05 June 1915 – Churchill

Almost three weeks after Prime Minister Henry Asquith shook up his cabinet in the wake of negative press regarding the slow rate of arms and ammunition manufacture, Winston Churchill finds life dull without his former office. No longer the First Lord of the Admiralty thanks to the resignation of Baron John Fisher, the First Sea Lord who objected to his management of the Dardanelles Commission, Churchill is unsatisfied by the narrowly-defined role of Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster. Famously, this is the month in which he will take up oil painting to occupy his free time.

Today, he visits Dundee, a town he represents in Parliament, to give his constituents some idea of his feelings on the matter.

(F)or 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. 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, 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.

Seen from a century’s distance, Churchill’s remarks seem naive, even delusory. The German U-boat threat has in fact been rising all year, and will only increase with time. Indeed, the chauvinism sounded in statements about “the personal ascendancy of our men” places him far behind the learning-curve of British troops in the Dardanelles — a matter to which he now turns.

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 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.

In fact, Lord Kitchener’s old world, laissez-faire management is a primary reason why the embarrassment of the shell crisis has happened at all, while Kitchener’s dithering about the strategic choice to invade the Dardanelles has played an outsize role in creating the disaster. Yet Churchill is undeterred by the continuing failures at Gallipoli, but rather praises the military leaders responsible for the continuing debacle by name — and insists that victory is close at hand:

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.

To be sure, Churchill is correct that the conquest of the Dardanelles would surely bring great material relief to Russia, knock the Turks out of the war, and break the Central Powers. But these are the hopes for breakthrough, not the facts on the ground. A realistic appraisal of the Gallipoli Campaign would take into account Churchill’s repeated public statements beforehand in which he telegraphed his intentions to the Ottomans.

But this kind of introspection is too much to ask from Churchill, whose hubris has led him to reject any contrary or cautionary advice while promoting only that information and opinion which would bolster his case for attacking the Dardanelles. Rather than engage in self-examination, Churchill suggests that the real problem in Britain is that anyone would doubt his, or his government’s, awesome powers of mentation — especially in the press.

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. 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.

[…] 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.

[…] I do not think that the newspapers ought to be allowed to attack the responsible leaders of the nation, 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.

Churchill suggests that regardless of victory or defeat, the only measure of success for Britain’s new coalition government is whether it takes “action.”

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.

Churchill does offer one policy view, opposing conscription: “(I)f 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, and I am sure it is not necessary now.” The crowd cheers his words, but they are unduly optimistic, for with the eventual defeat at Gallipoli and the endless meat-grinder of the Western Front, Britain will be forced to adopt military conscription at the beginning of next year. After all, the stakes are so very high:

(W)e 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. For this purpose our whole nation must be organized —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. Democratic principles enjoin it, social justice requires it, national safety demands it, and I shall take back to London, with your authority, the message “Let the Government act according to its faith.”

October will see Churchill run out of London over the renewed failures of the Gallipoli Campaign. No one within the government has forgotten about his shameful adventures in Antwerp last September, either, so the public image of an incompetent dilettante will dominate his dismissal. In 1915, the future image of Winston Churchill as a great wartime leader seems like a joke.