The First World War began at a fortuitous mo-ment for the Royal Navy: a test mobilization had been carried out in July 1914, and the main fleet of dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers was therefore already assembled and crewed when the moment of destiny arrived. All that was required was to withhold the order to disperse and despatch the ships instead to their designated war stations. That was all well and good, but what would happen thereafter was less clear.
There is a famous story recorded in the brutally frank diary of Captain Herbert Richmond, then Assistant Director of Naval Operations, that on the second day of the conflict Churchill had remarked that “Now we have our war, the next thing is to decide how we are going to carry it on.”1 For the intellectual and hyper-critical Richmond, Churchill’s off-the-cuff admission was simply appalling. It was, he confided, “a damning confession of inadequate preparation for war.”2 Richmond’s outrage would have been fully justified had the First Lord’s quip been illustrative of the state of the Royal Navy in 1914. It was not, however, strictly speaking, true; or, at least, it was not entirely true, and Churchill had played an important role in many important reforms instituted prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
In the period from October 1911, when Church-ill was appointed to the Admiralty, to August 1914, when war broke out, a great deal of time and effort had been expended on readying the Royal Navy for a trial of strength against Germany. A naval staff had been created, new ships had been designed and ordered, more powerful weapons had been introduced, steps had been taken to create a naval aviation service, a start had been made to transform the coal-powered fleet into one that would be fuelled in the future by oil, pay and conditions for both officers and men had been improved in the quest to ensure that the service could both recruit and retain the number and quality of personnel that it needed, and plans of various kinds had been drawn up for what to do should the cataclysm come. Churchill had played a characteristically significant role in these reforms, and many of his contributions were positive. For example, the Admiralty had been charged with making sure that should the government decide to send an army to France, it would get there safely. Come the day, the Navy was prepared to protect the transports carrying the Expeditionary Force across the Channel. All of them arrived without mishap.
There were, however, other areas where things did not run smoothly. In the years before 1914, for example, the British naval leadership had wrestled with the question of how to conduct a campaign against Germany. In some respects this was straightforward. The British Isles were a natural 600-mile breakwater blocking Germany’s access to the open ocean. German warships could be hemmed into the North Sea, German merchant vessels denied access to the high seas, and neutral trade with Germany could be significantly curtailed. The fundamental ingredients for a campaign of economic warfare were thus in place.
Geography, although an aid in some respects, was a hindrance in others. In particular, Britain’s 600mile east coast was difficult to defend. Warships scattered along its length to protect all parts could easily be isolated and defeated in detail. Concentrating the fleet in one location, however, also created challenges, since there were no fortified harbours along the majority of this coastline that could accommodate such an array of warships in safety. This compelled the Admiralty to seek a base out of range of German torpedo boats where the Royal Navy’s big ships would be safe from a surprise attack. Several such anchorages existed in Scotland. There were advantages and disadvantages to each, however, and the Admiralty found it hard to make a decision. The result was that come August 1914 some work had been undertaken at each location, especially Rosyth. Churchill had requested extra funding from a reluctant Treasury to expedite matters, but none of the anchorages was actually complete. Thus, when the fleet sailed for Scapa Flow at the start of August, the ships reached a spacious but largely unsecured position. It did not take long for the lack of defences to become a source of anxiety. As the potential of German submarines became ever more obvious, the fear grew that Scapa Flow could be penetrated by u-boats and British ships sunk while at anchor. To avert this, parts of the fleet were regularly dispatched to the supposedly safer waters west of Scotland. It was there that the brand new super dreadnought HMS Audacious struck a German mine and foundered.
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Perfect Preparation: What Churchill Learned from the First World War
Winston Churchill famously wrote about his feelings on becoming prime minister in May 1940, “I felt as if I were walking with Destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”1 It was true, and no part of his life had been a better preparation than 1914–18.
War Lord in Training: Churchill And The Royal Navy During The First World War
Churchill’s contribution to naval affairs in the First World War is a polarizing topic. It divided people at the time and it remains a matter of sharply delineated opinions even now. The reasons for this are not difficult to spot. Although no decisive sea engagement was fought while Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the opening ten months of the war were nevertheless eventful, and the operations that took place at that time appeared to highlight the worst aspects of Churchill’s character as a civilian naval leader. The reality is—inevitably—more complex, but a quick check of what went visibly wrong and what appeared to go right will illustrate the point.
The World Crisis Breeds New Publishing Relationships For Churchill
This is a behind-the-scenes article. It focuses not on the content of The World Crisis (which former Prime Minister A. J. Balfour described as “Winston’s brilliant Autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe”) but rather on how that multi-volume history of the Great War—Churchill’s twelfth work—came to be published in both the UK and the USA.
The Mistaken View of Churchill's First World War “Mistakes”
A common verdict on Churchill’s First World War is that he was the perpetrator of costly disasters, but that he learned from his mistakes. Consider this, from the Imperial War Museum’s website:
THE FULTON REPORT From the National Churchill Museum
High Hopes and Unbounded Confidence? The Aftermath of the Great Wars
November 11, 1918: The Hour of Deliverance
In his memoirs of the First World War published as The World Crisis, Winston Churchill vividly recalls the scene he witnessed at the moment the Armistice took effect.
Churchill's World Crisis
Today, whenever major political leaders come to the end of their careers, we have learned to expect an announcement at no distant point that a contract has been signed for the publication of their memoirs, with large advances mentioned.
Churchill's New Audience | # Armistice100
For the past four years, the centenary of the Great War, I have been managing social media content for the National World War I Museum of the United States in Kansas City, Missouri.
Action This Day
125 Years ago Autumn 1893 • Age 19 “Sandhurst Has Done Wonders for Him”
The International Churchill Society's First Fifty Years
This is the 180th issue of Finest Hour. The operating budget for the first year of what became the International Churchill Society was $180. The first issue of the journal was sent out to the founding members—all twelve of them—in the spring of 1968 with a note that the title was only “temporary” until a better suggestion arose. Fifty years on, the current editor has determined that the cut-off date for suggestions has now passed.
SPYKE AND MIKE
SPYKE AND MIKE
Whoa, Nellie! If you missed it, you missed a whole lot of beautiful steel horses in one place. If you were there, you know that no words can totally convey what went down the stretch. I’m squawking about the Great American Motofest that ran at the Boss Hogg ranch.
'Cancelled' Patel critic seeks education minister's support
A Cambridge university academic has called on the universities minister to defend her freedom of speech, after a claim that her invitation to speak to civil servants was cancelled because of a tweet criticising Priti Patel, the home secretary.
Never in the field of human conflict were so many thoroughly @£!&ed off by so few
THICK-AS-CUSTARD M25 PROTESTERS NOW CLAIM THEY ARE LIKE, AHEM, WINSTON CHURCHILL. WHINY’S NO WINNIE. Eco crusties ‘like Churchill’. Fails debate on M25 stunts.Storms off just like Piers
If you find Churchill offensive why work for his charity?
‘Mrs Pankhurst stood up for the Empire – a cardinal sin today’
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No-fear UK is set to boom
JOHN LONGWORTH of the Independent Business Network and director of the Centre for Brexit Policy
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These two neighbours offer everything from history and culture to visitor attractions and green spaces
Churchill ‘considered nuclear attack' on the USSR
The statesman was prepared to deploy extreme measures against the forces of communism, new research reveals.
The personal armoury of Sir Winston Churchill
Military weapons, guns and rifles for field sports and presentation pieces make up the remarkable collection of the Army officer turned statesman