THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller





THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller



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The Millstone


British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War

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Chapter 9




Churchill Arrives





The changes to the Board of Admiralty were announced officially when Parliament reassembled on 24 October 1911. The next day was Churchill’s first as First Lord of the Admiralty. Once the introduction and formalities had been completed Churchill wrote an urgent letter to Fisher, who had by then moved on to Lucerne, asking to see him. It marked the start of a new lease of life for the old Admiral; it was also a portent of what was to come. Before Churchill’s urgent entreaty reached the him, Fisher was independently writing to his friend, the journalist J. A. Spender, with a long list of appointments he thought the new First Lord should make, including Battenberg as First Sea Lord and Captain Mark Kerr as Churchill’s private secretary ‘as he is the ablest Captain on the Navy List and he’s a bosom friend of Battenberg, so Winston will use him to ‘engineer’ Battenberg in times of friction.’[1] Fisher then wrote direct to Churchill the following day before promptly returning surreptitiously to England where, over the course of three days spent closeted with Churchill, Lloyd George, Haldane and Rufus Isaacs ‘in the comfort of Reigate Priory’, he set down his thoughts in a long, rambling epistle.[2] Spender also passed Fisher’s list of suggested appointments on to Churchill who successfully resisted the bulk of the proposals; indeed, given the paucity of choice, Fisher himself crossed Churchill’s mind as a possible candidate, to resume his old post. Churchill had almost determined to do just that except that Fisher’s age was against him, and the scars in the Service caused by the Beresford feud had not yet healed.[3] It soon became common knowledge that Fisher and Churchill were in constant communication. ‘If Beresford learns this’, noted George Riddell, ‘he will alter his attitude to Winston very quickly.’[4] There was, however, nothing to prevent Churchill installing Fisher as ‘uncrowned First Sea Lord’,[5] despite Lloyd George’s opinion that Fisher ‘was not a very safe adviser and that Winston would have to be cautious.’[6]

                In addition to the varied suggestions regarding appointments, advice poured in on Churchill from all directions on the perennial subject of the formation of a Naval War Staff. The instigation of a Naval War Staff was not touched upon by McKenna at the final meeting with Asquith, perhaps because the outgoing First Lord thought it would never succeed. ‘For the moment War Office ideas are having their day’, McKenna admitted to Jellicoe on 31 October, ‘But it will not last. They will never succeed in converting the Navy into a Shore service.’[7] On 24 October, however, Ottley had written from the C.I.D. that it was ‘very desirable that the establishment of a War Staff…should be effected in a manner which will impress the Service (and perhaps the public) with the importance of the innovation.’ Ottley proposed a triumvirate of senior officers, suggesting Battenberg, Slade, and Sturdee, who could be used to endorse a report outlining the reforms and, by their imprimatur, sway the service. Ottley had shrewdly selected the apolitical Battenberg; Sturdee from Beresford’s camp; and Slade from Fisher’s (though the latter two had since parted company). Ottley continued,

When the subject of the War Staff was broached to John Fisher five or six years ago, he said he couldn’t face the opposition of the civilian branches to such a project, and intended using the War College as a sort of substitute. Slade was just as much opposed as I was to this idea, he regarded it as preposterous, but quite saw that it was the function of the War College to train the Staff.[8]

Captain Ballard, the Director of the Operations Division, pointed out in his memorandum on the subject that, to attract officers of the right calibre and abilities, service on the War Staff should be ‘recognized and treated’ as specialist duty. ‘The work of a War Staff would never receive the confidence of officers afloat unless it was evident that the Admiralty regarded it as important by giving its members equivalent treatment to that accorded to other specialists. One of the reasons for the existing indifference of the junior ranks of the Navy to appointments at the Admiralty is a conviction that service at Whitehall is regarded by the Board as the performance of duties of an inferior description, because in the matter of all advantages it compares unfavourably with service at sea while imposing harder work.’[9]

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                Battenberg also joined the list of those putting their views to paper. He submitted a long draft memorandum on the Naval War Staff for Churchill’s comments and here can be seen quite clearly why the new creation would be flawed at birth.[10] ‘The duties of the Staff can be stated in one sentence’, Battenberg began. ‘The Staff advises the Executive on all preparations for War. It follows that, since its functions are purely advisory, the Staff has no executive authority whatever, consequently it cannot issue any orders, nor has it any administrative duties of any kind.’ As he read this Churchill lifted his ministerial pen and underscored the words advises, executive authority and administrative adding ‘this is quite right’. Battenberg then went on to expand his “one sentence” into over thirty paragraphs. The duties of the new Chief of Staff would end with the submission of his advice; whether that advice was accepted would be the decision of the Board ‘which is alone responsible to the King and Country for the efficiency of the Navy for War.’ Such a diffusion of control was not, however, in line with Churchill’s thinking as he wanted the C.O.S. to operate directly under himself as First Lord; but such direct civilian control, especially when exercised by Churchill, was anathema to Battenberg.[11] For the time being Churchill contented himself with amending “the Board, which is alone responsible” to “the First Sea Lord, who under the Minister is responsible”.

                The more specific duties of the Staff would consist of studying (underscored by Churchill) foreign navies and naval affairs ‘so thoroughly that it can advise as to the best means of fighting one or more with reasonable chances of success, viz.: proposing types of vessels superior to possible hostile ones, and in sufficient numbers, properly manned and trained, then grouped and stationed to be finally led in war according to a plan which is based on the laws of strategy and tactics.’ If this was precisely what the new First Lord wanted to hear better was to come. All warfare in an island kingdom, remarked Prince Louis, sooner or later became ‘amphibious’. As a result ‘there must be close and whole-hearted co-operation in the preparation of war schemes between the War Staff at the Admiralty and the General Staff at the W.O.’ This was music to Churchill’s ears; “yes” he wrote, after underlining the passage. Churchill understood his remit from Asquith only too well; the watchful and envious eyes of Haldane would constantly be upon him, no less than those of the unfortunate McKenna. And here was the Second Sea Lord accepting not only the need for a Staff but also for inter-Service co-operation.

                To foster this ideal further, Battenberg maintained that the C.O.S. should be an ex-officio member of the C.I.D. Although this made sense, Churchill (never a great supporter of the Committee) would later come to see it as an ‘obstacle to his own accretion of power’. Before this, Battenberg – determined to maintain a proper hierarchy – made quite clear what the relationship of the new C.O.S. should be with the rest of the Board. He would not be Mr Churchill’s poodle. ‘If we consider’, he maintained, ‘that the First Sea Lord virtually occupies the position of C-in-C of the Navy, with the First Lord immediately over him as the delegate of the Crown in exercising supreme executive power, it follows that the C.O.S. must work at all times directly under the First Sea Lord.[12] Here again was the major defect: the new C.O.S. would be a subordinate with no executive authority. The obvious solution was to have made the First Sea Lord the Chief of the War Staff; however, so long as Battenberg acted the part of draughtsman to Churchill the architect, this would prove impossible.[13] When, subsequently, Battenberg himself was appointed First Sea Lord, Slade would complain that he ‘won’t listen to the idea that the First Sea Lord is really the C.O.S. He says he could not lower the position of his office by becoming the C.O.S. to a civilian First Lord. That, I think, was the principal objection in his mind. Then he said that theoretically it was wrong, as he was the Executive head of the Navy and he could not mix up Staff duties with executive work.’[14]

                This was also the concern of Ottley. ‘I confess I have some misgivings as to the outcome of our new crusade’, he admitted to Churchill, ‘Unless we take every precaution, I fear that the new Naval Staff may merely be one more change round of the old N[aval] I[ntelligence] D[epartment] under a new name, subordinated to the Secretary & M Branch as of yore. It remains to be seen whether we are strong enough to force the thing through. Unless it is on a proper naval basis with power to issue orders signed to the First Sea Lord (the Chief of Staff) — it will be little more than the present N.I.D. under another name.’[15] In particular, Ottley was concerned with the problem of overcoming the vested interests of civilian rule at the Admiralty – personified by the likes of Sir William Graham Greene, the Permanent Secretary – and replacing them by professional naval staff. Ottley’s fears were justified when Graham Greene presented Churchill with an ‘admirable memorandum’ maintaining that the staff selected to assist the First Sea Lord should be ‘specially adapted to the purpose, and capable of preserving a continuous development in the study of war problems and the perfection of staffwork.’ It was no surprise therefore that Greene maintained that ‘many of the elements of this staff exist in the Admiralty today, and the principal need is to combine them effectively and harmoniously.’[16]

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                Of all Battenberg’s ideas, the one not to find favour with Churchill was his proposal that the Staff should have “agents afloat” with the principal Admirals. Battenberg had suggested that,

These properly trained Staff Officers would then be in a position to fulfil towards their Admirals the same advisory functions as the C.O.S. would to the Board. These officers would also form a permanent connecting link between the First Sea Lord and the Admirals in command, and would make for similarity of methods, without in the least hampering the Admirals’ initiative, or preventing the very desirable direct intercourse between these high officers.[17]

There was merit in Battenberg’s suggestion of liaison officers even if he arrived at the right answer for the wrong reasons. The immediate problem with all these schemes, however, was: where would the staff be found and how were they to be trained? It was, in Churchill’s later admission, a task requiring a generation. For the time being Churchill acted as a sponge, soaking up the ideas of those around him before setting out his own thoughts in a memorandum on 28 October 1911.

                This long document did not show Churchill at his best; as the “new boy” he was too keen to incorporate the undigested opinions of his professional advisers. Training was quickly identified as a crucial factor: ‘The small number of officers employed upon the preparation of war plans…have received no systematic training whatever in the broad strategic principles which all historians agree in emphasising as permanent in their application.’ To rectify this, ‘a year’s special course of study at the War College would answer the purpose’, even though as yet there was no standard text-book available. Then the hapless candidates would be shunted off to the Foreign Office for two or three months, which, it was thought, would be long enough to allow them to acquire ‘a sufficient grasp of foreign politics’. Then, to form a degree of acquaintance ‘with the main features of the commercial and shipping interests upon which our national welfare so much depends’, the candidates could follow the F.O. with either a short course in the Shipping Department of the Board of Trade, or by attending Lloyds. After all that, to maintain their technical knowledge, the successful applicants should spend ‘a couple of months at sea in each year while serving on the Staff.’ Churchill also acknowledged Captain Ballard’s concerns by incorporating much of the D.O.D.’s memorandum verbatim. Having completed the training schedule outlined, the candidate ‘would have to be recognised and treated as a specialist if officers of good abilities were to be attracted to the work.’[18]

                Two days later Admiral Wilson put his name to one of the longer suicide notes in history — his own memorandum — the essence of which could be summarized in one sentence: ‘The Service would have the most supreme contempt for any body of officers who proposed to be specially trained to think.’[19] Wilson might have been an extreme example, but was he so wildly untypical? What officer would exchange the sure route of preferment provided by sea-duty for the unknown and unappreciated terrors of the War College, the Foreign Office, Lloyds, and finally a desk at the Admiralty?

                The next move in the saga involved a conspiracy of sorts to force the War Staff question through the C.I.D. so as to keep the tightest possible rein on Churchill. Two inflated egos were especially involved: Haldane’s and Esher’s. Esher was concerned for the future of the C.I.D. which, he perceived, was coming more and more under the guiding hand of Maurice Hankey who, in turn, sought to ensure its survival from the twin threats of Admiralty hostility and Prime Ministerial inertia by forming a series of technical sub-committees. While Arthur Balfour’s initial concern of 1905, that the Liberals would allow the C.I.D. to wither, was not entirely justified the Committee had not, under Asquith’s supine tutelage, assumed pride of place in the counsels of the Government; its position as the main co-ordinating body of national policy was further jeopardized by the appointment of Churchill – no particular friend of the Committee – as First Lord. Haldane, on the other hand, decided to use the Committee for his own ends as he quickly ‘recognized that the C.I.D. could be an ally in imposing his views on Churchill.’ The proposal to have the C.I.D. chaperon the creation of the War Staff had emanated from Esher; by so doing (and concomitantly enlisting Hankey’s support) Esher happily played into Haldane’s hand. The conspirators then each began to work out various permutations to stack the Committee to suit their own individual requirements — always with the aim of keeping Churchill in check. Ominously, however, for the Esher/Haldane axis Ottley’s preference was for ‘a committee of senior naval officers under Churchill, so as to keep the affair within the Admiralty — and by the same token not to involve the C.I.D.’[20] The Secretary’s forthright and honest appraisal could, of course, have been no more than the opinion of a navy man, through and through, that the Admiralty should oversee its own reforms.[21]

                Eventually, yet another Asquithian compromise was reached when, on 31 October 1911, the Prime Minister acquiesced in the recommendation that, as soon as Churchill was ready, a Sub-Committee of the C.I.D. should be formed ‘to investigate the question of forming a Naval War Staff’ with, it was suggested, Churchill taking the chair. This was not the ideal solution, given Churchill’s antipathy to the Committee. Other members were to include Battenberg, Haldane, and Esher, with Captain Ballard and other ‘experts’ as witnesses; Asquith had also included on his list Sir Arthur Wilson.[22] Churchill, though not personally convinced of the efficacy of a War Staff, knew he was on trial and realized the effects his arguments would have on Wilson. With the taciturn Admiral present, the debate in the C.I.D. would centre on the necessity for reform itself, rather then the shape that that reform should take, a position perhaps uncomfortably close to Churchill’s own views. Haldane’s presence also would have contributed to Churchill’s disquiet, as the War Minister was only too well aware that one reason for Churchill’s preferment as First Lord had been specifically to deal with the recalcitrant Admiral.

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                By 2 November Ottley had read Wilson’s memorandum and had written a critique on it which he sent to Churchill. Ottley, like Churchill,[23] was especially concerned with Wilson’s advocacy of a close blockade.[24] By the following day Ottley was admitting defeat in the task of converting the Admiral:

Frankly I do not think we are likely to move Sir Arthur Wilson by any process of argument [he informed Churchill]. Sooner or later therefore you must contemplate the probability of over-riding Sir Arthur Wilson’s opposition with a strong hand…I should not have ventured to allude to this subject again, had not Sir Arthur Wilson offered strenuous opposition to any scheme of reform. But heavy guns have now been brought into position against us; — it behoves to bring heavier guns to bear…[25]

Ottley’s encouragement was all Churchill needed: Wilson’s intransigence was the perfect excuse to by-pass the C.I.D. The First Lord therefore notified Asquith on 5 November:

The enclosed memo from Sir Arthur Wilson is decisive in its opposition not only to any particular scheme, but against the whole principle of a War Staff for the Navy. Ottley’s rejoinder…shows that it would not be difficult to continue the argument. But I feel that this might easily degenerate into personal controversy, & would in any case be quite unavailing. I like Sir Arthur Wilson personally & should be very sorry to run the risk of embittering relations which are now pleasant. I therefore propose to take no public action during his tenure.

                If Wilson retires in the ordinary course in March [1912], I shall be left without a First Sea Lord in the middle of the passage of the Estimates, & his successor will not be able to take any real responsibility for them. It is necessary therefore that the change should be made in January at the latest, & that the King should know this, & should assent to a peerage being conferred, before he leaves for India.[26]

Churchill also wrote to Ottley that day to assure him that, despite postponing the C.I.D. Sub-Committee, ‘you must not suppose that any delay will occur once I have made up my mind as to the precise action to be taken. There is no use, however, in making disturbances by halves.’[27]

                Churchill now turned his attention to the composition of the new Board of Admiralty. By the end of the first week in November 1911, he had settled on Battenberg as Second Sea Lord and Ottley as the first Chief of the War Staff.[28] However, Ottley, despite falling foul of Esher, was still tied to the C.I.D. Secretariat where he was desperately trying to attain security of tenure and safeguard his pension rights.[29] When, in December, Ottley was invited to join the board of the armaments’ group, Armstrong’s, he made a final attempt to remain where he was but, now lacking the support of Esher and Haldane, reluctantly accepted the lucrative offer and would leave Government service early in 1912.[30] The field for the coveted position of First Sea Lord was decidedly narrow and, having abandoned, ‘with a good deal of reluctance’, the idea of bringing Fisher back, Churchill put forward the name of the C-in-C of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman, to Fisher on 8 November. ‘I love Bridgeman!’ came the reply, ‘a splendid sailor and gentleman — but he has no genius whatever for administration. However, he would command immense confidence.’[31] With little to choose from Churchill had, by the 16th, decided on his reconstituted Board, with Bridgeman in the hot seat; he asked Asquith to authorize him to ‘approach all parties concerned without delay’ so that the new Board could be announced before the month was out. [32] Bridgeman was then summoned to the Admiralty and pressed to accept, to his ‘great surprise’. Churchill would not take ‘no’ for an answer and, as soon as Bridgeman reluctantly accepted, the Admiral was callously given a letter by the First Lord addressed to Wilson requesting the latter to relinquish his post. According to Bridgeman, ‘it was a plain notice to quit, coupled with a solatium that he might have a peerage if he liked.’[33]

                Wilson resigned and declined the honour. The new Board was announced on 28 November: Bridgeman as First Sea Lord and Battenberg Second Sea Lord while, instead of Fisher’s recommendation for his Naval Secretary (Captain Mark Kerr), Churchill eventually selected Rear-Admiral Beatty. With these positions filled, the First Lord could turn his attention to selecting a candidate for the new post, Chief of the War Staff. The criterion, according to Sir William Graham Greene, was for an officer of ‘distinguished middle rank’ who would have ‘neither executive nor administrative functions or responsibility. His sphere will be that of study, reflection and advice.’[34] By early December, with Ottley unavailable or not preferred, Rear-Admiral E. C. Troubridge, who had been Wilson’s Naval Secretary and continued temporarily as Churchill’s, had emerged as the favourite.[35] Bridgeman had ‘specially desired’ Troubridge while Battenberg, who, it appears, even at this early stage of Bridgeman’s tenure, was viewed by Churchill as the éminence grise, ‘entirely approved’ the appointment.[36] Churchill submitted Troubridge’s name to the King by telegram on the last day of 1911 and received His Majesty’s approval by return.[37]

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The upheavals at the Admiralty fortuitously coincided with a lessening of European tension. The final draft of the Moroccan convention, following the extended Franco-German negotiations, had been drawn up by 10 October 1911 and was signed in Berlin on 4 November. The next day Tripoli and Cyrenaica, which had been successfully occupied by Italy, were formally annexed; the Turks, hopelessly outclassed at sea, went on the defensive though only after they had made a ‘crude overture’ of alliance to Britain, and were rebuffed. Churchill was reluctant to dismiss the Turks out of hand and his opinion of late September (‘clearly we must prefer Italy to Turkey on all grounds — moral and unmoral’) had now changed or, more accurately, had been made to change as a result of Fisher’s influence and as news filtered through of Italian massacres against the indigenous population. ‘Italy has behaved atrociously’, Churchill remonstrated with Grey on 4 November, ‘and I cannot myself measure what the feelings of our countrymen will be as the news of these abominable massacres, resulting as they do from an act of wanton and cynical aggression, is amplified and confirmed.’

                Despite her current military success – or rather, in view of it and therefore due to the Mediterranean naval commitments she was now required to undertake – Italy was ‘utterly at the mercy’ of Britain and would not be ‘worth much for or against anyone for some time to come.’ In that case, Churchill suggested, there was more to gain from friendship with Turkey while there was more to fear from throwing Turkey, rather than Italy, into the arms of Germany. Like many a politician in the years to come, Churchill could not refrain, when mentioning Turkey, from playing the Muslim card: ‘In fixing our eyes upon the Belgian frontier and the North Sea we must not forget that we are the greatest Mahometan power in the world.’[38] As if Grey could forget. But was Churchill’s defection from the side of Italy solely caused by revulsion at Italian atrocities or could there have been an underlying strategic rationale? Churchill continued to be heavily swayed at this time by Fisher. The First Lord resembled nothing so much as a fishing smack behind which billowed a net to trawl for all the ideas Fisher either had not been able to execute himself as First Sea Lord or had been accumulating since leaving office. Some – ‘the days of the Destroyer are numbered’ – mercifully slipped through the net; of others Churchill at first pronounced enthusiastically upon them, until the pitfalls were pointed out by his more level-headed advisers.

                At the end of October, during the Reigate Priory assignation, Fisher had broached an old favourite to Churchill: his theory of the five keys of the world, with particular emphasis upon Alexandria. Churchill was ‘very much taken with the Mediterranean plan’ and intimated to Fisher that a Committee of the C.I.D. should be appointed to consider it.’[39] Whether this reflected no more than caution on Churchill’s part (in what was still only his second week as First Lord) or whether it was a calculated attempt to discourage Fisher is uncertain; what is indisputable is that Fisher was taken by surprise (perhaps in part because someone had taken his ideas seriously?) and immediately wrote a disingenuous letter to Ottley to torpedo any investigation by the C.I.D., which was also hardly Fisher’s favourite body. Winston, the old Admiral insinuated, had simply got carried away and Fisher was not going to allow his strategical ideas to be held up to ridicule by the Army again.

When I was First Sea Lord [Fisher informed Ottley], I wrote a private note to Cromer and asked him to dig out a Dreadnought channel into the harbour of Alexandria, and diverted two of the best dredgers and our very best dredging Master for that purpose. Cromer was splendid. It cost a large sum of money, but was so craftily done that the world at large to this day has no idea of the stupendous feat thus accomplished without a single newspaper ever quoting it. Alexandria before was not accessible in all weathers even to a second-class cruiser — the Undaunted grounded in the channel. My idea at that time was to shift Malta to Alexandria. Had I remained First Sea Lord, I think it would have been done. Islam is the key of the British Empire and Alexandria is the key of Islam. When Islam holds up its little finger, it’s d---d uncomfortable for us in Egypt, India, and Persia. I casually mentioned this idea of mine to Winston last week and he swallowed it whole. This morning he writes to me and asks if it should not be brought before a special committee of the C.I.D. Certainly not, if A.K.W[ilson] is on the committee or while he is First Sea Lord. I just write it all to you to let you know what is going on. You may not agree with me. To put all these soldiers now at Malta in Egypt would be a good thing! If you defend everything, you defend nothing! and what is the good of the French Entente if you don’t utilize it?[40]

Writing to Churchill the same day Fisher was more deferential: although he still thought it ‘sound to move Malta to Alexandria’ he realized what would happen if Admiral Wilson sat in judgment on the plan in the C.I.D. and so sought to remove the debate to a higher forum. ‘Isn’t it a big question of policy for the Cabinet and not for the Defence Committee…’ he plaintively inquired, before tamely acknowledging that Winston knew best.[41]

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                Fisher had of course ‘semi-seriously’ proposed in 1908 that the French should take sole charge in the Mediterranean; at that time the French could not oblige but now, following the great Toulon review, they would undertake the commitment, at least in the western basin. This once again raised the question of freedom of action where the commitment remained a moral one. The animated discussion in the Cabinet on 15 November, and the resolutions forced upon Asquith, Grey and the inner circle, might have been enough temporarily to disarm the apprehension of the Radicals, if only for the time being; however, soon, and throughout much of the following year, the emphasis of the Anglo-French conversations would switch from the military to the naval, with the Mediterranean position at the forefront. For the reasons behind this shift, one need look no further than the triumvirate running the Admiralty from December 1911: Churchill, Bridgeman and Battenberg.

                First, Churchill’s position was clear — the Cabinet had a right, before deciding between peace and war, to have all the salient facts laid before it and this could only be accomplished by ‘constant and detailed’ Anglo-French communications. Second, Bridgeman (unlike Wilson) was far happier to co-operate with the French. Indeed the French themselves, possibly aware of Wilson’s inclination, waited some time after the demise of the unfortunate Captain Pumperneel before sending his replacement; it was not until 11 December that the new Attaché, Capitaine de frégate Christian-Marie Le Gouz de Saint-Seine, paid his first visit on the new First Sea Lord. The latest French disposition – high-seas squadron in the Mediterranean; flotillas and submarines in the Channel – met with Bridgeman’s complete approval; in fact, he went further, by proposing that the Channel be divided into zones of action for the flotillas of the two countries.[42] Delighted by this reception, Saint-Seine informed Paris at once and urged the resumption of naval staff talks. This would, he argued, be an ideal opportunity ‘to study not only the co-ordination of the efforts of the flotillas, but also a plan of cooperation.’ Any chance of the naval talks re-commencing was scuppered by the opposition in Paris of the hostile Admiral Paul Auvert, who disparaged closer Anglo-French ties. So concerned was Saint-Seine by the possibility of the opportunity being squandered that the Naval Attaché subsequently went over his superior’s head, direct to Minister of Marine Delcassé. By this time, however, the momentum had been lost. It would not be until July 1912 before the talks were resumed on a regular basis.[43]

                The third reason to explain to shift in emphasis at the Admiralty was Battenberg’s unease over the Mediterranean situation. During November 1911 Battenberg had been studying the overall disposition of the fleet and was generally satisfied, with the exception of the Mediterranean. ‘As now constituted’, he wrote to Churchill on 20 November, ‘it is neither “fish, flesh, nor fowl”, from the point of view of war.’ In Battenberg’s opinion the withdrawal of the six fully-manned pre-dreadnoughts on the station to Home Waters ‘offers great possibilities’ as they were ‘still fine ships and reliable steamers of a good turn of speed.’[44] The immediate difficulty envisaged by Battenberg was that, as Wilson was soon to leave the Admiralty, it might be thought that his forced departure and the Mediterranean reduction were connected which would then result in a cry being raised of ‘cutting down’ the moment Wilson’s back was turned. This was a cry though that Battenberg felt Churchill would be able to refute in the House.[45] Fisher also wrote to Churchill independently to urge upon him the necessity for withdrawing the Mediterranean battleships and went so far as to recommend that, as the current C-in-C, Admiral Poë, was due to retire at the end of April 1913, that would be an ideal time to ‘replace him by a junior officer and do away with the expense of Admiralty House at Malta.’[46] The proselytizing activities of Battenberg and Fisher were, on this occasion, superfluous: eight months previously, when still Home Secretary, Churchill himself had speculated ‘whether the Mediterranean establishments should not be reduced to that of a cruiser squadron, capable of discharging all minor measures of police’ to be augmented ‘by the periodical visits…of a preponderant battle fleet’ rather than ‘the permanent retention of a very large but still inferior fleet’.[47] Churchill would have his chance to announce changes in the Mediterranean but it would have to wait until after he had introduced the Estimates to the House on 18 March 1912. In the meantime there remained the finalization of the details of the Naval War Staff scheme.

                Battenberg was not alone in his concern at allowing the First Lord direct access to the C.O.S. while, once more, Haldane and Esher fought for their respective corners: Esher to try to ensure the C.I.D. maintained its hegemony; Haldane to prevent the accretion of power in the First Lord’s hands. Churchill sought, in November, to centralize the functions of the various Admiralty departments by having weekly meetings nominally chaired by the C.O.S. but through which he could, in effect, exercise control. ‘The War Staff’, he wrote on 19 November, ‘will comprise the department of the D.N.I. (“War Information”), the department of the D.N.M. (“War Arrangements”), and the War Division of the D.N.M.’s department which will be raised to a position of a special department called the department of Naval Operations (“War Plans”); and, though on a somewhat different footing, the President of the War College (“War Education”).’ The three heads of the departments, the D.N.I., D.N.M., and D.N.O. would become ‘permanent members of the “Circle of the War Staff” which will meet at least once a week under the presidency of the C.O.S.’[48]

                From his corner, Esher countered in December with a Proposal for the Appointment of a Co-ordination Sub-Committee to be a Standing Sub-Committee of the C.I.D.[49] Although this suggestion would eventually come to nothing, Esher proposed that this permanent sub-committee, to be chaired alternately by the Secretary of State for War and the First Lord, would examine a range of defence subjects before recommending those suitable for further inquiry to the Prime Minister, thus restoring some sort of control to the C.I.D. Churchill soon learned of Esher’s scheme and responded by proposing that his own ‘Circle of the War Staff’ should be elevated into a full-blown ‘Naval War Circle’ which would ‘combine all the functions of all the necessary departments of state in war planning under his own leadership.’[50] Haldane was just as horrified as Esher at this chilling prospect and mounted a two-pronged attack, first by invoking Asquith’s assistance to restrain Churchill and delay publication of the War Staff Memorandum while, second, he confronted the First Lord in his lair. Haldane met Churchill, Bridgeman and Battenberg at the Admiralty to hear the War Staff proposals and pronounce upon them; Ottley was also present representing the C.I.D.

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                Although, superficially, in ‘hearty agreement’ with the scheme Haldane ‘thought it of great importance that – in as much as the responsibility for War Plans is specially vested in the First Sea Lord – the Naval Staff, whose primary duty it is to work out these plans in complete detail, should be placed under his (the First Sea Lord’s) direction.’ Churchill and Bridgeman ‘at first demurred’ to this, leading Ottley to speculate that they were ‘on their guard against the danger of “militarizing” the Naval Staff’ through the imposition of a scheme modelled on Haldane’s General Staff at the War Office. Once Haldane was able to dispose of any misgivings Ottley informed Asquith that ‘the fullest agreement was reached’ on the following points —

1.  That the Naval War Staff will maintain close touch with the military staff on all questions affecting joint operations.

2.  Although the information at the disposal of the Staff on any particular subject will be given on demand to any member of the Board, yet staff will work mainly under the orders of the First Sea Lord.

                Mr Churchill was careful to safeguard the (of course questionable) right of the First Lord of the Admiralty to send for and obtain information from any official in the Department, whatever his status and rank. The Sea Lords fully concurred, although Sir Francis Bridgeman saw that as a rule the custom of sending for a subordinate rather than for the Head of Department was he thought to be deprecated.[51]

Haldane had not prevented Churchill from being able to interfere in naval planning by direct access to the C.O.S. but at least he had helped to put paid to the formation of Churchill’s ‘Naval War Circle’;[52] however, as there was little likelihood of Churchill’s proposal ever being accepted, it would seem to have been a poor trade-off. Indeed, it is difficult to see precisely what Haldane thought he had achieved, besides adding legitimacy to the vision of the War Staff as perceived by Churchill. The First Lord was able to write to Asquith on New Year’s Day, 1912 to inform him that the War Staff Memorandum which, he hinted heavily, was now awaiting publication, was ‘largely the result of two long conferences with Haldane. I believe it will be found to remove all his doubts.’[53] And, to Haldane, Churchill wrote the same day that while the principles embodied in the Memorandum were those with which Haldane concurred nevertheless, he added ominously, ‘it is in general terms and…details can be adjusted afterwards.’

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                To appease Haldane, Churchill reiterated that the Staff would operate directly under the First Sea Lord and added that the War Staff Circle ‘with its attendant dignitaries has volatised into unpretentious Staff meetings and a general admonition to the Chief of the Staff to keep in touch with other Departments.’[54] Haldane was suitably mollified: he would not, he admitted egregiously, have changed a word, even if he had wanted to. Whether he believed Churchill’s protestations or simply thought he had made his point, Haldane had been successfully bought off and the Memorandum was published on 8 January 1912.[55] It did no more than regularize the existing position at the Admiralty where Rear-Admiral Troubridge had assumed his new duties as C.O.S. in December. There was little objectionable in the published document, with the exception of paragraph 8:

The Chief of the Staff will be a Flag Officer. He will be primarily responsible to the First Sea Lord, and will work under him as his principal assistant and agent. He will not, however, be the sole channel of communication between the First Sea Lord and the Staff; and the First Lord and the First Sea Lord will whenever convenient consult the Directors of the various Divisions or other officers if necessary. This direction is essential to prevent that group of evils which have always arisen from the “narrow neck of the bottle” system. The Chief of the War Staff will guide and co-ordinate the work of the Staff in all its branches. He will, when desired, accompany the First Lord and First Sea Lord to the Committee of Imperial Defence.[56]

Here it was again: the First Lord could directly approach the Directors of the various Divisions yet, with any First Lord other than Churchill, this might not have seemed so undesirable. It was soon pointed out in the contemporary debates that this provision would seem to ‘present some risks against which precautions should be taken’ and that ‘the only relations which can properly exist – and the point is of great importance – between the Chief of the Staff and the First Lord must be through the channel of the First Sea Lord.’[57] Still, the thing was done. Churchill could now turn his mind to new challenges, pre-eminent of which was the task which would occupy most of the days of peace left to him — to counter the new German naval threat.[58]

                In the wake of Agadir, Tirpitz had proposed a supplementary naval bill to increase the tempo of German shipbuilding to three capital ships per annum; however, Bethmann-Hollweg, still trying to reach an understanding with Britain, and with the prospect of elections due in January 1912, flatly refused. The Chancellor’s apprehension was fully justified when the Social Democrats, who were resolutely opposed to hefty naval budgets, secured the largest number of seats.[59] While not yet aware of the exact nature of the proposed German novelle (addition to the Navy Law), there was no doubt in London that what was coming would be unpalatable indeed, and would call for the maximum concentration in the North Sea yet, other than the politically fraught course of sanctioning additional British ships, the only alternative method to achieve this would be to withdraw ships from foreign stations. Churchill’s eyes turned to the Mediterranean once more. Gazing at the Imperial map was soon to become a popular pastime in Government circles and one that would, yet again, see Churchill locked in a struggle with Esher. If Churchill believed he had squared Esher regarding the War Staff, Asquith, with his usual impeccable timing, chose the same moment as the publication of the War Staff memorandum to send Churchill a plea, in the form of Esher’s highly confidential memorandum on the C.I.D., which concomitantly argued against the diminution of British forces overseas.

                Esher’s twin concerns – that the C.I.D. was becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of a renewed Admiralty onslaught which now focused on the policy of concentration – would have increased had he seen Churchill’s reply to his memorandum. The First Lord argued cogently against ‘a policy of dispersion’:

…The supreme strategic principle of concentration of superior force in the decisive theatre [Churchill declared with all the confidence of the new boy eager to make an instant impression]…must govern all naval dispositions…Dispersion of strength, frittering of money, empty parades of foolish little ships “displaying the flag” in unfrequented seas, are the certain features of a policy leading through extravagance to defeat…So far as the Cte of I.D. is concerned, it appears to me that if Admiralty contemplate an important change like the concentration in Home Waters, they would of course consult the Prime Minister. It would then rest with him whether the C.I.D. should be involved. Personally, I should be glad of its support.

                However the ultimate responsibility of the First Lord must not be impaired. He cannot be expected to be responsible for faulty dispositions, or what he thinks are such![60]

Clearly, both Esher and Churchill had rapidly identified, in the flaccid features of the Prime Minister, the essential ally in their respective causes: whereas Esher advocated that the C.I.D. should pronounce on defence matters before reporting to Asquith on those it felt able to recommend, Churchill (who believed he had the measure of the P.M.) cynically wished to reverse the process so that it was Asquith who, once informed of the proposed Admiralty changes, would decide upon the merits of the case and whether or not the C.I.D. should be called in. And, when it came down to it, Haldane also was not willing to surrender any of his sovereignty even if he was less concerned at the threat posed by Esher. In a letter to Churchill Haldane contended that whenever the War Office or Admiralty had a case to make he was confident that the Committee would ‘decide our way and we should in consequence have the PM at our backs.’ For, although Churchill and he ‘must always be responsible for policy…if we secure the head of the Govt we shall be in a still stronger position.’[61] The First Lord, who would brook no opposition in his plans for the strategic disposition of the Fleet, set to work to ensure the Prime Minister’s adherence to the cause. To assist him Fisher’s aid was also enlisted; the Admiral was given the task of talking to Asquith ‘about the Mediterranean and about shifting the bases.’[62]  Please click to go to the top of this page







[1]     Fisher to Spender, 25 October 1911, Spender mss., BM Add MSS 46390.

[2]     Fisher to Churchill, 28,29,30 October 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt ii, pp. 1300-3; World Crisis, p. 67; Fisher to Spender, 31 October 1911, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp.409-10.

[3]     ‘The field of selection for the first place is narrow…’ Churchill was forced to disclose to Asquith and, as he had ‘with a good deal of reluctance abandoned the idea of bringing Fisher back, no striking appointment is possible.’ Churchill to Asquith, 5 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1321-3.

[4]     Riddell, diary entry for 9 December 1911, in McEwen (ed.), The Riddell Diaries, p. 28.

[5]     Marder, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 401.

[6]     Riddell, diary entry for 9 December 1911, in McEwen (ed.), The Riddell Diaries, p. 28.

[7]     McKenna to Jellicoe, 31 October 1911, Jellicoe mss., BM Add MSS 49035 ff. 24-5.

[8]     Ottley to Churchill, 24 October 1911, Masterton-Smith mss., PRO Cab 1/31.

[9]     Memorandum by Captain George Ballard, October 1911, PRO Cab 17/8.

[10]    Churchill later wrote that, in relation to the War Staff, ‘all the details of this were worked out by Prince Louis.’ World Crisis, p. 74.

[11]    Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 265.

[12]    Draft memorandum on the Naval War Staff by Battenberg with comments by Churchill, Masterton-Smith mss., PRO Cab 1/31.

[13]    Fisher also favoured separation: ‘Of course the advantage of a Naval War Staff is that the Country aint ruined if you have a d---d fool as First Sea Lord.’ Fisher to Churchill, 6 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, p. 1324.

[14]    Slade to Richmond, 26 September 1913, quoted in Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 266.

[15]    Ottley to Churchill, 13 November 1911, Masterton-Smith mss., part 2, PRO Cab 1/31.

[16]    Memorandum by Graham Greene; Churchill to Greene, 19 November 1911, PRO Adm 1 8377/120.

[17]    Draft memorandum by Battenberg, Masterton-Smith mss., PRO Cab 1/31.

[18]    Memorandum by Churchill, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1303-12.

[19]    Naval War Staff, memorandum by A K Wilson, 30 October 1911, PRO Cab 37/108/136.

[20]    d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 240, pp. 260-1.

[21]    Nevertheless, within months, Ottley would retire prematurely from Government service, leaving the way open for his replacement by the more pliable Hankey. D’Ombrain [War Machinery, pp. 193-4] acknowledges that, while Ottley’s ‘precipitate retirement from the C.I.D.’ and the War Staff intrigues might have been connected, there is no evidence that he was removed deliberately.

[22]    Ottley to Churchill, 1 November 1911, PRO Cab 17/8.

[23]    As mentioned, Churchill had declared on 30 August that he was ‘not at all convinced about the wisdom of a close blockade.’ Churchill to Grey, 30 August 1911, PRO Adm 116/3474.

[24]    Ottley to Churchill, 2 November 1911, PRO Cab 17/8.

[25]    Ottley to Churchill, 3 November 1911, Masterton-Smith mss., part 2, PRO Cab 1/31.

[26]    Churchill to Asquith, 5 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt ii, pp. 1321-2.

[27]    Churchill to Ottley, 5 November 1911, ibid., p. 1323.

[28]    Churchill had informed Asquith on 5 November that ‘Ottley is preeminently fitted for the position of Chief of the War Staff; and if Hankey took his place on the CID neither you nor the Navy wd I believe suffer from the transfer. I wish to be authorized by you to approach Ottley on the subject this week.’ Churchill to Asquith, 5 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1321-3.

[29]    This perhaps provides the strongest clue as to Ottley’s reluctance to transfer from the C.I.D. to the War Staff. For example when, in December, Churchill was pressing Sir Francis Hopwood to accept the new post of Additional Civil Lord, Hopwood at first agreed only to discover to his horror on Christmas Day that he would forfeit his pension rights if he ‘took a five year appointment at the Admiralty.’ As his pension rights were then worth an annuity of £700 a year it would be, Hopwood admitted, ‘dreadfully improvident to let this drop…’ Hopwood to Churchill, 25 December 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, p. 1363.

[30]    Esher cynically urged Ottley to accept the offer: d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 195.

[31]    Fisher to Churchill, 10 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1327-8.

[32]    Churchill to Asquith, 16 November 1911, ibid., pp. 1335-6.

[33]    Sandars to Balfour, 14 December 1911, quoted in Churchill, vol. II, pp. 541-2.

[34]    Memorandum by Graham Greene, undated but circa 19 November: see Churchill to Greene, 19 November 1911, PRO Adm 1 8377/120. Churchill praised Greene for his ‘admirable memorandum’ which he recognized ‘as being a real advance towards my views’ [my emphasis].

[35]    See, Churchill to Fisher, 3 December 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, p. 1351.

[36]    This provides another clue as to why Ottley might have been passed over: as Churchill made clear to the King, it was ‘not intended that Chief of the Staff should compete in rank or authority with the First Sea Lord whose principal assistant he will be.’ As Ottley did not compete in rank with Bridgeman, it could be intimated that Bridgeman (and perhaps Graham Greene?) did not relish the idea of the outgoing Secretary of the C.I.D. becoming his assistant.

[37]    Churchill to the King, 31 December 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1367-8.

[38]    Churchill to Grey, 4 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1369-70.

[39]    Churchill to Fisher, 2 November 1911, ibid., p. 1318.

[40]    Fisher to Ottley, 4 November 1911, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 410-11 [emphasis in original].

[41]    Fisher to Churchill, 4 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1320-1. Fisher had, by this time, returned to Lucerne.

[42]    Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 247; Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 12.

[43]    Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 247.

[44]    Churchill concurred: in a letter to Admiral Sir Gerard Noel at the same time the First Lord declared his ‘complete accord’ with Noel regarding ‘the fighting value of the ships known as pre-Dreadnoughts’ which, he believed, ‘will prove of the greatest use in time of war…’ Churchill to Noel, 22 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1340-1.

[45]    Battenberg to Churchill, 20 November 1911, quoted in Mark Kerr, Prince Louis of Battenberg, (London, 1934), p. 233.

[46]    Fisher to Churchill, 22 November 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1341-2.

[47]    Memorandum by Churchill, The Mediterranean Fleet, 15 March 1911, PRO Cab 37/105/27.

[48]    Memorandum by Churchill, Naval War Staff, 19 November 1911, PRO Adm 1 8377/120.

[49]    Memorandum by Esher, 12 December 1911, PRO Cab 38/19/57.

[50]    d’Ombrain, War Machinery, pp. 262-3

[51]    Draft letter, Ottley to Asquith, PRO Cab 17/8.

[52]    This fact had already been confirmed by Asquith who informed Churchill that ‘his Circle was still-born.’ d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 263.

[53]    Churchill to Asquith, 1 January 1912, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1484-5.

[54]    Churchill to Haldane, 1 January 1912, ibid., p. 1485.

[55]    Esher also made his peace with Churchill, writing to the First Lord the same day that he was ‘delighted with details of your scheme…Later on experience may lead you or others to make more modifications but the principles you have laid down so admirably…will never I feel sure in the lifetime of anyone now living suffer any material change…I cannot tell you how first rate I think it all.’ Esher to Churchill, 8 January 1912, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1492-3.

[56]    Memorandum by the First Lord on a Naval War Staff, The Naval Annual 1912, pp. 385-90.

[57]    The Naval Annual, 1912, p. 115.

[58]    No sooner had Churchill published his War Staff scheme on 8 January than, that very evening at 6 o’clock, he sent for General Sir Henry Wilson and discussed with him ‘the whole situation’ together with Bridgeman and Troubridge. Wilson was greatly pleased; Winston, he recorded in his diary, was ‘alive to the German danger.’ Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 109.

[59]    Holger Herwig, Luxury Fleet, pp. 73-4, 76.

[60]    Note by Churchill on Asquith to Churchill, 9 January 1912, , p. 1494.

[61]    Haldane to Churchill, 24 January 1912, ibid, pp. 1494-5.

[62]    Churchill to Fisher, 10 January 1912, ibid, p. 1495.



THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller

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