Winston Churchill undermined his own position with prime minister Asquith by lying about the troops he took with him to Antwerp. His official report was printed by the Times on Sunday 11 October, but of course, as an ‘official report’, it contained only the parts that Churchill was willing to disclose. Firstly, it failed to mention that the First Lord himself had been present in Antwerp and thus implied that General Paris, R.M.A. had been in charge. Furthermore it claimed that the Antwerp mission had been made in response to an appeal from the Belgian government, whereas we now know that the triumvirate of Grey, Kitchener and Churchill determined that a force be sent to ‘stiffen’ the resolve of the Belgian king.

Royal Naval Division arriving in Antwerp

In rightly praising the spirit of determination and bravery shown by the Royal Marines and Naval Brigades as ‘remarkable in units so newly formed’, the Admiralty claimed that losses were ‘probably’ less than 300 out of a force of 8,000. Two of the three naval Brigades arrived safely at Ostend, but one brigade of 2,000 officers and men was cut off and withdrew to neutral Holland where they were interned for the duration of the war. [1] Asquith confided to his secret love Venetia Stanley that ‘a battalion of Marines had disappeared and are still unaccounted for.’ [2] These men, who by any definition were left behind, fought their way back to the relative safety of the Channel coast.

A month later the Times was able to circumvent the Censor and print an altogether more truthful version by publishing an account written by the American journalist, E Alexander Powell from the New York World  and, for the first time, the British public caught a glimpse of Churchill’s ridiculous behaviour in Antwerp.

‘At 1 o’clock a big, drab-coloured touring-car filled with British Naval officers tore up the Place de Mier, it’s horn sounding a hoarse warning, took the turn into the narrow Marche au Souliers on two wheels and drew up in front of the Hotel… the door of the tonneau was violently thrown open and out jumped a smooth-faced sandy-haired, stoop-shouldered, youthful-looking man in the undress Trinity House uniform. It was the Right Honourable Winston Churchill.’ [3]

Powell’s piece continued in like vein, deriding the First Lord for his pretentious play-acting. Churchill did little to salve his reputation by recording in his World Crisis that when he had finished with his posturing on the front line, ‘Twenty-minutes in a motor car, and we were back in the warmth and light of one of the best hotels in Europe, with its perfectly appointed tables and attentive servants all proceeding as usual’. [4] He left his raw recruits to the mercies of the German onslaught, virtually unprotected in primitive, shallow, broad tranches, [5] ill equipped and totally inexperienced, and drove back to the best comforts the elite might enjoy. And he thought this the stuff of Heroes.

In addition to his merciless mocking of Churchill, E Alexander Powell made great mention of the ‘rawness of many of the troops, and their lack of appropriate equipment and this was the factor which distressed Herbert Asquith. His son Arthur served in the Royal Naval Division and had been present throughout the doomed Antwerp escapade. When he returned to London he personally briefed his father about the true circumstances under which Churchill had operated. Despite having assured the prime minister that all new recruits would be kept out of the action and that the main body would consist of seasoned Naval Reserves, Churchill had patched together a force in which three-quarters of the men were ‘a callow crowd of the rawest recruits, most of whom had never fired off a rifle, while none of them had ever handled an entrenching tool’. [6]

63rd  Royal Naval Division defending Antwerp from trenches

Most of these recruits went to Antwerp without water-bottles, haversacks, or bandoliers, carrying ammunition in their pockets and bayonets in their garters. [7] Indeed the Morning Post was openly critical of Churchill’s ludicrous Antwerp intervention stating clearly that only a properly trained and fully equipped force could have had a meaningful impact. They asked who had authorised and conducted the operation knowing full well that Churchill had been responsible and that General Paris, though present, had not been in command. More deadly to his future was the question ‘Is it not true that the energies of Mr Winston Churchill have been directed upon this eccentric expedition, and that he has been using the resources of the Admiralty as it he were personally responsible for the naval operations? [8] His main ally, Lord Kitchener, stood by him in justifying the action by claiming that it bought time for Sir John French to win the race to defend the northern coasts of France. [9] But Churchill’s star was on the wane.

He was losing friends. Lloyd George for one refused to recognise the value of Churchill’s intervention in Antwerp, and criticised him in front of the editor of the Daily Chronicle. [10] He ridiculed Churchill’s habit of interfering with military and naval operations and described the First Lord as ‘too wild and impulsive’. What irked Lloyd George was that Churchill had taken untrained men over to Antwerp and literally left them in the lurch. That was what moved Asquith to call it a ‘wicked folly’ and conclude that ‘nothing can excuse Winston, who knew all the facts’ [11] yet still risked these untrained men for his own greater glory. Churchill was steadily undermining his position both within the cabinet and with the general public.

There was another sense in which Churchill became the victim of his own past behaviour. In peacetime he had become accustomed to giving orders to various fleet units, to visiting ‘his’ navy and directing them as he ordained and acting as if he was indeed the  ‘Ruler of the King’s Navy’.

Churchill and Prince Louis of Battenberg

He continued this practice into the war though always sought to work in conjunction with the highest naval professional, the First Sea Lord. (Initially, this was Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, able and popular in naval circles, but damned in the public imagination by a German name-tag.) Churchill’s arrogance in Cabinet meetings was well documented. Charles Hobhouse, the Postmaster-General, described him as ‘ill-mannered, boastful, unprincipled and without any redeeming features except his amazing ability and industry.’ [12] His anger at being questioned in War Council meetings, and his tendency to make excessive claims, weakened his position. As he later confessed to Maurice Hankey, the Secret Elite’s eyes and ears at the heart of the British cabinet, [13] he got ‘a bit above himself at the Admiralty’. [14] An unpopular First Lord was a huge political liability, and Churchill appeared not to have understood the danger he placed himself in by fronting a range of miscellaneous and fruitless tasks in addition to his role as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Naval successes in keeping the seas clear for merchant shipping went unreported in the press lest such news gave advantage to German intelligence. Naval disasters were more difficult to hide, and impacted badly on Churchill’s leadership However, the greatest catastrophe at sea in 1914 was strictly and successfully kept out of the public domain when the fate of HMS Audacious one of the last breeds of British-built Dreadnought went unreported. Launched in 1912, she fell victim to one of 200 mines laid off the coast of Donegal by the German auxiliary mine-layer, Berlin, on 26 October 1914, to disrupt maritime traffic. Her original target had been the Firth of Clyde but a combination of extinguished coastal lights and a large amount of British warship wireless traffic convinced her captain that he would be unable to reach his target area.

Map of northern coast of Ireland showing location of Audacious when sunk

Instead he decided to lay his mines in the nearest shipping lane, which was twenty miles out from Tory Island and Lough Swilly on the north coast of Ireland.  Unknown to the German command the British Grand Fleet was using Lough Swilly as a safe haven while the main base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands was modernising its defences against submarine attack. A 5,000 ton merchant ship, Manchester Commerce, was sunk by one of the mines on 26 October with the loss of 14 lives, but the presence of the mine-field remained undetected. Next morning, 27 October, Vice Admiral Warrender took the Second Battle Squadron out of Lough Swilly on a gunnery exercise.

 At approximately 08.45 HMS Audacious was struck by a mine on her port side and she developed a 10-15 degree list. All but 250 essential crew were taken aboard the White Star liner,  SS Olympic (sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic) whose passengers looked on in awe as the great ship sunk slowly over twelve hours of desperate and sustained effort to tow her to safety. By 17.00 the last crew-members were removed; at 18.15 she was abandoned. [15]

Sinking of HMS Audacious photographed from the SS Olympic

The sheer drama of events as they unfolded was photographed from the deck of the Olympic. Hundreds of her passengers looked on in fascination as Audacious slowly sank into the Atlantic, but despite this, news of the disaster was never published in Britain during the war. Churchill, backed resolutely by Kitchener, understandably insisted that a blanket news-ban be drawn over the disastrous loss. Asquith later told his wife Margot that the whole cabinet, except for Lloyd George and himself, favoured the ban on news of the Audacious. [16] Of course it would have undermined public morale if the man on the street learned that a multi-million pound ship had been blown out of the water by a single mine. It would not have been deemed appropriate to fuel a debate on the value of Dreadnoughts in October 1914.

Although a photograph taken from the Olympic was published in the Philadelphia Public Leger, the official report of the loss of the Audacious was not announced until 14 November 1918. The notice also added that ‘this was kept secret at the urgent request of the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, and the Press loyally refrained from giving it any publicity.’ [17] That was true, but Churchill’s growing critics in the press made oblique references in articles and editorials to the word ‘audacious’ [18] to the extent that an illustration of the disaster appeared entitled, ‘An audacious picture’ [19] Despite being accustomed to abuse from the press and from direct parliamentary attack, Churchill later claimed that he sensed the ‘the adverse and hostile currents’ that presaged the start of a sea-change in public opinion against him. [20]

The Secret Elite could only protect its political agents to a degree that retained some public support. Had Churchill been able to contain his urge to be the hero, or pick up and run with every new idea despite the considered objections of his colleagues, he might have survived the war as First Lord of the Admiralty. Such level-headed consideration was beyond him. His obsession to be seen as the man with the ‘big idea’, together with his reckless ego, was to have disastrous consequences both for himself, and for the naval and military forces with whose deployment he continually interfered. The Antwerp fiasco did nothing to stop his folly.

[1] The Times, 11 October, 1914, p.1.
[2] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.273.
[3] The Times, 27 November, 1914, p.5.
[4] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918, p.197.
[5] Geoffrey Sparrow and J N MacBean Ross, On Four Fronts with the Royal Naval Division, p.22.
[6] Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.275.
[7] Ibid., p.276.
[8] Morning Post, 13 October, 1914.
[9] Statement to Parliament, Lord Kitchener, 26 November 1914, published in The Times, 27 November, p.12.
[10] Richard Toye, Lloyd George& Churchill, Rivals for Greatness, p.131.
[11] Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.275.
[12] Edward David, Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, p.121.
[13] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p.313.
[14] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, 1877-1918, p.415.
[16] Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.291.
[17] The Times, Thursday 14 November, 1918, p.7.
[18] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, p.217.
[19] Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.291.
[20] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, p.218.