Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill meets women war workers at Georgetown’s filling works near Glasgow during a visit on 9 October 1918. Churchill came into Lloyd George’s cabinet, known as the Second Coalition, as Minister of Munitions.
Churchill was forced out of the cabinet by H.H. Asquith since the Conservatives would not come into a coalition with the his Liberal Party if Churchill remained in the Cabinet. This was painful, to say the least, for both men. Asquith is actually responsible for the launch of Churchill’s career. He appointed him to a series of powerful cabinet posts from Home Secretary to President of the Board of Trade to First Lord of the Admiralty.
Although the decision to force the Dardanelles was made by the entire cabinet under the leadership of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, Winston Churchill is somehow given the entire blame for what became a disaster. In spite of their later denials, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jackie Fisher, and the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Kitchener, were in favour of this plan. After the war, a Royal Commission cleared Churchill of blame for the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign.
As you can see from the map above, Churchill’s plan was for the Royal Navy to use old battleships to force their was from the Aegean through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara. From there they would have easily taken Istanbul and opened up the Black Sea to maritime traffic. The Turkish Navy was too small to have stopped them although at that point all Turkish warships were being commanded by German naval officers. (Clash of Fleets: Naval Battles of the Great War, by Vincent O’Hara).
The best and shortest explanation of why this was a sound idea and what it was could have achieved is given by Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith. Violet Asquith was the daughter of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and in spite of her youth, he often discussed complex matters of state with her because of her brilliance and keen understanding of British politics. She was one of the most extraordinary women of her time.
Portrait of the brilliant and perceptive British politician and author Violet Bonham-Carter, neé Asquith, 1915. In December 1964, she was elevated to the peerage in her own right as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury (15 April 1887 – 19 February 1969).
She met Winston Churchill when she was 18 and they remained friends for rest of their lives. In the last several years of his life, she was one of the few people who would be invited to sit with him and her presence cheered him. She herself was an extraordinary woman and the only female friend he had. The last telegram Churchill sent in his life was one congratulating Violet on her elevation to the peerage. She was brilliant, thought by many to be almost as good a speaker as Churchill and had a personality of steel. All of this appealed to Churchill.
“Winston Churchill As I Knew Him” is her memoir about the early years of friendship between them from 1906 until 1915. She describes the rationale behind the campaign. “Once the fleet had broken through the Straits (the Dardanelles) into the Sea of Marmora the Greeks and the Bulgarians, hungry for spoils, might join us in attacking Turkey (at that time allied with Imperial Germany); Italy might be weaned from her neutrality; Rumania would not stand alone. The Balkan States might form a united front to sweep the Turks from Europe. But what mattered most was to help Russia in her desperate need. When Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell we could release her shipping bottled up in the Black Sea. She could export her grain to us ad we could send her arms and ammunition.”
It was a bold plan. But for the lack of will of the British Admiral commanding the task force of old battleships assembled to run the Dardanelles, it probably would have worked and would have changed history. Certainly Baroness Asquith believed this to her dying day. She thought this was the worst mistake made in the 20th century.
No question that Admiral David Beatty would have successfully forced the Dardanelles. At this point there were no Turkish soldiers on the small spit of land known as Gallipoli. Unfortunately, it didn’t work because the Royal Navy’s fighting instinct had atrophied over a century of ruling the waves without challenge.
I am convinced that Admiral, the Earl Beatty of the North Sea, would have forced the Dardanelles had he been in command. In spite of his errors in command in his many engagements with the Germans, he certainly never lost his nerve. In fact, if anything, he went at the Germans too quickly without waiting for his other ships to come up in support.