Chapter 15

In March, 1911, I hauled down my Flag. During my command I had organized and carried out a series of tactical manoeuvres and had all the results recorded; these, together with my general notes on the conduct, formation, and fighting of a Fleet, were published by the Admiralty and issued to the Fleet. Shortly afterwards I had the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath conferred on me, and in 1909 I received the Grand Cross of the Victorian Order. During my command, the First Lord, Mr. McKenna, was always charming and complimentary, and on two occasions he volunteered the information that I was to be First Sea Lord. I always replied that I would wait until the appointment was offered to me; but I was surprised at what occurred after I had hauled down my Flag. Mr. McKenna had been to Venice with Sir John Fisher, and on his return, when I saw him again, he said: “I think, on the whole, you are rather too old to be the First Sea Lord, and that a younger man would be preferable.” I replied that he had the right of selection. Mr. McKenna, however, left the Admiralty and was relieved by Mr. Churchill before the appointment became due. Sir Francis Bridgeman became First Sea Lord, and he was actually a few months my senior in age, but he did not hold the appointment for long.

H.M.S Impregnable
H.M.S Impregnable

My wife and I were present at the Coronation of King George the Fifth, which took place in June, 1911. A few days after I had finished with the Home Fleet, I was appointed Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth, and there we had a quiet and pleasant time. Hardly anything took place which is worth recording. On March 20th, 1913, when I had been there two years, I was promoted to be Admiral of the Fleet, and consequently had to give up my command a year before the usual time.

C.-in- C., Devonport, Yacht Vivid
C.-in- C., Devonport, Yacht Vivid

Thus ended my naval career after fifty years’ continuous service. In my early days in the Navy, there were always a great number of officers on half pay, but I only had seven months out of all these fifty years, and they were when I was a young lieutenant and commander.

It was my misfortune never to have been in action, either afloat or ashore, during my career. Somehow, wherever I went, there was no war, and then my time was up in the Home Fleet three and a half years before the Great War started; such is the luck of service. I was always ready to go wherever I was ordered, my wife never in any way interfered in my appointments.

H.M.S. Euryalus, flying Flag of Admiral of the Fleet
H.M.S. Euryalus, flying Flag of Admiral of the Fleet

In 1912 the Admiralty asked me to be Chief Umpire for the Manoeuvres which were to take place that year. Of course, I gladly consented. In 1913, after I had left Plymouth, I was again asked to be Chief Umpire, and hoisted my Flag on board the Euryalus, with the staff necessary for an Admiral of the Fleet. On both occasions my great object was to have the Reports written and sent out to the Fleet before the officers who had taken part in the operations had forgotten them. Hitherto, the Reports had generally taken quite a year to be issued, whereas I had them sent to the Fleet in about a month. I think that was a very great advantage and was much appreciated.

In June, 1913, I went to live in Scotland. When the War broke out there was nothing for me, my rank was too high, and the younger men were naturally put in command, although I have always felt that, with my experience, I might have been able to do some good.

In 1916, after the failure of the Dardanelles operations, a Royal Commission was set up to inquire and report on the origin, inception, and operations. I was invited to serve on this Commission as the Naval Member – the other members were:

Lord Cromer – Chairman.
Sir Andrew Fisher – representing Australia.
Sir Thomas MacKenzie – representing New Zealand.
Mr. Fred Cawley, M.P.
I. A. Clyde – Lord Advocate, Scotland, M.P.
Stephen L. Gwynne, M.P.
A. Pickford – Lord Justice.
A. Roche, M.P.
Lord Nicholson – War Office representative.

We sat in the House of Lords. The witnesses had to be examined on oath. All the details and evidence, especially that of the Cabinet Ministers and Heads of Departments, is very interesting, and can be read in the Commissioners’ Report, but as so few people ever read these reports, the following very brief account may be of interest:

The origin of the attempt to force the Dardanelles was started by a telegram from Grand Duke Nicholas (then in command of the Russian Army in the Caucasus) to Lord Kitchener, Minister of War, asking him to arrange for Great Britain to make a diversion in the East to assist his Army, which was in a difficult position. Lord Kitchener replied, through the Foreign Office, that he would do so, although he did not previously consult the Prime Minister or the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Lord Kitchener approached Mr. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who took up the question of an attack on the Dardanelles by the Navy alone, and he over-persuaded his co-Naval Advisers to consent, although they all previously considered that an attack by the Navy alone would not be successful.

In 1906, when our relations with Turkey were strained, the Military Staff wrote an appreciation on the prospects of success of a joint naval and military attack, and their opinion was, that a joint attack would not be successful; they also said that the naval gunfire would not be of much assistance, as it was too direct and could not search out the nullahs, owing to the topography of the ground, only high-angle fire would be useful. The Admiralty, whilst concurring in the Report, thought the War Staff had rather minimized the effect of the naval gun-fire. Apparently, this report was put on one side, as it was considered the situation had changed; it had certainly altered to our disadvantage, as for some years the Turks had two German Generals as advisers, and one was in charge of the submarine defences of the Straits, and therefore it was quite certain the defences of the Dardanelles had been strengthened and better organized. This War Staff report should have been given a great deal more consideration than it received. Mr. Churchill explained at the War Cabinet Council Meeting the outline of the proposed attack – Lord Fisher, who was present, said nothing, and the Prime Minister never asked his opinion. When Lord Fisher was examined on oath he stated that he was convinced from the first that it would be a failure, and when he was asked why he did not say so at the War Council, he replied he was not there to speak, but only to answer questions. As a matter of fact, I believe he did concur at first, and when he saw the losses in ships and men he wished to back out of it, and would have done so if Lord Kitchener had not pressed him to go on.

The first attack by the Navy having failed, it was then a question whether the operations should cease, or a military expedition be sent out to combine with the Navy. There was a great deal of controversy between the military officers; some advocating that all troops that could be spared should be sent to reinforce the Army on the West front, others thinking they would be better employed in the East, since on the West front both Armies had entrenched themselves and for the time it was practically stalemate there.

Eventually it was decided to send a military force to the Dardanelles. The organization of the force was apparently taken over by Lord Kitchener; both the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Director of Operations told the Commission that they had not been consulted, and the latter thought we had drifted into the military expedition. The landing of the troops, a magnificent feat of courage and endurance, was carried out in a wonderful manner, but although prodigious efforts were made to advance, the Army could not gain any more ground. Later on an attack was made at Suvla; it was kept quite secret, and I think would have been a success if it had been vigorously pushed, but, alas! none of the generals had the requisite energy or foresight. The troops were all unseasoned, and required energetic and capable officers to lead them, but such were not there, and after a great loss of life and severe privations they evacuated the position.

Eventually it was decided to withdraw altogether from the Dardanelles. The evacuation was carried out in a most skilful manner, and there were scarcely any casualties. It really looked as if the Turks wanted us to clear out and were giving us every facility to do so. The wounded officers and men suffered a great deal; we never gained sufficient ground to set up the Field Hospitals, consequently, the wounded had to be placed in transports, where there was sufficiency neither of staff, accommodation, surgical nor medical appliances. On this expedition we sent out about 400,000 troops, and in my opinion, if an expedition to the East had been properly organized and a landing effected, say at Xeros Bay, we should have taken Constantinople – and from the evidence we heard, the Greeks would have come in on our left flank, and in all likelihood the Bulgarians would also have joined us. The War would thus probably have been terminated very much sooner.

The moral of this is that in war-time you should have a responsible War Council, of which the principal Cabinet Ministers and technical officers should be members and not advisers only.

Before the War ended, I served on a Committee for the Reconstruction of the Navy. We had fifty-six Sub-committees dealing with different subjects, and I was appointed Chairman of the one which dealt with Fisheries. Some of it was very interesting. I have been told since that the work done was very useful.

Sir William Henry May, Admiral of the Fleet
  • Go To Chapter 14. Chapter 16.