Admiral Fisher Resigns as First Sea Lord

On 13 May 1915 at a meeting at the Admiralty Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, criticised the Admiralty’s recent decision to recall the super dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth from the Dardanelles. He argued that this would damage Allied morale and boost that of the enemy.[1]

The report of The Dardanelles Commission, later set up to investigate the campaign, noted that ‘[i]t is difficult to say why Lord Kitchener should have attached to much importance to the retention of the Queen Elizabeth.’[2] Kitchener by then was dead. The results of naval gunfire support to the army had been disappointing and the removal of Queen Elizabeth was more than compensated for by the despatch of other ships, including monitors, to the Dardanelles.

In return, Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, threatened to resign if Queen Elizabeth remained. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, backed Fisher, albeit reluctantly in the view of Major General Charles Callwell, the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, who was present.[3]

The next day the War Council met. The Admiralty argued that it would not have agreed to a solely naval attack on the Dardanelles had it been aware that 100,000 soldiers would soon be available for an amphibious landing. The demands on the Royal Navy by the German U-boat offensive, the Allied Italian Naval Convention and the need to maintain the strength of the Grand Fleet meant that the campaign must now be a land one with naval support rather than the other way round.

The army, however, claimed that the presence of Queen Elizabeth and her 15 inch guns had been a major factor in its belief that it could see the fleet through to Istanbul. It could not see how a rapid victory could be achieved, but withdrawal was inconceivable at this stage. This left siege warfare as the only option, but it was unclear how many troops could be provided, given the demands of the Western Front and home defence.

Fisher had originally proposed a combined land and naval attack on the Dardanelles, which he hoped would have won a quick victory. He had been reluctant in his support for the naval only attack. He now feared that the ships that he had been constructing to use in operations in the northern waters would instead he sent to the Dardanelles.[4]

The War Council meeting left Fisher with the impression that more ships would be sent to the Dardanelles. He told Captain Thomas Crease, his Naval Assistant, that if operations in the Dardanelles were to continue ‘they should henceforth be directed on the naval side by somebody who believed in them.’[5]

On 15 May Fisher received a memo from Churchill that proposed sending far more naval reinforcements to the Dardanelles than the two men had agreed the evening before. Fisher had offered his resignation several times before, but this time he finally quit. He officially remained First Sea Lord until 22 May, but seems to have visited his office only once more, on 17 May to remove some personal items.[6]

The departure of Fisher, coupled with the revelation that the British Army lacked enough high explosive shells, led to the replacement of the Liberal Government with a Liberal/Conservative Coalition. It was certain that the Conservatives would insist that Churchill, who had left them to join the Liberals in 1904 over the issue of free trade, would be removed from the office of First Lord.

Fisher at first had a substantial degree of public support, with several newspapers, led by The Times, arguing that he should become First Lord. There were several precedents from the 18th and early 19th centuries for that position, a political rather than a military one, to be held by an Admiral.

However, Fisher made two mistakes on 17 May. Room 40, the Admiralty’s code-breakers, decoded signals indicating that the German High Seas Fleet was about to put to sea. Crease told Fisher that he should go to the Admiralty to supervise operations. but he refused to do so. Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Hamilton had to act as First Sea Lord. He was the Second Sea Lord, with responsibility for personnel and shore establishments, so was not sufficiently versed in operational matters to stand in for the First Sea Lord. As it happened, the High Seas Fleet was only covering mine laying operations and did not go far into the North Sea.

H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, said that ‘[s]trictly speaking, [Fisher] ought to be shot’ with King George V, who had supported Fisher until then, stating that his behaviour ‘was bound to have a deplorable, if not a disastrous effect upon the public, not only at home, but abroad.’[7]

Fisher’s second mistake was to say that he would stay as First Sea Lord subject to various conditions that no politician was likely to accept. He insisted that Churchill’s replacement should not be Arthur Balfour, the Conservative who did become First Lord. Fisher also wanted an increase in the responsibilities of the First Sea Lord at the expense of the First Lord and the other members of the Board of Admiralty.

Even then, it was not until 22 May that Asquith accepted Fisher’s resignation. A final attempt the day before to persuade him to stay failed because Fisher would not serve under Balfour. The Coalition took power on 25 May, with Balfour as First Lord. Churchill remained in the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a job without ministerial responsibilities usually given to inexperienced ministers.

The new First Sea Lord was Admiral Sir Henry Jackson. As he was ‘almost unknown to the nation, the appointment elicited a lukewarm response.’[8] The outstanding candidate, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, could not be spared from his current post as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet.

[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 276.

[2] PP, The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission. (Part II–Conduct of Operations, &C.) with Appendix of Documents and Maps (1919), p. 23.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 276-77.

[4] This and the two previous paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 408-10.

[5] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 277.

[6] The remainder of this post is based on Ibid. vol. ii, pp.279-91.

[7] Quotes from Ibid. vol. ii, p. 283.

[8] Ibid. vol. ii, p.291.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Admiral Fisher Resigns as First Sea Lord

  1. Jacky Fisher’s role in the building of the modern British navy is a great story and its even more interesting to read about the fight between Fisher and Winston Churchill as British naval ships were being taken away from the defence of Britain and used at Gallipoli – much to the anger of Jackie Fisher who saw them as Britain’s defence and resented Churchill for taking them away.

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