The British Expeditionary Force had been successfully transported across the Channel to France without the loss of a single ship between 12 and 21 August. They were protected by destroyers and submarines which closely watched the Heligoland Bight, the entrance to the German Grand fleet base at the mouth of the river Elbe, to counter any attempt at interference from German patrols. German naval planners reckoned that it would take longer for the Royal Navy to organise a cross-channel expedition and were caught by surprise at its speed of execution. Their submarines, which might have attacked the British transport ships, were engaged in searching for the main British fleet further north. [1]

Picture postcard of Battle of Heligoland

On 28 August, at the Heligoland Bight, a force of five battlecruisers, eight light cruisers, thirty-three destroyers and eight submarines ambushed six German light cruisers, nineteen torpedo boats and twelve minesweepers in the early morning mists just off the coast. Asquith considered it a heartening success, describing the three German cruisers that Churchill claimed had been sunk, as ‘a good haul’. [2] Later it transpired that only one destroyer had been sunk and the cruisers damaged. In terms of ships and men lost, victory was recorded by the Royal Navy, but more important than the statistics was the impact on Kaiser Wilhelm. Stung by the loss of his precious ships so close to home, he issued orders to restrict the initiative of the Commander of the Imperial Fleet in the use of his navy. In future, any great ‘sallies’ into the North Sea had to have his prior approval. The Imperial Fleet had effectively been muzzled by its own leader. Churchill claimed that, ‘except for furtive movements by individual submarines and minelayers, not a dog stirred from August till November.’ [3] His selective-memory syndrome was alarmingly inaccurate.

At a rally in Liverpool on 21 September 1914, Churchill’s bold predictions left him a hostage to fortune. In his blustering triumphalism, he prophesied that victory was only ‘a question of how much blood is to be shed, and the more men we can send the less slaughter there will be.’ [4] While his fine sounding words were set to inspire the 15,000 souls crammed into Liverpool’s Tournament Hall, they were empty promises, as was his assertion that, ‘if the German Navy did not come out and fight, it would have to be dug out like rats in a hole’.

The German High Seas Fleet at Cuxhaven

The rats bit back immediately. On 22 September, three ‘good and powerful [British] cruisers of an old, but not obsolete type’ were sunk in the southern part of the North Sea. [5] More than 1,400 men and boys were lost, and his political enemies claimed that this was directly due to Churchill’s incompetence. [6] A few days later, Conservative MP George Bowles circulated a pamphlet which specifically alleged that ‘despite the warnings of the admirals, commodores and captains, Mr Churchill refused, until it was too late to recall them from patrol’ and the ships had carried on, ‘certain to fall victims to the torpedoes of an active enemy’. [7] Matters deteriorated. Half a dozen German cruisers were still at large on the high seas, and a New Zealand detachment for the British Expeditionary Force refused to sail without adequate convoy escorts. Decisions had to be postponed. There was a mini-crisis at the Admiralty for Churchill had sallied off to France and was incommunicado. Asquith remained loyal to his First Lord and meekly told Venetia that ‘unfortunately Winston was away on one of his furtive missions’, confirming for certain that Churchill’s yearning to be part of the action took him where he pleased. [8]

With his navy safely ensconced at Scapa Flow like a prize collection of favoured toys, more valued in display than in action, Churchill began to look for other avenues that would promote his self image. He had to be the centre of attention. Inactivity and patience ill suited him. He was exhilarated to agree to Lord Kitchener’s request that his naval air service be used to protect London from Zeppelin raids but a second request to send a detachment of marines to reinforce Dunkirk, and give the Germans the impression that British troops were already stationed along the channel coast, backfired. Churchill’s capacity for rash judgement began to take on a comic look when first he requisitioned fifty London buses and took them to France to make a flamboyant statement. What Kitchener had not envisaged was that Churchill would leave his office and visit his marines in France. They had great fun parading around Ypres, Lille, Tournai and Douai, towns that would become synonymous with the horrendous and merciless destruction of war, as did Winston, inspecting his air bases and ‘thinking up new escapades for his Circus.’ [9]

Churchill's Marines on way to Antwerp

A week later the Churchill circus rolled into the Belgian city port of Antwerp. In the aftermath of the German defeat on the Marne in September, they switched their attack towards the channel ports, and in particular, Antwerp. Its heavy fortifications crumbled before the onslaught of enormous German howitzers and the King of the Belgians appealed for urgent and immediate aid, hinting that if reinforcements did not arrive, the Belgian army might be captured intact. It was a stunning predicament. Asquith called the Belgian government’s plans to abandon the city as ‘mad’. Someone had to steady the Belgian nerve, and who better than Winston Churchill? They had been informed that the King and the Belgian army intended to evacuate to England. Churchill was on ‘one of his jaunts with the Dunkirk circus’ [10] in a special train when he was summoned back to London for a late night emergency conference with Sir Edward Grey and Lord Kitchener. It was agreed that Winston should go immediately to Antwerp, ‘and beard the King and his Ministers and infuse into their backbones the necessary quantity of starch.’ [11] How quintessentially Eton and Oxford.

Why send Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty? Did he not have other pressing duties? Sir Edward Grey, as Foreign Secretary had only ever crossed the channel once, in the company of King George in April 1914, and did not speak French. Lord Kitchener was a fluent French-speaker, but as Minister of War could hardly act as a messenger. Churchill’s capacity to speak the language actually attracted Asquith’s later ridicule as ‘the worst French you or I have ever heard’ [12.] but in what the Prime Minister called ‘one of the many unconventional incidents of the war,’ off Winston went to stiffen the Belgian resolve.

There is a different account given by Lord Esher, one of the inner-most men in the Secret Elite. [13] According to his version of events, Churchill took it upon himself to go to Antwerp without anyone’s agreement. Esher claimed that the first that Kitchener knew about the expedition was when he received a telegram the following day from Churchill in Antwerp pleading for urgent re-enforcements. [14] Churchill went to great lengths in his own account to belittle the claim, blaming Esher’s ‘uncontrollable fondness for fiction’. [15]

Whatever the truth, Churchill left Victoria station at 2.00am on 3 October on his special train for a second time. He duly arrived at the Belgian Headquarters in Antwerp dressed like an understudy from HMS Pinafore in the uniform of an Elder Brother of Trinity House. Whatever possessed him to don such inappropriate and frankly, comic apparel, bemused the American correspondent, E. Alexander Powell. He described Churchill’s arrival in the city as follows;

‘ It was a most spectacular entrance and reminded me for all the world of a scene in a melodrama when the hero dashes up bare-headed on a foam-flecked horse, and saves the heroine, or the old-homestead, or the family fortune as the case may be. The Burgomaster stopped him, introduced himself, and expressed his anxiety regarding the fate of the city. Before he had finished, Churchill was part way up the stairs. ‘I think everything will be all right now, Mr. Burgomaster,’ he called in a voice which could be distinctly heard throughout the lobby. ‘You needn’t worry. We’re going to save the city.’ [16]

Churchill's Marines arriving in Antwerp 1914

Of course he was. That was how he saw himself. Unquestionably Churchill’s arrival bolstered the spirits of the populace in Antwerp as did the two thousand marines who followed and the five or six thousand naval reserves who boosted their numbers over the next few days. The British force flung itself into the trench defences of Antwerp, and Churchill relished the opportunity to inspect the Belgian positions for three consecutive days, defiant of the extreme dangers from gun-fire and shrapnel. He was in his element. When the London buses arrived bedecked in their adverts for Theatre shows, teas, tobaccos and whiskies, Antwerp reacted like Mafeking. But the raw troops who were rushed into the trenches without head protection or sufficient artillery support could only hold the line for three days under murderous fire, [17]

Winston was enjoying himself. He was ‘exhilarated by the experience’ When his old friend Jack Seely arrived in Antwerp he found him at the centre of attention ; ‘He dominated the whole place – the King, ministers, soldiers, sailors.’ [18]

Churchill was unstoppable. He telegraphed Asquith on 5 October saying that he ought to resign as First Lord and take military command of the expedition to Antwerp with an ‘appropriate military rank and a full staff.’ Charles Hobhouse, the Postmaster-General, noted that ‘he appears to have promoted during his stay in Antwerp, several officers to be Generals.’ [19] Asquith tried valiantly to avoid answering questions in Cabinet about the missing First Lord of the Admiralty, but forced by repeated questioning into reading Churchill’s telegram aloud, his colleagues burst out laughing at his stupidity. [20] All bar Kitchener.

Antwerp fell only five days after his arrival but there is a general consensus amongst establishment historians that his intervention bought time for Sir John French and the remnants of the B E F further along the coast. It may have, but that had not been Churchill’s primary aim. He was there to stiffen the King’s resolve, to save Antwerp, to save Belgium, to win the war for the nation. Little wonder some thought it ‘the mere madcap exploit of a passion for adventure’, a view rejected by his friend and apologist, Sir Edward Grey. [21] The decision to withdraw the Belgian army was taken on the evening of 6 October and the bold Churchill, in the company of General Rawlinson, immediately retired from Belgium before the German bombardment of the city’s inner defences started.

Painting of the siege of Antwerp

The inner-line of the Antwerp forts were pummelled from midnight on 7 October and having no means to reply, the British naval brigades had no other recourse but to withdraw towards Ghent and Ostend on 8 October. Next day German patrols entered Antwerp and on 10 October 1914, the ‘stout-hearted Governor’ surrendered the city. [22] The retreat from Antwerp was described by the Belgian journalist Charles D’Ydewalle as a terrifying business. [23] So it is always for those left with the consequences of rash decisions. The original telegramme sent by the British minister in Antwerp, Sir Francis Villiers on 2 October, warned that resistance would likely last for only five or six days, and that is precisely what happened. Churchill’s presence had made no tangible difference.

[1] Robert Massie , Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the winning of the Great War at sea. P. 80.
[2] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.203.
[3] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, p171.
[4] Times, 22 September 1914, p.3.
[5] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.252.
[6] Leo Manxse to J S Saunders, 8 October 1914
[7] Virginia Cowles, Winston Churchill, p.178.
[8] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.253.
[9] Virginia Cowles, Winston Churchill, p.177.
[10] Earl of Birkenhead, Churchill, 1874-1922, p. 313.
[11] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.260.
[12] Ibid., p.418.
[13] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 311.
[14] Reginald Viscount Esher, The Tragedy of Lord Kitchener, p. 67.
[15] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 322.
[16] E Alexander Powell, Fighting in Flanders, pp.176-7.
[17] Ibid., p. 183.
[18] Earl of Birkenhead, Churchill, 1874-1922, p. 315.
[19] Edward David, Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, p.195.
[20] George H Cassar, Kitchener, Architect of Victory, p.245.
[21] Grey of Fallodon, Twenty Five Years, vol. 2.p. 302.
[22] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, p. 323.
[23] Charles D’Ydewalle, Albert, King of the Belgians, p. 126.