Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, informed his staff they were to proceed on the assumption that the war would last a year, and the greatest effort was to be concentrated in the first six months. Furthermore, he emphasised that all departments should adopt careful and regular methods:
In particular thrift and scrupulous attention to details are the marks of efficient administration in war. After all these years the Admiralty is now on its trial as an organisation, and the First Lord is very anxious that vigorous action should be combined with strict economy, so that the work of the department may subsequently become a model. 1
Contrast that, though, with his staff minute of the following May. Now it was assumed conflict would last until the end of 1916, and the proclaimed aim was the strengthening of naval power before that date. 1
The experience of war, it appears, had brought a telling change in perceived timescale and priorities – though even now well short of what ultimately was to be necessary. It reminds us of what the Royal Navy’s attaché in Berlin told Grand-Admiral Tirpitz in October 1913, that the British motto ‘was more or less “Solvitur Ambulando” ’. A literal translation would be ‘it is solved by walking’, or as shorthand one might simply suggest ‘evolution’ or ‘pragmatism’. Apparently, Tirpitz responded warmly, praising ‘an elastic mentality which can adapt itself even to frequent changes’, one he thought not found in Germany. 2 As a counterexample, though, see Herbert Richmond’s reaction to Lord Jellicoe’s statement in a memoir that the failure to lay down orders for battle-fleet screens before 1914 had been due to the lack of ‘war experience’. The real explanation, Richmond said, was lack of forethought, and the spur for improvement once war came had been merely ‘the stimulus of danger’. 3 We might well wonder whether wartime reorganisation at the Admiralty had the same origins, and much ought to have been anticipated.