Acclaimed British historian Sir Martin Gilbert continues the official biography of Sir Winston S. Churchill the eventful period between 1914 and 1916, with a full account of his achievements as first lord of the Admiralty during the Great War. These include Churchill’s efforts to prolong the siege of Antwerp, his support for the use of air power, and his part in the early development of the tank. It shows the forcefulness with which he argued for an offensive naval policy, first against Germany, then against Turkey.
Gilbert examines the political crisis of May 1915, during which the Conservative Party forced Asquith to form a coalition government. The Conservatives insisted that Churchill leave the center of war policymaking for a position of increasing political isolation. In the next seven months, while the Gallipoli campaign was being fought, Churchill served as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with no authority over military or naval policy.
Resigning from the cabinet in November 1915, Churchill was appointed lieutenant-colonel, commanding an infantry battalion in the trenches of the Western Front. In May 1916, he returned from the trenches, hoping to reenter political life, but his repeated attempts to regain his once-substantial influence were unsuccessful.
“A milestone, a monument, a magisterial achievement . . . rightly regarded as the most comprehensive life ever written of any age.” —Andrew Roberts, historian and author of The Storm of War
“The most scholarly study of Churchill in war and peace ever written.” —Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times
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About the Author
During forty-eight years of research and writing, Sir Martin published eighty books, including The First World War, The Second World War, and a three-volume History of the Twentieth Century. He also wrote, as part of his series of ten historical atlases, Atlas of the First World War, and, most recently, Atlas of the Second World War.
Sir Martin’s film and television work included a documentary series on the life of Winston Churchill. His other published works include Churchill: A Photographic Portrait, In Search of Churchill, Churchill and America, and the single volume Churchill: A Life.
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'A Really Happy Man'
Churchill's instinct was not for war with Germany. During the Agadir crisis in 1911, when Germany had seemed to be willing to hustle France into war for the sake of a small port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, Churchill had been attracted, not to war but to the idea of an alliance which might deter the Germans from aggression. In search of a deterrent, he had, while Home Secretary, proposed a triple alliance between Britain, France and Russia, hoping thereby to safeguard the independence of Belgium, Holland and Denmark without hostilities. From the moment of the Agadir crisis, he focused his mind increasingly upon world affairs. He believed that international chaos could come as easily to Europe as to Africa or Asia. This new concern of Churchill's had influenced the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, in sending him to the Admiralty in October 1911. The principal task with which Asquith entrusted him was to ensure that the Royal Navy did not find itself in a position where Germany could gain sudden advantage over it.
While Churchill was at the Admiralty he pressed for agreement with Germany, and hoped for a relaxation of the naval arms race. On 20 May 1914 he wrote to Asquith and to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, asking whether they would agree to his meeting Admiral Tirpitz, in order to discuss four specific proposals for improved Anglo-German naval relations. Churchill wanted to reduce what he described to them as 'the unwholesome concentration of fleets in home waters', proposing that Britain and Germany agree to send their ships to African and Far Eastern stations. He advised 'the abandonment of secrecy' over a wide spectrum of naval information about all British and German ships, whether already launched or still under construction. He suggested that British and German Naval Attachés should be given 'equal and reciprocal facilities to visit the dockyards and see what was going on'. Such an exchange, he wrote, 'would go a long way to stopping the espionage on both sides which is a continued cause of suspicion and ill feeling'. Churchill wanted these discussions to take place in the last week of June 1914. But Grey deprecated the plan, writing to both Churchill and Asquith on May 25 that a meeting with Tirpitz would make 'a terrible splash in the European press', and that as a result of it 'the wildest reports will be circulated and we shall be involved in constant explanations to Ambassadors at the Foreign Office and denials in the press of the things that will be attributed to us'. Grey argued from a position of seniority and long experience of European affairs; the plan to meet Tirpitz was abandoned. Still hoping to ease Anglo-German naval tensions, in the middle of June Churchill sent a British naval squadron to the Kiel regatta. 'Officers and men,' he later wrote in The World Crisis, 'strolled arm in arm through the hospitable town, or dined with all goodwill in mess and wardroom. Together they stood bareheaded at the funeral of a German officer killed in flying an English seaplane.'
On June 28, while the Kiel regatta was still in progress, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo. Churchill did not see this as the prelude to any conflict involving Britain. He had confidence in the power of diplomacy to resolve a crisis, should one develop. He did not believe that Germany would dare to challenge British naval power which he had so augmented since becoming First Lord. Underlying his Admiralty policies was his calculation, made in 1912, that by 1920 the balance of naval forces would be such that no European state would risk a war which might bring in Britain as an enemy.
During the three weeks following Franz Ferdinand's assassination, Austria and Russia became increasingly belligerent. Germany pressed Austria in its quarrel with Serbia. It seemed inevitable that France would join its ally Russia in any Russo-German war. Britain stood aside, little perturbed by the sight of Europe in disarray. The Cabinet's concern was over the mounting violence in Ireland, where daily increasing turmoil seemed about to pitch the Catholic Irish and the Ulster Protestants into civil war. On July 22 Churchill wrote to Grey about a possible solution to the Irish question. By way of analogy, he referred to the European crisis; if the problem were to uphold British interests in Europe, he explained to the Foreign Secretary, 'you wd proceed by two stages. First you wd labour to stop Austria & Russia going to war: second, if that failed, you wd try to prevent England, France, Germany & Italy being drawn in.' Churchill took for granted the need for conciliation in Europe as in Ireland. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George took a similar view, assuring the House of Commons on the following day that 'civilization' would have no difficulty in regulating disputes which arose between nations, by means 'of some sane and well-ordered arbitrament'.
During July Churchill had ordered a test mobilization of the Third Fleet to take place in the English Channel. This mobilization had been decided upon earlier in the year as part of the naval economy insisted upon by the Cabinet; manoeuvres, with whole Fleets deployed over vast areas of ocean, had been considered too expensive. The mobilization had nothing to do with the European crisis. On July 19, when it was satisfactorily ended, the ships of every Fleet, including seventy battleships, had passed in front of the Royal Yacht at Spithead while King George V had taken the salute. No sense of crisis had interfered with the pageantry of the occasion. On July 23 the ships were ready to disperse; their captains made plans to return to their respective ports. Churchill saw no reason to halt this process of dispersal and demobilization. That evening he returned from Spithead to London to prepare for the Cabinet meeting to be held on the following day, Friday July 24. Ireland dominated the agenda. Home Rule was now a certainty. But the Protestants of Ulster insisted upon secession. The Cabinet spent much time in arguing about the precise boundaries that should be drawn between a self-governing Ulster and the autonomous South. Churchill recalled in The World Crisis how, 'turning this way and that in search of an exit from the deadlock', he and his colleagues, 'toiled around the muddy byways of Fermanagh and Tyrone', but without result:
The discussion had reached its inconclusive end, and the Cabinet was about to separate, when the quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey's voice were heard reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to Serbia. He had been reading or speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed. We were all very tired, but gradually as the phrases and sentences followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind. This note was clearly an ultimatum; but it was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times. As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.
The Cabinet broke up late that afternoon. On the following day Asquith informed George V about the European crisis. 'Happily,' he wrote, 'there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.' Churchill shared Asquith's view that Britain could keep out of the European war, and on the evening of July 24 had postponed an Admiralty conference which had been fixed for the following morning. He decided to spend part of the weekend with his wife Clementine and their two children, Diana and Randolph, who were staying at Cromer on the Norfolk coast. Clementine Churchill was expecting their third child in October. Writing that evening, Churchill gave her an outline of the day's events:
My darling one,
I have managed to put off my naval conference and am coming to you & the kittens tomorrow by the 1 o'clock train.
I will tell you all the news then. Europe is trembling on the verge of a general war. The Austrian ultimatum to Servia being the most insolent document of its kind ever devised. Side by side with this the Provincial Govt in Ulster wh is now imminent appears comparatively a humdrum affair.
We are to go ahead with the Amending Bill, abolishing the time limit & letting any Ulster county vote itself out if it chooses. The Irish acquiesced in this reluctantly.
We must judge further events in Ulster when they occur. No one seems much alarmed.
Tender & fondest love W
In a postscript Churchill told his wife that he was dining that night with Sir Ernest Cassel to meet the German shipowner Albert Ballin. After the dinner he sat next to Ballin, who expressed the fear, Churchill recalled in The World Crisis, that an Austrian attack on Serbia would lead to a general European war. 'If Russia marches against Austria, we must march,' Ballin told Churchill; 'and if we march France must march, and what would England do?' Churchill replied that he could not know what Britain's decision would be if Germany and France were at war. The Cabinet would have to decide. But, he added, it would be a mistake for Germany to assume that England would do nothing in such an eventuality. The British Government, he said, 'would judge events as they arose'. In his biography of Albert Ballin, published in 1922, Bernhard Huldermann wrote of how, when Churchill took leave of Ballin, he 'implored him, almost with tears in his eyes, not to go to war'.
On the morning of Saturday July 25 Churchill discussed the crisis at length with the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg. The reservists who had taken part in the test mobilization of the Fleet were already on their way home. The Fleets which were then at Portland were to remain there until early on Monday morning, when they too would be dispersed. That afternoon, convinced that war might be avoided, Churchill left London to join his family at Cromer.
At nine o'clock on Sunday morning, July 26, Churchill telephoned Prince Louis from Cromer and learned that Austria was apparently dissatisfied with Serbia's conciliatory reply to its ultimatum. He went to the beach, and for three hours played with his children, returning to the town at noon to speak to Prince Louis again. This time he learned more disturbing news: the Austrian Government had entirely rejected Serbia's answer. Churchill and Prince Louis discussed what action ought to be taken. It proved difficult to conduct Admiralty business on the telephone. Churchill believed, as he wrote to Prince Louis a year later, on 12 August 1915, that he had specifically asked Prince Louis 'not to let the Fleet disperse'. Prince Louis recalled the conversation differently. In a letter to Churchill on 13 August 1915 he denied that Churchill had given him specific instructions to halt the dispersal of the Fleet, but had instead, he recalled, 'begged me to take whatever steps I might consider advisable without waiting to consult you over the telephone. ... I had great difficulty in hearing you ... I certainly never heard any reference to keeping the Fleet together.' According to his own recollection, Prince Louis had gone at once to the Foreign Office, looked at all the European telegrams, re-read the Admiralty orders under which the Fleet was to be dispersed, and then, at five minutes past four, had, entirely on his own initiative, telegraphed to the Commander of the Home Fleets, Sir George Callaghan, ordering him not to disperse the Fleet. Prince Louis' telegram, which was unsigned, read: 'Admiralty to C in C Home Fleets. Decypher. No ships of First Fleet or Flotillas are to leave Portland until further orders. Acknowledge.'
Churchill reached London at ten that evening. He went at once to see Grey, who was already discussing the crisis with his Private Secretary, Sir William Tyrrell. Grey told Churchill that although he did not think that a really dangerous moment had yet been reached, the situation was grave. Austria clearly intended to force her quarrel with Serbia to the point of war. Churchill asked whether it would be helpful if the Admiralty were to issue a public statement announcing that the dispersal of the Fleet had been halted. Grey and Tyrrell both urged him to make the announcement at the earliest possible moment, telling him that it would serve as a salutary warning to both Germany and Austria. Churchill returned to the Admiralty, and together with Prince Louis drafted an official communiqué: 'Orders have been given to the First Fleet, which is concentrated at Portland, not to disperse for manoeuvre leave for the present. All vessels of the Second Fleet are remaining at their home ports in proximity to their balance crews.'
This communiqué appeared as a small item of information in the newspapers on the following morning. 'It looked innocent enough,' Churchill wrote after the war in an unpublished note, 'but we hoped the German Emperor at any rate would understand.' The Times approved the announcement as 'a welcome earnest of our intention to be ready for any course'. During the morning Churchill telephoned his wife, anxious to hear her reaction. He was upset when she told him that she had not seen the announcement in the papers. Later that day she wrote to him: 'I scampered home "with back & tail outstretched" & devoured the Times from cover to cover including advertisements & agony column but it wasn't there! The edition of the Times delivered in this distant spot, I suspect of being printed overnight!'
The first Cabinet specifically devoted to the European crisis met on the morning of Monday July 27. Neither Churchill nor his colleagues could tell in which direction events might move once Austria invaded Serbia. Russia might come to Serbia's immediate aid. Germany, adhering to her alliance with Austria, might attack Russia. France, bound by her alliance, might come to Russia's aid by attacking Germany. Germany might seek to anticipate an attack by France, and press for a decisive victory in the west before serious fighting could begin in the east. If Germany did strike at France, what would Britain do? No formal alliance committed Britain to defend France against a German attack. Britain's only relevant treaty obligation in Europe was to uphold Belgian neutrality. Churchill was convinced that Asquith meant to challenge German aggression, whether it was against Belgium or France. But at the Cabinet that Monday a majority of the Ministers were not prepared to go to war with Germany on account of a German attack on France. They argued that Britain had no treaty obligations to France, and that the Entente Cordiale of 1904 was not a binding alliance but a sentimental liaison. 'The Cabinet,' Churchill later wrote in an unpublished note, 'was absolutely against war and would never have agreed to being committed to war at this moment.'
As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill's duty was to do all in his power to ensure that, if war came, the Navy was prepared. That afternoon he went to 10 Downing Street and obtained Asquith's approval for the setting up of special guards on all ammunition supplies and oil tanks. Orders were also sent out from the Admiralty for armed guards to man all coastal lights and guns. Aircraft were collected around the Thames Estuary to guard against Zeppelin attack. At a conference held under the joint auspices of the Admiralty and the War Office, the Press agreed to accept voluntary censorship, and to publish no further facts about ship or troop movements which the Government considered detrimental to national security. That night Churchill telegraphed to the Naval Commanders of all British Fleets and Squadrons scattered about the oceans: 'European political situation makes war between triple alliance and triple entente Powers by no means impossible. This is not the warning telegram but be prepared to shadow possible hostile men- of-war. ... Measure is purely precautionary. The utmost secrecy is to be observed and no unnecessary person is to be informed.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Winston S. Churchill Volume III The Challenge Of War 1914–1916"
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements to the New Edition,
1 'A REALLY HAPPY MAN',
2 THE FIRST MONTH OF WAR,
3 'THE ADMIRALTY IS NOW ON ITS TRIAL',
4 THE DEFENCE OF ANTWERP,
5 THE RETURN OF LORD FISHER,
6 THE TURKISH PUZZLE,
7 'OUR TROOPS ARE ROTTING',
8 BY SHIPS ALONE,
9 THE SEARCH FOR MEN,
10 THE ASSUMPTION OF VICTORY,
11 18 MARCH 1915: THE NAVAL ATTACK,
12 25 APRIL 1915: THE GALLIPOLI LANDINGS,
14 'I THOUGHT HE WOULD DIE OF GRIEF',
16 THE DUCHY OF LANCASTER,
17 UNHEEDED COUNSEL,
18 'THE ESCAPED SCAPEGOAT',
19 THE SEVEN-DAY GENERAL,
20 IN TRAINING,
22 'YOU CAN BE PRIME MINISTER',
24 'MY TRUE WAR STATION',
25 'I AM LEARNING TO HATE',
26 CAST ASIDE,
General Reference Maps,
Index of documents quoted,