Jackie Fisher | 20 Jan 1915

We’ve got another relatively quiet day; but disagreements between Winston Churchill and his First Lord of the Admiralty are beginning to sprout.

Kenneth Best

But first, let’s go to Egypt and meet a sky pilot. His name is Kenneth Best, and he signed up to be a military chaplain as soon as he could. He’s been in Cairo for a few months, and so far has had nothing more strenuous to do than holding church parades and helping to run the Officers’ Mess.

Now, with the reports of an Ottoman advance against the Suez Canal, more men are being moved forward to defensive positions on the canal. Best immediately decides that his place is at the front with the blokes. The role of chaplains during the war absolutely fascinates me, and we’ll be returning to Best as the war progresses. Today, he’s on the train going up towards Ismailia. His diary entry follows after…

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Kenneth Best, continued

We pass endless number of cemeteries – sheep and goats inseparable. Wireless station, and not far beyond a convict settlement. Men in rough blue clothes. Armed sentries posted among them and around them in sentry boxes. The men are stone quarrying, many manacled and in chains. Cultivation turning to desert. I am overcome with sleep.

Wake up at Zagazig, where ammunition column will be stationed. Later passed a small Christian cemetery where the soldiers who were killed at Tel-el-Kebir [a battle fought nearly thirty years earlier to reassert British control over the region] are buried – the trenches are still visible. From now onwards, many Indians and Gurkhas guarding bridges. I noticed white and blue lilies in flower, then back we went into desert again.

Arrive in Ismailia 6.30 pm. Go to club and dine with Walmsley, Royal Army Medical Corps. Come back to station 11pm, get into wrong train to sleep, just as it was moving off. Got into another with General Officer Commanding, Royal Artillery, Brigade Staff, and Rankin. I get a first-class compartment to sleep in by myself. Ismailia seems to me to be the most beautiful spot in Egypt.

Jackie Fisher

A few months ago, we might remember how Prince Louis was forced to resign as First Sea Lord due to being slightly too German. His replacement, Jackie Fisher, is a considerably more energetic and opinionated man. Given that his boss is Winston Churchill, this seems a recipe for conflict.

And so it proves. About now, he begins raising objections to the proposal to force the Dardanelles. (Of course, this is arguably all his crackpot scheme anyway, but whatever. The details of who said what to who and exactly when interest me only slightly more than the details of how Navy requisition forms differed from Army ones.) At any rate, Fisher is now cooling somewhat on the operation.

His concern at present seem to me to be founded and reasonable. He’s not very enthusiastic about sending Queen Elizabeth, the Navy’s new super-dreadnought. And not without reason – there have been reports that German submarines may be operating in the Mediterranean. (They aren’t, yet, but the Germans do have plans to send some.) Fisher has learned the lesson that submarine torpedoes will fuck your ships up, and as yet there’s no reliable defence against them.

Sure, this is an annoying hazard in the context of sending obsolete pre-dreadnoughts against them. Sending the newest, most modern battleship in the fleet to dodge submarines is a completely different prospect. In that light his objections are entirely understandable. (The ways he chose to act on his misgivings are possibly another matter, but then we’re back in he-said he-said requisition form territory.)

The dispute will drag on for some time, and eventually be settled in favour of keeping Queen Elizabeth. Fisher will come close to resigning over the affair. It’s important to note that his original proposal had involved a significant landing of troops. He’s now having second thoughts about not objecting more strongly to a purely naval operation…

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Yesterday’s air raid dominates the news, obviously. Elsewhere, Page 3 declares that “Erzurum is about to change hands” (insert hollow laughter here), Page 4 reports the publication of a collection of Bismarck’s letters, and there’s a Bogus Wedding Story on Page 5.

More cost of living increases on Page 7, including the price of coal. Page 11 has some Austrian atrocity stories from Serbia. And the Belgium Appeal is still running, now at a total take of about £132,240 (well over £13 million today).

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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