound to fail?[3] Could Fisher have been serious in suggesting that these obsolete ships would be suitable for so difficult a job?[4] Whatever the reason, the new suggestion in this letter was to prove the vital spur, setting in motion the chain of events that began with the Grand Duke’s appeal and ended on the bloody beaches of Anzac Cove and Cape Helles on 25 April.

                Taken overall, Fisher’s plan was not seriously intended;[5] rather, it was meant as a gibe at the Government’s method of conducting the war but one which also exhibited early signs of the later megalomania that would grip him.[6] He had fallen out with Churchill, he disagreed with the First Lord’s plans and saw himself being increasingly marginalized; he was, in short, becoming dangerously unstable. Fisher would, the following day, tender his resignation (which was not accepted) ostensibly because no heed had been taken of the warnings of impending Zeppelin attack that would supposedly result in a massacre of civilians for which the Admiralty would be held responsible![7] The following year he would go so far as to say, in evidence, that ‘the Baltic project was the real focus of all my purposes at the Admiralty. Mr Churchill dropped it for the Dardanelles.’[8] Yet, as early as March 1909, Fisher himself had highlighted the inherent dangers attached to any Baltic scheme when he ‘considered that it was probable on the outbreak of war in which we were involved with Germany, that the latter country would seek to deny use of the Belts to the British fleet…If they did so it would not be essential to British naval success that an effort should be made to regain access to the Baltic.’[9]

                Fisher’s letter of 3 January had a strange effect on Churchill. The First Lord, having summoned his Admiralty War Group that Sunday morning, had just instructed Fisher, Wilson and Oliver to make all preparations for the capture of Borkum (which was code-named Sylt); then, at twenty-eight minutes past one that afternoon, the following message was sent from the Admiralty to Vice-Admiral Carden:

Do you consider the forcing of the Dardanelles by ships alone a practicable operation. It is assumed older Battleships fitted with mine bumpers would be used preceded by colliers or other merchant craft as bumpers and sweepers. Importance of results would justify severe loss. Let me know your views. WSC[10]

The mention of ‘older Battleships’ is clearly a reference to the Majestic and Canopus classes specified by Fisher, and Fisher was certainly aware that Churchill was going to approach Carden even if he did not know the exact wording of the telegram. The standard interpretation of Churchill’s approach to the luckless Carden is typically summed up by R. R. James: ‘the suggestion about the old battleships at once re-awakened his personal interest in the prospects of a purely naval attack on the Dardanelles’, while, according to James, Churchill himself later admitted that the peculiar phrasing of the telegram to Carden was designed to elicit a favourable response.[11] While this interpretation is eminently plausible, is it possible that an alternative explanation exists for Churchill’s action that Sunday afternoon?

                Fisher was becoming a nuisance. With the failure of anyone at the Admiralty that Sunday morning to come up with a plan for naval action that could be generally approved, could Churchill have sent the message out of frustration expecting, if not a negative reply, then at least confirmation that months of planning would be involved? Churchill had, after all, merely requested Carden’s ‘views’; this would get Fisher off his back and allow for planning to proceed on the Borkum operation. Fisher admitted to Balfour the following day that he had had ‘a big explosion’ with Winston on the Sunday and that, as a result, he was ‘within an ace’ of leaving the Admiralty — this would indicate that the attempted resignation purportedly over the Zeppelin issue was no more than a blind.[12] The Dardanelles operation was the real issue. This could also offer another explanation for the forced wording of the telegram: it could be argued equally that the wording was designed to elicit a positive OR a negative response.

                To recapitulate: on Saturday 2 January, as a result of the Russian Grand Duke’s appeal, Kitchener informed Churchill that no troops were available and that the Dardanelles was the only place where a demonstration might have some effect in relieving the pressure on the supposedly beleaguered Russians. At the same time Fisher had become a thorough-going convert to Hankey’s ‘Turkey Plan’, fleshing it out in his own inimitable manner and agreeing with Hankey to convert Churchill to the idea. Early the following morning (for he was habitually at his desk by 4 a.m.) Fisher wrote to Churchill repeating his plan of the previous day but with the important alteration of replacing ‘Our fleet’ being at the Dardanelles, with the much more alluring prospect of the dispensable Majestic and Canopus classes forcing the Dardanelles. Yet, however alluring this was in itself, Fisher’s plan also called for troops from Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Roumania and Russia, in addition to all the Indian troops on the Western front and 75,000 seasoned troops from Sir John French’s command. Churchill knew perfectly well these were impossible conditions. The impasse on Sunday 3 January, in all probability, accounts for the ‘big explosion’ described by Fisher who, presumably, made his intention of leaving office known to Churchill. At that critical point in the war, Churchill could not risk having Fisher resign, particularly after only months before having specially asked for him to replace Battenberg against the better judgment of Asquith and the King — yet what was he to do?

                One obvious way out would be to send Carden a non-committal request. Churchill was well aware that Carden was a ‘mistake’ who had received his posting by default after Limpus had been vetoed by Mallet.[13] When Churchill had instructed Carden in November 1914 to report on ways of injuring the enemy the Admiral had replied limply that ‘there is not much that can be done.’ Did Churchill really believe that Carden had come up with a useful plan in the ensuing weeks? While much of what he later wrote in The World Crisis was self-serving, Churchill’s later explanation does have a ring of truth to it: ‘All this was purely exploratory’, he wrote of the request to Carden. ‘I did not commit myself at this stage even to the general principle of an attack upon Turkey. I wanted to see the alternatives weighed and to see what support such projects would in fact command. All our affairs at this time were complicated with the plans which…were under discussion for the advance of the Army along the [Belgian] coast and for the closing up of Zeebrugge.’[14]

                Churchill was clearly preoccupied that weekend (2-3 January) with what he termed ‘Northern possibilities’ and it must have been galling to find that Fisher, long a proponent of various Baltic schemes, was now actively promoting a massive and complex Dardanelles operation Churchill knew was impossible of attainment. However, one part of Fisher’s plan gave the First Lord a let-out: Fisher’s refinement of his idea of what form a naval action might take. By utilizing this let-out Churchill could hope to defuse any subsequent explosion from Fisher and return in peace to consideration of what was, in his opinion, the far more important question of the northern operations. If – and it was a big ‘if’ in view of his past performance – Carden replied positively, planning could commence but this would take time; if the reply was negative, Fisher would be forced to turn his whole-hearted support to the Borkum operation. Perhaps Fisher realized this and, as a result, tried to force through his resignation over the absurd Zeppelin issue. It is also possible that, in framing the telegram the way he did, Churchill did not consider what its effect would be on the unfortunate Carden, who assumed the telegram was more in the nature of an order than a request.

                The other question to resolve concerns the precise wording of the telegram. Kitchener spoke of a ‘demonstration’ at the Dardanelles which could be combined with reports that Constantinople was being threatened. Did this imply no more than a repeat of the previous November’s bombardment, though perhaps of a more sustained and severe character? On his own initiative, Kitchener had informed the Grand Duke on 2 January that ‘steps will be taken to make a demonstration against the Turks. It is, however, feared that any action we can devise and carry out will be unlikely to seriously affect numbers of enemy in the Caucasus, or cause their withdrawal.’[15] Surely this indicates that Kitchener had only a limited action in mind. Yet, by the middle of the following day, Churchill was inquiring of his Admiral on the spot as to whether it was possible to force the Dardanelles by ships alone. This was a crucial advance over a mere demonstration. To explain this advance one need look no further than Fisher’s letter to Churchill that morning detailing the former’s impossible plan. Churchill subsequently argued that, on 2 January, he had dismissed the idea of a demonstration for fear of alerting the Turks to a possible later attempt to force the Dardanelles, presumably when troops might become available.[16] But now it was Fisher who provided the spur: it was Fisher who, the previous day, had written to Hankey ‘Our fleet to force the Dardanelles’ and, in the fateful letter to Churchill of 3 January, ‘Sturdee forces the Dardanelles’. It was Fisher who, unwittingly or not, had forged the link — Kitchener’s ‘demonstration’ now became Fisher’s ‘forcing’. Given the apparent necessity of assisting the Russians in some way, combined with the realization that troops were not available, it is a moot point whether, had Fisher not written the letter in the way he did, Churchill would have dropped his opposition to action that was calculated to place the Turks on alert and thereupon instructed Carden to repeat the November bombardment which, after all, had produced the spectacular demolition of one of the forts. This would have kept faith with the Russians and allowed the First Lord to resume the planning of what was, in his view, the more promising potential of the Northern operation.

                Before receiving Carden’s reply Churchill wrote to Jellicoe on Monday 4 January that, while so long as what was termed ‘the priceless information’ (the ability to decipher German operational signals) continued, thereby giving advance warning of German movements, the Grand Fleet ought to be rested, to conserve strength. But, Churchill added,

everything convinces me that we must take Borkum as soon as full & careful preparations can be made. The possession of an oversea base quadruples our submarines making all our B & C boats available for service in German waters. It is the key not only to satisfactory naval policy, but to future military action whether by the invasion of Schleswig Holstein or (better perhaps) Oldenburg. Troops for Borkum will be available & altho’ the capture is a difficult operation I am sure we ought to make the attempt, & am also confident that success will be attained. In balancing the risks of an offensive, one must not overlook the perils & losses of our present policy. Even with the priceless information the dangers of surrendering all initiative to the enemy are great & obvious…I am sure that the time has come, to seize an oversea base to transfer our flotillas from our coasts to the enemy’s, to block him in by mines laid close inshore which are not only laid but guarded, and then to proceed to attack with a strong army his naval bases & the canal on which his naval strength depends…[17]

The same day Churchill informed Fisher that Borkum was ‘the key to all Northern possibilities’ and that he thought it better to hear ‘what others have to say about the Turkish plans before taking a decided line. I would not grudge 100,000 men because of the great political effects in the Balkan peninsula: but Germany is the foe, & it is bad war to seek cheaper victories & easier antagonists.[18] Is this the same Churchill who had wanted Turkey attacked all along but who believed that the days of forcing the Dardanelles were long past?[19] Or was his question to Carden merely a momentary attempt to try to deflect an obstreperous First Sea Lord and, by so doing, restore the Borkum operation to prominence? Compare the standard interpretation given above with the following exchange at the Dardanelles Commission when Churchill was asked, with regard to the telegram to Carden,

1261.... Do you not think that in saying that heavy losses might be incurred, but the result would be of such importance that the losses would be justified, you were rather giving an indication to Admiral Carden of the answer which you wished to receive — that it was rather a leading question? [Churchill]— Well it may be so. Of course, war is action, and one is seeking means of action against the enemy, and looking about for ways of waging war against the enemy. Plans so frequently break down…that I do not think it is wrong at all to cast a telegram in a way which shows that action, if possible, would be very desirable. I think you may say that it certainly shows that we should have been very glad if he had had a good plan.

…1264. Must it not be borne in mind that when you ask naval officers to undertake a difficult and dangerous service they are always very reluctant to say they cannot do it; and also is it not their disposition to agree with their superior officer? [Churchill] — I have not found that so at all. Frequently we asked, could this or that be done – is it not possible to do such and such an operation – and in the overwhelming majority of cases the answer was: No, it cannot be done. The negative tendency is enormously powerful, far more powerful than the positive tendency; in fact the negative tendency is supreme…[20]

To begin with, Churchill’s answer to question 1261 was less than convincing, and hardly amounts to a categorical admission that he expected a favourable reply. Although, in 1916, Churchill had an ulterior motive for not wishing to be seen to have pressured Carden, so that the plan then appeared to be the Admiral’s own initiative, could it not be that he actually expected a negative response? It is certainly clear that on Monday 4 January 1915 – the day after he had sent the inquiry to Carden – Churchill was by no means advocating action at the Dardanelles; rather, he intended first to hear what others had to say, in particular, the man on the spot (in more ways than one), the unfortunate Admiral Carden who had not shown, to date, any pronounced tendency for wanting to take the fight to the Turks.

                Fisher, though, would not be diverted. Replying to Churchill the same day (4 January) he agreed that Borkum offered great possibilities, but it was purely a military question whether the island could be held;[21] on the other hand, the ‘Naval advantages of the possession of Constantinople and the getting of wheat[22] from the Black Sea are so overwhelming that I consider Colonel Hankey’s plan for Turkish operations vital and imperative and very pressing.’[23] Then, at one minute to four on the afternoon of Tuesday 5 January, came the ‘bombshell’ when Carden’s reply was received in the Admiralty:

With reference to your telegram of 3rd instant, I do not consider Dardanelles can be rushed. They might be forced by extended operations with large number of ships.[24]

Carden would later admit: ‘I did not mean distinctly that they could be forced. I had it in my mind that it was impossible to form a real opinion on the subject until one had destroyed the outer forts at the entrance, and was able to get inside and actually find out the extent of the gun defences of the mine field and the extent of the movable armament on both sides of the Straits.’[25] Churchill would subsequently declare that this answer to his inquiry was ‘remarkable’. Indeed, the relevant chapter in The World Crisis is heavily slanted and no more so than in the episode of Carden’s telegram and the prevailing opinion within the Admiralty. Attempting to lay the groundwork for his defence, Churchill maintained that Carden’s reply was immediately shown to the War Council ‘that afternoon…[and] was heard with extreme interest.’ Then, returning to the Admiralty, Churchill had a conversation with Admiral Sir Henry Jackson (acting in an advisory capacity) who reviewed the idea of extended operations favourably and who had also written a memorandum that day which, however, Churchill was unable to read until ‘some days later’.[26]

                The truth was somewhat different: Churchill’s later account was incorrect as the War Council did not meet until Thursday, 7 January, two days after the receipt of Carden’s reply. Furthermore, there is no indication that Churchill divulged the contents of Carden’s reply at that meeting, nor on the following day.[27] Indeed, it was not until the meeting of 13 January that Churchill referred to an interchange of telegrams between the Admiralty and Carden, the gist of which was that, while the forts could not be rushed, they might be demolished one by one.[28] This error in relation to the alleged meeting of the War Council on the 5th which, if it had been true, would have meant of course that he had not had sufficient time to peruse Admiral Jackson’s far more cautious written appraisal, was conveniently made by Churchill in The World Crisis and has been perpetuated in subsequent accounts,[29] including the official biography:

…All future plans [Martin Gilbert has written] depended upon the view of the Admiral on the spot. When Carden’s reply arrived early on the afternoon of January 5 it surprised everyone at the Admiralty…The War Council met later that afternoon…Kitchener pressed his colleagues for action at the Dardanelles. Churchill was able to give some support to Kitchener’s appeal by reading out to the War Council the telegram which he had received from Carden an hour before…[30]

Carden’s telegram did not arrive ‘early on the afternoon’ of the 5th but at one minute to four. There was no Cabinet or War Council that day.[31] Asquith, in fact, spent part of the late afternoon on a ‘solitary drive’ after which he called in at the Athenaeum, where he wrote a ‘little note’ to Venetia Stanley, before then going on to dine at the Admiralty where Churchill was still pressing for the Northern option.[32] The reason why Churchill was so keen to disguise the timing will become apparent when Admiral Jackson’s memorandum is considered. Following the discussion in the Admiralty that evening, Asquith declared that the alternative objectives now numbered four: ‘(1) Schleswig (Winston) (2) Salonika or Dalmatia (Ll. George…) (3) Gallipoli & Constantinople (Kitchener) (4) Smyrna & Ephesus (F.E. [Smith] & others — I rather like this)’.[33]

                Churchill testified to the Dardanelles Commission that, in addition to sending the initial telegram to Carden on Sunday 3rd, he also ‘put the same question verbally to Sir H Jackson’ who, while deprecating an attempt to rush the Straits ‘spoke of the considerable effects of the brief bombardment of 3 November, and the possibilities of a gradual step-by-step reduction of the fortresses.’ The C.O.S., Vice-Admiral Oliver, purportedly shared ‘much the same view’.[34] After giving this oral opinion, Jackson went away to compose his memorandum, which was ready by 5 January. The result – his Note on forcing the Passage of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus by the Allied Fleets in order to destroy the Turko-German Squadron and threaten Constantinople without Military Co-operation[35] – painted a far more pessimistic picture than the one he had previously given in conversation with Churchill. Examining both a scheme for rushing the passage and one for a methodical bombardment, Jackson found some degree of fault with both: the latter would

entail the expenditure of a large amount of ammunition and wear of heavy guns, and also some losses, but it would enable the attacking squadron to replenish before making the passage and to start fair from the ‘Narrows’ and expend much less ammunition during the last rush, and then be in a better position to engage the enemy naval forces. It may reasonably be expected their forces would endeavour to meet our squadron as it emerged from the Straits into the Sea of Marmora, before we had time to reform in that sea and recover from the effects of the fire of the batteries. To arrive off Constantinople with depleted magazines and ships almost out of action from gun fire, and with shore batteries still intact both in front and rear, would be a fatal error, and tend to annul the effect of the appearance of the squadron as soon as its real state was known...

As bad as this sounds, it was, according to Jackson, at least more promising than a rush. Before attempting a rushing operation it would be ‘most desirable that the guns mounted in the defences at the entrance be entirely demolished’ which would necessitate a much more determined attack than the November bombardment, including the landing of demolition parties to destroy the outer guns. During this phase of the operation some losses would have to be expected. With the outer forts silenced, armoured ships could then enter the Straits ‘subject only to fire from Field Artillery, and damage from mines and torpedo attack’! Mine sweeping would be hazardous and should be conducted on a foggy night only after all the outer guns had been ‘permanently silenced’ while, overall, ‘the attack should be as much of a surprise as possible’. This rushing approach would result, Jackson calculated, in the complete elimination through battle damage of an entire battle squadron of eight ships; therefore, the attempt could only be made by two battle squadrons so that, once the first was eliminated, the second might get through ‘with much less damage’. Behind this, there would then have to be two cruiser squadrons. Even if a proportion of these ships managed to survive the passage and proceeded to Constantinople, Jackson was forced to concede that, while the capture of the city would be worth ‘a considerable loss’, a bombardment by itself ‘would not greatly affect the distant military operations; and even if it surrendered, it could not be occupied and held without troops…’[36]

                When queried about this memorandum at the hearings of the Dardanelles Commission Churchill stuck rigidly to his story: it had not come before him, he maintained, till ‘some days afterwards. I remember thinking, well that is less favourable than the impression I had from the conversation [on the 3rd].’[37] It almost beggars belief that Churchill waited some days before reading Jackson’s document; that aside, his insistence that he did not see it immediately was crucial to his attempt to excuse his subsequent actions. At a quarter to two on the afternoon of Wednesday, 6 January – that is, the day after Jackson had completed his less than sanguine memorandum but, supposedly, before the First Lord had seen it – Churchill signalled Carden: ‘Your view is agreed with by high authorities here. Please telegraph in detail what you would think could be done by extended operations, what force would be needed and how you consider it should be used.’[38] Churchill’s ‘high authorities’ consisted of no other than Jackson and Oliver, the former of whom now clearly recognized the difficulty of the operation. Fisher himself, who denied seeing Churchill’s telegram, maintained that ‘I should have objected to that, and asked him [Churchill] to word it in some other way. Naturally Carden would think I was in it, would he not?’[39] Although the sending of this telegram by Churchill would appear to undermine the contention that he was not seriously interested in the Dardanelles operation, yet at the War Council on the following day Churchill steadfastly pressed for the northern option.[40]

                To explain this, it would be necessary to assume that, by the 6th, Churchill’s opinion of the merit of the Dardanelles operation was more or less identical to that expressed in a contemporary Admiralty minute: the value would be ‘almost exclusively limited to the moral effect produced by the operations, since the material results would be small and of a very temporary nature in the absence of larger land forces to confirm the success, and at present no troops are available for the enterprise.’[41] Then, perhaps surprised by Carden’s cautiously optimistic reply, he continued to promote planning for the Dardanelles scheme while pressing for immediate operations in other areas; and, having finally put the Dardanelles plans in motion, Churchill himself was swept along by the momentum he had inadvertently generated. It is important to remember that Churchill’s position, despite Asquith’s support, was by no means secure. The Navy’s record under his leadership since the start of the war had not been particularly edifying. Minor triumphs, such as the Battle of Heligoland Bight, had been more than offset by the escape of Goeben and Breslau, the loss of Audacious, the sinking of Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue in a single morning, the disaster at Coronel, and the bombardment of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. The one undoubted victory — at the Falkland Islands — was due to Fisher. Then, on New Year’s Day, 1915, the pre-dreadnought Formidable, was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel.

                Churchill desperately needed a victory, somewhere, to cement his position; for the same reason, he could not afford to alienate Fisher. In a letter to Sir John French on 5 January (which he decided not to send) Churchill outlined the competing schemes:

…Discussion here has turned rather to looking for other theatres of war: for the employment of the new armies. Some point to Emden & Wilhelmshaven & the direct invasion of Germany there, others to Schleswig Holstein with the consequent opening of the Baltic & the exposure of the Baltic shore to Russian oversea attack. Competing schemes turn to the capture of Constantinople & an advance via Belgrade from Constantinople & Salonika; or to an invasion of Austria from the Adriatic shore. There is a general feeling that a condition of stalemate has been reached in France and Flanders — certainly in Flanders: & that we ought not to play the German game by incurring very heavy losses in driving them (if we can) from one entrenched position to another. Nothing is decided: but this view is very strongly held. The war council is to meet on Thursday. Before anything is settled I shall press that you should come over to some later meeting. Of course if there were good prospects of a fruitful offensive in Flanders or on the French front, that would hold the field. But I fear that the losses would not be repaid by gains, except perhaps along the coast; & that is not the job it was…[42]

Could it be that here, in this unsent letter, are the first signs of Churchill’s change of heart? That, at this time, while he continued to investigate the northern options most of which, it now appeared, would involve heavy casualties, he was first attracted by the siren call of what he assumed would be a relatively bloodless victory at the Dardanelles? Carden’s telegram, according to Churchill, ‘offered a prospect of influencing the Eastern situation in a decisive manner without opening a new military commitment on a large scale...’[43]

                Then, on the morning of Thursday 7 January, as Churchill wrestled with the various options, a message was received in the Admiralty from Paris. This message has gone largely, if not wholly, unnoticed in the accounts of this momentous week and, but for the coincidence of timing, perhaps deservedly so; however, in what could only be termed a meaningful coincidence,[44] on the very morning of the first War Council convened to discuss the strategic alternatives, Churchill was now privy to the following information:

from French Naval Attaché to Marine, Paris, forwarded to Admiralty…An intercepted telegram from Constantinople states that Goeben has been in collision with 2 Russian mines close to the Bosphorus and sustained serious damage. The time required for repairs is estimated at 2½ months.[45]

The information was correct.[46] Goeben, the bane of Churchill’s war-time tenure at the Admiralty, and the putative defender of Constantinople, was now a sitting target. The first stipulation of Jackson’s memorandum had been that the allied squadron must arrive off Constantinople ‘in sufficient force to engage the enemy squadron’; if, however, the enemy pushed forward with the intention of engaging the allies as they emerged from the Straits into the Sea of Marmora, the chances were that the allied fleet would arrive off Constantinople ‘with depleted magazines and ships almost out of action from gun fire.’ Now, instead, a priceless window of opportunity presented itself: without Goeben the Turkish fleet was reduced to a motley collection of elderly battleships of variable quality, and a number of cruisers all of which (with the exception of Breslau) had had their frailties exposed by the torpedoing of Messudieh. Any attempt to force the Dardanelles from early January to late March could be commenced safe in the knowledge that Goeben could not interfere.[47]

                The War Council which convened in the Cabinet Room at noon on Thursday 7 January commenced with a discussion on ‘The Defence of London Against Airships’ before moving on to consider ‘The General Policy of the War’ which, despite the grand sub-heading in the minutes, involved little more than a rejection of French’s plan for an operation against Zeebrugge. Support for this scheme was forthcoming only from Churchill, which was hardly surprising as he was the co-author of the plan and was in constant private communication with French.[48] Discussion then moved on to consideration of the Borkum operation which would be difficult, Churchill admitted, but not insuperably so; in any case ‘A large amount of detailed work would be required before the plans were ready.’ In Fisher’s opinion this would take two or three months. The operation was approved in principle, subject to a feasibility study.[49]

                Lloyd George tried, unsuccessfully, to broaden the debate to encompass the strategic options outlined in his own memorandum but his turn would come the following day when he pushed for an attack on Austria — only to be then met with fierce criticism. Kitchener in particular quashed the idea by reading French’s letter on the futility of subsidiary operations.[50] Any attempt to assist Serbia in her struggle against Austria while, in French’s opinion, ‘the least objectionable of any possible proposal’, depended entirely on a friendly Greece and strictly neutral Bulgaria; however if Italy deviated from neutrality the whole force would be threatened. Kitchener had done his homework well — the War Office had prepared a preliminary examination of the southern options from which Kitchener declared:

The Dardanelles appeared to be the most suitable objective, as an attack here could be made in co-operation with the Fleet. If successful, it would re-establish communication with Russia; settle the Near Eastern question; draw in Greece and, perhaps, Bulgaria and Roumania; and release wheat and shipping now locked up in the Black Sea.

Hankey himself (not unexpectedly, but somewhat unconstitutionally) joined in to point out the benefits accruing from the operation, while Kitchener added that ‘150,000 men would be sufficient for the capture of the Dardanelles, but he reserved his final opinion until a closer study had been made.’ Lloyd George, piqued that his grand strategic plan had been rejected, ‘expressed surprise at the lowness of the figure.’ Kitchener then went on to advocate a subsidiary attack on Alexandretta to strike at Turkish communications: this ‘minor but useful operation’ would require 30,000 to 50,000 men.[51]

                Churchill’s reaction to all of this is of interest for, while agreeing fully that the Dardanelles and Alexandretta operations should be studied, he continued to press strongly for action in Northern Europe, particularly if Holland could be induced to enter the war. The advantages flowing from this action, he asserted, ‘would far outweigh those of the Mediterranean’. Churchill also raised once more the question of possible operations against Zeebrugge, advocating this time that they should take the form of a naval attack to try to reduce the menace from German submarines operating from that port. However, although the conclusion reached was that the Admiralty should proceed if the operation could be accomplished ‘without excessive risk’, Fisher went on the record as saying that the results would not justify the danger involved.[52] During the debate Balfour had remained strangely silent, yet the former Prime Minister had, at the beginning of the week, disagreed with the whole concept of subsidiary operations as outlined by Hankey. Balfour could not see in Hankey’s proposals ‘for attacking the enemy elsewhere than in the North of Europe any solution of our difficulties.’ Arguing presciently, Balfour did not deny the advantages of inducing the Balkan States to attack Turkey,

On the contrary, I think such a policy would have very valuable results. But the questions involved are, I fear, so difficult that months of preliminary negotiations would be required to allay passions due to events in the past, and to arrange such a division of the spoils as would satisfy these jealous little States. And, in addition to these difficulties, there looms before us the menacing question of Constantinople. Who is to own it? And what is to be the international position of the Bosphorus? The solution you propose for the Dardanelles hardly applies to the other end of the Sea of Marmora. Moreover, it must be remembered that Germany is perfectly indifferent to the fate of her Allies, except in so far as her own fate is bound up with it. Were Turkey paralysed, the Russians could no doubt bring troops from the Caucasus to Galicia, and we could take troops from Egypt either to German East Africa or to some European theatre of operations. These would be very great advantages, but they would not finish the war. I agree, however, that from the political and diplomatic point of view, it would be desirable to deprive Germany of everything she has to bargain with, and to hit Turkey as hard as we can. But, I fear, operations like these, however successful, must be regarded as merely subsidiary…[53]

Yet Balfour remained as quiet in his opposition to the Dardanelles operation as, in the other extreme, Fisher was vociferous in support of it; nevertheless the driving force at this time continued to be Kitchener.

                Even so, both Fisher and Kitchener envisaged the scheme solely in terms of a combined operation, though Fisher’s plan was so hedged with impossible conditions it is difficult to divine precisely what he had in mind, while, in the case of Kitchener, he informed the War Council (which had no reason to doubt him) that no spare troops were currently available. For Fisher, the only constant remained, throughout, his opposition to any initiative proposed by Churchill: for example, his helpful submission the following day, supposedly in support of Churchill’s Dutch scheme, was to suggest that preparations be made for the transport of 750,000 troops, to be landed in Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam ‘and all other spots (however small) along the Dutch Coast — land everywhere! AT ONCE! sudden-secret-subtle — our 3 watchwords!’[54] The old Admiral had lost his grip of reality.


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[1]    Fisher to Hankey, 2 January 1915, Hankey mss., PRO Cab 63/4 [Italicized passage is my emphasis].

[2]    Fisher to Churchill, 3 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 367-8. Note: By the time Fisher gave evidence at the Dardanelles Commission he did not refer to his advice that the Dardanelles should be forced; rather, he testified that, at the same time as the other military operations were in progress, Sturdee, with his ships, should simply be AT the Dardanelles. Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 3087, PRO Cab 19/33.

[3]    According to Keble Chatterton, ‘Admiral Sturdee…was Lord Fisher’s choice to force the Dardanelles Straits and Narrows, but the former wisely declined, having seen that such a project could not be practicable…’ Dardanelles Dilemma, p. 62.

[4]    In October 1916 Fisher testified: ‘...I was absolutely unable to give the Dardanelles proposal any welcome for there was the Nelsonic dictum that “any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool.” My direct personal knowledge of the Dardanelles problem dates back many years. I had had the great advantage of commanding a battleship under Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps-Hornby when, during the Russo-Turkish War, that celebrated flag officer took the fleet through the Dardanelles. I had again knowledge of the subject as C-in-C of the Mediterranean Fleet during the Boer War, when for a long period the fleet...lay at Lemnos...thus affording me means of close study of the feasibility of forcing the Straits. When I became First Sea Lord [in 1904]...I immediately examined the question of forcing the Dardanelles, and I satisfied myself at that time that even with military co-operation the operation was mightily hazardous. Basing myself on the experience gained over so many years (when the project was mooted in the present War) my opinion was that the attempt...would not succeed...’ Dardanelles Commission, Summary of Lord Fisher’s Evidence, PRO Cab 19/29.

[5]    Neither the Greeks nor the Russians would have looked kindly on a Bulgarian advance on Constantinople! In addition Sir John French would hardly have agreed to have his forces denuded by such an extent just as he was clamouring for reinforcements.

[6]    In Churchill’s opinion megalomania was the only form of sanity at the outbreak of a war but, as Captain Dumas noted after an interview with Churchill on 4 January, it need not go on indefinitely! Dumas, diary entry for 4 January 1915, IWM PP/MCR/96.

[7]    Fisher to Churchill, 4 January 1915; Churchill to Fisher, 4 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 373-4. In reprisal for the Zeppelin raids Fisher advocated shooting all the German prisoners held in Britain! See, Asquith to Stanley, 5 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 247, p. 359.

[8]    Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 3087, PRO Cab 19/33.

[9]    Minutes of the C.I.D., 23 March 1909, quoted in, R F Mackay, “Historical Reinterpretations of the Anglo-German Naval Rivalry”, in Jordan (ed.), Naval Warfare in the Twentieth Century, (London, 1977), p. 35 [my emphasis].

[10]  Churchill to Carden, no. 3, 3 January 1915 (sent 1.28 p.m.), PRO Adm 137/96.

[11]  James, Gallipoli, pp. 27-8. As will be shown, Churchill’s subsequent admission was less than convincing.

[12]  Fisher to Balfour, 4 January 1915, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49712 f.130. The purpose of this letter, Fisher declared, was to urge on Balfour ‘the peculiar merit of Hankey’s Turkey Plan…’

[13]  Fisher’s opinion was typical: was he, the Dardanelles Commissioners wanted to know, consulted about Carden’s appointment? No, he replied, this was before his return to the Admiralty, adding ‘Carden was an accident, you know.’ Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 3068, PRO Cab 19/33. Fisher was subsequently more forthright to Jellicoe: ‘Who expected Carden to be in Command of a big Fleet! he was made Adl. Supt. of Malta to shelve him!’ Fisher to Jellicoe, 16 March 1915, Jellicoe mss., BL Add MSS 49006.

[14]  Churchill, The World Crisis, pp. 324-5.

[15]  Quoted in, Magnus, Kitchener, p. 310.

[16]  Churchill, World Crisis, p. 323.

[17]  Churchill to Jellicoe, 4 January 1915, Jellicoe mss., BL Add MSS 48990 [my emphasis].

[18]  Churchill to Fisher, 4 January 1915, F.G.D.N., vol. III, p. 121; WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 370-1 [my emphasis]. Note: Churchill omitted the italicized section from The World Crisis, see p. 325.

[19]  See, for example, paragraph 4 of Churchill’s 1911 memorandum on the Mediterranean fleet: ‘It should, further, be remembered that it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, that nobody would expose a modern fleet to such perils, that, therefore, the one decisive method of putting pressure on the Turks which depended upon speed had become inoperative…’ PRO Cab 37/105/27.

[20]  Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qus. 1261, 1264, PRO Cab 19/33.

[21]  It was just as well that no one asked for Richmond’s opinion: the acerbic Assistant Director of Operations recorded in his diary: ‘It is quite mad. The reasons for capturing [Borkum] are NIL, the possibilities about the same. I have never read such an idiotic, amateur piece of work as this outline in my life. Ironically enough it falls to me to prepare the plans for this stupendous folly. Yet Sea Lords like Wilson (for he is in effect a Sea Lord) enter no protest. It remains with the army, who I hope will refuse to throw away 12000 troops in this manner for the self-glorification of an ignorant & impulsive man.’

[22]  Hankey, it would be fair to say, had a fixation about the economic potential of naval warfare. Fisher’s reference to wheat makes it clear he was being tutored by Hankey.

[23]  Fisher to Churchill, 4 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 371-2.

[24]  Carden to Churchill, no. 10, 5 January 1915, PRO Adm 137/96.

[25]  Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 2332, PRO Cab 19/33.

[26]  Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 325.

[27]  Churchill later asserted that, at the War Council at which he read out Carden’s telegram, ‘the question of an attack on Turkey and a diversion in the Near East was one of the principal subjects discussed.’ [World Crisis, p. 325] No such discussion took place at the War Council on 7 January; however, the following day, there was talk of a diversionary attack. Nevertheless, the minutes show no indication of Churchill mentioning Carden’s telegram. On the contrary, after Lloyd George had put forward his “Southern Austria” scheme and Kitchener had pronounced upon the Dardanelles and Alexandretta, Churchill (according to Hankey) ‘fully agreed in the proposal to study the suggested operations in the Mediterranean. He urged, however, that we should not lose sight of the possibility of action in Northern Europe.’ Churchill had ample opportunity, following Kitchener’s lead, of divulging Carden’s reply; instead, he kept his secret. Minutes of the War Council, 8 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/12 [my emphasis].

[28]  Minutes of the War Council, 13 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/16.

[29]  For example, James, Gallipoli, p. 28; Steel and Hart, Defeat at Gallipoli, p. 10; Adelson, London and the Invention of the Middle East, p. 43. Hickey, Gallipoli, p. 43 confuses the War Council meeting of the 8th with that of the 13th.

[30]  Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, vol. III, p. 237.

[31]  Hankey conceded that the Grand Duke’s appeal was, ‘one might think, of sufficient importance to require a special meeting of the War Council.’ But it was the old bugbear — the weekend — as the appeal had arrived on a Saturday when ‘the War Council could only have been collected at short notice with some difficulty.’ Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, p. 253.

[32]  Asquith to Stanley, 5 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 248, pp. 360-1.

[33]  Ibid.

[34]  Dardanelles Commission, Statement by Churchill, PRO Cab 19/28.

[35]  A copy of the memorandum can be found in PRO Adm 137/96.

[36]  Ibid.

[37]  Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 1131, PRO Cab 19/33.

[38]  Churchill to Carden, no. 4, 6 January 1914, PRO Adm 137/96.

[39]  Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 3120, PRO Cab 19/33.

[40]  Minutes of the War Council, 7 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/11.

[41]  Considerations affecting the passage of the Dardanelles, unsigned Admiralty minute, PRO Adm 137/96.

[42]  Churchill to French, 5 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 379. This letter might have remained unsent as Churchill was probably only too well aware what French’s reaction would be to such unpalatable advice.

[43]  Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 325 [my emphasis].

[44]  See “Synchronicity: an Acausal Connecting Principle” in, Carl Jung, Selected Writings, (London, 1983), pp. 339-41.

[45]  Marine, Paris to Admiralty, 7 January 1915, PRO Adm 137/96. Goeben’s battle damage from her encounter with the Black Sea fleet had been repaired by early December and she was pressed into service later that month to help escort troop transports to Trebizond in support of the Turkish offensive. Returning from this duty Goeben ran over a Russian minefield on 26 December; two mines exploded under the ship causing considerable damage and extensive flooding. Repairs this time would be lengthy and it was not until 3 April 1915 that the battle cruiser was again seaworthy. Nekrasov, North of Gallipoli, pp. 36-7.

[46]  Report of Admiral von Usedom, January 1915, PRO Cab 45/215. It was thought that the mines Goeben encountered were not set deliberately by the Russians, but had broken loose; nevertheless von Usedom admitted the evident superiority of Russian mines which had ‘compelled us to greatly extend the zone within which a channel had to be cleared.’

[47]  This applied also to Russian Black Sea operations. Despite having a ‘comparatively small naval force’ Nicolson informed Hardinge on 3 February that ‘as the Goeben is evidently seriously ill [Russia] has pretty well command of the Black Sea.’ Nicolson to Hardinge, 3 February 1915, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/377.

[48]  Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, p. 260.

[49]  Minutes of the War Council, 7 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/11.

[50]  Already quoted in part, see above.

[51]  It will be remembered that, on 2 January, Kitchener had asserted that ‘Alexandretta has already been tried and would have no great effect a second time.’

[52]  Minutes of the War Council, 8 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/12.

[53]  Balfour to Hankey, 2 January 1915, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49703 f.137.

[54]  Fisher to Churchill, 9 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 399-400.



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