March 15, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 36

By Christopher H. Beckvold

Historians often examine the climactic years of a great career, leaving the adjoining years relatively unconsidered. Churchill is a good example: while many accounts exist of his role in the two World Wars, his early career is the subject of far fewer books. (For latest, see the review of Young Titan on page 51.)

Churchill’s critics often cite his youthful failures, real or imagined. In fact he enjoyed many accomplishments in his early offices, notably altering British foreign policy without ever holding the post of foreign minister. The full scope of what he accomplished is remarkable for a politician so young.

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Long before he came to head the Admiralty, Churchill was aware of Germany’s potential threat to Britain and Europe, but as at other times in his life, he was well ahead of most political thinkers. During the last third of the 19th century, the most constant threat to the British Empire was Russia, against whom Britain had defended Turkey in the Crimean War, and the Indian empire during the Anglo-Afghan Wars. By the 1880s, under both Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his Liberal counterpart, William Gladstone, concern shifted not to Germany but to Ireland and the Empire.1

British eyes probably first turned toward Germany when friction developed with the South African Boer Republics (the Transvaal and Orange Free State), and the Gladstone government was faced with German attempts to create colonies to the east and west of the Boer republics.2 Germany naturally sympathized with the Dutch settlers in South Africa; still Germany was not regarded as a major threat. William Gladstone’s foreign secretary thought Berlin was not even serious about acquiring colonies.3

Gladstone himself disregarded Germany’s stirrings because he thought “Bismarck’s change of face was only an electoral gimmick.”4 The Germans even tried to woo Britain into an alliance during Gladstone’s fourth government in the 1890s. But Gladstone also objected to European entanglements, believing they interfered with the British Empire,5 and preferred to focus on the domestic front. The policies of the Conservative governments which alternated in office during the last two decades of the 19th century were little different from Gladstone’s.6

Nevertheless, developments in Europe began slowly to move Britain away from her previous isolation. The UK maintained friendly relations with the Triple Alliance (Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary) in order to keep Russia, Turkey and Egypt in check on the periphery of the Empire—one of the reasons for Britain’s 1897 action on the Northwest Frontier of India, in which Churchill partici- pated.7 Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery (1894-95) consulted Germany and Italy over the Franco-Siamese war, though no collaboration ensued.8 But relations with the Triple Alliance ended after Britain, concerned about German threats to Imperial commerce, entered the Triple Entente with France and Russia in 1907.9 By then the British had realized that Germany’s waxing power was something to reckon with.

Churchill became a Member of Parliament in 1901. The following year Prime Minister Lord Salisbury retired and was succeeded by his nephew, Arthur Balfour. Like Salisbury, Balfour avoided an alliance with Germany but attempted to maintain friendly relations.10 The press tried to fan flames, claiming “Britain was becoming a satellite of Germany.”11 But after the 1900 German Naval Law became public, Balfour realized Germany intended to rival the Royal Navy and that no close relationship could exist.

Following the Liberal landslide victory in the January 1906 general election, a Francophile, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, became prime minister. His new foreign secretary, Lord Lansdowne, called Germany “our worst enemy.”12 In 1906 HMS Dreadnought launched a new generation of fast, well-armed British battleships, but the British soon discovered that Germany planned to out-build them, which led to fears of vulnerability.13 H.H. Asquith, who had succeeded Campbell-Bannerman as Liberal premier, was faced with the demand, “We want eight [new battleships] and we won’t wait,” and Parliament duly voted to create them in 1910, instead of the original four.14

Winston Churchill left the Conservatives for the Liberals, over his support of Free Trade, in 1904—a piece of very good timing. After the Liberal sweep, Campbell- Bannerman appointed him under-secretary for the colonies, and Churchill subsequently helped bring peace to South Africa and to write its constitution. Churchill moved to the Board of Trade in 1908 and the Home Office in 1910, cabinet posts largely domestic in nature. For a time he supported Lloyd George and Asquith in demanding cuts in the naval budget. One historian wrote that WSC was “among the last to discern that the Kaiser was more than a bumbling amateur and was in fact a menace.”15 But Churchill’s view changed dramatically when Germany’s aggressive intentions became clear.

At the Admiralty

The event that brought Churchill to the Admiralty was his robust stance in the 1911 Agadir Crisis, when a German gunboat, SMS Panther, appeared off that port in French Morocco, sending waves of concern throughout Europe. Churchill’s vigorous responses—even to the extent of sending guards to watch over the Hyde Park magazine for the defence of London—gained Asquith’s attention, while in cabinet Churchill argued for a still closer relationship with France.16

A month after Agadir, in August 1911, Churchill proposed to Lloyd George that Great Britain should develop a friendly relationship with Belgium in order to flank the Germans with a Belgian army.17 A month later Churchill wrote to Asquith: “Are you sure that the ships we have at Cromarty are strong enough to  defeat the whole German High Sea fleet? If not they sh[oul]d be reinforced without delay. Are 2 divisions of the Home Fleet enough? This appears to be a vital matter.” Asquith was impressed. Churchill, with his “imaginative power and vitality,” must be at the head of a fighting department.18

On 25 October 1911, Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, determined to “inject new blood into the hidebound Royal Navy,” equally “willing to take unpopular actions and positions, one who would not be intimidated by the navy brass and who would bring about needed reform.”19 His arrival would have important effects on British foreign policy.

As his naval adviser Churchill secured the retired Admiral “Jacky” Fisher, a seasoned professional known for free and radical thinking.20 Their task was not for the timid. The Royal Navy desperately needed an effective war staff “to prepare for an attack by Germany as if it might come the next day”; and there was still a need for more and capital warships.21

Churchill replaced the aging, ineffective First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson, with Prince Louis of Battenberg, who knew staff organization after forty years in high naval commands.22 Battenberg would leave in October 1914 over prejudice against his Germanic name, and Churchill would appoint Fisher in his place. By the time he was done, Churchill had transformed a hodge-podge of quarreling admirals into a set of leaders fully prepared for war.

Recognizing the need to stay ahead of Germany, Churchill began planning a new class of super-dreadnoughts, their steam turbines fired by oil instead of coal, powerful ships that were better gunned, faster and more maneuverable. Speed was essential, Fisher told him, not only for running battles but for quick deployment, so as to command events. A rapid deployment to its Scottish stations in the event of war, as Churchill explained to Lloyd George, would make the navy

at once the most effective & least provocative support to France, & a real security for this country. It is not for Morocco, nor indeed for Belgium, that I w[oul]d take part in this terrible business. One cause alone c[oul]d justify our participation [in a war with Germany]—to  prevent France from being trampled down & looted by the Prussian junkers—a disaster ruinous to the world, & swiftly fatal to our country.23

Churchill’s actions inevitably moved Britain from her earlier stance of effective isolation to a far more active foreign policy. He wanted a firm relationship with France and a leadership role in Europe, which he deemed vital in keeping Germany in check. This was a far more ambitious foreign policy than ever before. In a crisis, shifting the fleet to Scottish waters would strengthen the bond with France, leaving the French navy to protect the Mediterranean. Deploying to Scapa Flow was, of course, exactly what Churchill ordered on the eve of war in August 1914.

Another area that drew Churchill’s penetrating gaze was Britain’s spy system. Specifically, he wrote the charter for an intelligence organization whose sole purpose was to observe and track Germany’s technological advances—the Naval Intelligence Division.24 This enabled the First Lord to keep track of the German fleet’s movements. Churchill demanded daily updates, which were duly marked on a huge map behind his desk.25 Churchill was meanwhile kept informed of German spies in Britain, the N.I.D. not hesitating to open the mail of suspects.26

An omnipresent administrator, the First Lord staged unscheduled inspections, reviewed war plans, economized where possible, and generally girded the Royal Navy for war. The complaint most often voiced by underlings at the Admiralty was his attention to detail—“micro-managing,” today’s critics would call it. He frequently made surprise appearances on ships, infuriating officers by criticizing everything from operations to the buttons on a sailor’s uniform. A 13 November 1911 letter to the Fourth Sea Lord, Charles Madden, gave specific instructions on  how to deal with deficiencies in torpedoes, guns, mines, small arms ammunition and automatic pistols.27 Madden was outraged, but benefited from the advice.

The Unrelenting Buildup

In announcing his naval program for 1912, Churchill was blunt: “Our naval preparations are necessarily based upon the naval preparation of other Powers. It would be affectation—and quite a futile kind of affectation—to pretend that the sudden and rapid growth of the German navy is not the main factor in our determination whether in regard to expenditure or new construction.”28 In other words, the Royal Navy’s  growth was necessary, whatever the expense or the number of ships needed.

In March 1912, Churchill drafted a memorandum for the Cabinet and King, anticipating German intentions. The 1900 German Naval Law, he argued, had “practically amounted to putting about four-fifths of the German Navy permanently on a war footing.”29 His arguments carried the Cabinet and Parliament. The foreign policy implicit in Churchill’s argument was defensive in its design to protect Britain, but offensive in calling for a much larger navy.

A major advance in 1912 was in aviation. Seeing aircraft as the technology of the future, the First Lord became a powerful advocate for military aviation, creating the Royal Naval Air Service and advocating a Royal Flying Corps. He continued to press for increased naval aviation over the next two years.30

March 1913 found the navy still short of men, funds, and aircraft, while ship construction was lagging.31 Now Churchill began to plan as far ahead as 1920, starting planning for twenty new capital ships and further expanding the Royal Naval Air Service. He lobbied hard with the government, telling Asquith, “…we cannot afford to allow more time to slip away.” By 1914, his persistence had paid off with the evolution of an air policy, which later included provisions for the first aircraft carrier.32 The cost was over £50 million, the largest increase in naval estimates to date.33

Remarking on these strenuous efforts some, including recently Pat Buehanan (FH 149: 13) have accused Churchill of being dead-set on war. Anything but: in April 1913, even before the new naval building program had begun, Churchill proposed to his opposite number, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, a “Naval Holiday”—a one-year moratorium on Anglo-German naval construction as a means to ease the arms buildup. It was a major venture into foreign policy.

Tirpitz refused, perhaps because Churhcill had called his fleet a “luxury,” perhaps because he thought a moratorium would benefit Britain more than Germany. Churchill responded by arming merchant ships, constructing new oil depots, expanding naval facilities in the Mediterranean, and developing wireless communications.34 Late in 1913, he spoke of his determination to maintain Britain’s advantage:

His Majesty’s Government will embrace and will work for every opportunity of abating the competition in naval and military armaments which is the bane and the reproach of modern Europe. (Cheers.) But what is necessary has got to be done, and we shall not hesitate for a moment, once we are satisfied of the need, to go to Parliament boldly for those supplies of men and money which the House of Commons, whatever its party complexion, has never refused to vote in living memory for the vital services of the State.35

For the first half of 1914, Churchill demanded further increases in the Admiralty’s budget. Although he did not realize it at the time, this would be his last opportunity to prepare for war. He succeeded: by early 1914, the combined Home Fleet had swollen to twenty-two dreadnoughts and fourteen modern battlecruisers, with twenty-three older battleships and 160 cruisers and destroyers in reserve.36

Still Churchill felt the number of ships was not enough, calling for an increase of £4 million, raising the 1915 estimates to £53 million, telling the House that by 1920, “Germany will have 108,000 men in the Navy….I do  not wish to prejudge the future but, while this continues, it is obvious that a large  increase will be required from us.”37

Subsequently, Churchill rejected the “Two-Power Standard,” the old rule-of-thumb that the Royal Navy must be able to defeat the next two naval powers combined. It was obsolete, he said, since it was impossible to decide what other nation’s small navy would combine with Germany’s, the second largest in the world. It made more sense to consider Germany the only concern, with a plan of building at “the rate of two keels to one….”38

One of Churchill’s final preparations before the war was to revise the Royal Navy’s training in tactics: “In May 1914, to redress the lack of schooling received by naval officers, Churchill issued a detailed memorandum on military education and training of future staff officers. The practice of sitting on one’s laurels was over.” He also encouraged expansion of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich where, since 1873, officers had been trained and educated.39

At the Precipice

Fifty-nine battleships were completing a naval review at Portsmouth when news broke of Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, the first fatal step toward war. Battenberg at once issued orders for the fleet not to disperse, which Churchill confirmed the next day, though it was not until 29 July that the Cabinet authorized the navy’s preparations.40

Churchill did not want war, but he was prepared for it. As  uncertainty continued, he told Lloyd George that Great Britain should stay neutral unless Germany violated Belgian neutrality.41 By the time that happened, the Royal Navy was on its way to its war station at Scapa Flow.

Largely because of Churchill’s tenure at the Admiralty, British foreign policy had changed dramatically. During the late 19th century, from Gladstone to Campbell-Bannerman, Britain had generally practiced isolationism. Through friendly gestures toward Germany under Salisbury and Balfour, the UK seemed to acknowledge Germany’s increased presence. But once the German High Seas Fleet appeared to threaten the dominance of the Royal Navy, attitudes changed. It could be argued that Churchill’s actions were only in response to political developments; nevertheless, none of his predecessors had possessed the “imaginative power and vitality” that Asquith had noticed.

In expanding the reach and power of the navy, Churchill inevitably prepared Britain for war with Germany. In doing so, he helped change the Cabinet’s disposition toward Germany, which in turn saw Britain take a far more active role in Europe. Churchill made it clear that Germany would not threaten or bully Britain, and largely through his efforts, British foreign policy became outward looking and internationally motivated. It was the greatest shift in British foreign policy since the Crimean War.

Churchill was not the only contributor to these developments, and the transition from isolationism to close involvement did not occur overnight. But the change in policy was critical because it influenced how the war would play out, and prefigured the role Britain would play in the 20th century.

This paper arrived too late for The Churchill Centre research competition for high school students last year. Our educational coordinator, Suzanne Sigman, thought so highly of it that we offer it to our readers herewith—along with our congratulations to Mr. Beckvold, now at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The article was subject to FH’s usual editoral process; the original, with a bibliography, is available from the editor by email. Our grateful thanks to the author’s mentor, Dr. Sarah Wiggins.


1. Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 4, The Great Democracies (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958), 282.

2. Paul Knaplund, Gladstone’s Foreign Policy (London: Frank Cass, 1970), 88.

3. Bernard Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-2004 (London: Pearson Longman, 2004), 106.

4. Porter, The Lion’s Share, 106.

5. C.J. Lowe, The Reluctant Imperialists: British Foreign Policy 1878-1902 (London: Macmillan, 1967), 166.

6. Ibid.

7. Porter, The Lion’s Share, 110.

8. Lowe, The Reluctant Imperialists, 174-76.

9. Ibid., 167.

10. J.A.S. Grenville, Lord Salisbury and Foreign Policy: The Close of the Nineteenth Century (London: Athlone Press, 1970), 131.

11. Ibid., 132-34.

12. Ibid., 136.

13. Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 484.

14. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (New York: Holt, 1991), 201.

15. Carlo D’Este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 176.

16. Churchill actually submitted plans to the Committee of  Imperial Defence for the possible invasion of Germany; see D’Este, Warlord, 178-79. For the defence of the London magazine see Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s London (New Hampshire: International Churchill Society, 1987).

17.  Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 2 Young Statesman 1901-1914 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), 512-13.

18. Ted Morgan, Churchill: Young Man in a Hurry 1874-1915 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 313.

19. D’Este, Warlord, 183.

20. Herman, To Rule the Waves, 486.

21. Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, 241.

22. Morgan, Young Man in a Hurry, 319.

23. WSC to Lloyd George, 31 August 1911, in Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 2 (London: Heinemann, 1969), 1119.

24. Herman, To Rule the Waves, 487. It would later serve as a model for other British intelligence services.

25. D’Este, Warlord, 186.

26. Morgan, Young Man in a Hurry, 323.

27. Randolph S. Churchill, Companion. Vol. 2: Part 2, 1333-34.

28. Winston S. Churchill, “Naval Defence,” in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill, His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), II 1892. The text uses the word “affection,” but we believe Churchill said “affectation.”

29. Morgan, Young Man in a Hurry, 547.

30. Morgan, Young Man in a Hurry, 341.

31. Winston S. Churchill, “Navy Estimates,” speech of 31 March 1913, House of Commons, in Rhodes James, Complete Speeches II 2094-2109.

32. Herman, To Rule the Waves, 487.

33. Ibid., 489.

34. Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, 253.

35. Winston S. Churchill, “Naval Developments,” Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Guildhall, in Rhodes James, Complete Speeches, II 2182-84.

36.  Herman, To Rule the Waves, 487.

37. Winston S. Churchill, “Navy Estimates,” House of Commons, 17 March 1914 in Rhodes James, Complete Speeches, III 2233-62.

38. Ibid., 2246-47, 2254.

39. D’Este, Warlord, 204.

40. Joll and Martel, Origins of the First World War (Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2007), 127-28.

41. Morgan, Young Man in a Hurry, 393.

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