The season began with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in command of an expedition in the Dardanelles which might bring the war to a dramatic conclusion. It ended with him out of office at a rural retreat called Hoe Farm, looking for solace with family and a newly-discovered leisure activity of painting.
While Churchill was visiting the Belgian coast on 18 March the Anglo-French naval attack at the Dardanelles began. The costs were heavy with several ships sunk or grounded by unlocated mines and the attack was called off. It was unknown at the time that the German were expressing considerable concern and that their transmissions indicted that ammunition supplies in the forts were low.
Admiral de Robeck, who was so depressed by his losses, particularly the battleships Irresistible and Ocean, that he expected to be recalled, quickly lost his taste for battle.
The next day the War Council authorized de Robeck to continue the attack “if he saw fit” but Kitchener could not yet present plans for the landing of troops. Meeting with the field generals, de Robeck told them that he was quite certain that the naval ships could not get through unless the Army captured the defending forts.
In effect the initiative had now passed from Churchill to Kitchener. As the Army gathered at Alexandria the commanders were aware that they were planning the first amphibious landing against a defended beachhead in & history of the British Army. While weeks passed with little action Churchill continued to hope for success. He thought that this was one of the great campaigns of history and that Constantinople was more to the East than London, Pans and Berlin were together to the West.
In early April Lord Fisher began to lose his nerve because of worry at losing too many ships, particularly the Queen Elizabeth. The Dardanelles became a festering wedge between the First Lord and the First Sea Lord. On 25 April British and Empire troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula but none of the units reached their objective. They barely gained and held a foothold, despite the severe losses they suffered.
The support of Army units required naval control of the Aegean Sea. But Fisher was unwilling to agree to the commitment of the necessary ships. To placate Fisher, Churchill agreed to bring the Queen Elizabeth home, but Fisher now became obsessed with destroying Churchill. When he announced his resignation as First Sea Lord Churchill thought it was just another petulant act of an old man. Despite the best efforts of Asquith and Churchill to appease him, Fisher was determined to go and to deliver a mortal political blow to his chief and friend in doing so. Fisher even contacted the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Bonar Law, to inform him of his resignation.
When Asquith declined to accept his own resignation, Churchill felt that he would survive his political crisis. But when Lloyd George explained to Asquith that the price of Conservative cooperation with the Government would be Churchill’s exclusion from any coalition, the Prime Minister showed a surprising willingness to sacrifice the First Lord. Any inclination of the Prime Minister to fight for his young colleague was lost when Asquith was devastated by the news that his young mistress, Venetia Stanley, intended to marry a much younger man.
On 17 May Churchill was stunned when Asquith told him that he had decided to form a National Government with the Unionists and then asked him: “What are we to do for you?” This question was a signal to him that he would cease to serve as First Lord of the Admiralty. Although, in Max Aitken’s words, “he was clinging to the desire of retaining the Admiralty as though the salvation of England depended on it”, there was little chance he would be retained in any significant position in a new government.
In the early stages of negotiations Churchill had rejected Lloyd George’s suggestion of the Colonial Office, He was finally offered the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster, a minor office primarily concerned with the appointment of Justices of the Peace; “A bone on which there is little meat,” as his cousin, Sunny, commented. Given no alternative, Churchill accepted because it at least kept him on the fringe of power and allowed him some opportunity to influence events.
This was one of the low moments in Churchill’s life. His wife later told Martin Gilbert: “The Dardanelles haunted him for the rest of his life. He always believed in it. When he left the Admiralty he thought he was finished. I thought he would never get over the Dardanelles; I thought he would die of grief.”
They moved from Admiralty House into temporary residences with relatives until they rented Hoe Farm in Surrey. One day his sister-in-law Goonie noticed Churchill attentively watching him paint and suggested he try it. Clementine bought his supplies and he was ready. He now had an activity which revitalized his enormous energies when required throughout his battles for the next fifty years.