Churchill Resigns as First Lord of the Admiralty
Churchill and Lloyd George in 1915. In his final desperate struggle to stay at the Admiralty, Churchill would shout at his one-time ally: “You don’t care what becomes of me. You don’t care whether I am trampled under foot by my enemies."
May 21 1915, London–The resignation of Jacky Fisher as First Sea Lord (which had still not been accepted by the Prime Minister), on top of the recent revelations on shell shortages, had prompted a political crisis in the United Kingdom. Fisher’s departure would give Churchill even more power in the Admiralty, an outcome unacceptable to the opposition Conservative Party. Churchill had switched from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party ten years prior, and had made an enemy of the Conservative leader, Bonar Law. The ruling Liberals at this point had fewer seats than the Conservatives, but held on thanks to support from Labour and Irish MPs. The Conservatives had so far in the war held off from direct public attacks on the government in the interest of national unity, but could not promise this if Churchill were to stay on in the Admiralty.
David Lloyd George convinced PM Asquith that the way forward was to form a national coalition government. Asquith and Bonar Law had largely agreed on the terms of such a coalition by May 17; this of course included Churchill’s departure. Over the next few days, Churchill desperately tried to keep his job, writing (along with his wife Clementine) an incredible number of letters to anyone who might be in a position to help. Finally, on May 21, Asquith responded to Churchill’s six letters: "My dear Winston: You must take it as settled that you are not to remain at the Admiralty.” Churchill tendered his resignation the same day, writing, “I accept your decision. I shall not look back."
With Churchill on the way out, Fisher, who had been lauded by the press over the last few days, thought he had the leverage to work his way back into the Admiralty with more authority than before. He gave Asquith a set of conditions for his return to the Admiralty, including: "I shall have complete professional charge of the war at sea, together with the absolute sole dispostion of the fleet…and absolutely untrammeled sole command of all the sea forces whatsoever.” However, the mood had since turned against Fisher. He was still officially First Sea Lord, but had been absent from the Admiralty for days, during which time Room 40 had (incorrectly) suggested the Germans were sortieing their fleet. Asquith rejected Fisher’s conditions out of hand, remarking privately “that Fisher, strictly speaking, ought to be shot for leaving his post.” Fisher left for Scotland on May 22, and on the way received official notice that his resignation had been accepted.
Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel; Carlo D'Este, Warlord.