Winston Churchill in World War One
Many of you will have been to the cinema recently to see the film Darkest Hour which depicts the forty days in which Winston Churchill was made Prime Minister and consequently his dealings with members of his cabinet and the evacuation of the BEF from France via Dunkirk. Gary Oldman plays him wonderfully, although I would have liked his voice to sound slightly more like the great man’s.
Having read quite a few books about Churchill, and being one who enjoys a Cuban cigar every now and then, I have been asked lots of questions about Sir Winston. Most refer to the period covered in the film and his involvement with the Gallipoli landings but few ask about his service as a soldier in the Great War. As we visit Plugstreet on our battlefield tours I thought a short blog regarding this period was called for.
At the outbreak of the First World War Churchill held the position of First Lord of the Admiralty. He believed that the Royal Navy could, acting alone, take control of the Dardanelles Straits from where an attack could be launched towards the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople. Despite pounding the shoreline forts, an attempt to penetrate the straits failed with the loss of six ships, half the assembled fleet. It was quite obvious then that troops would be needed. This led to 220,000 Allied casualties by January 1916 and although Winston’s responsibility had more or less ceased when troops were committed he was criticised for his involvement with this military disaster.
Gallipoli forced Prime Minister Asquith to form a coalition government and one of the conditions made by the Conservatives was that Churchill be relieved of cabinet duties. Demoralised, Churchill resigned from the coalition government and, although he remained an MP, re-joined the army and becoming Lieutenant Colonel of the 6th (Service) Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers a new army unit that suffered terrible casualties at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. And so, leaving St Omer on the 3 January 1916 Winston set of to join his new command.
Being a battalion of Lowland Scots they did not take kindly to having an English aristocratic politician assigned to them. His first meeting with the whole battalion was disastrous. Drill had never been his strongpoint and he muddled orders necessary to fix bayonets and according to some sources, commanded the infantrymen to trot to the right in threes, harking back to his days in the Hussars.
Churchill was given ten days to get the battalion ready for front line service. And after much square bashing and hard work he began to get results. In exchange for hard work and loyalty Churchill secured the best equipment and food available for his men. The battalion was one of the first to receive steel helmets. The Scots began at first to admire, then even adore, their new CO. His officers thought he was lax when it came to discipline as any man on a charge who went up in front of Churchill only had to mention that he fought at Loos was let off immediately with nothing more than a reprimand.
Soon the battalion was moved into the front line at Plugstreet in the southern section of the Ypres Salient. This is an area we visit frequently on Rifleman’s battlefield tours. Churchill set up his headquarters at Lawrence Farm. The incessant shelling did not stop him from playing his gramophone records or getting his painting kit out and painting the surrounding landscapes. This man’s quiet confidence and assuredness seemed to calm the men.
Churchill was also a frequent visitor to the frontline trenches and would visit sentries sometimes three times a day and often in the middle of the night. Showing no fear he was led out into no-man’s land on almost 40 patrols although these excursions were not popular with the men chosen to accompany him. One soldier compared him to a baby elephant explaining how he used to shout in a loud gruff voice ‘You go this way, I’ll go this’ or ‘Come here I’ve found a gap in the wire, come here at once’.
Always a man of style, or not as the case may be, Churchill would often be seen wearing a French steel helmet which he intended to be as iconic as Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s two-badge black beret became during the Second World War. He hated the regiment’s Glengarry bonnets which were worn by his officers. On seeing himself wearing one he exclaimed “Christ”, and was seldom seen in one again.
Churchill worked his men hard to fortify his frontline redoubts with sandbags. The unpopular brigade commander visited Churchill shortly after German shelling had badly damaged the frontline and complained the trenches’ lack of sandbags saying “Men cannot go on living here; look at it, it’s dangerous, it’s positively dangerous.” To which Churchill replied “Yes sir. But you know, it’s a very dangerous war.”
When the 6th Battalion was merged with its sister 7th Battalion, a regular officer took over. Churchill who had been passed over for command of the brigade decided by then that he could do more for the war effort by resuming his seat in Parliament. During Churchill’s 125 day tenure as battalion commander it lost 15 men killed and 123 wounded. He had proved himself to his men and the senior officers of the 9th Scottish Division that he was more than just an aristocratic politician. He was in fact a soldier.
Upon his return to parliament he only was only a back bench politician until the Asquith government fell and the new Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed him a cabinet role as Minister of Munitions which he kept until the end of the war.
Now many have said he was a war monger and an opportunist. I don’t think he was a war monger although having said that he did say how much he enjoyed war. As for being an opportunist, aren’t all politicians and Generals opportunists? The politician looks for the opportunity to advance his career and the General to advance his army. Whatever, this is a man we owe a debt to and is probably the reason German isn’t our first language and we have our freedom today.
Lest we Forget
Pictured above is the Plugstreet Memorial to the Missing and commemorates more than 11,000 servicemen of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in this sector during the First World War and have no known grave.
Our guided battlefield tours that visit Plugstreet are as follows: