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 24








 Kitchener of Khartoum

Kitchener of Khartoum

 If Churchill’s initial instructions to Carden on 3 January had been sent as no more than a fitful attempt to aid the Russians and, at the same time, humour Fisher, within a week a number of disparate events had occurred whose combined effect would be to ensnare the First Lord himself. First, poor Carden sent back the answer he thought was required of him, cautiously optimistic but no more, and prefaced by the inconclusive qualifier that the Dardanelles ‘might’ be forced; Admirals Jackson and Oliver were also optimistic in conversation even if Jackson later severely toned down his enthusiasm when writing his memorandum; intelligence was received that Goeben would be out of action for some months; and opinion at the War Council was turning, or rather being pushed by Kitchener, in favour of a Mediterranean strategy. Kitchener’s rôle was important as, Asquith observed, for the moment Kitchener and Winston were ‘on the most sugary terms’.[1]


                Then, on Saturday 9 January, Churchill received an appreciation of the Dardanelles operation from Lewis Bayly, an admiral he admired but who was under a cloud following the torpedoing of Formidable when under his command, which was attributed ‘to the neglect of ordinary precautions.’[2] Bayly proposed ‘to get through the Dardanelles by steaming as fast past, and as close to, the forts as is possible; to enter the Dardanelles just before dawn…Owing to the necessity of getting quickly past the forts the ships must go at their highest possible speed…[I] suggest that the squadron be preceded at about half a mile…by the destroyers each towing an explosive sweep…If steamers of 17 knots could be obtained, they should be sent ahead of destroyers, in pairs, with a 3½-inch wire hawser between each pair…It is possible that a feint of landing on the West side of the Gallipoli peninsula, made...the day before, might assist the forcing of the Strait.’[3] Disgraced or not, it was at least another indication that the forcing of the Straits might be possible; in addition, it chimed in with Churchill’s own thoughts as the First Lord maintained that the original request to Carden ‘had contemplated something in the nature of an organized “rush”.’[4]

                Nevertheless, as late as Monday 11th, Churchill still fully favoured the Northern option. Sir John French, who had become aware of what had transpired at the War Council on Friday, was, naturally, loathe to countenance any diminution in his strength and had gone so far as to send his memorandum of 5 January, highlighting the futility of subsidiary action, direct to Asquith with instructions to hand Kitchener a copy![5] Churchill strongly urged French – military situation permitting – to attend the next War Council, scheduled for Wednesday 13 January.[6] ‘I am in entire agreement with the notes you so kindly sent for my perusal’, he informed French before adding, in a clear indication that he had not yet divulged Carden’s cautious reply, ‘I argued in the War Council strongly against deserting the decisive theatre & the most formidable enemy antagonist to win cheaper laurels in easier fields. The only circumstances in which such a policy could be justified would be after every other fruitful alternative [in the main theatre] had been found impossible…I favour remaining in the Northern theatre…It is not until all the Northern possibilities are exhausted that I would look to the South of Europe as a field for the profitable employment of our expanding military forces. But plans should be worked out for every contingency.’[7] Churchill confirmed this in person to French when the latter arrived in London on the 12th, the day after a further crucial development had occurred.

                Up to this point, Churchill had not been against an attack at the Dardanelles per se but was opposed to the concomitant diversion of troops away from the main lines. The only way to reconcile the competing schemes, given the impossibility of releasing troops for the southern front, was for a naval operation, either as a demonstration to relieve the pressure on the Russians, or a concerted attempt to knock Turkey out of the war. Then, on the 11th, the detailed scheme Churchill had requested from Carden arrived in London. Upon studying the plan, Churchill now realized that the chances of a master-stroke at the Dardanelles would be far greater than in the Baltic. At last the possibility presented itself of achieving the victory he so desperately needed. Carden’s planners envisaged a four stage operation which would commence with the total reduction of the defences at the entrance of the Straits. Once accomplished, the defences inside the Straits could be cleared up to Kephez Point. This part of the operation would be made much more difficult if Goeben was assisting the defence and, unless a submarine attack against the German ship proved successful, would necessitate the employment of the British battle cruisers. Churchill was aware, of course, that Goeben could not interfere in this way for at least another two months; however what Churchill did not know was that, although the Dardanelles defences were not as modern as was generally believed, according to the American Ambassador 85% of the men on duty in the forts were now made up from the crews of the German ships.[8] In the third part of the operation the defences at the Narrows would be reduced and, finally, a passage would be cleared through the minefield allowing the final advance to the Sea of Marmora. The time required would depend on how well the enemy morale held up under the bombardment and also on the weather, as gales were frequent at that time of year; nevertheless it was anticipated ‘Might do it all in a month about.’ Although the expenditure of ammunition would be prodigious, once through, it was hoped to have in the Sea of Marmora: two battle cruisers, four battleships, three light cruisers, a flotilla of destroyers, three submarines and auxiliary vessels, while the remainder of the force kept the Straits open and clear of mines![9] This was a far cry from Fisher’s force of pre-dreadnoughts.

                But Fisher was about to add a new twist to his original scheme: aware of Carden’s plan, he saw Tyrrell (Grey’s private secretary) on 12 January and recorded his views in a letter to him the following day:

if the Greeks would land 100,000 men on the Gallipoli Peninsula in concert with a British Naval attack on the Dardanelles I think we could count on every success and quick arrival at Constantinople. A naval approach to Constantinople without any troops at all would occupy a month for the first shot fired at the mouth of the Dardanelles and would involve a loss of ships, and expenditure of ammunition and a wearing out of the heavy guns of the Fleet beyond approval and when the remains of the Fleet got to Constantinople it could do nothing else but carry out a futile bombardment with an accompanying massacre à la the bombardment of Alexandria! …The real people to fight with us for Constantinople are the Bulgarians! — (one Bulgarian worth a thousand Greeks!)…[10]

Fisher did not deny the possibility of a purely naval attempt but limited himself to pointing out that the effort would not be commensurate with the result. Of greater import, aware that the magnificent new battleship Queen Elizabeth was about to conduct the test firing of her 15-inch guns off Gibraltar, Fisher initiated an inquiry to Percy Scott to ascertain if there was anything to prevent the ship using the Dardanelles forts as target practice. ‘If this is practicable’, he then instructed Admiral Oliver, ‘she could go straight there, hoist Carden’s flag & go on with her gunnery exercises…’[11]

                Once more, Fisher was sending conflicting signals: Tyrrell would have been as much impressed by the benefits of having troops available as Churchill would have been by the spontaneous proposal to send Queen Elizabeth which pointed to the feasibility of a wholly naval success. The motives underlying Fisher’s actions become increasingly difficult to discern. Carden’s unexpected plan and Fisher’s suggested use of Queen Elizabeth converted Churchill. That day, 12 January, he ordered that definite plans should be worked out, with operations timed to commence on 1 February; but he also added the important proviso that it was ‘not necessary to develop the full attack until the effect of the first stage of the operation has become apparent.’ Churchill continued to underestimate the fighting qualities of the Turks, as much as he overestimated the effect of modern, low trajectory naval gunfire even if from such a devastating weapon as the 15-inch guns of Queen Elizabeth. This, however, was lost sight of in the euphoria of that Tuesday: ‘The forcing of the Dardanelles as proposed’, Churchill declared, ‘and the arrival of a squadron strong enough to defeat the Turkish fleet in the Sea of Marmora, would be a victory of the first importance, and change to our advantage the whole situation of the war in the East.’[12] Now that it appeared the navy could do the job alone Churchill was, therefore, correct in a limited sense when he told Sir John French that night that ‘the time was not yet ripe to consider a diversion of our troops to other more distant theatres.’[13]

                The War Council reconvened at midday on Wednesday 13 January at which French, now present, argued persuasively for a new offensive in Flanders: losses would be ‘light’, he confidently asserted, while the German reserves would be exhausted by October 1915! Even Kitchener began to waver in the face of French’s onslaught and volunteered hesitatingly to advance the dispatch of two Territorial divisions; only Lloyd George and Balfour remained unconvinced. Yet, when pressed, French had to admit that Russian support continued to be essential; the irony of this admission, in view of the Grand Duke’s appeal, apparently went unnoticed. Churchill, seated between Admirals Fisher and Wilson, again unsuccessfully pushed his Zeebrugge plan until, when it became clear that sufficient enthusiasm was lacking, he decided the moment had at last arrived to drop his bombshell: the way to reconcile the competing claims upon the troops. Asquith, who had remained silent, had adjourned the meeting for lunch at 2 p.m. at which Fisher and Balfour returned to the Admiralty where they lunched with Lord Esher, who recorded ‘the strong body of opinion crystallizing round the idea of taking the initiative at, perhaps, Gallipoli.’[14]

                At 3 p.m., before reconvening, Asquith was handed a letter from Venetia Stanley; he started to reply to this at 3.30 p.m., only to have to break off as the members of the War Council returned — Sir John French resuming his seat in pride of place next to the P.M. By 4 o’clock the meeting was again in progress and Churchill was now ready to make his surprise announcement.[15] ‘The blinds had been drawn to shut out the winter evening. The air was heavy and the table presented that rather dishevelled appearance that results from a long session.’ For Hankey, whose description this is, it had been a tiring day; he was ‘looking forward to release from the strain of following and noting the prolonged and intense discussion…At this point events took a dramatic turn, for Churchill suddenly revealed his well-kept secret of a naval attack on the Dardanelles.’[16] The minutes that Hankey kept that day noted that,

MR CHURCHILL said he had interchanged telegrams with Vice-Admiral Carden…in regard to the possibilities of a naval attack on the Dardanelles. The sense of Admiral Carden’s reply was that it was impossible to rush the Dardanelles, but that, in his opinion, it might be possible to demolish the forts one by one. To this end Admiral Carden had submitted a plan.

Churchill then outlined the plan, which would require three modern battleships and twelve old battleships that could now be spared ‘without reducing our strength in the main theatre of war.’ Two battle cruisers were already in the Mediterranean and, Churchill added, it was now feasible for Queen Elizabeth ‘to conduct her trials against the Dardanelles forts…’ The Admiralty, who were making their own study, believed ‘that a plan could be made for systematically reducing all the forts within a few weeks. Once the forts were reduced the minefields would be cleared, and the Fleet would proceed up to Constantinople and destroy the Goeben. They would have nothing to fear from field guns or rifles, which would be merely an inconvenience.’[17]

                Hankey again describes the scene after Churchill’s announcement and if his account seems over-enthusiastic it should be remembered that he had been the first to advocate the ‘southern option’; the War Council was now merely confirming his sound judgment. When Churchill finished,

The idea caught on at once. The whole atmosphere changed. Fatigue was forgotten. The War Council turned eagerly from the dreary vista of a ‘slogging match’ on the Western Front to brighter prospects, as they seemed, in the Mediterranean. The Navy, in whom everyone had implicit confidence and whose opportunities so far had been few and far between, was to come into the front line. Even French with his enormous preoccupations caught something of the general enthusiasm. Churchill unfolded his plans with the skill that might be expected of him, lucidly but quietly and without exaggerated optimism.[18]

This, however, conveys a somewhat different impression to Hankey’s own contemporary minutes, wherein Lloyd George merely ‘liked the plan’ while Kitchener ‘thought it was worth trying. We could leave off the bombardment if it did not prove effective.’ This last assumption, shared by Carden, Churchill and Kitchener ignored the obvious question of the loss of face which so concerned the likes of Crewe.

                Asquith, mute and watchful (apart from furtive glances at Miss Stanley’s latest missive) was, at last, observed to be writing something and then intervened to ‘suggest’ four conclusions ‘which will keep both Navy & Army busy till March.’ With his usual mixture of immodesty and self-doubt, the Prime Minister, while suggesting that his conclusions had received harmonious agreement, was still keen to tell Miss Stanley all about it, and ‘see if it meets with your approval.’[19] Certainly, beyond concurring in the unanimity with which they were greeted, Churchill thought that the two conclusions relating to the Admiralty were expressed in a ‘curious form’. Asquith had written the following:

1.  That all preparations should be made, by concert between the Naval and Military authorities, including making ready for dispatch of 2 Territorial divisions, without guns, to reinforce Sir J. French by the middle of February, for an advance along the line Dixmunde to the Dutch frontier. The actual decision whether the circumstances call for such an operation can be postponed till the beginning of February.

2.  That the Admiralty should consider promptly the possibility of effective action in the Adriatic – at Cattaro, or elsewhere – with the view (inter alia) of bringing pressure on Italy.

3.  That the Admiralty should also prepare for a naval expedition in February to bombard and take the Gallipoli peninsula, with Constantinople as its objective.

4.  That if the position in the Western theatre becomes in the spring one of stalemate, British troops should be despatched to another theatre and objective, and that adequate investigation and preparation should be undertaken with that purpose, and that a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence be appointed to deal with this aspect of the situation.[20]

As it was the stalemate in December that had prompted these War Council meetings, for Asquith to base one of his conclusions on the possibility of the position in the west becoming one of stalemate in the Spring would seem to indicate that he was paying more attention to his letter to Miss Stanley than to the discussion! Asquith had fudged the issue, throwing a sop to French, Kitchener and Churchill, and hedging his bet by referring to the inevitable, if rarely forthcoming, ‘adequate investigation and preparation’. Yet even this sloppy final conclusion was surpassed by the preceding one: how was a naval expedition to ‘take the Gallipoli peninsula’ without troops which, as Asquith clearly indicated, were not yet available? In what sense was Constantinople the objective: did the War Council seriously entertain the proposition that the mere appearance of the British fleet off the Golden Horn would precipitate an immediate surrender? And what of the French who were supposed, in view of the Agreement of 6 August 1914, to have strategic control in the Mediterranean?

                The decision had, however, been made; the decision, that is, to ‘prepare for a naval expedition’ in Asquith’s nebulous terminology. Churchill obviously considered that the step which had been taken went further than Asquith had intended for he enthusiastically informed Fisher and Oliver later that night (Jackson was away, ill) that ‘This enterprise is regarded by the Government as of the highest urgency and importance.’[21] Churchill had now hijacked the operation from Fisher.

                Late the following day the First Lord drafted a telegram to Carden to inform him that his scheme had been approved in principle and that there would be no problem in providing the force required, including Queen Elizabeth, by 15 February. ‘We entirely agree’, Churchill added, ‘with your plan of methodical piecemeal reduction of forts as the Germans did at Antwerp…The sooner we can begin the better…Continue to perfect your plan.’[22] On 15 January Jackson, now back at the Admiralty, recorded his comments on Carden’s plan, with which he now generally concurred; seeing the drift towards an idea he had previously disparaged Jackson now became more amenable and the only proviso he wished to attach to the expedition was that it should not be attempted unless the Admiralty were prepared to expend a considerable amount of ammunition.[23] Churchill also informed the French of the plan, through their Naval Attaché, and invited their co-operation which would not, however, be the foregone conclusion he seemed to think.[24] Even so, Fisher was the immediate problem, having in the meantime become alarmed by Jellicoe’s dire warnings of the position in the North Sea.

                By 11 January (that is, before the War Council had reached the above conclusions) Fisher was already concerned, writing to Jellicoe to agree that he had said ‘golden words when you protest “against taking risks for which there is no compensating advantage”. What I wish you would impress on the First Lord when you write to him (and which he won’t believe) is that German submarines of the latest type, with their 3000 miles radius of action and seaworthy qualities, can face weather that our destroyers don’t like! That’s an absolute fact.’[25] The more Fisher mulled over the War Council decision, the less he liked it; finally, on 18 January, he informed Churchill that, while not wishing to ‘cold-douche’ any projects for being troublesome to the enemy, he desired ‘to emphasize the necessity of sticking to the enemy’s vitals!’ This was rich coming from the man who, a fortnight earlier, had been proposing a grandiose scheme to attack Turkey while Churchill insisted that Northern Europe remained the main theatre of operations; now the rôles were reversed. While not trying to minimize the Dardanelles operations, Fisher wished to ‘aggrandize the great big fact that 750,000 men, landed in Holland, combined with intense activity of the British Fleet against, say, Cuxhaven, would finish the War by forcing out the German High Sea Fleet and getting in rear of the German Armies…’[26] This plan, of course, shared one common feature with his earlier plan against Turkey: they were both impossible of achievement. It seems extremely unlikely that Fisher did not realize they could not be carried out as proposed — both involved large numbers of troops, considerations of neutrality, and hazardous operations under hostile fire. By putting forward these extravagant schemes the First Sea Lord was hoping to disguise the excessively defensive mentality to which he had succumbed.

                Having made his feelings known to Churchill, Fisher spelled out his main complaint to Jellicoe the following day: the margin of safety in the North Sea was too narrow,

And now the Cabinet have decided on taking the Dardanelles solely with the Navy, using 15 battleships and 32 other vessels, and keeping out there three battle cruisers and a flotilla of destroyers — all urgently required at the decisive theatre at home! There is only one way out, and that is to resign! But you say ‘no’, which simply means I am a consenting party to what I absolutely disapprove. I don’t agree with one single step taken, so it is fearfully against the grain that I remain on in deference to your wishes. The way the War is conducted both ashore and afloat is chaotic! We have a new plan every week![27]

Fisher then used Jellicoe’s anxiety to attack Churchill by maintaining that, if not checked, Jellicoe’s ‘temporary depression’ would spread throughout the Fleet. Churchill replied immediately, pointing out the obvious — that Fisher himself had advised the removal of a number of ships from the North Sea since resuming office. In an attempt to suppress this unexpected revolt the First Lord made a number of sensible proposals which, Fisher admitted, met the case put forward in his minute; but Fisher would not leave well enough alone. He pressed for the return of the destroyer flotilla from the Dardanelles, to be replaced by French boats, arguing that the French replacements would be adequate as ‘The whole Turkish Naval Force is quite a negligible quantity even with German officers (with the Goeben knocked out as we know her to be!)…’[28]

                As has been shown, the information regarding the damaged state of Goeben had been available since 7 January and may have helped Churchill to decide that, without this major adversary, a purely naval operation was feasible. But despite being – apparently – mollified Fisher, true to form, vented his feelings even more forthrightly to Jellicoe the following day:

…This Dardanelles operation, decided upon by the Cabinet, in its taking away Queen Elizabeth, Indefatigable, and Inflexible and Blenheim, with a flotilla of destroyers arranged to have been brought home, is a serious interference with our imperative needs in Home waters, and I’ve fought against it ‘tooth and nail’...[29]

Leaving aside Fisher’s own responsibility for the absence of Queen Elizabeth, compare this with his letter to Hankey on 2 January in appreciation of Hankey’s memorandum which first suggested an attack upon Turkey: ‘The more I think over your paper’, Fisher had then told Hankey, ‘the more I like it — Winston spontaneously gave me your paper to read & I went for it “tooth & nail”!…’ Fisher was telling Churchill one thing; Hankey another; and Jellicoe something different still!

                Fisher’s claim to Jellicoe on 21 January that he had fought against the Dardanelles operation ‘tooth & nail’ was an outright lie — Fisher had first suggested the use of Queen Elizabeth and had not voiced any opposition in the War Council, while, as far as Churchill was concerned, any misgiving regarding the new plan on Fisher’s part was confined to pushing impractical schemes which he hoped would be given precedence over the Dardanelles operation. Fisher did at least admit to Jellicoe that there was a possibility that unless something were done to aid the Russians there was a danger that they might seek to negotiate a separate peace with Germany but, he then added,

I just abominate the Dardanelles operation, unless a great change is made and it is settled to be made a military operation, with 200,000 men in conjunction with the Fleet. I believe that Kitchener is coming round to this sane view of the matter…[30]

Whatever Fisher believed, he had had no indication from Kitchener or anyone else that the Secretary of State for War was against the Dardanelles operation unless it could be a combined operation. Having made his point Fisher then (conveniently) caught cold and placed himself in quarantine: ‘Please don’t attempt to catch it by seeing me’, he warned Churchill, ‘as there is nothing on except those d—d mines which you are all quite determined shant be put down.’[31] This was, perhaps, just as much a blessing for Churchill who was now fully aware of Fisher’s dissatisfaction and wished it to be kept as private as possible so as not to jeopardize his (Churchill’s) own control of the forthcoming operation.


Churchill’s relationship with Fisher had weathered many storms throughout the years, the result, for the most part, of the voluble Admiral’s mercurial character. Fisher had scored an immediate coup after taking over from Battenberg at the Admiralty when he dispatched the battle cruisers that subsequently destroyed von Spee’s squadron at the Falkland Islands. It is not too much to say that, in the complex admixture of emotions binding Churchill to Fisher, envy and jealousy played their part. Churchill’s congratulatory letter to Fisher following Sturdee’s victory was not entirely ungrudging: ‘This was your show & your luck’, the First Lord had written.[32] Now Churchill had a chance to turn the tables; Fisher, by his silence in the War Council, played into the First Lord’s hands. But Fisher could not disguise his feelings from Maurice Hankey. The ubiquitous Hankey, aware of Fisher’s unease, saw Asquith on 20 January to inform him confidentially of this new development. Asquith lost no time in passing on full details of Hankey’s approach to Miss Stanley: Fisher, Asquith related to his young friend, had come to Hankey

in a very unhappy frame of mind. He likes Winston personally, but complains that on purely technical naval matters he is frequently over-ruled (‘he out-argues me’!) and he is not by any means at ease about either the present disposition of the fleets, or their future movements. Of course he didn’t want Winston, or indeed anybody to know this, but Hankey told him he should pass it on to me. Tho’ I think the old man is rather unbalanced, I fear there is some truth in what he says; and I am revolving in my mind whether I can do anything, & if anything what? What do you say?…[33]

Miss Stanley’s response is, unfortunately, not available. What is known is that Asquith decided to summon Jellicoe from his command at Scapa Flow to be interrogated at the next War Council; this would be the simplest method of resolving the doubts Fisher had now burdened himself with over the margins in the North Sea. It would also be a logical step following French’s presence at the previous War Council. Asquith informed Churchill of his decision on 21 January, just as Hankey was also admitting Balfour into the select group being made aware of Fisher’s predicament. ‘Fisher, I find,’ Hankey informed Balfour, ‘frequently disagrees with statements made by the First Lord at our War Council. I wish he would speak up…’[34] At the time, Hankey could not envisage what the cost of Fisher’s silence would be.

                Churchill now had to act with dispatch: he knew only too well what would result from Jellicoe’s appearance at the War Council. Although inarticulate, the Admiral could hardly avoid making his feelings known, which would then place a serious question mark over the Dardanelles operation. Churchill, now fatally seduced by the allure of the ancient battlefield, found it impossible to turn back; Jellicoe’s recall to London would have to be resisted. The First Lord saw Asquith early on the afternoon of the 22nd and ‘groused a little about [Asquith’s] demand that Jellicoe should come up next week to the War Council.’ As the Prime Minister pertinently pointed out, Churchill was all for having French at these meetings, ‘but doesn’t like his own men to be summoned & cross-examined.’[35] Churchill promptly scurried back to the Admiralty where he composed a long and closely argued letter to Asquith as to why Jellicoe should not attend. He noted, disingenuously, that he, too, desired to have Jellicoe in London for a few days to discuss minor matters but felt ‘difficulty either in directing him to come or in leaving it to his judgement.’ Churchill must have realized that, if that criteria were applied, Jellicoe would spend the entire war at Scapa Flow! The First Lord then developed a tenuous line of reasoning that there was ‘no similarity between the position and functions of a naval Commander-in-Chief and of a modern General in the field.’ Churchill was now in full flow: ‘Believe me’, he assured Asquith, ‘it is not out of any desire to raise difficulties that I put these considerations before you. Still less do I wish to prevent the fullest interrogation of the Commander-in-Chief by yourself or any other member of the War Council.’[36] It would not be to hard to imagine Churchill’s pen spluttering at this point! Jellicoe’s attendance would have raised the most serious doubts about the contemplated naval operations and it was a crucial, if perhaps typical, lapse of Asquith’s judgment that he did not press the point. What is more surprising is Fisher’s reaction as, rather than siding with Asquith in wanting Jellicoe to appear, Fisher instead wrote to the Admiral: ‘For some subtle reason I can’t fathom the PM wants you to attend the next War Council on Thursday next [28 January]. It’s absolutely wrong your leaving the Fleet & Winston agrees with me — they say Sir John French came over last week but he only commands 1/10th of the line of Battle — You command 10/10ths! that’s the difference...’[37]

                If Fisher were genuinely worried about the situation in the North Sea, yet refused to speak up himself in the War Council, why also veto Jellicoe’s attendance? That Asquith’s initial concern was merely to act upon Hankey’s report of Fisher’s unhappiness, which Fisher had then interpreted (in his letter to Jellicoe) as the P.M.’s devious machinations, illustrates only too well the muddled method of conducting the war at the highest level and also Fisher’s paranoia. Fisher had come to realize just how much was at stake: this new war was unlike anything he had previously experienced. His sudden conversion to an extreme defensive position could have represented no more than, to use the terminology of the day, an old man in a blue funk. He had taken fright at Jellicoe’s warnings and envisaged his own oft-derided concerns regarding the offensive capabilities of submarines coming to fruition.

                It was said of Jellicoe that he was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon; this thought must have passed through Fisher’s mind and weighed heavily on him. In Hankey’s subsequent judgement: ‘The fact is that Fisher was too old. He still possessed vision and driving power. But these were accompanied by a senile exaggeration of the defects of his character — head-hunting carried to excess, suspicion, exaggerated desire for power; and in addition he tired easily and shrank from responsibility.’[38] Captain Richmond, writing at the time, supported Hankey’s later opinion: ‘In reality [Fisher] does nothing: he goes home and sleeps in the afternoon. He is old & worn out & nervous. It is ill to have the destinies of an empire in the hands of a failing old man, anxious for popularity, afraid of any local mishap which may be put down to his dispositions. It is sad.’[39] This explains the constant putting forward of plans which he must have known could never be put into action. On a more cynical level, Fisher might also have realized that, had Jellicoe ventured south, the Admiral would have discovered the extent of Fisher’s personal responsibility for the Dardanelles operation; that it was Fisher himself who had advocated the use of Queen Elizabeth and that opposition to a purely naval operation was nowhere near as strong as Fisher had led Jellicoe to believe. For the time being however outside events impinged: no sooner had Fisher written to Jellicoe than news was received in the Admiralty from intercepted signals of a German reconnaissance in force off the Dogger Bank. All thoughts of the Dardanelles disappeared for the moment as, before dawn on the 24th, Churchill, Fisher, Wilson and Oliver gathered in the Admiralty War Room to follow the course of the action in the North Sea which, as so often, ended disappointingly for the British.

                Others though had been busy on Fisher’s behalf. Both Hankey and Sir Julian Corbett assisted in the preparation of a memorandum which Fisher put his name to on 25 January, the First Sea Lord’s 74th birthday. Hankey, whose Boxing Day memorandum had started the ball rolling, had become increasingly concerned that his original proposition – to devote three army corps to the campaign in Turkey to act alongside the Greeks and Bulgarians – had now become a purely naval action. To assist in voicing his concern Hankey would later recirculate to the War Council the deliberations of the C.I.D. in 1906 upon ‘War with Turkey’ at which Esher had spoken for most when he made it ‘clear that the Committee consider that any attempt upon the passage of the Dardanelles by the fleet must necessarily be supported by military force.’[40] For the moment however, considering the rather anomalous position in which Hankey was placed at the War Council by virtue of his position as its secretary, Fisher’s memorandum would have to do; until, that is, Asquith intervened. Fisher first informed Churchill on 25 January that he had ‘no desire to continue a useless resistance in the War Council to plans I cannot concur in’, and requested that ‘his’ memorandum should be printed and circulated before the planned meeting on the 28th. Again, Churchill had to act quickly. French’s memorandum of 5 January, which made an impression when read out at the War Council three days later, had spoken of an attack upon Turkey as playing the German game. Churchill now read the following — ostensibly Fisher’s memorandum but which bore all the imprints of Hankey’s authorship:

We play into Germany’s hand if we risk fighting ships in any subsidiary operations such as coastal bombardments or the attack of fortified places without military co-operation, for we thereby increase the possibility that the Germans may be able to engage our fleet with some approach to equality of strength. The sole justification of coastal bombardments and attacks by the fleet on fortified places, such as the contemplated prolonged bombardment of the Dardanelles forts by our fleet, is to force a decision at sea, and so far and no further can they be justified.

If this were not bad enough, the ending was pure Fisher:

It has been said that the first function of the British Army is to assist the fleet in obtaining command of the sea. This might be accomplished by military co-operation with the Navy in such operations as the attack of Zeebrugge, or the forcing of the Dardanelles, which might bring out the German and Turkish fleets respectively. Apparently, however, this is not to be. The English Army is apparently to continue to provide a small sector of the allied front in France, where it no more helps the Navy than if it were at Timbuctoo.

                Being already in possession of all that a powerful fleet can give a country, we should continue quietly to enjoy the advantage without dissipating our strength in operations that cannot improve the position.[41]

Churchill set about to refute this memorandum which, he argued, ‘would have condemned us to complete inactivity’. Propitiously he could call on Sunday’s experience at the Dogger Bank where the margin had been narrow (five British capital ships to four German) but which Churchill now described as ‘decisive’. ‘On these terms’, he confidently stated, ‘the German ships thought of nothing but retreat…’ Churchill was able to identify no fewer than twenty-one pre-dreadnought battleships which he asserted were surplus to current requirements and therefore of use ‘for special services and for bombarding as may be necessary from time to time in furtherance of objects of great strategic and political importance, among which the following may be specifically mentioned:— 1. The operations at the Dardanelles; 2. The support of the left flank of the Army; 3. The bombardment of Zeebrugge; and later on 4. The seizure of Borkum.’[42]

                Thus, since 3 January, Churchill had reversed the order of importance, a volte-face he could now blame on the Commander-in-Chief. Jellicoe’s reluctance to conduct offensive operations in the Northern theatre had, Churchill pleaded in mitigation, ‘made me only the more anxious to act in the Mediterranean.’ Confident that he had rebutted Fisher’s claims, Churchill informed him on 26 January: ‘There is no difference in principle between us. But when all your special claims are met, you must let the surplus be used for the general cause. I suggest I show your Memo. & my comment to the Prime Minister: instead of printing & circulating the documents. You & I are so much stronger together.’[43] At this point – two days before the scheduled War Council meeting – the fate of the Dardanelles operation hung in the balance. Not only had Fisher and Hankey become seriously alarmed, but problems had also arisen with France and Russia. The French, in particular, were causing Churchill additional headaches and Fisher’s intransigence was the last thing he wanted. Churchill had his way in that his ‘comment’ was circulated to members of the War Council; however, in a further lapse of judgment, Asquith, with whom Churchill dined that night (and who had now also been converted to the Dardanelles), declined to circulate Fisher’s memorandum.

                Asquith’s remarkable decision owed perhaps as much to the Prime Minister’s annoyance at Fisher’s continual change of mood and opinion. Fisher tried to get round Asquith by sending out copies of his memorandum privately: Balfour received his copy on 29 January with the covering letter ‘This is the paper I wished the Prime Minister to circulate to the War Council & which I handed to Winston five days ago — however they don’t wish it so I say no more…’[44] But it was by then too late and, in any case, Balfour’s reaction was not what Fisher expected; Lloyd George also received a copy, as did the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Bonar Law (to whom Fisher complained that it was beyond his comprehension why Asquith had suppressed it).[45] He had missed his chance, however: the time to make a stand had been at the War Council on 28 January. Yet, on the morning before, Fisher had intimated that he would not attend the War Council — a threat which sent Churchill speeding to Asquith, who then directed that Churchill and Fisher should meet him privately, twenty minutes before the War Council was due to commence.

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[1]    Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 10 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 254, pp. 368-9.

[2]    Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. II, p. 60. Asquith was of the opinion, after being told of the episode by Churchill on 6 January, that the Admiral was ‘seriously at fault’. Asquith to Stanley, Asquith Letters, no. 249, pp. 361-3.

[3]    Memorandum of Vice-Admiral Bayly, 8 January 1915, PRO Cab 137/1089.

[4]    Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 327.

[5]    Despite Asquith’s description of him as ‘a little irritated’ by this ploy, Kitchener was in fact furious. However, as Churchill was the first to admit to French immediately after Friday’s War Council, ‘No one could say that he [Kitchener] did not place us fairly in possession of your views.’ Magnus, Kitchener, p. 312; Asquith to Stanley, 6 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 249, pp. 361-3: ‘There is alas!’ Asquith observed, ‘constant friction between them [French and Kitchener] which is part of the price one has to pay for having a military instead of a civilian Secy of State.’

[6]    When Kitchener also apprised French of the decisions reached on the 8th (his dispatch making a ‘considerable disturbance’ at GHQ) nothing would stop French from attending on the 13th. Churchill to French, 8 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 396-7; Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, p. 263.

[7]    Churchill to French, 11 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 401-2.

[8]    Morgenthau, Secrets of the Bosphorus, p. 139.

[9]    Carden to Churchill, 11 January 1915, PRO Adm 137/96.

[10]  Fisher to Tyrrell, 13 January 1915, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/107.

[11]  Fisher to Oliver, 12 January 1915, Oliver mss., NMM Olv 5.

[12]  Memorandum by Churchill, 12 January 1915, given in, The World Crisis, pp. 328-9.

[13]  French, diary entry, quoted in, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 407, note 2.

[14]  Esher, Journal entry, 13 January 1915, Esher Journals & Letters, p. 203.

[15]  According to Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 329, Carden’s plan was circulated to the principal members of the War Council 24 hours beforehand. However Asquith makes no mention of it in the two letters he wrote to Venetia Stanley that day [Asquith Letters, nos. 256-7, pp. 371-3] while Hankey, as will be seen below, gives an entirely different perspective.

[16]  Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, p. 265 [my emphasis].

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

[18]  Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, pp. 265-6.

[19]  Asquith to Stanley, 13 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 258, pp. 375-6.

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

[21]  Churchill to Fisher and Oliver, 13 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 412-3.

[22]  Churchill to Carden, no. 10, 14 January 1915, (sent 1.15 a.m., 15th), PRO Adm 137/96.

[23]  Memorandum by Jackson, 15 January 1915, PRO Adm 137/96. This document would later prove extremely embarrassing for the Admiral when, in 1916, (in Churchill’s opinion at least) the Dardanelles Commissioners were ‘very unfavourably impressed by his efforts to wriggle out [of a share of the responsibility].’ At that time Churchill did not have to expend much effort refuting the Admiral’s evidence; as he crowed to Asquith ‘We have got him [Jackson] tighter than anybody else on paper. See…especially his spontaneous written concurrence in the Carden plan of January 15th…’ Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qus. 2049, 2051, PRO Cab 19/33; Churchill to Asquith, 28 October 1916, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. ii, pp. 1578-80.

[24]  Churchill to the Comte de Saint-Seine, 16 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 421-2.

[25]  Fisher to Jellicoe, 11 January 1915, Jellicoe papers, vol. I, A. Temple Patterson (ed.), Navy Records Society, vol. CVIII, p. 122 [emphasis in original].

[26]  Fisher to Churchill, 18 January 1915, F.G.D.N., vol. III, p. 132.

[27]  Fisher to Jellicoe, 19 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 429-430 [emphasis in original].

[28]  Fisher to Churchill and Churchill to Fisher, 20 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 433-5. Churchill was, however, careful to avoid mention of Fisher’s suggestion regarding Queen Elizabeth

[29]  Fisher to Jellicoe, 21 January 1915, ibid., p. 436. Fisher told Jellicoe that the Grand Duke Nicholas had ‘demanded’ this operation and intimated that, without it, there was a danger of Russia negotiating a separate peace with Germany.

[30]  Ibid.

[31]  Fisher to Churchill, 22 January 1915, ibid., p. 438. Despite Fisher’s warning Churchill visited Fisher the following day in Archway House and ‘had a long and pleasant talk over our various problems.’ The World Crisis, p. 334.

[32]  My emphasis.

[33]  Asquith to Stanley, 20 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 268, pp. 387-8.

[34]  Hankey to Balfour, 21 January 1915, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49703 f.151.

[35]  Asquith to Stanley, 22 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 271, pp. 390-1.

[36]  Churchill to Asquith, 22 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 439-42. Churchill stated the position more forthrightly in The World Crisis [p. 346]: ‘Correspondence with Sir John Jellicoe showed the Commander-in-Chief averse from anything in the nature of an attack upon Borkum or attempt to enter the Baltic. To strengthen our naval forces by every conceivable means, to add every new vessel to the Grand Fleet and to remain in an attitude of inactive expectancy was the sum and substance of the naval policy advocated from this quarter.’ It is a pity Churchill was not this forthright with Asquith.

[37]  Fisher to Jellicoe, 23 January 1915, Jellicoe mss., BL Add MSS 49006. Churchill’s letter to Asquith had stated that Fisher ‘desires me to say that this letter has his full agreement.’

[38]  Quoted in, Roskill, Man of Secrets, p. 135. Note: Roskill disagrees that Fisher shrank from responsibility.

[39]  Richmond, diary entry, 19 January 1915, WSC Comp vol. III, pt. i, p. 430.

[40]  Minutes of the C.I.D., 13 November 1906, PRO Cab 38/12/55; Note: Asquith had attended the 1906 meeting in his then capacity as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Roskill, Man of Secrets (vol. i, p. 154) asserts that Hankey recirculated the C.I.D. paper on 24 January; however it seems clear from subsequent minutes of the War Council and from Hankey’s own account [The Supreme Command, i, pp. 279-80] that this did not in fact take place till mid-February.

[41]  Memorandum by the First Sea Lord, 25 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/24; see also, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 452-4.

[42]  Churchill, The World Crisis, pp. 350-2.

[43]  Churchill to Fisher, 26 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 458.

[44]  Fisher to Balfour, 29 January 1915, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49712 f.136.

[45]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 489.



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