Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill

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THE RIGHT HONOURABLE SIR Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, K.G., O.M., C.H., T.D., F.R.S., P.C., P.C. (Can) (30 November, 1874 – 24 January, 1965) was a British politician known chiefly for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He served as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915. He was forced from office following the formation of the First Coalition government.

Note: there are numerous books and internet articles on the life of Churchill. This article on Churchill will focus only on his first term as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty

In The World Crisis Churchill recalled:

In October Mr. Asquith invited me to stay with him in Scotland. The day after I had arrived there, on our way home from the links, he asked me quite abruptly whether I would like to go to the Admiralty. He had put the same question to me when he first became Prime Minister. This time I had no doubt what to answer. All my mind was full of the dangers of war. I accepted with alacrity. I said, 'Indeed I would.' He said that Mr. Haldane was coming to see him the next day and we would talk it over together. But I saw that his mind was made up.[1]

Haldane, at this point Viscount Haldane and not "Mr. Haldane" as Churchill had it, took up the story in his memoirs:

I drove over to Archerfield as soon as I had got to Cloan. As I entered the approach I saw Winston Churchill standing at the door. I divined that he had heard of possible changes and had come down at once to see the Prime Minister.
It was as I thought. Churchill was importunate about going himself to the Admiralty from the Home Office, where he was. He had told Asquith that the First Lord must be in the Commons. As I was by now in the Lords this looked like a difficulty. But I said the situation was too critical to permit of any such difficulty standing in the way. I had no desire to be First Lord, but if a real Naval War Staff were to be created and the Admiralty were to be convinced of its necessity, that must be done by someone equipped with the knowledge and experience that were essential for fashioning a highly complicated organisation. Now where was he to be found?
Obviously Churchill had been pressing Asquith hard. I returned to Cloan and came back the next day. Churchill was still there, and the Prime Minister shut me up in a room with him. I took the initiative. I told him that his imaginative power and vitality were greater than mine, and that physically he was better suited to be a War Minister. But at this critical moment it was not merely a question of such qualities. The Navy and the public had to be convinced, and they would be most easily convinced of the necessity of scientific preparation for naval war by someone who already had carried out similar preparations with the only Service in which they had been made or even thought of. I was satisfied that in all probability I could accomplish what was wanted within twelve months, and if he would look after the Army till the end of that time I would return to it and he could then take over the Admiralty.
There was nothing in the idea which the Prime Minister had that the Chancellorship would soon be vacant and that I might fill the post. The Great Seal might go anywhere so far as I was concerned at this moment. It was a question of executing a great plan if the emergency arose. And I said that, to be frank, I did not think that Churchill's own type of mind was best for planning out the solution that was necessary for the problem which at the moment was confronting us.
However, Churchill would not be moved, and Asquith yielded to him.[2]

If Haldane's depiction of the meeting at Archerfield is accurate, then it would not be the last time that Asquith protected Churchill's claims. Given the appalling incompetence and behaviour of Haldane's General Staff, which helped push Britain into a general war on the continent that it was not prepared to fight, it is probably for the best that Haldane was neither First Lord of the Admiralty nor Secretary of State for War after 1911.

At any rate, on 2 October Asquith apparently drove to Balmoral to see King George V and discuss with him the proposed change; his Majesty needing to be convinced about Churchill's suitability for the office. Having obtained the King's approval, on 10 October Asquith wrote to McKenna asking him to go to the Home Office, softening the blow by writing: "Your legal training and your large and tried administrative experience and capacity give you special qualifications for its duties, and I am very confident in the wisdom of my selection." McKenna accepted the offer of a great office of state on the proviso that he be allowed to remain at the Admiralty until the end of 1911. Asquith apparently assented, but on 15 October changed his mind and stated that the change had to be made immediately, so that the Navy Estimates could be prepared by the new First Lord and so that the King could hand over the seals of office before going to India. McKenna travelled to Archerfield on the 20th, and made clear his and the Admiralty's opposition to British troops being sent to France. Asquith tried to placate him by saying that he too was opposed to the scheme. Apparently throughout their interview there was no mention of a need for a War Staff at the Admiralty.[3]

The exchange of offices by McKenna and Churchill was announced on the 24th. The Letters Patent appointing Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty were dated the 24th, and according to Marder he took office on the 25th.[4] He recalled his arrival at the Admiralty in The World Crisis:

Mr. McKenna and I changed guard with strict punctilio. In the morning he came over to the Home Office and I introduced him to the officials there. In the afternoon I went over to the Admiralty; he presented his Board and principal officers and departmental heads to me, and then took his leave. I knew he felt greatly his change of office, but no one would have divined it from his manner. As soon as he had gone, I convened a formal meeting of the Board, at which the Secretary read the new Letters Patent constituting me its head, and I thereupon in the words of the Order-in-Council became 'responsible to Crown and Parliament for all the business of the Admiralty.' I was to endeavour to discharge this responsibility for the four most memorable years of my life.[5]

Reconstitution of the Board

Captain (later Admiral Sir) W. A. Howard Kelly, the Naval Attache in Paris, later wrote of Churchill:

Soon after his arrival he instituted the "ordeal by sunlight." He liked to see as many admirals and captains as possible. When they were shown into his room he would sit down in the middle of one of the windows, the chair for the visitor facing the light and quite close to his. He would then sit with his chin resting on his hands examining, there is no other word for it, his visitor, and if he did not like his looks, he would then say "Thank you, I am glad to have seen you."[6]

War Staff

Reorganisation of Fleets

Captain Richard Webb, Flag Captain at the Royal Naval War College, dined on board the Enchantress with Churchill on 15 June, 1912. He noted in his diary, "W Churchill very disappointing. How such people become Cabinet Ministers beats me altogether."[7]

Resignation of Bridgeman

Canadian Naval Aid Bill

Argument over Names of Ships

Threat of the Board Resigning

The officer at the centre of the controversy was a Lieutenant by the name of John W. Seddon.

Royal Naval Air Service

Roskill seems to have convinced himself that Churchill was opposed to the separation of the Naval Wing from the Royal Flying Corps, claiming, "Churchill set his face firmly against such a step,"[8] putting a lot of faith in Churchill's statement before the C.I.D. in June, 1914, that "he had always looked on the Naval and Military Wings as branches of one great service."[9] A week after making this little speech, Churchill evidently sanctioned the renaming of the Naval Wing to the Royal Naval Air Service, it forming part of the Military Branch of the Royal Navy as from 1 July.[10]

The Approach of War

On 1 June Rear-Admiral The Honourable Horace Hood succeeded de Chair as Naval Secretary. The latter wrote to Sir Frederick Hamilton on 3 June that Hood was "now on board Enchantress with the First Lord scouring the Channel in search of adventure."[11]

Resignation of Battenberg


Colville wrote to Hamilton on 14 May 1915, "So W.C. is off & as far as one hear[s] 'about time', he was a danger."[12]

Following Churchill's resignation from the Cabinet in November, Hamilton confided in his diary, "I can't help feeling rather sorry for this end to his ambitions although he has certainly brought it on himself through his overweening conceit."[13]


Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 with a clear remit - to institute the equivalent of a General Staff in the Royal Navy. An Admiralty War Staff was created at the beginning of 1912, but its lack of executive authority and Churchill's domineering personality stunted its development. Far too many historians have blamed the staff's failings on the Navy's officer corps, when the responsibility and the fault lies clearly with Churchill.

Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick Hamilton, Churchill's last Second Sea Lord in the Great War, wrote in 1915:

If history is really able eventually to sift out the truth Winston will stand condemned as [a] clever but unscrupulous politician of the worst type.[14]

Beatty, Churchill's Naval Secretary from 1912 to 1913, told Hamilton in 1915, "I know the First Ld is obstinate when set on a thing, but really it only requires firm treatment to make him realize when he goes off the rails, but indeed it must be astonishingly firm."[15]

Admiral The Honourable Sir Stanley Colville variously described Churchill as a "living danger"[16] and a "swollen headed maniac"[17] in letters to Hamilton.

Rear-Admiral Montague E. Browning, Rear-Admiral in the Third Battle Squadron, wrote to Vice-Admiral Sir Edmond J. W. Slade, "Churchill has worked hard, but proved himself unable to work get on with anyone, even with those of his most particular choice."[18]


See Also


  • Churchill, Randolph S. (1966). Winston S. Churchill: Youth, 1874-1900. Volume I. London: William Heinemann Ltd.
  • Churchill, Randolph S. (1967). Winston S. Churchill: Young Statesman, 1910–1914. Volume II. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395075262.
  • Churchill, Randolph S. (1969). Winston S. Churchill: Companion, Part 3, 1911–1914. Volume II. London: William Heinemann Ltd. ISBN 043413008.
  • Churchill, Winston S., C.H., M.P. (1941). The World Crisis 1911-1918: Abridged and Revised Edition. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd.
  • Gilbert, Martin (1971). Winston S. Churchill: The Challenge of War, 1914–1916. Volume III. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395131537.
  • Gilbert, Martin (1972). Winston S. Churchill: Companion, Part 1, Documents, July 1914–April 1915. Volume III. London: William Heinemann Ltd. ISBN 0434130125.
  • Hough, Richard (1987). Former Naval Person: Churchill and the Wars at Sea. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Limited. ISBN 0297790188.
  • Marder, Arthur J. (1961). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919: The Road to War, 1904-1914. Volume I. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Roskill, Stephen (2004). Churchill and the Admirals. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 1844151042.

Political Appointments
Preceded by
The Rt. Hon. Reginald McKenna
First Lord of the Admiralty
1911 – 1915
Succeeded by
The Rt. Hon. Arthur J. Balfour


  1. Churchill. p. 62.
  2. Haldane. pp. 245-247.
  3. Marder. I. pp. 239-251.
  4. Marder. I. p. 251.
  5. Churchill. p. 63.
  6. Kelly. "The Old Diplomacy." The Naval Review. Vol. XL. No. 2. May, 1952. p. 145.
  7. Diary entry for 15 June, 1912. National Maritime Museum. JOD/27.
  8. Roskill. Hankey. I. p. 185.
  9. C.I.D. SAS.2 of 25 June, 1914. The National Archives. ADM 1/8621.
  10. Admiralty Weekly Orders. "55.—Royal Naval Air Service—Organisation." C.W. 13964/14—26.6.1914. The National Archives. ADM 182/5.
  11. Letter of 3 June, 1914. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/117/A.
  12. Colville to Hamilton. Letter of 14 May, 1915. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/117/A.
  13. Diary entry for 13 November, 1915. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/106.
  14. Diary entry for 15 November, 1915. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/106.
  15. Beatty to Hamilton. Letter of 17 February, 1915. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/117/A.
  16. Colville to Hamilton. Letter of 30 October, 1915. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/117/A.
  17. Colville to Hamilton. Letter of 12 June, 1917. Hamilton Papers. National Maritime Museum. HTN/117/A.
  18. Browning to Slade. Letter of 24 May, 1915. Slade Papers. National Maritime Museum. MRF/39/1.