Winston Churchill and the First World War

Winston Churchill rather enjoyed war. In July 1914, as Britain prepared for the oncoming catrastrophe, Churchill, at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his wife, ‘I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’ And in 1916, in a letter to David Lloyd George’s daughter, Churchill admitted: ‘I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment, and yet, I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it’.

Winston Churchill 1904Churchill had been appointed to the Admiralty in October 1911, and had continued the policy established by his predecessor of keeping Britain ahead of the Germans and strengthening the navy by expanding the number of Dreadnoughts, the most powerful battleship of the time.

But despite these preparations, Britain suffered a number of setbacks during the first months of the First World War – on 22 September 1914, the German navy sunk a number of British ships at Dogger Bank (sixty miles off the east coast of England in the North Sea), killing 1,459 sailors; and on 16 December, German ships penetrated close enough to British shores to attack Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby causing 137 fatalities. Churchill, in his role at the Admiralty, took the brunt of the blame and the public’s anger.

Antwerp

In October 1914, with German forces bearing down on Antwerp, the British government dispatched Churchill to Belguim. Although, through his efforts, he helped delay the fall of the city by about a week, allowing the Belgian Army to escape and the vital Channel ports to be saved, he was still heavily criticised at home for failing to save Antwerp.

Stung by the criticism, Churchill offered to resign from the government in return for a post as an army officer in the field. His offer, met with derision and loud guffaws, was refused.

The Landship

Throughout the war, Churchill furthered the cause of the newly-developed ‘landships’, or, to use its original codeword, the ‘tank’. On 15 September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, introduced the tank, the modern equivalent of the cavalry, onto the battlefield. The initial consignment of 32 tanks met with mixed results but, nonetheless, Haig was impressed and immediately ordered a thousand more.

Gallipoli

In 1915, the British planned to use the Royal Navy to take control of the Dardanelles Straits from where they could attack Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Dardanelles, a strait of water separating mainland Turkey and the Gallipoli peninsula, is sixty miles long and, at its widest, only 3.5 miles.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill insisted that the Royal Navy, acting alone, could succeed. On 19 February, a flotilla of British and French ships pounded the outer forts of the Dardanelles and a month later attempted to penetrate the strait. It failed, losing six ships, half its fleet. Soldiers, it was decided, would be needed after all, and Horatio Kitchener was called in.

Finally, in January 1916, after the loss of some 220,000 Allied casualties, the curtain fell on the whole sorry ‘side show’ that was Gallipoli. Although Churchill’s responsibility in Gallipoli had, by and large, ceased once the army had been deployed, he was still much criticised for his involvement, and the disaster at Gallipoli was a severe setback to Churchill’s reputation.

The humiliation of Gallipoli, together with a scandal about the supply of shells, forced the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, to form a coalition government. One of the conditions, as laid down by the Conservatives, was that Churchill be relieved of his cabinet duties. He was. Appointed to the rather meaningless post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Churchill bemoaned, ‘I am finished’.

Lieutenant Colonel

Winston Churchill World War OneDemoted and demoralised, Churchill handed in his resignation from the coalition government and, although he remained an MP, joined the frontline troops as a lieutenant colonel of the Royal Scot Fusiliers on the Western Front. By all accounts, although unorthodox as an officer, he was popular and courageous, and improved morale by organising entertainment for the troops and reducing punishments. (Pictured, Churchill, centre, in army uniform with colleagues).

In January 1916, his battalion moved onto the front line. Although he spent only about 100 days at the front, Churchill led by example, venturing thirty times or so into no man’s land, often flirting with death.

In March 1916, Churchill, eager to get back to politics, resigned his army commission and returned to London. But things did not go according to plan. In December 1916, Asquith was replaced as the coalition’s prime minister by David Lloyd George but still there was no position for the eager Churchill. Lloyd George’s welcome was not one to lift his hopes, writing to Churchill: ‘You do not win trust even where you command admiration’.

Finally, in July 1917, despite protests and strong vocal disproval from the Conservatives, Churchill was appointed Minister of Munitions but it was still a post outside the cabinet and his duties there were mainly administrative.

Red Peril

In January 1919, following the end of the war, Churchill was appointed Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air.

Deeply alarmed by the Bolshevik threat, the ‘red peril’, following the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the tsar, Churchill poured troops into Russia to assist the counter-revolutionary cause during the Russian Civil War. ‘The foul baboonery of Bolshevism’, as he called it, must be ‘strangled in its cradle’. Churchill was concerned lest Bolshevism should spread to Germany and so urged his colleagues at the Paris Peace Conference to treat Germany as friends in the post-war world: ‘Kill the Bolshie, Kiss the Hun,’ as he wrote to Violet Asquith.

But the Bolsheviks survived and, following the defeat of the ‘Whites’, the last remaining British troops were withdrawn in 1920.

Inter-war

Losing his seat as a Liberal MP, Churchill swapped sides and served a Conservative government as Chancellor of the Exchequer until their defeat in the election of 1929. Although the Conservatives were re-elected in 1931, Churchill, considered too much a loose canon, was sidelined – again. He remained in the shadows throughout the thirties, writing and painting, until recalled to the Admiralty in 1939, by which time the Second World War had begun.

World War One coverRupert Colley

Read more about the Great War in World War One: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on Educating Winston, Churchill the family man, Churchill’s dream, and Churchill’s pets.

 

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