We have been recording the closing of the life of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill – the British Prime Minister during World War II. What is almost always over looked, though, is that he also fulfilled important political and military roles during the First World War. It was certainly one of the toughest phases of his career, and it was also a formative one.
Winston was Navy Minister during the early stages of the First World War but was widely criticized over his handling of the Dardanelles campaign. In 1915 the Allies had sent a massive invasion force of British, Indian, Australian, New Zealand, French and Newfoundland troops to attempt to open up the straits. The Turks mined the straits to prevent Allied ships from penetrating them, but in minor actions a British submarine succeeded in penetrating the minefields and sank an obsolete Turkish battleship. However Sir Ian Hamilton’s Mediterranean Expedition Force failed in its attempt to capture the Gallipoli peninsula and, after 8 months’ fighting, its withdrawal was ordered in December 1915. Total Allied deaths British, French, Australian, New Zealanders and others were around 70,000. Total Turkish deaths were around 60,000.
The campaign did damage to Winston who had eagerly promoted the unsuccessful use of Royal Navy sea power to force open the straits. As a result of this he was demoted and soon afterwards resigned from the government in order to serve on the Western Front. He quickly returned to politics and then to ministerial office
At the outbreak of war, Churchill held office as First Lord of the Admiralty in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government – the latest in a succession of ministerial posts he had held since 1905. Having originally been elected to Parliament as a Conservative, he had subsequently switched parties and this defection meant that he was widely distrusted by his former colleagues, a fact that would have important consequences for his wartime career. In 1914 he was still relatively young and extremely energetic, and he admitted that he relished the prospect of war.
The failure at Gallipoli was not the immediate cause of Churchill losing the Admiralty. Rather, it was the breakdown of his relationship with the First Sea Lord, Admiral John Fisher that triggered the crisis that led to the creation of the Asquith Coalition. As the price of their participation in government, the Conservatives insisted that Churchill be moved. He was given a minor Cabinet post as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but in November 1915 he resigned to take up a command on the Western Front. From January to May 1916 he commanded the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, with the temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He served in a quiet sector but demonstrated his ability as a leader of men. His heart remained in politics, however, and he returned to London with the hope of regaining office at a time when Asquith’s effectiveness was increasingly being called into question.
When a new coalition was formed under David Lloyd George in December 1916, Churchill was not offered a job. He was far from happy and it was some months before the Prime Minister felt politically strong enough to appoint him as Minister of Munitions. That post was outside the War Cabinet so Churchill was still excluded from the higher direction of the war. He did, however, prove a highly effective administrator, and – although he had not lost his zest for visits to the front – his behaviour was more stable and less unpredictable than it had been previously. His demonstration of a greater political maturity prompted Lloyd George to reward him with important Cabinet roles in his post-war coalition, leading Winston to play a significant role in the reconstruction period.
With the war over Winston played a significant role in helping people understand the war and its memories. The major work was, of course, the multi-volume history-cum-autobiography work, The World Crisis. Winston also re-joined the Conservatives and, from 1924-1929, served as Chancellor of the Exchequer – but that’s a story for another day.