On 4th August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, and by 27th August the German army had captured Liège, Halen, Tienen, Namur and the capital city of Brussels. Antwerp was seen as impregnable, so the Belgian government fled to that city, where the Belgian Field Army had just been joined by 40,000 British troops. By the next month the city would be under siege, and the majority of the country would be occupied. The situation was critical. Field Marshall Kitchener, Secretary of State for War and responsible for the administration of the British Army, badly needed more ammunition, and decided that an appeal to the navy would be the best way to get it. Duly, he penned the following note to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
27th August 1914
My dear Churchill,
As we are keeping Antwerp going with ammunition, please give any you can spare from your ships to us. I think you said ten million rounds would be available. It makes me shudder to think of troops without ammunition.
May I send an officer to the Admiralty to talk with your people about this, and take over your contribution to Antwerp?
The answer is very different from this relatively formal, neatly typed request, directed fussily to ‘The Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill, M.P., Admiralty, S.W.’. Scrawled boldly in red pen on the bottom of Kitchener's own letter, and clearly drafted by a man in a hurry and not in the best of humours, it reads:
No No No No
10,000,000 rounds is all I have got for the fleet. I have already given 500,000 rounds. I will see if anything can be scraped up from the ships to enable me to dispense with the 2,000,000 rounds we were counting on from you!
And that, one can only assume, was that.