Illustration showing Churchill in consultation with Lord Fisher
Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By Christopher M. Bell
One of the most damning charges regularly levelled against Winston Churchill for his role in the Dardanelles campaign is that he either ignored or overruled his principal naval advisers, who unanimously warned of disaster if a naval offensive were launched without troops to support it. Churchill always insisted that this was untrue, that he had had the support of the admirals. But there is almost no hard evidence to back him up. No minutes were taken of the deliberations among Churchill and his top naval advisers in early January 1915, when the proposal to force the Dardanelles by ships alone was first considered at the Admiralty. Historians have therefore had to rely on later testimony from the participants to reconstruct what happened.
The best—though far from perfect—source we have on these deliberations is the voluminous testimony provided to the official Dardanelles Commission, established by an Act of Parliament in 1916 to investigate why the campaign had been launched, and what had gone wrong. Over the course of twenty days, from September to December 1916, the Commission examined thirty-five witnesses, including all the surviving members of Asquith’s War Council, as well as the admirals who had taken part in the Admiralty’s decision-making process. Did they complain that Churchill had failed to heed repeated warnings that the naval offensive was doomed? A recent study of Churchill’s part in the Dardanelles campaign claims that the testimony of naval leaders “leaves no doubt” that their “opposition to a purely naval operation at the Dardanelles by Fisher, Jackson and all of the naval experts, had been neither half-hearted nor hesitating.”1
A painting of Heligoland before the First World War
Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By Stephen McLaughlin
The Baltic is the only theatre in wh[ich] naval action can appreciably shorten the war.
—Winston Churchill, 22 December 19141
From October 1911 to May 1915 Winston Churchill served as First Lord of the Admiralty—the Royal Navy’s political chief—during which time he proposed a number of imaginative strategic schemes, of which the Dardanelles is by far the most famous. But more central to his strategic thought were his amphibious schemes, which ultimately constituted a grand strategy based on the idea of using Britain’s predominance at sea to defeat Germany. This was a goal he would continue to pursue long after he left the Admiralty.
There was nothing novel in this concept; the Royal Navy’s strategists had long argued that amphibious attacks on Germany should be Britain’s main contribution to a continental war. In particular, they looked to the Baltic Sea, where British control would cut Germany off from vital shipments of iron ore from Sweden. More importantly, it would allow the Royal Navy to land a Russian army on “a stretch of ten miles of hard sand on the Pomeranian coast which is only ninety miles from Berlin,” in the words of Admiral Sir John Fisher.2 Such an amphibious assault might bring a quick end to the war, and Churchill took up this idea with enthusiasm. On 19 August 1914, when the war was only two weeks old, he suggested to the Russian Commanderin-Chief, the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, that preparations be made for this operation on the assumption that the Royal Navy would obtain command of the Baltic.
On 7 August 1914, under safe cover of British cruisers and naval aircraft, the Admiralty set about the massive task of transporting the British Expeditionary Force across the English Channel to France. Between then and 27 August, the Royal Navy, without the loss of a man or damage to the ships, safely deployed 120,000 men plus supplies, transport, weapons, munitions, and other equipment across the Channel. It had been a wonderful operation on a scale previously undreamed of, and it had been conducted in such secrecy that the German Supreme Command confidently told its mobile army headquarters in Belgium that no landing of British troops on a large scale had yet taken place. This was on the eve of the first British shot on the continent, near Mons, on 22 August. Admiral Lord Fisher, the onceand-future First Sea Lord, liked to say that the Army was a projectile to be fired by the Navy. Here lay proof of that.
The BEF commenced its concentration, taking up its intended position on the north and west flank of the French army. The German army’s push to defeat the French army was halted at the Battle of the Marne. In a whirl of movements, the front shifted north and into Belgium, leaving exposed the hugely important Channel ports. If Germany could get possession of Antwerp, it would gain immeasurable power in waters opposite the River Thames. German staff knew that Antwerp must be taken to safeguard the right rear of their armies swinging down into France. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill signalled Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the Grand Fleet, to contemplate the proper positioning of his ships if the Germans were to take measures to control the Channel coast.
Churchill as First Lord of Admiralty inspecting Royal Navy cadets
Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By Matthew S. Seligmann
Before the outbreak of war in 1914, it was not as a warrior or as a war leader but as a radical liberal reformer that Churchill was best known. First as President of the Board of Trade, where he had introduced labour exchanges, and then as Home Secretary, in which office he had regulated conditions in the coal mines, Churchill had cemented a political reputation based upon tangible measures designed to improve the lives of working people. As such, he was arguably, alongside fellow radical David Lloyd George, one of the main architects of the social security system that prefigured the welfare state.
Did the reform activities for which he was best known continue with his appointment to the Admiralty? Many historians would say not. Malcolm Hill, for example, ends his study Churchill: His Radical Decade with his subject’s departure from the Home Office in 1911. Apparently, nothing radical occurred while Churchill was at the Admiralty. Sebastian Haffner assumes the same, arguing in his excellent appraisal that Churchill’s “radical phase” ended and his warrior phase took its place when he was transferred to the Admiralty. But was this really so? Did this move from one government department to another really mark such a major lacuna in Churchill’s political objectives?
At the start of his parliamentary career in 1901, Winston Churchill promoted the old Victorian themes of “peace, retrenchment, and reform,” but at the conclusion of his first decade as an MP, he was a champion of what was known as “New Navalism” and a vocal advocate of a greatly enlarged Royal Navy. At mid-decade, he had changed his party political affiliation from Conservative to Liberal.
The Royal Navy for centuries had been a central fabric in British life, with a glorious and long history. In the first decade of the twentieth century, however, the Senior Service found itself threatened by rival naval powers, which it had never experienced in a global supremacy lasting a hundred years. In 1914, the British Navy was almost as sacred as the Crown—and just as popular. Public interest in the strength of the Royal Navy heightened as the total amount of naval expenditures surpassed all previous records.
The period of “New Navalism” stretched from 1889 until 1914, during which time there was but one three-year period (1905–1908) when naval expenditures were not increasing. The “New Navalism” was a natural product of the combination of economic nationalism and national imperialism, as promoted by the American “Father of the New Navalism,” Alfred Thayer Mahan.
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Offering guests a view of the Baltic region in World War II, this program begins with a two-night pre-cruise tour in Copenhagen, one of the first capital cities to fall to Nazi Germany in 1940, and finishes in Stockholm, where politicians delicately maintained neutrality in the conflict. While in Copenhagen, we will focus on the miraculous rescue of 7,000 Danish Jews via small fishing boats to Sweden. Local guides will tell their own families’ rescue stories in the quaint fishing town of Dragør on the outskirts of Copenhagen.
Once aboard Le Soléal, our next three ports will offer insight into the rivalry between Hitler and Stalin. In Helsinki, the Winter War becomes the main topic, while in St. Petersburg we will focus on the scene of one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history, chronicled in Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. The three million inhabitants endured a merciless siege with temperatures dropping, at times, to 30 degrees below zero. In Tallinn, hear the stories of the locals who sought liberation from Stalin’s tyranny only to suffer through occupation and pillaging by Hitler’s forces.
TORONTO—While the hugely successful play The Audience and equally successful TV Series The Crown deserve praise, both conclude that Winston Churchill delayed the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to take pressure from the forces which were endeavouring to force him to resign—on the basis that a change of Prime Minister during the period from accession to coronation would not be acceptable.
In the productions, Queen Elizabeth points out to Churchill that the coronation of her father King George VI took place just six months after he acceded to the throne. What should have been pointed out, however, was that arrangements for the coronation had commenced some nine months before, for the intended crowning of King Edward VIII.
To illustrate that the timing from accession to coronation of Queen Elizabeth was in line with previous monarchs:
A professional army officer by training, Winston Churchill became forever linked with the Royal Navy as a result of his service as First Lord of the Admiralty in the early months of both world wars. This service Churchill himself immortalized in his many Second World War messages to President Roosevelt, where the Prime Minister referred to himself as a “Former Naval Person.”
When the guns of August sounded in 1914, Churchill had already been on the job at the Admiralty for three years. During the pre-war years, he had to contend with what was known as the “New Navalism,” which W. Mark Hamilton shows was a commitment to the principles of Alfred Thayer Mahan: developing and maintaining powerful modern navies. But Churchill also found time to improve the pay and working conditions of the common sailor, as Matthew S. Seligmann shows.
When the First World War began, Churchill was all for action. Not content to sit behind a desk in London, he went to Belgium in the opening weeks of the war and wound up organizing Antwerp’s defenses. Barry Gough explains the heavy criticism that followed. Undaunted, Churchill cast around for offensive operations off Germany’s northwest coast. Stephen McLaughlin demonstrates how this effort ultimately led to a campaign much further afield at the Dardanelles. With respect to that climacteric, Christopher M. Bell has carefully studied the historical record and finds that Churchill did run so far ahead of his professional advisers as his critics found it politically expedient to claim.
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