The Place to Find All Things Churchill

A War of Combinations: Churchill and First Sea Lord A keynote address at the International Churchill Conference

By Barry M. Gough

Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1994-95

I WANT to speak today about a political combination that was profound and important. Prime Minister Asquith was fond of saying that when the history of the Great War came to be written in its totality; a “war of combinations” would be shown to exist. There were numerous alliances of convenience, axes of advancement, bold alliances of convenience established. And when he wrote this perhaps Asquith was pondering the powerful duo that came to the Admiral Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and Fisher as First Sea Lord.

These two irrepressible personalities joined forces to preserve the primacy of British sea power at its critical hour. It is well known they fell from grace and favor together over the ill-fated Dardanelles affair Strong differences existed between them from time to time. Though the curtain of Dardanelles shame long hung over him, Churchill was able to get even with his professional counterpart. The story is well told in the Great Contemporaries.

What follows here is not and cannot be about the traumatic affairs of 1915. I plan instead to discuss how Fisher and Churchill got to know each other, and how their relationship intertwined before they forged their great but cata strophic alliance during the first year of the Great War. Churchill was obviously feeling his way and ever on the rise at this time; Fisher was ever on the defensive, and on his way down.

My thoughts are derived from a larger project, a biography of Lord Fisher. Writing a biography of him is a challenge in itself, assessing his relationship with Churchill doubles the challenge. Both tasks are moving targets for the historian. Equally energetic, boldly assertive, incredibly active as to literary output, they dazzle my mind, as they have the minds of others. That both Churchill and Fisher left vast troves of letters will readily be appreciated by anyone who spends much time in the Churchill Archives Centre in England.

The Fisher correspondence, which is not yet fully collected, consists of large volumes of scraps of papers and carbon copies of letters; material enough already for one pioneering biography, and the great collection of letters put together by Arthur Marder.

The Churchill, or more correctly the Chartwell, papers are the basis on which the official biography and companion volumes have been constructed. Similar letters are to be found in the Fisher as well in the Churchill files, but the full story can’t be reconstructed around this double combination of documents. This is where historians have erred before.

For example, the papers of that great fixer of the Liberal Party, Lord Esher, which I quote here, provide a unique window on Fisher. Historians can, and indeed must, look through all other such windows, such as those of the Royal Archives in Windsor, the Balfour papers in the British Library, the Selborne papers recently published and a number of other documents. Not least the official papers of the Admiralty in the Public Record Office at Kew give the formal connection between the two greats of this Edwardian era. And I must comment that I’ve seen a number of biographies of Lord Fisher by people who have not even consulted the Admiralty papers at Kew, which is inexcusable.

Why did the Edwardians write so much? Why did they leave so many letters? I’ve not formulated any better answer than that they were incredibly busy, and anxious to keep up connections and establish new ones. In that unique, much vaunted age of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the shooting party, and of taking the waters at various spas at regular seasons, the Edwardians were above all peripatetic. That they were sexually active is well established, and that they kept grand houses and country estates is equally documented. They were always seeking to rendezvous, to make introductions and to have fun. They were pleasure seekers and they used the postal system just like our teenagers use their telephones. The train and the motorcar speeded their connections.

This was the new era of the gentleman capitalist; whereas heretofore the statesmen/politicians kept their hands free from commerce and investment, by the 1890s men like Joseph Chamberlain were stealing marches on the old Lord Salisburys of the age. Professionalism, as such, was yielding to new forces and political pressures. When Churchill arrived on the scene, wildly successful from soldiering and, above all, journalism, he represented one of the new voices that was finding earnest ears in Parliament. His rise to power after 1900 is well known. Within a decade he was overseeing the Senior Service. That he did his homework on the Navy, and that he threw himself energetically into the work of naval administration goes without saying. It was characteristically Churchillian. “Winston is less and less in politics and more and more absorbed in boilers,” complained David Lloyd George.

Churchill devoted countless hours to learning about ships, training, bases, strategy, tactics; he left no stone unturned in his quest for knowledge about the Navy. He went to sea as often as conveniently possible, he was not to be hoodwinked by admirals or by Navy tradition. Though he was devoted and absorbed by the Navy, he was not mesmerized by it.

LIKE Churchill, Fisher was a workaholic dedicated to the Navy and to the nation. He was a career professional of the new meritocracy. He owed …nothing to aristocratic connections or landed wealth, and everything to his own pluck, drive and intelligence. He came into the old gunboat Navy and rose with it to its phenomenal dreadnought status. A technological innovator keenest on submarines and on sub-hunting techniques, Fisher was also keen on the concentration of naval forces in the Grand Fleet and in deployment of various cruiser and destroyer squadrons.

He claims to have taken British maritime strategy north to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys as a counterweight to German naval primacy in the Baltic, which threatened British seaborne commerce in the North Sea. But Fisher also held to the necessity of retaining mastery of the Mediterranean, where he had been C-in-C before returning to the Admiralty in 1902 to reorganize and revamp every conceivable branch of the naval service. It is generally held that Fisher took a slumbering, even decadent, Navy of the late Victorian era and made it into a modern fighting machine. Such a view was convenient to Fisher’s supporters, such as Percy Scott, the gunnery expert. And it was equally acceptable to any hagiography, such as that accorded without much criticism by the great Arthur Marder.

But sheer zeal and dedication could not alone change or reconstruct a great naval war machine.

Moreover a great division had come about within the Navy between those who adhered to Fisher’s views-those known as the “fishpond”-and those who fought against Fisher’s partisanship. He always insisted that efficiency could be improved by advancing the interest of one’s friends. Everybody knows that. Fisher foolishly wrote it down.

Between 1902 and 1914 the Royal Navy faced two crises of immense proportions: the first was an internal struggle between Fisher and his opponent, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford; the second was the internal reorganization and financial reordering to build a fleet sufficient to deal with any threat that the Kaiser might set to sea.

Fisher’s failing was to exaggerate, to err-as Lord Selborne, a first Lord of the Admiralty, explained to Lord Curzon in 1901. Selborne found it aggravating to have to argue with Fisher and Beresford, “who exaggerate so systematically?’ and, he added, “who do not mind in the least being found out. The kind of balance sheet they draw up as between us and the French and the Russians [who were then regarded as potential enemies of Britain] is one in which we have no asset and the other party no liabilities”-and that, he added, was “totally absurd.”

Selborne also objected to the fact that Fisher concentrated on the Mediterranean, ignoring British responsibilities elsewhere. But Selborne and his colleagues needed a reformer who could bring through the manning question which was the most difficult problem in need of solution. Fisher had a reputation for organizational genius. In Fisher’s characteristics could be found those of the man of the moment. “His loyalty has not always been unimpeachable,” Selborne advised Lord Walter Kerr, the First Sea Lord; “his judgement is sometimes hasty and even flighty. He is supposed to think too much of number one. The arts of advertisement are not quite unknown to him…. [Fisher was also] impressionable, greatly affected by his environment, easily influencd in certain directions for good or evil.”

Selborne concluded that Kerr’s assessment of Fisher was correct and from this he deduced that at the Admiralty, Fisher would run straight. His particular sphere of work would not easily lend itself to disloyalty and so it was fixed. Fisher would come into the Admiralty, tackle the manning question, and remain under close surveillance.

But Lord Kerr was keen to caution Selborne that from Fisher’s new position as Second Sea Lord, he would be next in line by seniority and position to become First Sea Lord. As he put it bluntly~ “I should advise you to think a good deal before you place Fisher in this position. He certainly does not possess the confidence of the service and his appointment as Senior Naval Lord would be universally condemned.”

Kerr thought Fisher unreasonable in his demands for ever more resources. Moreover, he concluded with reason that Fisher had been guilty, when C-in-C Mediterranean, of feeding information to Navy Leaguers and kindred spirits, thus bringing the public into discussion of delicate matters, which was a breach of security. So the issue really came down to the question as to whether Selborne, the Cabinet and the government wanted Fisher as First Sea Lord in the end. Well, it seems that they did; to them it was necessary and convenient.

Fisher quickly rose in public esteem. He attracted wide acclaim by a banquet speech at the Royal Academy in October 1903, apparently his first public speech, in which he pressed for the Navy’s primacy as a claim on the state. The Army; he said, was useless, but the Navy had to be there in sufficient force. Fisher tended to look on the Army as Marines, or as “a projectile to be fired by the Navy,” as he was wont to say. Fisher and others actually recommended that the War Office be organized along the lines of the Admiralty, much to the ire of the former. Some must have thought that it was the regressive Admiralty, without any semblance of a naval staff to plan and direct a war at sea, which ought to have been reformed-and along Army lines.

Fisher rejoiced in his new, expanded position. He adored the attention of the press and the notoriety of the moment. His métier, he confessed, was that of the mole. “Trace me by upheavals. When you see the Admirals rise it’s that damn fellow Jack Fisher talking the rise out of them,” he confided to Lord Esher. And as Kerr had anticipated, Fisher advanced to First Sea Lord. This he did on Trafalgar Day 1904.

THE state of foreign affairs advances quickly towards the precipice. No matter the chaos of the Senior Service environment that Fisher worked in, the rise of Germany commanded the government’s attention. Fisher stood ready for war. “He is a splendid chap,” wrote one foreign official, “and simply longs to have a go at Germany” Dreadnoughts were laid down, and battle-cruisers too. Fisher convinced his seniors, especially the First Lord of the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna, that the Navy could get more for less money by building the all-turret big gun ships and scrapping those ships too slow or too old to run away He pressed on with submarine design, and remarked that the existence of enemy submarines in number would prevent any fleet in the Mediterranean or English Channel from remaining at sea continuously Fisher believed Admirals and politicians looked on submarines as playthings, but he deviously got some funds from another source within his estimates and began the construction of a British submarine fleet.

In all these matters, as in his relations with his fellow Lords of the Admiralty, there were constant upheavals and the continuing new mounds of the mole, to use Fisher’s own analogy, appeared across the political spectrum.

If he had his detractors, he also had his supporters. The Conservative statesman, Arthur Balfour, wrote at the end of Fisher’s first year as First Sea Lord:

I’ve been in the closest touch with the Admiralty since he became First Sea Lord and I have discussed with him many of the schemes which the Board of Admiralty has since carried into effect, even before he belonged to it. The policy begun by Lord Selborne and carried on by Lord Cawdor has been a revolutionary one and if the revolution be beneficent, as I am confident that it is, there can be no doubt that the part played by Sir John Fisher differs not in degree only, but in kind, from the majority of First Sea Lords. This of course does not mean that the latter have fallen short in their duty, we do not want revolutions every five years; but it does, so happen, that the very moment when the changing conditions of naval sea power rendered administrative revolution necessary, in Sir John Fisher was found a man of genius peculiarly fitted to aid in its execution.

Now there’s a fine assessment from the young Arthur Balfour. Later on, in 1916-17, Fisher’s papers are filled with terrible things that he wrote about Balfour, but that was ten years later and circumstances had altered.

CHURCHILL encountered Fisher for the first time in Biarritz in 1907.

Apparently, they talked for hours. Churchill wrote later of this “He was then First Sea Lord and at the height of his reign.

We talked all day long and far into the nights. He told me wonderful stories of the Navy and of his plans, all about dreadnoughts, all about submarines, all about the new education scheme for every branch of the Navy, all about big guns and splendid Admirals, and foolish miserable ones, and Nelson, and the Bible and finally the island of Borkkum. I remembered it all. I reflected on it often. I even remembered the island of Borkkum when my teacher has ceased to think so much of it. At any rate when I returned to my duties at the Colonial Office, I could have passed an examination on the policy of the then Board of Admiralty.”

Back in London, Fisher sent a flood of crisp letters to Churchill, then Undersecretary of State for the Colonies. Churchill could not have been surprised by the secrets and the advice voluntarily coming his way from the Admiralty. He was doubtless delighted by his new confidant.

We have evidence that Fisher had equally positive thoughts about the young Churchill. The most pressing issue in the internal affairs of the Navy at that time was Fisher’s feud with Beresford. On New Year’s Day 1908, as Fisher confided to the omnipresent screed of the Liberal Party; Lord Esher, Churchill arrived unexpectedly at the Admiralty and whirled Fisher off to the Ritz for two hours: “He is very keen to fight on my behalf, and is simply boiling at fury at Lord Beresford and company but I’ve told him the watchword is silence.” Fisher called Churchill “an enthusiastic friend” who could get six men on both sides of the House to fight for Fisher, by which is meant he could garner sufficient bipartisan support to save Fisher. “It was rather sweet,” Fisher told Esher; “he said his penchant far me was that I painted with a big brush and was violent.”

The disposition of the British Fleet over the Moroccan crisis was then in everybody’s mind. The diplomats scurried for a solution with Germany What would happen if Morocco came into German possession right across from Gibraltar? Fisher and his fellow admiral, Sir Arthur Wilson, kept in their heads the secrets of naval deployment in the emergency, and they based their plan entirely on a secret scheme that only they knew. In fact there may have been no maritime strategy at all except the traditional one of gathering naval units in a form of concentration, preparing some draft instructions and making hurried preparations.

Whitehall, since 1902, had tried to make some sense of the difficulties existing between the War Office and the Admiralty and had even set up a coordinating war planning group, the Committee on Imperial Defence, chaired by the Prime Minister. But generally this group resented Fisher’s secret ways. In fact, the Navy didn’t have a plan fur a naval war, and Fisher liked it that way Beresford’s inquiry into this lack was to be Fisher’s undoing, for it placed him on the defensive. He was an easy and vulnerable target when the inquiry committee, chaired by Asquith, concluded its deliberations. His policy was defended but the Admiralty’s policies and procedures were now under review.

Fisher could have made peace with Beresford, said Sir Edward Grey, but Fisher was adamant to the end, and always truculent. He regarded parlaying with politicians as scandalous. “These politicians are a flabby lot,” he wrote to Esher. He foolishly refused to understand that forces in opposition to him were gathering strength far beyond his own means of control. Even Churchill’s friendly promise of intervention couldn’t save him. A black cloud came over the Admiralty, and settled over Fisher, who was consumed in respect to the Beresford affair. He declined in stature in the eyes of his fellow naval officers. Prince Louis of Battenberg, regarded by many as one of the best of the Navy’s admirals, concluded of Fisher,

He is truly a great man and almost all his schemes have benefitted the Navy but he has started this pernicious partisanship in the Navy. There is no denying it. Anyone who is in any way opposed to Fisher went under. His hatred of Beresford has led him to maintain for the past two years an organization of home forces which was indefensible.

This assessment of Fisher grows in merit, for Battenberg had no reason to like Beresford either. The latter had told Battenberg, in the latter’s words, “that I was a damn German and had no business in the British Navy and that the Service for that reason did not trust me.” This was fully eight years before the war, when Battenberg, then First Sea Lord, could take it no longer and resigned from that post because of prejudice against his German heritage. It was this resignation that brought Fisher back to the Admiralty when Churchill was First Lord.

NINETEEN nine, the last year of Fisher’s first term as First Sea Lord, brought an argument over how many dreadnoughts the Navy should have. Some historians argue that Fisher was not a keen supporter of the dreadnought class of battleship. I don’t know how they could have come to such a conclusion, for once in a position of influence as First Sea Lord, Fisher always argued for more of everything. His cleverness at exploiting the press to win support was well known. Early in 1909 the Cabinet quarrelled over the number of dreadnoughts, four or six, and as was said so amusingly; they compromised on eight.

Fisher put Churchill in the “little Navy?’ faction when he and Lloyd George argued for only four dreadnoughts. They threatened resignation, apparently Lord Esher wrote, “Winston wanted me to tell Jacky Fisher that as fond of him as ever, he would quit office rather than agree to six dreadnoughts.” But the press had taken up cry, “we want eight and we can’t wait,” promoted and orchestrated by Fisher for a public increasingly worried about Imperial Germany?s rise to naval influence. Churchill was quick to repair his fences with Fisher, but Fisher was unrepentant, writing Churchill,

I appreciate your kind motive in writing me your long letter of today’s date. I confess I never expected you to turn against the Navy after all you had said in public and in private. Et tu Brute. I’m sure that you won’t expect me to enter into any discussion with you as there can only be one exponent of the Admiralty case, the First Lord, and at lack of foresight on the part of the Admiralty the Sea Lords expressed their grave anxiety in a memorandum presented to the First Lord in December 1907. The Cabinet ignored that anxiety and cut down the estimates. You want to do the same again. We can take no risk this year, last year we did. We felt then there would be time to pull up, the margin is now exhausted. I reciprocate your grief at our separation, I retain the memory of many pleasant duets.

Admiral Gretton in his Former Naval Person (1968) says that Fisher harbored no real resentment, but this isn’t true. Fisher, ever a partisan, was always on the lookout for enemies. Churchill and Lloyd George, who’d forged an alliance of convenience, were targeted by Fisher as enemies for the future. After Fisher had winkled out his four extra dreadnoughts in the enlarged naval estimates of that year, he couldn’t contain his delight, suggesting to Churchill that they ought to be christened “#1 Winston, #2 Churchill, #3 Lloyd and #4 George. How they would fight! Uncircumventable!”

But Fisher was on his way out by then, and by the end of 1909 he was finished. He was immediately elevated to the peerage, entered the House of Lords and took an early retirement at

Killverstone near Thetford. His retirement was not permanent, for he was soon working the back rooms again, and casting a watchful eye on Churchill and Lloyd George.

Churchill says that everyone believed that Fisher was permanently retired, “crowned with achievements and loaded with honours but pursued with much obloquy amid the triumph of his foes.” But strange to say; despite the departure and the previous duels of the two, in October 1914, Churchill brought Fisher back to be First Sea Lord. And that is another story.

© The International Churchill Society. All Rights Reserved.

Related Story

Join Now

Join or Renew NowPlease join with us to help preserve the memory of Winston Churchill and continue to explore how his life, experiences and leadership are ever-more relevant in today’s chaotic world. BENEFITS >BECOME A MEMBER >

The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.

At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.