Churchill: Villain of Gallipoli?

© 23 June 2022

History has misled us about this. Churchill was not guilty, as a book published by Seaforth reveals. In 'Churchill and Fisher', Barry Gough presents a formidable quantity of quotation from the various main players that supplies, definitively, all the evidence necessary to understand what occurred.

On July 27, 1911, Churchill attended a garden party at 10 Downing Street where he learned that the Home Office was responsible, through The Metropolitan Police, for guarding the magazines in which all the reserves of naval cordite were stored. These had been protected for many years by a few constables. He asked what would happen if twenty determined Germans in two or three motor cars arrived one night. He was told: 'They could do what they liked.' Churchill left the party and phoned the Admiralty from the Home Office.'Who was in charge?' The First Lord was with the fleet at Cromarty; the First Sea Lord was inspecting. An Admiral had been left in charge. Churchill demanded Marines at once to guard the magazines. The Admiral replied on the phone that the Admiralty had no responsibility and no intention of assuming any. Churchill rang up the War Office and demanded a company of infantry. By the next day the cordite reserves were safe. [1]

It is not hard to understand why Churchill was quickly appointed over the head of McKenna to head the Admiralty: he was the one person who had shown he understood the position and would act instantly to repair any defect. Time and again, Winston acted for the good of the country; yet every time, he was presumed by rivals to be acting for himself alone. Not so.

He was resented by every mediocrity because of these qualities of insight, rapid response and effective action for the good of the country, among others.

On 27th September, 1911, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the politician in charge. Born in 1874, he was then 37 and at the zenith of his ability. He had an original mind, constantly generating ideas, great energy to carry them out fully and, by then, had become a fine scholar, author of several valuable books and many articles in newspapers which, without much inherited money, enabled him to live well and finance his adventures. But that is to miss the point. Many regarded him as brilliant, for he was quick minded and a fine orator yet his most distinguishing characteristic was initiative: he would see instantly what needed to be done and move immediately to repair it. This is the classic quality of the exceptional leader; the one attribute many chosen to lead, fail in.

Examples of this in action are the Dunkirk Circus and the Antwerp adventure, p253. On 7th August 1914, under cover of cruisers and naval aircraft, the Royal Navy safely carried 120,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force across the Channel to defend the French left wing. If Germany could get Antwerp it would gain huge power from occupying waters opposite the R. Thames. Within a month, Churchill had formed a force of 15,000 men of the Naval Brigades which became in time the Royal marine Brigade. He crossed the channel back and forth frequently to confirm the forces needs were adequately provided for. This is the start of the 'Dunkirk circus' with Churchill at the centre of operations and decision making. 'Churchill plunged right in and proceeded to act strongly and independently, supported by his powerful office at the Admiralty of First Lord.' p258. The battle of the Marne checked the German race to the sea, but now the worrying scene shifted north to Antwerp. With Kitchener's support, Churchill's immediate scheme was to keep the Channel ports in Allied hands. The Belgian army, outnumbered, had fallen back on Antwerp. Churchill insisted that the city must be held. By October 2nd word reached the Foreign Office that the Belgian government might soon capitulate. If so, the BEF might have to withdraw or surrender. A few days before, Churchill sensing the danger, had burst into Kitchener's room pleading for permission to leave at once for Antwerp. Kitchener and Grey later decided they must consult Churchill in person, sent for him and he said he would go at once to the spot and send back a report. The First Lord started off again at midnight for Victoria Station bound not for Dunkirk but Antwerp.

Churchill's plan was put into operation. Two brigades of the Royal Naval Division were sent to Antwerp on 3rd or 4th October. Chaos and confusion reigned, in and around Antwerp. 'No one to direct, no one to disentangle the jumble.' p261. 'A man in a blue cloak took charge from an unseen pedestal crying out in Anglo-French, watching till the order he had created was installed with durable momentum.' It was Winston Churchill. It is hard to imagine the First Lord of the Admiralty directing traffic in a Belgian city. JMN Jeffries, Daily Mail correspondent, saw it and reported this. But it was never printed at the time.

A significant coda to this is that Churchill offered to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty and take charge of the troops defending Antwerp 'because I think this will produce a victorious result.' Asquith, the P.M. refused, not having understood the supreme excellence of Churchill's response to a great and immediate danger to his country. Kitchener noted that he was willing to commission Winston as a Lieutenant-General to supervise the operations in Antwerp, authorising him over all others. Genius understood and recognised.

What we are seeing in these actions is genius. Churchill is constantly engaged, full throttle, sees what is happening, immediately knows what to do about it and does it. He judges that he can be of more use leading the army in Antwerp and does not hesitate to give up his command of the Admiralty, a plum job, to lead instead a motley but necessary force. There is no holding back in Churchill. It is natural to him to take risks.

Contrast this with Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet who takes his warships to Scapa Flow about 700 miles away. Why is he not blockading the German Ships in their harbours? Because Jellicoe is afraid to risk his ships, even though he has twice as many battleships as the Germans and better experience. He hides his ships behind the islands at Scapa, treating them like sheep that must be protected from mines and torpedoes which had to be faced and solved. If Jellicoe had had three times as many battleships as the Germans, he would still not have risked his force in action, as any war leader had to do to assert his supremacy. Jellicoe's huge fleet should have been pressing all the German ports closely and their battle ships. He had to take risks and feared to do so.

But the new British ships were superb. Churchill had set about the task of building five new fast battle ships that (for the first time) ran on oil and had 15 inch guns that would fire a shell weighing a ton twenty miles. They were heavily armoured with a top speed of 25 knots. There were eight great guns on each ship. Chapter VI of Vol I The World Crisis is a riveting read which describes the design problems solved in the new battleships. WSC is bursting with enthusiasm for the project: to build the finest battleships of the age. To make it work, he had to consult ship designers, gun engineers, persuade them to extend the maximum range from 13.5 inches to 15 and change from steam to oil, which required storage tanks for the first time in the UK, take an over riding interest in the Arabian Oil company and install state-of-the-art turbines for the first time that would generate 25 knots and more.

For a year or two, WSC befriended Admiral Fisher who had been First Sea Lord until 1904 when he retired. Churchill persuaded him back into the job (of First Sea Lord) and then, for several months, they argued about everything until, when WSC had picked up a great deal of know-how, Fisher fell out with the First Lord because he was too often out argued by him. Fisher resigned and left Churchill to bear the brunt of the blame about the Dardanelles, which had been WSC's solution to the problem of the trenches stretching right across France to the Austrian/Italian border and the difficulty of advancing out of them.

The Turks were on the German side. Landing a force at Gallipoli and capturing the Dardanelles seemed a good idea. A single battleship like Queen Elizabeth, the first 15 inch gunship built, could anchor at the entry to the Dardanelles and destroy every fort on the Dardanelles with gunfire. WSC's own new marine divisions of 15,000 men could capture what was left of the forts and their garrisons without relying on the British Army [combined operations had not been tried yet]. Though the idea had been supported by all the main players including Kitchener and Asquith, who authorised it, p410, Fisher got cold feet and before resigning, ordered the return of Queen Elizabeth to UK waters to participate in crack brain schemes of his own in the Baltic: removing the one essential ship from the battle on the point of great success, for the Turks had run out of ammunition for their forts. The Germans planned to send a submarine full of ammunition: too late! Picked up by British Intelligence. Impossible that ammunition could have got there in time.

The men in charge of the British war effort had got cold feet.

Several old ships were destroyed by mines in the strait which worried some of the fearful old admirals. They forgot that British sea power depended on captains like Nelson for whom taking risks was essential,along with surprise, a blind eye to fearful commanders and careful planning. Many of them quickly acted to amend the record to read that they had had 'reservations' from the start. Not so. Why was Churchill left to take the blame? Because of his energy, initiative and incomparable ability to get things done immediately. For this, as never before, he was resented. Fisher made out that he personally had never been in favour. Untrue. He had been dazzled by Churchill at the beginning of their partnership but, as time went on, and Churchill became the master and moved across any boundaries taking decisions as he went, as ever, rightly, and winning all the battles, Fisher could not cope and reverted to an earlier, far less daring version of himself.

Yet, the two men came together as friends after the separation.

And Fisher understood Churchill's genius. On p445 Fisher writes: 'Everyone is running down Winston, nevertheless he has the fighting necessities in him: COURAGE, AUDACITY, CELERITY, IMAGINATION. These attributes don't exist in any single one of the 23! Not even Lloyd George! Who always stops at the last fence.'

Lord Selborne said of Winston: on p505, 'If any future First Lord finds himself in that great position in another Armageddon, I hope that the courage of Mr Churchill will wrap him as a cloak, but I hope also that he will shun as poison the temptation to do the work of his naval and technical advisers, of his administrative officers and of the Secretariat, as well as his own.' And yet, that was his strength, his incomparable insight, initiative and decisiveness.

Winston was resented for his ability, especially for overstepping the boundaries of his own job. Yet, with the cordite, the Dunkirk Circus and Antwerp, he acted correctly. No one else could have solved such problems so efficiently. Every other commander was asleep. Winston did not sleep, except when travelling between places to oversee decisions. As an enthusiastic scholar of warfare, of course he made himself the master of all its technical details very rapidly. It was what he lived for and he exulted in it as his books show clearly. His spirit, wrought by Blenheim, Harrow and Sandhurst, is the source of his excellence as a leader and his ambition to be the equal of his father. In fact, he excelled him. Thus all these years after 1917 were lived under the damnation of all the men who had protected their names by altering the documents. For twenty years, Winston was forgotten. He showed them. He did not recant. He was wrong about that: Turkey was a whole world away from the trenches in France. Taking the Dardanelles was not a solution to the multitude of deaths in the trenches. It was an error of strategy to suppose it was. There were 140,000 casualties at Gallipoli because the Generals were dilatory in getting ashore and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a man with the same rapid response to danger as WSC, commanded the 19th division on the heights above.

© William Scott, BA,BSc,MEd,FIMA,FSAScot


[1] In Vol 1 of The World Crisis, p34, by Winston, while Home Secretary.