The Ministerial Crisis of May 1915 is a highly complex episode in British political history The immediate cause was Lord Fisher’s resignation on May 15, but other elements—notably a sensational attack in the Times the previous day, alleging a severe shell shortage in France—played their part. A reconstruction of the Government was inevitable and after days of complex negotiations the first Coalition Government of the war was formed. Churchill’s removal from the Admiralty was a sine qua non for the Opposition. He struggled desperately to remain, but the pressures upon Asquith and not only from the Opposition were too great. He became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with a seat in the Cabinet. It was a shattering demotion. “At a moment when every fibre of my being was inflamed to action ” he subsequently wrote, “I was forced to remain a spectator of the tragedy. “
On June 5, in his constituency, he defended his role in the Dardanelles. — RRJ
I thought it right to take an opportunity of coming here to my constituency in view of all the events which have recently taken place, and also of the fact that considerably more than a year has passed since I have had the opportunity of speaking in Dundee. I have not come here to trouble you with personal matters, or to embark on explanations or to indulge in reproaches or recriminations. In war time a man must do his duty as he sees it, and take his luck as it comes or goes. I will not say a word here or in Parliament which I cannot truly feel will have a useful bearing upon the only thing that matters, upon the only thing I care about, and the only thing I want you to think about—namely, the waging of victorious war upon the enemy. [Cheers] I was sent to the Admiralty in 1911, after the Agadir crisis had nearly brought us into war, and I was sent with the express duty laid upon me by the Prime Minister to put the Fleet in a state of instant and constant readiness for war in case we were attacked by Germany. [Cheers.]
Since then, for nearly four years, I have borne the heavy burden of being, according to the time-honoured language of my patent, “responsible to Crown and Parliament for all the business of the Admiralty,” and when I say responsible, I have been responsible in the real sense, that I have had the blame for everything that has gone wrong. [Laughter and cheers.] These years have comprised the most important period in our naval history a period of preparation for war, a period of vigilance and mobilization, and a period of actual war under conditions of which no man has any experience. I have done my best, [cheers], and the archives of the Admiralty will show in the utmost detail the part I have played in all the great transactions that have taken place. It is to them I look for my defense.
I look also to the general naval situation. The terrible dangers of the beginning of the war are over. The seas have been swept clear: the submarine menace has been fixed within definite limits; the personal ascendency of our men, the superior quality of our ships on the high seas, has been established beyond doubt or question. [Cheers.] Our strength has greatly increased, actually and relatively from what it was in the beginning of the war, and it grows continually every day by leaps and bounds in all the classes of vessels needed for the special purpose of the war. Between now and the end of the year, the British Navy will receive reinforcements which would be incredible if they were not actual facts. Everything is in perfect order. Nearly everything has been foreseen, all our supplies, stores, ammunition, and appliances of every kind, our supplies and drafts of officers and men—all are there. Nowhere will you be hindered. You have taken the measure of your foe, you have only to go forward with confidence. [Cheers.] On the whole surface of the seas of the world no hostile flag is flown. [Loud cheers.]
In that achievement I shall always be proud to have had a share. My charge now passes to another hand, and it is my duty to do everything in my power to give to my successor loyal support in act, in word, and in thought. [Cheers.] I am very glad indeed that Mr. Balfour [cheers] has been able to undertake this great task. [Cheers.] The operations which are now proceeding at the Dardanelles will give him the opportunity of using that quality of cool, calm courage and inflexibility which 15 years ago prevented Ladysmith from being left to its fate and surrendered to the enemy.
I have two things to say to you about the Dardanelles. First, you must expect losses both by land and sea; but the Fleet you are employing there is your surplus Fleet, after all other needs have been provided for. Had it not been used in this great enterprise, it would have been lying idle in your southern ports. A large number of the old vessels of which it is composed have to be laid up, in any case, before the end of the year, because their crews are wanted for the enormous reinforcements of new ships which the industry of your workshops is hurrying into the water. Losses of ships, therefore, as long as the precious lives of the officers and men are saved, as in nearly every case they have been—losses of that kind, I say, may easily be exaggerated in the minds both of friend and foe.
And military operations will also be costly, but those who suppose that Lord Kitchener [loud cheers] has embarked upon them without narrowly and carefully considering their requirements in relation to all other needs and in relation to the paramount need of our Army in France and Flanders such people are mistaken and, not only mistaken, they are presumptuous.
My second point is this in looking at your losses squarely and soberly, you must not forget, at the same time, the prize for which you are contending. The Army of Sir Ian Hamilton, the Fleet of Admiral de Robeck, are separated only by a few miles from a victory such as this war has not yet seen. When I speak of victory, I am not referring to those victories which crowd the daily placards of any newspapers. I am speaking of victory in the sense of a brilliant and formidable fact, shaping the destinies of nations and shortening the duration of the war. Beyond those few miles of ridge and scrub on which our soldiers, our French comrades, our gallant Australians, and our New Zealand fellow-subjects are now battling, lie the downfall of a hostile empire, the destruction of an enemy’s fleet and army, the fall of a world-famous capital, and probably the accession of powerful Allies. The struggle will be heavy, the risks numerous, the losses cruel; but victory when it comes will make amends for all.
There never was a great subsidiary operation of war in which a more complete harmony of strategic, political, and economic advantages has combined, or which stood in truer relation to the main decision which is in the central theatre. Through the narrows of the Dardanelles and across the ridges of the Gallipoli Peninsula lie some of the shortest paths to a triumphant peace. That is all I say upon that subject this afternoon; but later on, perhaps, when the concluding chapters in this famous story have been written, I may be allowed to return again to the subject.
I am not with the croakers. [Cheers.] I see some of our newspaper friends are reproaching themselves and reproaching others for having been too optimistic. Let them lay their consciences to rest. It is the general duty of the Press, for the most part faithfully discharged, to sustain the public confidence and spirit in time of war. All the great commanders of the past, the rulers of States in time of crises, have always laboured to discourage pessimism by every means in their power. [Cheers.] Our Allies the French have a recent saying that pessimism in the civilian is the counterpart of cowardice in the soldier. That does not mean you must not face facts. You should face facts, but surely from the facts of our situation you will find the means of deriving much encouragement.
Why, when we look back and remember that we entered this conflict of military nations, of great States prepared mainly for war, that we entered this conflict ten months ago a powerful civilian nation, that no part of our national life, excepting always the Navy [cheers]—the British Navy was as ready as the German Army [loud cheers] and has proved itself more equal to its task [cheers]—but when we remember that no part of our national life, except the Navy, was adapted to war on a great scale, have we not in all that has happened since much to be proud of and much to be thankful for? [Cheers.] Is it not wonderful, for instance, that after so many years of peace we should have found ready to hand a Kitchener to recruit and organize our armies [cheers], a dauntless leader like Sir John French to command them [cheers], skilful generals like Sir Douglas Haig, Sir Ian Hamilton, a naval Commander-in-Chief like Sir John Jellicoe. Admirals like Beatty and Sturdee and De Robeck, and the gallant commodore who flies his broad pennant in the saucy Arethusa? And depend upon it behind them there are many more only waiting for the golden gleam of opportunity to perform surprising deeds of men in our cause.
It is the duty of all in times like these to give loyalty and confidence to their leaders, be they the soldiers in the active sphere or the statesmen who sit in anxious council here at home, to give them loyalty and confidence, not only when all goes smoothly, for that is easy, but to make them feel that they will not be blamed for necessary losses incurred in valiant enterprise or rounded on in reproach at the first check or twist of fortune. Then you will get from your leaders, be they military or civilian, you will get from them the courage, the energy, the audacity, and readiness to run all risks and shoulder the responsibilities without which no great result in war can ever be achieved. [Cheers.]
Now I would like to say something which will get me into trouble. [Laughter.] I do not think that the newspapers ought to be allowed to attack the responsible leaders of the nation [loud cheers], whether in the field or at home, or to write in a manner which is calculated to spread doubts and want of confidence in them or in particular operations, or to write anything which is calculated to make bad blood between them. I apply this not only to the Admirals and Generals, but to the principal Ministers at home, and especially the heads of the great fighting departments. No other nation now at war would allow the newspapers such a license in the present time, and if there is to be criticism, if there must be criticism, first, it should be only the loyal criticism of earnest intention. But if there is to be criticism, let it be in Parliament. If the speeches are such that we cannot allow the enemy to be a party to our discussions, then let Parliament, as is its right, sit for the time being with closed doors. But it seems imperative, in the interests of the country for the future, and for the safety and success of our arms, that irresponsible or malicious carping should not continue.
We in this country are the firm supporters of a free Press. A free Press is a natural and healthy feature in national life, so long as you have also a free Parliament and a free platform; but when, owing to war conditions, Parliament observes a voluntary but severe restraint, and when many of the subjects cannot be freely discussed without giving information to the enemy, then the balance of society is no longer true and grave injury results from the unrestricted action of the newspapers.
I have very much regretted that the Liberal Government which is now no more had no opportunity of stating its case in Parliament. It would, I think, have been found that Lord Kitchener had a very strong case to unfold on behalf of the War Office, and even I might have had something to say on behalf of the Admiralty; but the Government has perished, its long career, so memorable in our home affairs, is ended, its work whether in South Africa or Ireland has passed for good or for ill into history. I know that there are gathered here this afternoon many of those who were its opponents, and that we are going to work together on a different basis now; but before I come to the new Government and its prospects, I must ask your leave and your courtesy to say a few words in justice to the old. [Cheers.]
There was a Government which sought peace long and faithfully and to the end, but which, nevertheless, maintained our naval defence so that all the needs and dangers were provided against; there was a Government who placed in the field six times as many divisions of soldiers as had ever been contemplated by any party in the State at any time in our history; there was a Government which fulfilled in your name, in the name of the nation, every obligation of duty and of honour to France and to Belgium [cheers]; there was a Government which brought us into the war a united people and with such a record that in future times, when the wounded world looks back with its searching scrutiny upon all the events which have led up to this great catastrophe—will leave us such a record as will show to all time that Britain was absolutely guiltless of the slightest stain. [Cheers.] I thought you would permit me to say these few words about the Liberal Administration of which I have had the honour to remain for so many years a member, and that I might say them in justice to those who compose it and to the Chief who led it, and to the great party which so faithfully sustained it.
And before I leave it I would ask your leave to say a word about a great friend of mine, well-known to you in Scotland and passed now out of public life—Lord Haldane. [Cheers.] I deeply regret that he has ceased to fill the great office which he adorned. No more sincere patriot has served the Crown. There never has been an occasion in the Cabinets of the last seven years in which I have sat, that, as the need arose, Lord Haldane has not from his great knowledge of the German governmental system warned us to be on our guard against the dangerous side of their nature. [Cheers.] There never has been a time when he has not supported every provision for the defence of this country, military or naval. He it was who entered into those intricate arrangements with France which enabled our Army to be so swiftly brought to the scene of action, just in the nick of time. He it was who prepared that Expeditionary Army in the face of much opposition and in days when every penny was hard to get. He it was who organized the Territorial Force [cheers], which has so splendidly vindicated itself and its founder, and upon whose gallantry, discipline, and numbers the weight and even the success of our military operations hitherto have notably if not mainly depended. [Cheers.] Till a few months ago all the land forces which we employed in this war, which we put in the field, were the products of Lord Haldane’s organization, and in the fateful and convulsive days before Great Britain drew the sword of honour, when the chill of doubt struck into many hearts, whether we should act as we were bound—in those days no man stood closer to Sir Edward Grey and no man saw more clearly where our duty led us. [Cheers.]
With that I leave the past. A new Government has been formed, old opponents have laid aside their differences, personal interests and party interests have been adjusted or suppressed, and the Administration may now claim to represent the political energies and abilities and to command the loyalties of a united nation. [Cheers.] To support that Government, to make it a success, to make it an efficient instrument for waging war, to be loyal to it, to treat it fairly, and judge it with consideration and respect is not a matter of likes and dislikes, not a matter of ordinary political choice or option. It is for all of us a matter of self-preservation. [Cheers.] For nearly three weeks the country has had its attention diverted from the war by the business of Cabinet making and the dividing of offices and honours, and all those commonplace but necessary details of our political system which are so entertaining in time of peace. [Laughter.]
Now that is all over. It has taken long enough, but it is over, and I ask myself this question—What does the nation expect of the new National Government? I can answer my question. I am going to answer it in one word—action. [Loud cheers.] That is the need, that is the only justification, that there should be a stronger national sentiment, a more powerful driving force, a greater measure of consent in the people, a greater element of leadership and design in the rulers—that is what all parties expect and require in return for the many sacrifices which all parties have after due consideration made from their particular interests and ideals. Action—action, not hesitation; action, not words; action, not agitation. The nation waits its orders. The duty lies upon the Government to declare what should be done, to propose it to Parliament, and to stand or fall by the result. That is the message which you wish me to take back to London — Act; act now; act with faith and courage. Trust the people. They have never failed you yet.
Long speeches are not suited to the times in which we live, and, therefore, I shall detain you only a very few minutes more. As to the rights of the State in the hour of supreme need over all its subjects there can be no dispute. They are absolute. Nothing matters but that the nation lives and preserves that freedom without which life would be odious. The only question which arises is as to the degree to which it is necessary to exercise these indisputable rights. Now, I say frankly to you that if it were not possible to win this war without taking men by compulsion and sending them into the field, I should support such a measure; but I do not believe that it will be found necessary [cheers], and I am sure it is not necessary now. On the contrary, such is the character of our people that the only places which will never lack volunteers are the bloody trenches of France and Flanders. [Cheers.]
No nation has never at any time in history found such a spirit of daring and sacrifice widespread, almost universal, in the masses of its people. The French Revolution could not defend the soil of France without compulsion. The American Commonwealth could not maintain the integrity of its State without compulsion, but modern Britain has found millions of citizens who all of their own free will have eagerly or soberly resolved to fight and die for the principles at stake and to fight and die in the hardest, the cruellest, and the least rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. Why, that is one of the most wonderful and inspiring facts in the whole history of this wonderful island, and in afterdays, depend upon it, it will be taken as a splendid signal of the manhood of our race and of the soundness of our institutions. [Cheers.]
And having got so far, being now on the high road to three millions of men in the service of the Crown as Volunteers—having gone so far, to cast away this great moral advantage which adds to the honour of our Armies and to the dignity of our State, simply for the purpose of hustling into the firing line a comparatively small proportion of persons, themselves not, perhaps, the best suited to the job, who, even when taken, could not be for many months equipped to do that after all that happened would, it seems to me, be unwise in the extreme. [Cheers.]
But service at home, service for home defence and to keep our fighting men abroad properly supplied and maintained, that seems to me to stand on a different footing. Remember, we are confronted with a foe who would without the slightest scruple extirpate us, man, woman, and child, by any method open to him if he had the opportunity. We are fighting a foe who would not hesitate one moment to obliterate every single soul in this great country this afternoon if it could be done by pressing a button. We are fighting a foe who would think as little of that as a gardener would think of smoking out a wasps’ nest. Let us recognize that this is a new fact in the history of the world [cheers] or, rather, it is an old fact, sprung up out of the horrible abysses of the past.
We are fighting with a foe of that kind, and we are locked in mortal struggle. To fail is to be enslaved, or, at the very best, to be destroyed. Not to win decisively is to have all this misery over again after an uneasy truce, and to fight it over again, probably under less favourable circumstances and, perhaps, alone. Why, after what has happened, there could never be peace in Europe until the German military system has been so shattered and torn and trampled that it is unable to resist by any means the will and decision of the conquering Power. [Loud cheers.] For this purpose our whole nation must be organized [cheers] —must be socialized, if you like the word, must be organized and mobilized, and I think there must be asserted in some form or other—I do not attempt to prejudge that—but I think there must be asserted in some form or other by the Government, a reserve power to give the necessary control and organizing authority and to make sure that every one of every rank and condition, men and women as well, do, in their own way. their fair share. [Cheers.] Democratic principles enjoin it, social justice requires, national safety demands it, and I shall take back to London, with your authority, the message “Let the Government act according to its faith.” [Cheers.]
Above all. let us be of good cheer. [Cheers, and a voice, “Shame the devil and to hell with the Huns.”] Let us be of good cheer. 1 have told you how the Navy’s business has been discharged. You see for yourselves how your economic life and energy have been maintained without the slightest check, so that it is certain you can realize the full strength of this vast community. The valour of our soldiers has won general respect in all the Armies of Europe. [Cheers.] The word of Britain is now taken as the symbol and the hall mark of international good faith. The loyalty of our Dominions and Colonies vindicates our civilization, and the hate of our enemies proves the effectiveness of our warfare. [Cheers.] Yet I would advise you from time to time, when you are anxious or depressed, to dwell a little on the colour and light of the terrible war pictures now presented to the eye. See Australia and New Zealand smiting down in the last and finest crusade the combined barbarism of Prussia and of Turkey. [Cheers.] General Louis Botha holding South Africa for the King. [Cheers.] See Canada defending to the death the last few miles of shattered Belgium. Look further, and, across the smoke and carnage of the immense battlefield, look forward to the vision of a united British Empire on the calm background of a liberated Europe.
Then turn again to your task. Look forward, do not look backward. Gather afresh in heart and spirit all the energies of your being, bend anew together for a supreme effort. The times are harsh, need is dire, the agony of Europe is infinite, but the might of Britain hurled united into the conflict will be irresistible. We are the grand reserve of the Allied cause, and that grand reserve must now march forward as one man. [Loud and prolonged cheers.]
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