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 25











The Anglo-French convention of 6 August 1914 had given the French theoretical command of operations in the Mediterranean. By late December (once the naval situation there had settled down to blockading the Straits of Otranto and the Dardanelles, combined with operations on the coast of Asia Minor) the French proposed a division of labour whereby the forces from the Dardanelles down the coast to Syria should be controlled by a French Vice-Admiral, with the possible assistance of a British Rear-Admiral, while the Red Sea and coast of Egypt would be commanded by a British Vice-Admiral aided by a French Rear-Admiral if desired. However Churchill refused to relinquish British control at the Dardanelles, minuting as such on 30 December, and the French proposal lapsed.[1] This was at the same time that Churchill became aware of Hankey’s memorandum and had declared to Asquith that he had wanted Gallipoli attacked on the Turkish declaration of war.

                Nothing then happened until, three days after the naval expedition had been authorized in the War Council on 13 January, Churchill informed the French Naval Attaché, the Comte de Saint-Seine, that:

The British Government find it necessary to take offensive action against Turkey in the near future. The Admiralty have in consequence decided to attack the Dardanelles forts, and force, if possible, a passage into the Sea of Marmora. It is proposed to achieve this by a gradual and methodical reduction of the forts by naval bombardment…The scheme of these operations has been prepared by Vice-Admiral Carden, now commanding the Allied fleets at the Dardanelles.

                The Admiralty do not wish, in view of this very important operation, that any change in the local command in that portion of the Mediterranean should be made at the present time. They hope, however, that the squadron of French battleships together with the French submarines and destroyers and the seaplane ship Foudre, will co-operate under a French Rear-Admiral…’

Saint-Seine was also notified of a War Office plan to occupy Alexandretta in February. Somehow, Churchill had to find a way to pre-empt French claims to control the Dardanelles operations on the basis of the August 1914 convention. He attempted to do this by maintaining that the convention applied only to war with Austria and Germany. ‘The entry of Turkey into the war’, he declared, ‘confronts the Allies with new dangers and an entirely different situation in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean. The spheres of activity of the two navies require some further definition with a view to the energetic prosecution of the war, but the Admiralty still consider that agreeably with those spheres of activity the general direction of the operations should belong to France.’[2] To sugar the pill Churchill asked the French to provide a squadron to watch the whole Syrian coast.

                The First Lord successfully mollified Saint-Seine and Ambassador Cambon, but not the French Minister of Marine, Victor Augagneur, who replied to the Naval Attaché five days later that France alone must prepare and plan all naval operations in the Mediterranean. Saint-Seine, supported by Cambon, initially refused to deliver this letter until pressed by Augagneur. Churchill’s reaction to this French rebuff, only days before the decisive War Council, is not hard to imagine. As his conversion to the Dardanelles scheme and subsequent proselytizing activities in support of it now stood in jeopardy, he immediately enlisted Grey’s support: while Beatty’s ships clashed with the Germans at the Dogger Bank on Sunday 24 January Churchill wrote to Grey describing Augagneur’s letter as ‘a very unpleasant & unfair reply to my communication.’ The August convention was merely, Churchill tendentiously maintained,

a working arrangement dealing with conditions which existed at the beginning of the war. It is obviously capable of being modified or cancelled on both sides at any time. It could not have any bearing upon the new conditions created by the entry of Turkey into the war. It is absurd for the French to claim that henceforward we are to make no movement in the Mediterranean except by their directions & under their command. That would be to inflict on Gt Britain…conditions which could not be extorted from her by any power by war. The French ships placed under our direction have done little or nothing in the Channel & foreign waters, & we are ready to release them at any time. The French Fleet moreover has itself done nothing in the Mediterranean. We are quite capable of conducting the Dardanelles operation without any assistance, & I only suggested the French co-operation out of loyalty and politeness. It is curious that on Nov 21st we asked the French to release our battle cruisers & to relieve our Admiral off the Dardanelles, in order that we might use all our force to catch Admiral von Spee’s Squadron. They declined however, & begged us to leave our ships & retain the command. This we did, tho’ under some strain. Now the outer seas are clear, & we have ample forces available. All plans for the attack on the Dardanelles are moving forward, & I have every expectation of opening fire on the 15th [February]. I hope I may count on you to see me through with these people…[3]

At Cambon’s urging, Augagneur decided to come to London, where he would arrive on Tuesday 26 January. The French Minister of Marine was, however, careful to seek and receive his own Cabinet’s sanction for the meeting with Churchill.[4] Although upsetting, the French position was not entirely unforeseen as, on the day before Augagneur’s dispiriting reply was received, Churchill had given orders that should Carden (a Vice-Admiral) have to absent himself from the Dardanelles for any reason, his second in command, de Robeck, should be made a temporary Vice-Admiral. ‘It is imperative’, Churchill instructed Fisher and Oliver, ‘that we should continually retain a battle cruiser & a V[ice] A[dmiral] off the D[ardane]lles. I cannot run the risk of the French obtaining command.’[5]

                Augagneur’s visit represented the second line of attack for the French as, on 21 January, the War Minister, Millerand, had travelled to London to plead General Joffre’s case. Joffre had interrogated Sir John French as soon as the latter returned from attending the War Council on 8 January to ascertain the extent to which the promised British reinforcements would allow Sir John to assist him. Joffre cared nothing for the Zeebrugge operation; instead, he argued, all available British troops should be poured into the Northern sector to relieve completely the French troops there, allowing thereby the strengthening of the French line elsewhere, and leading to a ‘possible offensive movement’.[6] At a dinner given by Kitchener on 22 January, attended by Asquith, Grey, and Lloyd George with Millerand as the guest of honour, Asquith was generally pleased with the result of the discussions: it was all to the good to have these personal interchanges, he declared, as they ‘obviate friction, and grease the sometimes rather creaking wheels of the Entente.’ Asquith pressed the Balkan situation strongly, as did, after dinner, Grey and Lloyd George (the latter, Asquith gleefully noted, having to conduct his conversation through an interpreter as Millerand spoke no English).

                Within two days Asquith was having second thoughts. Lloyd George it transpired, violently pro-Serb, had had a ‘rather stormy’ interview with Millerand and Asquith ruefully admitted that it was ‘quite possible as a result of Millerand’s mission that we may have a bit of a row with the French.’[7] Millerand was later taken, in vile winter weather, to inspect the new Kitchener armies and was suitably impressed even if he continued to resist Kitchener’s favoured proposal for an advance from Salonica; nevertheless, Kitchener appeared to extract a promise from Millerand that the French General Staff would at least study the proposal. However, once back safely in the confines of the French Embassy, in a room ‘dreary enough to suit his austerities, with nothing provided for his entertainment but an old copy of the Revue des Deux Mondes, M Millerand resisted all attempts to lure him to sanction strategical plans which he made pretence of inability to grasp.’ In this endeavour he was ably assisted by Cambon who, despite twenty years residence in London, now professed himself unable to speak or understand English![8] By the evening of the 26th though, an arrangement had been agreed upon with Joffre for a ‘rearrangement’ of troops on the Western front which would give the British the whole of the extreme left flank; this manoeuvre was due to be completed by early March.[9]

                On the same day Churchill dealt with Augagneur, having a long discussion with him that morning, after which he reported to Grey and Kitchener that, as a result:

…There would be no difficulty in arriving at agreement on the following lines:—

1)  The British to have the command at the Dardanelles & to undertake the operation at their discretion. The French sqn. there will cooperate, but the extent of its cooperation will be defined after the French naval authorities have examined the general plan.

2)  The British Vice Admiral will continue to command in Egypt, but a French VA will command in the Levant, not only as I had proposed from Latakia to Jaffa, but including Alexandretta. Any military operation on the Levantine coast shd be made a subject of discussion between the two govts. & the French wish to participate in any occupation of Alexandretta…

Churchill knew that, without entering into specifics, he could safely give an equivocal pledge regarding Alexandretta, as he had already been told by Kitchener that it was now impossible to set a precise date for the Alexandretta expedition — this hesitancy being the result of an intelligence report received on 25 January that elements of the Turkish Army had been observed within twelve miles of Suez. Churchill urged that both Grey and Kitchener should also talk to Augagneur. Yet Grey, who was to dine with the Minister the following night, Wednesday 27 January, had some misgivings about Churchill’s prevarication with regard to Alexandretta:

I think it important to let the French have what they want in this Memo even about Alexandretta. It will be fatal to cordial cooperation in the Mediterranean & perhaps elsewhere if we arouse their suspicions as to anything in the region of Syria. I hope you will close with this proposal. If it is not agreed to I foresee very untoward consequences…[10]

Churchill confirmed the gist of the conversation to Augagneur on the 27th, adding that a pronounced French offensive in the Adriatic would greatly benefit the general political situation in the Balkans. By giving the French something to keep them occupied in the Adriatic, Churchill was hoping thus to deal himself a free hand at the Dardanelles.

                Augagneur left London a convert; for this he was, subsequently, severely criticized. It was alleged that he had succumbed to Churchill’s magnetic charm and oratorical skill, even though the medium might have been the First Lord’s execrable French.[11] However, given the relative strengths of the Allies at sea, there was little else Augagneur could do but agree — as he later admitted before a French commission:

Not to take part in the operation would be to see, should it succeed, the British fleet present itself alone before Constantinople. For we French, who have known stakes in the Near East, it would have been a very painful renunciation, perilous for our interests. We therefore decided that we would send 4 old battleships to be part of the game, without, however, engaging ourselves.[12]

Moreover Augagneur, like many others, had fallen for the seductive line of reasoning that, if unsuccessful, the attack could always be broken off without the impression being given that a reverse had been sustained. Confirmation of French willingness to assume a subservient rôle was not received until a few days after the Minister’s visit; nevertheless, on the eve of the vital War Council of 28 January, and the confrontation with Fisher and Asquith that was to precede it, Churchill knew that the French challenge to his Dardanelles hegemony had been successfully met and rebuffed.


The Russians also had to be dealt with. It was not until 18 January that Churchill considered the time appropriate for a reply to be made to Grand Duke Nicholas’s appeal; and he was careful to suggest to Grey that the answer should go through the Russian Naval Attaché rather than via the diplomatic channel. Secrecy was vital, he enjoined, as, not knowing the degree of resistance that the Turkish forts might offer, ‘it is most undesirable that the full scope of the operation should become known beforehand.’ The message went off on the evening of 19 January; the Grand Duke was apprised that the Admiralty, having considered the request for naval action against Turkey, ‘have decided that the general interests of the Allied cause require a serious effort to be made to break down Turkish opposition…It has therefore been decided to attempt to force the passage of the Dardanelles by naval force.’ Churchill thought the operation would take three or four weeks and would be similar in character ‘to the method by which the Germans destroyed seriatim the forts of the outer line at Antwerp.’ Although the First Lord hoped the Russians would co-operate ‘powerfully’ at the proper moment, by a combination of naval action at the mouth of the Bosphorus and by having troops poised to seize any advantage, he cautioned that:

It would probably be better to defer Russian action until the outer forts of the Dardanelles have been destroyed, so that if failure should occur at the outset, it will not have the appearance of a serious reverse. But it is our intention to press the matter to a conclusion, & at the right moment the intervention of the Russian Fleet will be most desirable.[13]

                Rather than deferring action, the Russians were shocked to find that they were to be required at all! General Hanbury Williams had a long interview with the Grand Duke on 24 January only to be informed that the Russian position in the Caucasus had already been considerably eased due to Russian exertions and Enver’s bungling while the Grand Duke:

laid stress on the fact that he had made no suggestion as to the methods we should employ in rendering assistance to draw off the Turks from that theatre, and had never guaranteed any Russian co-operation, glad as they would be of course to give it should opportunity occur. The Russian General Staff pointed out that their Black Sea Fleet, in view of the delay in building of their dreadnoughts, of the scarcity of their destroyers, and of the lack of ‘up-to-date’ submarines, was only the equal of the Turkish Fleet (including, of course, Goeben and Breslau). Even, they added, that equality would only be reached when all the units could work together, and the absence of one or two of them would at once place the balance in favour of the Turks. The construction of their ships was such that they could only carry a four days’ supply of coal…However much they wished to co-operate with the British Fleet, their hands were tied.

Military co-operation was also out of the question as this could only be done at the expense of depriving Russian forces from other theatres. Still, the Grand Duke declared, Allied action against Turkey was of the utmost importance and although he could promise neither naval nor military support he would ‘naturally use every endeavour, should opportunity present itself, to strengthen the hands of the Allies.’[14]

                Buchanan passed this gloomy appraisal on to London on the 25th: even were the Straits to be forced, the Russians were in no position to land troops as these could not be spared. Churchill received a copy of the Russian reply on the 26th, the same day as his interview with Augagneur. In an accompanying minute Grey warned Churchill against communicating the text of the Russian reply to Augagneur as the importance the Russians attached to the operation might be used by the Frenchman ‘to show that we must go ahead with it & that failure to do so will disappoint Russia & react most unfavourably upon the military situation, about which France & we are specially concerned just now.’ What Grey was seeking to prevent by employing this convoluted reasoning is unclear for Churchill’s meeting with Augagneur concerned less whether the operation would take place but more who would control it. For good measure Grey added that the Grand Duke disliked his ‘military information’ being given even to his own Russian Ministers, let alone Ministers of foreign countries![15] Not even Sazonov was admitted into the secret, while the Russian Ambassador in London only became aware of the impending attack after being told by the French in February. As Benckendorff, upon learning of this, was ‘anxious’ that Sazonov also be informed, Grey wired Buchanan on 11 February with instructions to tell the Russian Foreign Minister ‘very confidentially’ of the serious attempt that would be made to force the Straits and that Russian co-operation had been invited ‘some time ago’.[16]

                So, by 27 January (the day before the War Council), Churchill had squared the French and knew the Russians would take no active part; the only obstacle that remained now was Fisher. There is some evidence that, at this time, Churchill tried to buy Fisher off with the promise of building the ludicrous, shallow draught battle cruisers that Fisher wished to operate in the Baltic.[17] If so, Churchill was being doubly irresponsible. What is certain is that Fisher informed the Director of Naval Construction that, although he ‘had a fierce time with the First Lord – Very fierce!’, he had succeeded in obtaining approval for the two ships ‘if only we can make a good story for the Cabinet.’ To sell the ships successfully to his Cabinet colleagues Fisher warned the D.N.C. that they would have to be ready to fight within a year; that the cost must be held down; and that it must be stated that the construction of the two ships was demanded by the shipyards and could be undertaken by them ‘without interfering with current government work.’ Fisher laid great stress on the shallow draught of the two vessels as this was ‘vital for Baltic work’ and it was ‘on the Baltic undertaking that [Churchill] will carry them through in the Cabinet.’[18]

                As mentioned, both Fisher and Churchill had been commanded by Asquith to appear for an audience at 11.10 a.m. on 28 January, twenty minutes before the War Council was scheduled to convene. As that Thursday dawned Fisher was, as usual, feverishly busy at the Admiralty dashing off the first of two letters; Churchill was the recipient. Fisher now proposed to disappear gracefully and cultivate roses at Richmond, for he had a new worry: the Battle of the Dogger Bank! Far from being assuaged by Churchill’s contention that the five to four superiority in battle cruisers on the day was ‘decisive’, Fisher was now thoroughly alarmed by a (supposedly) unsolicited message from Jellicoe that the action in fact demonstrated ‘very conclusively’ the absolute necessity for a big preponderance of battle cruisers.[19] Jellicoe, and therefore Fisher, was against any diversion of “Queen Elizabeth’s” or battle cruisers from the decisive theatre. In notifying Churchill of his intention to refuse to attend the War Council, Fisher made his position clear:

I make no objection to either Zeebrugge or Dardanelles if accompanied by military cooperation on such a scale as will permanently hold the Belgian coast to the Dutch Frontier and our permanent military occupation of the Dardanelles Forts pari passu with the Naval bombardment. Simultaneous Military & Naval actions but no drain thereby on Grand Fleet Margin so therefore no modern vessels at Dardanelles...[20]

                Fisher’s second letter was to Asquith, to be delivered by Hankey. In it, Fisher restated his position and, perhaps for the moment forgetting how she came to be there, laid particular emphasis on ‘our largest and most valuable battleship, the Queen Elizabeth, with the only 15-inch guns ready at present’ being at the Dardanelles instead of the North Sea! ‘I am not in accord with the First Lord’, he declared forthrightly to Asquith, ‘but, DO NOT THINK IT WOULD BE SEEMLY TO SAY SO BEFORE THE WAR COUNCIL.’[21] Fisher ended, forlornly, ‘No risks can be taken’ — a sad epitaph for the Admiral. Before this internecine squabble had a chance to spill over into the War Council, Churchill attempted to gloss over the grievance, by replying to his truculent First Sea Lord that he would still far rather work with him than Sturdee, who would be forced on Churchill ‘in the eventuality of which you [Fisher] write so light-heartedly.’ Besides, Churchill complained (and not without substance), ‘You have assented to both the operations in question & so far as I am concerned there can be no withdrawal without good reason for measures which are necessary, & for which preparations are far advanced.’[22]

                As arranged, Churchill and Fisher met Asquith in the Prime Minister’s room at No. 10. Churchill later maintained (in which belief he was backed up by the Dardanelles Commissioners) that, although a written record was not kept, the recollections of Asquith and Fisher as to what was discussed tallied. Churchill wanted both the Zeebrugge and Dardanelles operations to go forward, but if one had to be sacrificed it should be the former to which, he believed, Fisher was the more violently opposed. Fisher, apparently, led Asquith to believe that his objection to the Dardanelles operation rested not upon purely technical grounds but simply because he favoured the Baltic scheme. In any event, in the short time available to them, Asquith, inevitably, proposed a compromise by which ‘Winston was to give up for the present his bombardment of Zeebrugge, Fisher withdrawing his opposition to the operation against the Dardanelles.’[23] According to Churchill, Fisher ‘seemed on the whole content’ and they went downstairs to where the other members of the War Council were waiting, with Churchill ‘under the impression that all was well.’[24]

                The meeting began by covering a number of topics, including the attempted Turkish assault on the Suez Canal; it was only as the session was nearing its close that the question of the Dardanelles was raised. Churchill first alluded to the ‘enthusiastic’ reply of the Grand Duke and to the favourable response and promised co-operation of the French! Having laid this exaggerated groundwork, Churchill then asked ‘if the War Council attached importance to this operation, which undoubtedly involved some risks?’ Fisher interrupted immediately: he ‘had understood that this question would not be raised to-day. The Prime Minister was well aware of his own views in regard to it.’[25] Fisher rose from the table. He made towards the door, intent, at last, on resignation. Intuitively, and not without agility, Kitchener, who realized what was about to happen, intercepted Fisher, pulled him to the window, and pointed out to the First Sea Lord that he ‘was the only dissentient.’ It was only upon this ‘urgent entreaty’ that Fisher consented to return to the table where he consoled himself that, despite his personal misgivings, he could remain in silence:

1. because of the political importance of relieving Russia. 2. because in the first instance the proposed plan was a tentative action which could be stopped at any moment if unsuccessful…[26]

When discussion was resumed it was precisely this second point that Kitchener emphasized, apparently unaware of the cardinal fallacy — an unsuccessful attempt could not be broken off without handing the Turks a massive propaganda coup.

                When Kitchener had had his say, Balfour then took over, pointing out that a successful attack would cut the Turkish army in two, put Constantinople under allied control, allow Russia to resume wheat exports and open a passage to the Danube. ‘It is difficult’, he concluded, ‘to imagine a more helpful operation.’[27] Grey also joined in the general euphoria: the Turks, he prophesied, would be ‘paralyzed with fear’ when they realized the forts were being destroyed. So unusual was it for either Balfour or Grey to become carried away in this manner that Asquith specifically noted the fact: the proposal, he wrote that evening, was ‘warmly supported’ by Grey and ‘enthusiastically’ by Balfour.[28] With Fisher silent, and Churchill obviously unwilling to volunteer such information, none of the pitfalls of the operation was pointed out to the non-military members. Indeed, it appears as if the dangers were played down; this was certainly a factor as far as Balfour was concerned.

If the naval views laid before the War Council be accepted, [Balfour noted] the risk to the ships does not seem great; while the advantages of success – military, political, and economical – would be enormous…These advantages are far in excess of any which would be gained by the mere reduction of an ordinary maritime base – like Zeebrugge. Nor do I think that the two operations should be put in the same class. They belong to a different order of magnitude; and even if the greater operation were more perilous than the smaller (& the reverse appears to be the fact) some risk might well be run if there seemed a reasonable prospect of obtaining its greater results. Let me incidentally remark that the loss of a ship at the Dardanelles by a lucky shot ought not to involve the loss of its crew. Assuming that the Admiralty are right in believing that there is no risk from submarines the personnel of a sinking ship could surely be rescued.[29]

                Although no formal decision was reached, the Dardanelles operation seemed certain to be approved; Kitchener’s intervention and Balfour’s eloquence being the deciding factors. Churchill now felt so confident of approval that he ended the morning session by presenting a sketch of a possible campaign in the Baltic which could be undertaken after the Dardanelles and whose purpose, Hankey clearly saw, was to appease Fisher.[30] This Baltic operation, Churchill expounded, was ‘of great importance’ and would require ‘special vessels’ which the First Sea Lord had designed. Fisher instantly perked up: his two freak cruisers could be built in eleven months if the usual formalities could be dispensed with, at which Lloyd George helpfully announced that he would sanction the expenditure of £1 million apiece.[31] Notwithstanding this last sop, Fisher maintained, in Asquith’s view, ‘an obstinate and ominous silence’. The meeting adjourned for lunch. Fisher, convinced that by speaking ‘so subtly of the Dardanelles Expedition that he swayed all the rest of the War Council’, blamed Balfour and refused to dine with him.[32]

                The fate of the Dardanelles operation was referred to a Sub-Committee which would meet that afternoon at 4 o’clock in the War Office. Churchill, who had ‘noticed the incident’ of Fisher leaving the table,[33] once more did not have long to act and, after lunch, called Fisher to his room at the Admiralty where they had ‘a long talk’. Churchill ‘strongly urged him not to turn back from the Dardanelles operation; and in the end, after a long and very friendly discussion which covered the whole Admiralty and naval position, he definitely consented to undertake it.’[34] One of the reasons adduced for Fisher’s compliance was the importance of the other work he had in hand at the Admiralty, and it is reasonable to surmise that a trade-off was effected: Fisher could have a free hand in the Baltic with his new weapons in return for a grudging acceptance of the Dardanelles operation.

                Why did Fisher not resign? The point was put to him at the Dardanelles inquiry that, whether he ‘adopted the alternative of silence or the alternative of resignation, how was the War Council to form any judgment at all?’ Fisher replied that Churchill had been quite fair in stating the case and admitting that ‘there were risks to be run’ while, from his point of view, Fisher ‘did state that 12 battleships would be lost. I did see the Prime Minister and put the case before him. The Council did know there was this strong opinion of mine. In fact Hankey said to me, “Everybody noticed how greatly moved and agitated you were”…’[35] According to Fisher:

I was the only member of the War Council who dissented from the project, but I did not carry through my dissent to the point of resignation because I understood that there were overwhelming political reasons why the attempt at least should be made…Mr Churchill knew my opinion. I did not think it would tend towards good relations between the First Lord and myself nor to the smooth working of the Board of Admiralty to raise objections to the War Council discussions. My opinion being known to Mr Churchill in what I regarded as the proper constitutional way, I preferred thereafter to remain silent.[36]

This is patently self-serving as, far from observing the ‘constitutional’ niceties at the time, after Asquith refused to circulate his dissenting memorandum, Fisher privately distributed it — even the leader of the opposition received a copy![37]

                This does, however, raise the ancillary point that, besides Churchill at the War Council, Asquith, Hankey and Kitchener were all clearly aware of Fisher’s misgivings. ‘Was it wrong to put this pressure upon the First Sea Lord?’ Churchill later asked rhetorically before providing the convenient answer, ‘I cannot think so.’ Whatever passed between Churchill and Fisher on the afternoon of 28 January, Fisher dropped his opposition; for this, Churchill bears the responsibility. But the degree of responsibility differs according to the motives for Fisher’s opposition: it was altogether too easy for Fisher to maintain afterwards that this opposition rested solely upon his belief that only a combined operation would succeed. Having pushed Churchill in the direction of a naval attack on 3 January, Fisher had then developed cold feet at the prospect of naval losses and the effect this would have on the balance in the North Sea; these fears were played upon, none too subtly, by Jellicoe. Then, having been responsible in the first place for the suggestion that Queen Elizabeth should participate, Fisher soon became one of the strongest opponents of her presence at the Dardanelles. Whatever he liked to spout subsequently – along the lines of his oft-stated axiom that ‘any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool’ – Fisher also believed that one point, at least, in favour of attempting the operation, even if only as an experiment,[38] was the canard that it could be broken off at any time without loss of face.

                Fisher was old and weary, and tired of constant arguments with Churchill. As his opposition was not as clear cut as he subsequently made out, it was easy for him therefore to succumb to Churchill that afternoon. Without being too cynical, Fisher’s reluctant conversion to the Dardanelles also enabled him to be in the position of later washing his hands if the attempt failed. Finally, although it must remain a hypothesis, if he believed the attempt was doomed, Fisher might have reasoned that failure would bring with it Churchill’s downfall, leaving him in sole charge of the naval war. As Fisher argued a few days’ later, ‘Our proper plan is to blockade Germany and the adjoining neutral countries. That is the way to end the war. That is what Nelson would have done. This war requires one man to manage it…’[39] It is also clear that Hankey believed ‘that in a trial of strength the First Lord himself, and not Fisher, might be the victim.’[40]

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[1]    Halpern, The Naval War in the Medt., p. 56.

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

[3]    Churchill to Grey, 24 January 1915, ibid., pp. 446-7.

[4]    Halpern, The Naval War in the Medt., p. 58.

[5]    Churchill to Fisher and Oliver, 23 January 1915, WSC Comp vol. III, pt. i, p. 444 [my emphasis].

[6]    Asquith to Stanley, 22 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 272, p. 391; French to Churchill, 23 January 1915, WSC Comp vol. III, pt. i, pp. 444-6.

[7]    Asquith to Stanley, 24 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 274, pp. 393-4.

[8]    Esher, The Tragedy of Lord Kitchener, pp. 94-6. In his memoirs, Grey referred to the fact that he could read French easily, but was less happy speaking the language. ‘Cambon’s position respecting English’, he added, ‘was exactly the same. He understood, but could not speak it…Each of us, therefore, spoke his own language, and each understood perfectly.’ Grey, Twenty-Five Years (New York, 1925), Vol. I, p. 87. Note however, that this refers to Grey’s first meeting with Cambon in January 1906. By the time of the above intransigence, Cambon had had another nine years in which to master the language.

[9]    Asquith to Stanley, 26 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 277, pp. 397-8.

[10]  Churchill to Grey and Kitchener, 26 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 458; Vice-Admiral Peirse, Defence of the Suez Canal, Narrative of Events January 25 to February 8, 8 February 1915, PRO Cab 37/125/15.

[11]  This was by no means improbable: on 8 February at a luncheon for Delcassé Asquith described Winston as being ‘very eloquent in the worst French you or anyone has ever heard.’ Asquith to Stanley, 8 February 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 293, pp. 418-9.

[12]  Quoted in, Halpern, The Naval War in the Medt, p. 59.

[13]  Churchill to Grey, 18 January 1915; Churchill to Grand Duke Nicholas, 19 January 1915, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/75.

[14]  Hanbury Williams, Nicholas II as I Knew Him, pp. 37-9.

[15]  Grey to Churchill, 26 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 456. Churchill was able to exploit Grey’s warning by quoting it, edited and out of context, in The World Crisis, p. 349.

[16]  Grey to Buchanan, 11 February 1915, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/75.

[17]  Mackay, Fisher, pp. 485, 490. Fisher was also being pressured by Jellicoe who had earlier expressed his concern ‘on the subject of the gradual lessening of our preponderance in battle-cruisers as compared to Germany, owing to our having ceased to build these vessels of recent years, whilst Germany has been annually adding one battle-cruiser to her navy.’ Jellicoe was also convinced that the new battle cruisers should carry 15-inch guns. Jellicoe to Fisher, 29 December 1914, given in, Hattendorf et al (eds.), British Naval Documents, 12004-1960, (Navy Records Society, London, 1993), no. 501, pp. 932-3.

[18]  Fisher to Tennyson D’Eyncourt, 25 January 1915, quoted in, Keith McBride, “The Weird Sisters”, in Robert Gardiner (ed.), Warship 1990, pp. 103-4. As Hankey later pointed out, the ‘mystery’ ships ‘which were built to go into the Baltic, in fact, turned out to draw too much water.’ Hankey to Lloyd George, 31 March 1917, quoted in, Mackay, “Hankey on Fisher’s Baltic ‘Chimera’ ”, The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 82, no. 2 (May 1996), p. 212.

[19]  Jellicoe did in fact write to Beatty on 26 January: ‘I trust that Sunday’s action will impress on Admiralty the necessity for a real superiority in battle-cruisers.’ Jellicoe Papers, Navy Records Society, p. 130.

[20]  Fisher to Churchill, 28 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 460 [emphasis in original].

[21]  Fisher to Asquith, 28 January 1915, PRO Adm 116/3454.

[22]  Churchill to Fisher, 28 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 462.

[23]  Asquith to Stanley, 28 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 281, pp. 404-7.

[24]  Churchill, The World Crisis, pp. 352-3.

[25]  Minutes of the War Council, 28 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/26.

[26]  Fisher, Note on the Dardanelles, undated, PRO Adm 116/3454. Note: As with all dramatic events, there are conflicting accounts of what happened. Esher, who saw Fisher the following morning, recorded in his diary that Fisher had ‘got so irritated’ that he rose and went to the window where he was approached by Kitchener who asked him what was wrong. Fisher, however, subsequently explained in his “Notes on the Dardanelles” that, to avoid an unseemly dispute with Churchill at the table, he made for the door with the intention of finding the Prime Minister’s secretary and writing out his resignation.

[27]  Compare this with Churchill’s subsequent descriptions — first to Grey: ‘Remember Constantinople is only a means to an end – & the only end is the march of the Balkan States against the Central Powers.’ Churchill to Grey, 28 February 1915, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/88. And second to Jellicoe: ‘Our affairs in the Dardanelles are prospering, though we have not yet cracked the nut. They are involving profound political reactions. Constantinople is only a means to an end, & that end is the marching against Austria of the five reunited Balkan States.’ Churchill to Jellicoe, 9 March 1915, Jellicoe mss., BL Add MSS 48990.

[28]  Asquith to Stanley, 28 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 281, pp. 404-7.

[29]  Balfour, Notes on Fisher’s Memorandum, 1 February 1915, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49712 f.144 [my emphasis].

[30]  Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, p. 272.

[31]  Minutes of the War Council, 28 January 1915, PRO Cab 42/1/26.

[32]  Fisher, Notes on the Dardanelles, PRO Adm 116/3454. Fisher also refused to have Balfour in his house that day. The Admiral complained to Asquith some months later that, ‘With extreme reluctance, & largely due to earnest words spoken to me by Kitchener, I by not resigning (as I see now I should have done) remained a most unwilling beholder (& indeed a participator) of the gradual draining of our Naval resources from the decisive Theatre of the War.’ Fisher to Asquith, 12 May 1915, Hankey mss., PRO Cab 63/4.

[33]  This was in contrast to Asquith, Haldane and Balfour who all later testified that they could not recall Fisher’s move.

[34]  Churchill, The World Crisis, pp. 354-5.

[35]  Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 3328, PRO Cab 19/33.

[36]  Fisher, Summary of Evidence, PRO Cab 19/29.

[37]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 489.

[38]  The belief that the operation was in the nature of an experiment was by no means confined to Fisher. Two days before the opening of the bombardment Asquith wrote, ‘It is an absolutely novel experiment, & I am rather curious & rather anxious to see how it develops.’ Asquith to Stanley, 17 February 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 310, pp. 434-5.

[39]  Riddell, diary entry for 3 February 1915, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 58.

[40]  D. M. Schurmann, Julian S. Corbett, p. 160, citing Corbett’s diary entry for 26 January 1915.



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