Face To Face: A century ago, Winston Churchill resigned from the British cabinet to serve on the Western Front. Was this the pivotal moment of his military and political career?

November 1, 2015 by Legion Magazine
F2F
Winston Churchill addresses Canada’s House of Commons, December 30, 1941.
LAC/C-022140

Author Andrew Iarocci says YES.


It can be difficult to identify the pivotal moment in a military and political career as distinguished as Winston Churchill’s. This was the man, after all, who entered the political arena before the time of the automobile and radio, and was still there in the nuclear age. At times an artist, writer, historian and soldier, he was First Lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict that was partly the result of a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned to that post as a member of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet. In May 1940, King George VI invited Churchill to become prime minister after the country lost confidence in Chamberlain. After the fall of France in June 1940, Prime Minister Churchill refused to consider any negotiated settlement with Hitler’s Germany. He lifted the spirits of his people at a time when any well-informed observer could safely have bet that Britain was doomed to defeat. Surely there were many pivotal moments in Churchill’s life.

What about the First World War? In August 1914, Churchill had, along with other members of the government, supported the decision to go to war with Germany. His wartime career up to late 1915 was, in a word, disastrous. He committed to the first of his lost causes when he accompanied a contingent of Royal Marines into the besieged Belgian port of Antwerp in late September. The
city fell on Oct. 9. After a stalemate developed on the Western Front in 1914-1915, Churchill pushed hard for alternative strategies that would see a greater role for the Royal Navy.

One of these was a prospective landing on the North Sea island of Borkum, followed by operations in the Baltic. German coastal defences ruled out this far-fetched scheme, so Churchill instead convinced the Liberal government of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith to launch a naval assault in the Dardanelles, with the primary goal of forcing Ottoman Turkey out of the war. This attempt was an utter failure, as were subsequent Allied landings on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Churchill’s wartime career
up to late 1915 was, in a word, disastrous.

 

Churchill’s ill-fated plan has been described by historian John Bourne as a “half-baked endeavour rooted in complacency and racial arrogance that never had sufficient resources made available for it to succeed.” His policies at the Admiralty put him in conflict with Admiral Jackie Fisher, who resigned in protest of Churchill’s insistence that more naval assets be deployed beyond home waters. Churchill left the government in November 1915, as Asquith formed a coalition with the Conservatives.

Still a member of parliament, Churchill donned khaki in early 1916, commanding a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in Ploegsteert Wood on the Western Front. Although this was normally a quiet sector, Churchill reportedly made many forays into no man’s land, and it is possible that his experience in the trenches reshaped his attitudes toward the war in France and Belgium.

After returning to England, Churchill worked to rehabilitate his political career, and was appointed Minister of Munitions in 1917. In that capacity, he improved the quantity and quality of munitions output for the army. Despite his long interest in naval affairs, Churchill felt that the Admiralty had been consuming too great a share of the nation’s industrial output at a time when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was waging a desperate attritional struggle in France and Belgium. Churchill also pushed for “new” tactics on the Western Front, seeking greater emphasis on modern technology, such as the tanks he had earlier sponsored at the Admiralty. Churchill’s fall from grace in 1915, and his 1916 “exile” to the trenches may well have inspired one of the most productive phases of a very long and remarkable career. Thanks to him, the BEF was arguably the best equipped of any army on the Western Front in 1918, the year of Allied victory.

Author Terry Reardon says NO.


What are we to do for you?” The speaker was British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the recipient was the former First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. The day was May 17, 1915. Churchill had been fired in view of the disastrous naval operations in the campaign to overcome Ottoman Empire defences in the Dardanelles, a narrow strait in northwestern Turkey.

It had been decided that a coalition government would be formed and the Conservative leader, the Canadian-born Arthur Bonar Law, refused to have Churchill in a senior cabinet position—Churchill had crossed the floor to the Liberals in 1904, and it was now payback time.

Churchill was given Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a sop position which future Prime Minister David Lloyd George referred to as “generally reserved either for beginners to the cabinet or for distinguished politicians who had reached the final stages of unmistakable decrepitude.” Churchill thought his political career at a high level was finished—his wife Clementine later recalled “I thought he would die of grief.”

After five months in that sinecure, Churchill resigned, and on Nov. 18, 1915, he joined the army in France to commence training before appointment as a lieutenant-colonel. While commendable that he would leave the comfortable and safe life as a Member of Parliament, it certainly was not a pivotal moment in his career. After just five months, his battalion, which was under strength, was amalgamated with another, and Churchill chose to return to Parliament. If he had thought his (albeit short) time in the army would have warmed his parliamentary colleagues back to him, he was vastly mistaken—his speeches in the House were often interrupted with comments such as, “What about the Dardanelles?”

He languished as a backbench MP for a year before an old friend, now Prime Minister David Lloyd George, came to his rescue with an appointment to Minister of Munitions, in spite of opposition from the Conservatives in the cabinet. His standing in the country at that time is illustrated by The Sunday Times’ response to the appointment: “We say with all deliberation and with the utmost emphasis that nothing would tend more effectively to damn Mr. Lloyd George’s Government in the eyes of the whole country than the co-option of Mr. Churchill.”

While Churchill handled the Munitions and subsequent cabinet positions well, he was viewed in the country as a brilliant but unreliable politician. For example, when he was promoted to the prestigious position of Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, The Times called it “the most daring appointment from the public point of view.”

The 1930s saw further deterioration in his standing in the eyes of parliamentarians and the public with his opposition to the negotiations to bring home rule to India, and also his support for King Edward VIII in the Wallis Simpson crisis. Thus Churchill’s warnings of the danger of Hitler’s Germany, and the need to rearm, fell on deaf ears.

 

 If Churchill had thought his time in the army
would have warmed his parliamentary colleagues
back to him, he was vastly mistaken.

 

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had no option other than to bring Churchill back into the Cabinet. When Chamberlain resigned in May 1940, the position of prime minister was offered to Lord Halifax, the Foreign Minister, who refused. The only other viable candidate was Winston Churchill. Although he became prime minister really by default, he knew that this was the pivotal moment in his career. “I was conscious of a profound sense of relief,” he later wrote. “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” 

Andrew Iarocci is an assistant professor of history at Western University in London, Ont., and is the author of Shoestring Soldiers: The First Canadian Division, 1914-15.
Retired banker Terry Reardon is vice-chair of the International Churchill Society Canada and the author of Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King, So Similar, So Different.

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