After an anti-German campaign in the press and minor setbacks at sea in the opening months of World War One, the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, resigned in October 1914. Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty immediately, after apparently not considering any other admirals, proposed Jacky Fisher as Battenberg’s replacement and was fully supported in this by Prime Minister Asquith. Only King George V disapproved. The king thought it “a great mistake” but with “reluctance and misgivings” accepted his ministers’ selection. George V quickly proved to be right. The Churchill-Fisher partnership was a debacle, a disaster for their careers, reputations, the Royal Navy, and the conduct of the war. Within five and a half months, both men were gone. Fisher had resigned as First Sea Lord and Churchill was dismissed as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Churchill and Fisher: The Titans at the Admiralty who Fought the First World War by Barry Gough is a brilliant study of the relationship between these two gigantic figures. It is lucidly written, thoroughly researched, and convincingly argued; an essential book for students of Churchill, Fisher, the Dardanelles, and the Royal Navy in the Great War.
The 74-year old Fisher had been in retirement for four and a half years when he was recalled by Churchill in 1914. His tumultuous six year tenure as a reforming First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910 had been marred by relentless personal feuds and pettiness. In his second turn as First Sea Lord, Fisher immediately reverted to form. He was secretive, conspiratorial, untrustworthy, timid, vindictive, displayed megalomania, and threatened resignation at every turn. On his return, as Gough details, Fisher joyfully renewed his feuds and attempted to settle scores by sacking perceived enemies. The latter behavior can be unfavorably compared with Churchill who in 1940 declared all differences to be in the past. Fisher’s resignation in May 1915, which included going into hiding to “escape” Churchill, can only be viewed as truly pathetic and lacking in the moral courage expected from a First Sea Lord during a world war.
Disagreeing with Christopher Bell, Gough generously writes that Fisher rose to “the challenge presented by Churchill.” Fisher’s opposition to the Dardanelles scheme was poorly and inconsistently expressed. Threatening to leave for “Richmond” or remaining silent in the key meeting and expressing his opposition by rising from the table and going to the window was obviously not sufficient. All of this can be compared with the British Chiefs of Staff during the Second World War. Brooke, Cunningham, Portal, and even Dill and Pound served Churchill far better than Fisher. Brooke may have poured out his complaints about the prime minister in his diary but he never whinged about being out-argued by Churchill. When Churchill thumped the table and pushed his face toward Brooke, Brooke thumped the table harder and glared back.
While Gough perceptively argues that in appointing Fisher in 1914 Churchill sought to preserve his decision-making power at the Admiralty and remarks that the admiral’s energy and genius impressed Churchill, the attraction Fisher held for Churchill remains, even after 500 pages, a puzzle to this reader.
In a long 55-year political career that spanned two world wars and the start of a cold war, Churchill’s nomination of Fisher as First Sea Lord ranks as his worst appointment and one of his worst decisions in general.