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Winston Churchill - First Lord of the Admiralty

Winston Churchill's ancestor John Churchill (1650-1722), first Duke of Marlborough, was alternately in and out of favor with his sovereigns. An early supporter of King James II, he played a major role in deposing him by joining forces with William of Orange (later King William III) in 1688. Churchill and his wife, Sarah, later regained influence during the reign of William's daughter, Queen Anne. In spite of his many military victories, however, he eventually lost power and was dismissed from all of the offices he held. The first Duke of Marlborough was one of the most successful generals in English history. Never defeated on the battlefield in any major engagement, his greatest triumphs came on the European continent during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). There he managed coalitions with great diplomatic skill and fought effectively with allies at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709). The epigram "Arma Virumque Cano" (of arms and the man I sing) is a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid.

Randolph Churchill, third son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough and father of Winston Churchill, had a brilliant, if brief, career in British Parliamentary politics in the 1880s. An aggressive and effective debater, he attempted through his program of "Tory Democracy" to garner popular support for his Conservative Party. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886, at the age of thirty-seven, but soon resigned in the course of a party dispute. He died on January 24, 1895, seventy years to the day before the death of his son Winston.

The end of the nineteenth century was a time of great opportunities for young soldiers who, like Winston Churchill, sought to win fame and rise in the military profession. The British Empire, then near its peak, was maintained and extended by Queen Victoria's armed forces in a series of small but deadly conflicts in Africa and Asia. As a newly commissioned cavalry officer, Churchill eagerly sought opportunities to prove himself in combat and to come to the attention of his superiors and the British public. Between 1895 and 1900 he saw combat in Cuba, India, the Sudan, and South Africa. In all of these adventures Churchill demonstrated unusual bravery and self-possession under fire.

Elected to Parliament as a hero of the Boer War, Churchill soon became known for his indefatigable energy and rhetorical eloquence. A fervent advocate of free trade and low tariffs, he switched his political affiliation from Conservative to Liberal in 1904. Many viewed his action as disloyal and opportunistic. Churchill's ascent to power became even more rapid after the Liberals won a decisive electoral victory in 1906. In swift succession, his party's leaders entrusted to him a series of important positions leading to a seat in the Cabinet. By 1911, at the age of thirty-six, he was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty -- the civilian head of Britain's navy.

Theodore Roosevelt met Churchill in December 1900 while the brash young English politician was lecturing in the United States. Roosevelt did not become an admirer. In one 1908 letter Roosevelt said that Winston's father Randolph "was a rather cheap character," and that Winston "is a rather cheap character." He would later add that both father and son displayed "levity, lack of sobriety, lack of permanent principle, and an inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety."

Down to the year 1905, Sir Percy Scott encountered obstruction at the Admiralty, as well as in the Fleet, in his efforts to improve the gunnery equipment of the Navy and increase its shooting efticiency. A large number of the senior officers of the service who bad the power to support him, did, on the contrary, obstruct him. They belonged to the old school and had no faith in scientific gunnery. But in 1905 Sir Percy Scott at last succeeded in introducing his ideas into the Fleet. He was given his opportunity by Lord Fisher on the latter becoming First Sea Lord, and he had in Lord Jellicoe, the new Director of Ordnance whom Lord Fisher brought to the Admiralty, a cordial and firm co-worker, as he has stated. Between that year and 1907, a great advance took place in gunnery ; whereas 58 shots, out of every 100 fired, missed the target in 1904, the proportion of misses in 1907 had fallen to 19, although, owing to the firm attitude of the Admiralty, the number of ships which fired had increased.

Later on, when Lord Jellicoe returned to the Admiralty as Controller of the Navy, he determined in face of considerable opposition to test thoroughly, in H.M.S. Neptune, Sir Percy Scott's system of director firing. “This," Sir Percy Scott states, “the Admiralty were reluctant to do, and they were supported in this opposition by Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman, then Commanderin-Chief of the Home Fleet, and flying his flag on board H.M.S. Neptune, the only ship in which it had been tried.” Then Mr. Winston Churchill, who had become First Lord, intervened, and another trial was carried out. "The superiority of director firing,” Sir Percy Scott adds, “was thus demonstrated, and the country has to thank Sir John Jellicoe and Mr. Winston Churchill for its introduction into the Navy. Had they not intervened, the opposition to it would still have been maintained, and we should have probably gone to war without any of our ships having an efficient method of firing their guns.”

In the autumn of 1911, to the surprise of the public, an exchange of offices was effected between Winston Churchill and Mr. McKenna, and Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. Hitherto Churchill had been wont to pose as a disbeliever in the German menace, and an advocate of reductions in British armaments. In August 1908, for instance, he rebuked Lord Cromer for uttering grave words of warning, and ridiculed the bare possibility of an Anglo-German conflict in arms. Early in 1909 he had assisted Mr. Lloyd George in the Cabinet in his unsuccessful endeavour to cut down Mr. McKenna's estimates. But the Agadir crisis of July 1911 seemed to have opened his eyes as it did those of Mr. Lloyd George.

Churchill, the energetic First Lord of the Admiralty, announced a complete reorganization of the navy, which was to be grouped in four fleets, three being for home defence, based on home ports (the third being the Atlantic fleet previously based on Gibraltar), and the fourth, based on Gibraltar, to operate either in home waters or in the Mediterranean. The significance of this new orientation was at once perceived. It was hailed with satisfaction by the Unionists, but the pure economists complained that he had thrown sobriety and thrift to the winds.

Churchill, the energetic First Lord of the Admiralty, promoted the development and use of such new weapons as airplanes and tanks. He grasped, moreover, at an early date the vital importance of oil fuel, and forwarded eagerly the arrangement by which oil was to be obtained for the navy from Persia. He also sent an expedition to attack Germany's ally, Turkey, through the Dardanelles Strait. This military effort failed, contributing to his fall from power.




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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 12:04:29 ZULU