To Jacky Fisher the Royal Navy was "a service for which the archangel Gabriel is only just good enough". As the greatest innovator - he introduced the big-gun dreadnought battleships - that service had known in 100 years, it was not surprising that Winston Churchill as first lord should have recalled Fisher as first sea lord after the forced departure in 1915 of Battenburg, Mountbatten's father. Antwerp had fallen, Goeben and Breslau had been incompetently permitted to escape, a British super-dreadnought and cruisers sunk and, the last straw, Admiral Cradock had been defeated and died at Coronel. Fisher, on reappointment, instantly despatched two battle-cruisers to the Falklands in a force under Sturdee, which, however lethargically, finally sank all von Spee's vessels, revenged Cradock and restored British morale and Churchill's shaky reputation.
Fisher opposed the Allies' principle of frontal defence against the Germans in France, which did indeed, however unforeseeably, lead first to the "massacre of Mons" and then to years of static trench warfare. He had proposed instead to establish a base in Sylt, "work down" to Brunsbuttel, force the German High Sea Fleet out to destruction at sea by the Grand Fleet, land in Schleswig, enter the Baltic, disembark troops in Pomerania in concert with vast Russian landings, outflank German advances eastward as well as westward at points no more than 80 miles from Berlin, and thus take that capital. The concept was not always opposed by conventional military planners, including Sir John French and Lord Roberts ("Bobs"), who also sought landings in Belgium, and was commended after the war by Scheer and Tirpitz, who believed that it could have defeated Germany. But Churchill was not its consistent supporter: it was never executed and, by 1915, stalemate prevailed on the western and eastern fronts and at sea.
To resolve it, Kitchener advocated assault on Alexandretta, in Turkey, to cut the Baghdad railway, prevent attack on Egypt, protect the Russians in the Caucasus and, according to Hindenburg, "settle the fate" of Turkey. Churchill, for his part, sought a Balkan union against Turkey and proposed to force the Dardanelles, enter the Sea of Marmora with the fleet alone, take Constantinople and advance to the Black Sea. Meanwhile personal and professional differences had become evident between the 73-year-old Fisher and Churchill, the young, thrusting politician interfering even in Admiralty's conduct of policy.
Fisher could not support the War Council's plan for a wholly naval, rather than combined naval/army, operation via Gallipoli. His confused semi-silence led to his eventual resignation, a step also prompted by the imperative need to maintain the superiority, in northern fastnesses, of the Grand Fleet. "The British Empire ceases if the Grand Fleet ceases," said the first sea lord.
But attack, nevertheless, by 15 British and four French capital ships against the Dardanelles' forts began on 19 February 1915. These were foiled by Turkish minefields and concealed batteries. Admiral Carden broke down and Admiral De Robeck's succession led only to terrible damage and loss to the Allied fleet from Turco-German guns and mines. It was clear that troops, under General Sir Ian Hamilton, were required. As Nelson said: "Only a fool would attack a fort with ships." But when Anzac, French and British infantry landings now began, under impossible conditions, the horrors of Gallipoli, "the madness of the Dardanelles" and final evacuation on 7 December followed; on 15 May, Fisher had resigned in protest at Churchill's last arrogant and ill-informed intervention.
This is a complicated narrative, lucidly related. The author, a retired sailor and sound, inspired historian, concludes that by the second world war, Churchill had become at last ready to offer the country the leadership so desperately needed. "Fisher had been his tutor," the man who built the navy that, as Jan Morris wrote in Fisher's Face, "won, or at least did not lose, the first world war".
John Colvin is the author of "Nomonhan" (Quartet, £18)