Churchill and Fisher: Titans at the Admiralty

July 30, 2018
Posted by: Jeremy Stocker

by Barry Gough

Barry Gough sets out to provide a new look into the complex relationship between these two pivotal figures in the early twentieth century history of the RN. This should therefore be of keen interest to any NR member. Had I not been sent a review copy, I was going to drop some well-placed hints about a potential Christmas present. I really wanted to like this book, and I expected to. But I’m glad neither I, nor any member of my family, forked out 35 quid for it. I don’t recall ever being so disappointed by a book that promised so much and if I hadn’t agreed to review it, I doubt I’d have made it beyond the Preface and certainly not beyond the Introduction. That would have been a shame, for there is something worthwhile here – it’s just concealed beneath some execrable prose.
Some early examples illustrate the problem. “It may be wondered if past practice finds new methods on account of experience…” I don’t know what that means, if anything. Over the page, “The curious and unexpected unravelling of the naval war in all its dimensions after August 1914 places all predetermined or imagined scenarios in situations of uncertainty” is equally baffling. I’ve chosen these two examples but there are many others – and we haven’t even got to the end of the Preface. Nor do I understand how a little rant against fellow historians, “voyeurs of the past”, made it past the editor. Perhaps no one at the publisher’s actually read the manuscript, which in places suffers from a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, darting back and forth in time and from one topic to another. Unless you already know a lot about the subject matter, this can be pretty much unreadable, both confused and confusing. Many editors, I suspect, would regard it as unpublishable.
The book is also marred by several frankly inexcusable errors of fact. Some are of little consequence, such as confusing the ‘Palmerston Follies’ forts with the earlier and much smaller Martello Towers. Others do matter, like a reference to an emerging entente between France and Russia in 1902. They had been in formal alliance since 1894. Gough even gets the details of his subjects wrong. In 1883, he tells us, 33 year-old Captain Fisher was appointed in command of the gunnery establishment HMS Excellent. (He was born in 1841 – do the maths). Even more extraordinary, “To this point, he had spent a disproportionate amount of his career as Controller…He did not have a reputation as a fighting admiral…” which is perhaps not surprising as he was still a Captain! Fisher did not become Controller, as a Vice-Admiral, until 1892. This looks like a cut-and-paste error, but it’s also sloppy scholarship and poor editing.
But then things improve somewhat. Chapters on the Fisher-Beresford feud are better written, almost to the extent that they look like they had a different author, though there’s still the occasional factual or stylistic howler. Gough clearly takes Fisher’s side of things but doesn’t spare him criticism when it’s warranted, which was quite often. A serious shortcoming, however, is Gough’s sketchy treatment of Fisher’s ideas and their implementation during his first tenure as First Sea Lord. The author acknowledges his debt to Arthur Marder, who was writing over half a century ago and on whom he is perhaps unduly reliant. He also makes mention of more recent scholarship by Jon Sumida and Nicholas Lambert but does not appear to have made much use of it. So Fisher’s ambivalence towards battleships, even the Dreadnought, is overlooked and his advocacy of ‘flotilla defence’ based on submarines and small destroyers is covered only so far as Fisher’s understanding of their technical potential.
We’re nearly 150 pages into the book before Churchill gets more than a passing mention. That at least reflects reality. The two men were born more than 30 years apart and barely overlapped at the Admiralty. Fisher had completed all of his great reforms before Churchill came to have any influence over naval affairs. Until his appointment to the Admiralty Churchill was a naval ‘economist’ opposed to what he saw as excessive spending on dreadnoughts. He already had a developing relationship with Fisher but Gough doesn’t really explain how their growing mutual admiration could be reconciled with their conflicting views on naval expenditure.
By the time Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1911 Fisher had already retired. But they remained in close contact and Fisher was a frequent visitor to the Admiralty, very free with his forthright advice. Fisher’s successors Wilson, Bridgeman and Battenberg (between them in office for less time than Fisher alone) cannot have been comfortable with this, though Gough doesn’t explore this surely important dynamic. The somewhat hyperactive Churchill seems to have been rather in thrall to the equally energetic but older Fisher, which fuelled both their initial rapport and later difficulties.
Gough frequently contradicts himself, sometimes on adjacent pages. As often as not, this is simply due to his undisciplined use of language and his tendency towards hyperbole. For example, when Germany declared war against Russia on 1 August 1914 “The triple entente – Britain, Russia and France – was now forged in iron.” The author then spends several pages on the deliberations of a divided and vacillating British Cabinet during the following three days before Britain itself declared war on 4 August. Not so iron-like, then. Churchill played a key role during this time, though Gough seems uncertain as to whether he was acting with foresight in understanding where events were heading, or simply itching for war.
Once war had been declared the Mediterranean soon became the focus of Churchill’s attention, as the Goeben and Breslau evaded the British and made it to Constantinople. Gough’s detailed coverage of this sad episode is balanced in its analysis, though he spoils it at the end when he describes it as a “cauldron of conspiracies”, having provided no evidence at all of any such thing. This is a recurring weakness of the book, as Gough frequently says things he clearly doesn’t mean.
Other early episodes of the war at sea are also well covered and the writing is generally rather better. My frustration by this stage was more that, having spotted several factual errors and wild judgements earlier on, I couldn’t take anything Gough says at face value. Nor can one overlook his statement that, at the end of 1914, “As to the war at sea, the overall advantage lay with the Germans…Month by month, year by year, the Britannic tragedy was unfolding”. This is utter rot. Though at this stage the British may not have realised that the game was up for the High Seas Fleet, confined to harbour, the German High Command certainly did. A notable omission from the book is any contemporary German perspective on what Fisher and then Churchill were up to.
Gough is very ambivalent towards Churchill, calling him a ‘genius’ yet also excoriating him for his self-interest and duplicity. He is also frequently critical of Fisher once he was recalled to office in November 1914. This was a controversial decision by Churchill and it’s a shame Gough doesn’t say more about it, surely a key issue for a study of the two men. They then lasted in office together for just seven months, a period dominated by the Dardanelles fiasco.
The Dardanelles is the most important episode in the Churchill-Fisher relationship, which ultimately brought about the downfall of both men. Churchill was an early enthusiast for the ‘indirect’ approach as a palliative for stalemate on the Western Front. Fisher was much less keen and maintained instead his interest in a less feasible Baltic operation to directly threaten Berlin. He even built shallow-draught battlecruisers (later the post-war aircraft carriers Furious, Courageous and Glorious) for that express purpose. Gough adds little that is new to our understanding of the Dardanelles apart from some writing that alternates between the dire and the not bad. He alleges that the operation was designed, in part, to “bolster Churchill’s flagging political fortunes” which surely reverses the sequence of events.
What was soon flagging was the relationship between the two men. Fisher threatened to resign only two months after being appointed when Churchill refused his suggestion that German PoWs be shot as a reprisal for civilian deaths caused by Zeppelin raids. Tensions between the two men were also aggravated by Fisher’s refusal to support Churchill’s (and others’) advocacy of a naval-only ‘forcing’ of the Straits. On this Fisher was obviously right and Churchill wrong, though Fisher’s demand for a substantial landing force sits uneasily with Gough’s assertion that he resisted any inter-service planning. If you can overlook some of the prose the coverage of the convoluted lead-up to the operation is quite good. Planning for the Dardanelles bears all the hallmarks of a thoroughly botched effort and Churchill emerges with little credit, even if the strategic concept was a lot sounder than the subsequent course of events might suggest. Fisher’s objections were over-ridden and he appears to have been comprehensively side-lined despite having been brought back into office, at Churchill’s behest, a matter of a few months before. Notwithstanding their earlier rapport there wasn’t room in the Admiralty for two mavericks at the same time.
By mid-May 1915, with losses ashore and afloat mounting Fisher was sufficiently disillusioned that he resigned, essentially deserting his post and disappearing in a huff. According to Gough, “Britain’s naval destiny now hung in the balance”, surely an overstatement. Fisher’s departure damaged Churchill politically and prompted the Conservative opposition to threaten an end to the wartime political truce, out of which instead came a national coalition government. Churchill was gone within days, replaced at the Admiralty by the former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Fisher now tried to stay on, provided a set of conditions was met. Their tone strongly suggests that, as Maurice Hankey (later Britain’s first Cabinet Secretary) put it at the time, Fisher had gone mad. It was a rather pathetic end to the naval career of one of the RN’s most important twentieth century admirals. Gough’s detailed account of both men’s fall from grace is perhaps the best bit of the book.
In summing up the episode Gough quotes the Australian official history of the Dardanelles/Gallipoli expedition: “It is doubtful if even Great Britain could survive another World War and another Churchill”!
Later in the War Fisher and Churchill both achieved a limited political rehabilitation. Fisher was back within months, his energy successfully harnessed until the end of the war as chairman of the Board of Invention and Research. For Churchill the Dardanelles failure meant it took rather longer but after serving briefly as an infantry officer on the Western Front he returned to parliament and in 1917 became Minister of Munitions. The two men were soon reconciled after their damaging quarrel and Churchill even went to so far as to publically advocate Fisher’s return as First Sea Lord – for a third time – to general ridicule. Both worked assiduously at restoring their reputations.
The book ends with Fisher’s death in 1920. It also ends on a much sounder basis than it started. Gough can still manage to exasperate the reader: “At this stage of our saga [November 1915] Churchill was standing on the edge of time, as a literary scribe would say.” No, he wouldn’t. Despite these lapses the second half of the book, where Gough does get down to dealing with the two men’s relationship, is better written than the first. But you have to persevere through some pretty awful stuff to get there. Other readers, less annoyed and distracted by the poor writing, may enjoy this book but I cannot recommend it. The relationship between Churchill and Fisher is certainly an interesting and important one and there is the basis for a fine work of history here. But it would need to be shorter, more focussed and much, much better written.

Captain, RNR