Review: Churchill and Fisher: Titans at the Admiralty

  • Author:
    Barry Gough
    I challenge anyone not to be riveted by this book, to the extent of forgetting mealtimes and other appointments. This is one of a small number that (apart, possibly, from the price) I can recommend unreservedly; the author, Barry Gough, writes History as literature. Churchill and Fisher as enjoyable to read as The Lord of the Rings. This places Dr Gough in a distinguished company of historians who are also great and readable writers. Sir Steven Runciman, Barbara Tuchman and Sir Winston Churchill come to mind. This is not, however, “pop” history: Churchill and Fisher was carefully researched over many years. The notes, bibliography, index and illustrations are of the highest standard. As a result, quite apart from its literary merits, this book will be of great value to researchers and is likely to remain the definitive work on this subject for years to come.

    The First World War was the beginning of the end of the UK as a great imperial, economic and military power. The Gallipoli Campaign, also known as the Dardanelles Campaign, fought between 17 February 1915 and 9 January 1916, was in retrospect the UK's best and last chance to bring the war to a swift and satisfactory conclusion. It should have been possible. Had it succeeded, the Russian Revolution and other tragedies could have been averted and many lives spared. That campaign is the climax of the book, although the narrative begins well before, and continues after it. The writings of ordinary soldiers who served at Gallipoli make it clear that they believed that they had been defeated, not by the Turks but by their own leaders' ineptitude and bad planning. They were right; naval and army cooperation, was abysmal. Churchill, Fisher and Kitchener bear some of the responsibility for this.

    Both Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and "Jackie" Fisher as First Sea Lord showed vision, genius and energy but the war unfolded in ways that they had not foreseen or planned for. German cruisers escaped to Constantinople, bringing Turkey into the war on the Central Powers' side. Jellicoe's Grand Fleet was forced to seek refuge from U-boats; the submarine, the torpedo, the mine and aviation became important; all, initially at any rate, to Germany's advantage. The public, increasingly concerned at food shortages and aerial bombardment by Zeppelins, expected a Trafalgar; a decisive naval victory at sea. It never came, leading to angry debates in Parliament and the Press. The Admiralty's failure to stop the Zeppelin raids and the failure of the Gallipoli campaign brought about Fisher's departure from the Admiralty; this precipitated Churchill's fall soon afterwards. A period in the wilderness followed, with Fisher chairing an Inventions Board, desperately seeking an electronic counter-measure to the lethal U-boat, while Churchill departed to command an Infantry battalion on the Western Front. The difference was that Churchill, “the unsinkable politician” bounced back; he returned to Government in 1917 as Minister of Munitions and later attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as Secretary of State for War and Air. In that role he oversaw the birth of the RAF. Fisher did not bounce back and, unlike Churchill, he tended to bear grudges. He died in 1920, an embittered man.

    Although we are taught that History is “not the biographies of great men”, Churchill and Fisher might suggest otherwise. Much of the narrative is about personality clashes and intrigues. Churchill and Fisher had been friends; they became rivals and enemies. Both were original thinkers, brilliant and forceful. Both are endlessly fascinating to read about. They were alike in so many ways; perhaps too much alike ever to work harmoniously together. It is unnerving to find national leaders engaging in office politics and vendettas in the middle of a crisis, but that is what Ministers, Generals and Admirals were doing in the run-up to, during and even after the Great War. This might have been unavoidable and endemic to the culture, but it hampered the war effort. Churchill and Fisher fell out; Kitchener feuded with both of them. Prime Minister Asquith could not control them. A more forceful or diplomatic monarch than George V might have knocked heads together, but he lacked his father's interpersonal skills.

    The women were as bad as the men: Clementine Churchill more than made up for her husband's lack of grudges. Lady Beatty was upset that her husband was only made a Viscount, while Admiral Jellicoe became an Earl. On Admiral Beatty's death Lady Jellicoe tried to block his burial near her husband and Nelson in the crypt of St Paul's.

    Barry Gough challenges a number of popular beliefs. One is that Churchill was an inveterate war-monger, who helped to nudge the UK into the Great War. The reality was that the German leadership, including the Kaiser, the Generals, Admiral von Tirpitz and some politicians, were determined to engineer a showdown with Britain, to end her “intolerable hegemony in international affairs” and ensure that the twentieth century should be the German century, just as the nineteenth had been the British one. They were hell-bent on world domination; some of their public and private pronouncements show a Satanic pride and sense of superiority verging on the insane. If Britain had declared neutrality in 1914, which was never likely, it seems probable that Germany, having finished off France, would have attacked the UK at a later date. By contrast, Britain's involvement was a matter of honouring treaty obligations to allies; especially to Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force was dispatched, as it had to be; the Dominions and colonies then rallied to support the mother-country.

    While this is not a universally-held view, Dr Gough's opinion is that Churchill, although he enjoyed military adventures - even managing to enjoy his seven months on the Western Front, where he displayed Bulldog-Drummond-like courage and aggression - had in 1914 wanted peace as much as the rest of his Cabinet colleagues.

    At £35.00 RRP Churchill and Fisher is not a cheap volume, but would be a splendid Christmas present for any serious student of Military History or of Modern History in general.



    Five Mr Mushroom-Heads

    Metellus Cimber II
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