Winston Churchill as a young manSir Edward Grey (left) Winston Churchill This is the first of thee blogs detailing Winston Churchill’s bizarre behaviour in the first months of the war.

War broke on Churchill like an early Christmas morning, full of excitement and anticipation. He wrote privately to his wife Clementine, ‘I am … geared up and fascinated by war. Is it not horrible to be built like that? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me’.  [1] His hideous fascinations took many forms and were to have serious consequences for the prolongation of war. He had lived for war with Germany.  After his initiation into the Committee of Imperial Defence on 23 August 1911 he worked relentlessly to ensure that the Royal Navy was fully prepared for war. Churchill had given the order to mobilize the fleet without seeking Cabinet approval and on 29 July, 1914, under his strictly secret instructions, eighteen miles of warships, ‘gigantic castles of steel’ as he termed them, rushed through the Straits of Dover in the blackness of the night to the safety of Scapa Flow. [2] He was thirty-nine years of age, had every advantage of privilege bestowed on him by birth, was arguably the third most powerful man in the Cabinet after the prime minister and foreign secretary, in command of the world’s most powerful navy, and still he was not satisfied.

He was his own worst enemy. In the Cabinet meetings immediately preceding war, Asquith found him ‘very bellicose and demanding immediate mobilisation’. [3] He talked incessantly, often persuasively, but was mostly disinterested in the opinion of others. [4] Such behaviour ill becomes a headstrong child far less a Cabinet minister and was considered offensive by colleagues with whom he shared the awesome responsibility for running a war. Part of Churchill’s problem was that he remained insensitive to his Cabinet colleagues and did not hesitate to tell them how he thought they should carry out their business. He had developed a deep friendship with his mentor, Sir Edward Grey, was tolerated with benign acceptance by Prime Minister Asquith and retained the confidence of Lloyd George. But he was not popular. The Conservatives distrusted him and took every opportunity to belittle him. Many in his own party and in the Labour party harboured cold memories of his treatment of trade unionists, but in August 1914, others predicted that he was the coming man, Asquith’s successor. [5] The Secret Elite would probably have allowed him to take charge of a war cabinet had he not contrived to lay himself open to ridicule and blame.

Churchill’s approach was often very  Sir Edward Grey (left) Winston Churchill self-centred but in matters of international business he was guided by Sir Edward Grey with whom he had formed a close working partnership. With war on the immediate horizon, Churchill requisitioned four ships, two Dreadnoughts destined for Turkey and two destroyers that had been ordered by Chile which were nearing completion in British shipyards. On 29 July Foreign Office officials warned the Admiralty that crews had already arrived to collect the newly launched ships which had been paid for by Turkey. The Sultan Osman I had taken on fuel and was under orders to sail for Istanbul at once, even though unfinished. Churchill immediately ordered security forces to guard the vessels and to prevent the Turkish crews from boarding and raising the Ottoman flag. [6]  He was aware that these ships meant a great deal to the Ottoman Turks who were gravely insulted by the enforced repossession. [7] Indeed many saw this as an act of overt provocation and given that Turkey was at that point neutral, his decision was probably illegal. The two ships had been financed by public subscription and their anticipated arrival caused great excitement. A Navy-Week celebration had been planned to welcome these great battleships to Constantinople for they were intended to form the backbone of a modern Ottoman navy.

In the first days of the war bizarre decisions in the Mediterranean robbed the Allies of an early victory against the enemy. From the 28 July the Admiralty knew that a German battlecruiser, the Goeben, in conjunction with a single light cruiser, the Breslau, was cruising between the North African coast and Sicily with dangerous intent. It was assumed that these ships had orders to intercept and disrupt French transport ships taking colonial troops from Algeria to France in the event of war. [8] The Goeben in particular represented a major prize for a joint French and British Mediterranean fleet of some three battlecruisers, four armoured cruisers, four light cruisers and fourteen destroyers. The Adriatic was closed off by Rear Admiral Troubridge and the western exit from the Mediterranean was blocked at Gibraltar.

SMS_Goeben-ptbow3Despite the huge numerical advantage of the British and French fleets, the two German ships were allowed to escape through the Dardanelles and steamed safely into Constantinople. Turkey was at that point still nominally neutral and so bound by treaty to block entry to the Goeben and Breslau. However, the Turkish government had signed a secret pact with Germany on 2 August, 1914 [9] though this had not been formally announced. After two days of negotiation, diplomatic problems were circumvented when the German government ‘gifted’ both ships to the Turkish navy. In a brief ceremony on 16 August, they officially became the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Midilli, though they retained their German crews.

Although Sir Edward Grey was at great pains to insist in his memoirs that ‘what went on inside the Admiralty was not known to me’ [10] two facts fly in the face of that assertion. Firstly, Grey and Churchill were known to be close friends, and had worked in consort to rush through the Anglo-Persian Oil Bill just days before the war. They certainly appreciated the importance of Turkey and the remnants of the Ottoman Empire for the future of the near and middle-east. Safeguarding the oil was part of that strategy. Secondly, it was the Foreign Office that warned the Admiralty about the danger of the battleships leaving for Turkey before they were finally completed. Clearly Grey’s department was keeping a close eye on the situation, so Winston Churchill’s action was entirely in line with the foreign policy they were pursuing. It was a policy that had never been raised in Cabinet.

The harbour at Constantinople, 1914The First Lord of the Admiralty reaped what he had sown. The Kaiser’s ‘gift’ of two warships had an enormously positive impact on Turkish popular opinion and drew them to Germany’s side [11] And it was a decision that suited the Foreign Office and all of the Secret Elite’s pre-war planning. Their unilateral promise to give Constantinople to Russia as a reward for crushing Germany would have been exceptionally difficult had Turkey remained neutral, and impossible had she joined with the allies. By pushing the Goeben and the Breslau into the Dardanelles, the British navy simultaneously pushed Turkey into the German camp.

In the aftermath of the Goeben’s daring dash to Constantinople, and bristling with anger at the requisitioning of her dreadnoughts, Turkey cancelled her maritime agreement with Britain on 15 August 1914. Asquith proved himself to be completely out of touch when he boldly informed Venetia Stanley that ‘we shall insist that the Goeben should be manned by a Turkish and not a German crew … as the Turkish sailors cannot navigate her, except on the rocks or mines.’ [12] Ah, the myth of the stereotypical hapless foreigner ran deep in the British psyche. Was he really surprised when, on 28 October Turkey formally entered the war against Britain? More importantly, despite Asquith’s bold claims, the German commander, Rear Admiral Souchon retained command of his ships and was placed in overall charge of the Ottoman navy. On the 29th and 30th October, Asquith’s over-optimism proved to be embarrassingly ill-judged when the Breslau and a Turkish Squadron under German direction destroyed Russian naval installations in the Black Sea.

Admiral Souchon (third from left)Churchill later construed the Goeben’s escape as the ‘Curse’ which ‘descended irrevocably upon Turkey and the East’. [13] With what became a signature stamp of his literary style, Winston Churchill offered his personal analysis of events with eloquent hindsight, concluding that ‘the Goeben, already the fastest capital unit [warship] in the Mediterranean…[was] carrying with her for the peoples of the East and the middle East, more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever been borne within the compass of a ship.’ [14] So there we have it; the blame for all the misery caused by war in the middle-East was due to the Goeben, and presumably, Rear Admiral Souchon. It was convenient to blame the Goeben and the Breslau, to blame the British admirals for failing to stop their escape or to blame the French for failing to communicate effectively with the British Mediterranean Fleet. We are asked to believe that a battle fleet from the greatest navy the world had ever seen, aided by its allies, made such catalogue of errors that the two hunted German ships were able to slip through to safety. Look at a map of the Mediterranean. The Goeben and the Breslau were shepherded into the Bosphorous.

Black Sea and entrance to the MediteraneanInside this blame-fuelled culture a darker spectre lurked. Once the Turkish navy was secured behind the powerful German ships, the Admiralty could beat its breast and the Foreign Office lament the consequences, but Constantinople was safe from Russian occupation. Sir Edward Grey and the Foreign Office, had engaged in secret and longstanding diplomatic arrangements with Russia to lure them into war by promising the ultimate prize of Constantinople. It was a false promise; one of many false promises, and it would never have been honoured. Britain and Russia still had unfinished business in Persia and the near east. If Russia had gained access to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea fleet might at some future point sail to the Suez Canal and threaten the life-line to India. That was inconceivable. Utterly inconceivable. The British Empire could have been seriously threatened if Constantinople was in Russian hands. No British government could have survived in power if it surrendered Constantinople as a consequence of a secret deal. But, with a stroke of naval ‘incompetence’, the Ottoman Turks were gifted an exceptionally powerful defence against Russian invasion.

In his own self-indulgent explanation of events, Churchill created a list of ‘ifs’, which focussed on the actions of the naval personnel, the decisions they made and the interpretations of his instructions that they followed. [15] He omitted to ask questions about the consequences of the Goeben’s escape and its consequent impact on the war. If the Goeben and Breslau had been sunk in the Mediterranean, what would the Russian navy have achieved in the Black Sea? If Rear Admiral Souchon had gone down with his ship, what would have happened to the hapless Turkish navy? What would have happened to the supply lines to Germany that could be safely operated across the Black Sea because the Goeben was there to protect them? The Goeben’s escape was more than just fortunate. It served to thwart Russian ambition in the Black Sea and the Bosphorous, and keep them dependent on continued British and French support. Had Russia captured an undefended Constantinople, what reason would they have had to continue the war in Eastern Europe?

[1] Richard Hough, Winston and Clementine, The Triumph of the Churchills, pp 278-9.
[2] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, p109.
[3] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 140.
[4] Virginia Cowles, Winston Churchill, p. 173.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Galip Baysan, Stories of the Two Battleships, /2013/04/29/stories-of-the-two-battleships/
[7] Brock, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.168.
[8] Churchill, The World Crisis, pp 116-20.
[9] Avalon Project, Yale Law Library.
[10] Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, vol. 2, p.280.
[11] Roy Jenkins, Churchill, p. 244.
[12] Brock, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.168.
[13] Churchill, The World Crisis, p.138.
[14] Ibid., p.136.
[15] Ibid., p.138.