Winston Churchill: Aspects in Focus
John Lee is a noted British historian and conducts regular military battlefield tours in the United Kingdom, North America and continental Europe. He is the author of a number of works on military history including A Soldier’s Life: General Sir Ian Hamilton 1853 to 1947, The Warlords: Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and Winston and Jack -The Churchill Brothers written in collaboration with his wife Celia Lee.
Mr Lee delivered this keynote address at the Churchill conference ‘Winston Churchill: Aspects in Focus’ at the Polish Hearth Club in London on the 13th of September 2017. The day-long conference was organised by the Churchill Society of Tennessee.
While Winston Churchill is known as the ‘greatest Briton’ that ever lived, and is widely recognised as the saviour of Western civilisation for his leadership during the Second World War and his understanding of the Cold War, far fewer people are aware of the extraordinary contribution he made in the First World War. While the proverbial ‘man in the street’ might have heard his name linked to Gallipoli, it is less likely that Antwerp 1914, the development of the tank, infantry service on the Western front or control of the Ministry of Munitions is so well known.
We know that in August 1914 Winston was First Lord of the Admiralty and many historians say that, had he died about then, his immortal epitaph would have been: “When war came, the Fleet was ready”. We can’t really understand Winston’s role in the early part of the war without explaining how he came to be in that position.
Always remember that Winston, having abandoned the Conservative Party, was on the Radical wing of the Liberal Party. His ideas on taxation, land valuation and controlling unelected aristocrats in the House of Lords make him sound dangerously revolutionary. He inherits a lot of his politics from his father, Lord Randolph, the ultimate one-nation Tory. Peace, retrenchment and reform were his guiding principles. Defence spending was for the Royal Navy; the army was to be cut to the bone; but he wanted to keep the new Dreadnought programme to a bare minimum. He considered himself a friend of Germany.
All that was to change in 1911 (when he was Home Secretary) when the German Kaiser took a gunboat, ‘The Panther’, to Agadir in Morocco and started blustering about Germany’s ‘place in the sun’. He immediately saw this as a threat that should be faced sooner rather than later. He wanted the government not just to declare its solidarity with France, but for that to be made quite clear to Germany. He then began one of those programmes of deep thought and study that produced spectacular papers on strategy and policy that were remarkable for their prescience. He could see a British Expeditionary Force going to France but called at once for 100,000 Indian troops to join them via Marseilles (exactly what happened in 1914); for Belgium to be integrated into the allied war plan etc. And, in practical terms, he was told that there were large stocks of naval cordite in and around London quite unguarded and, when the Admiralty refused to lift a finger, he, as Home Secretary responsible for their safety, got the army to post guards on them immediately. He would be denounced by his (Tory) critics as a ‘scaremonger’, but ‘better safe than sorry’ was his motto.
PM Asquith was so impressed with Winston’s solidarity with the government that he asked him if he would like to be First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘Not’ arf!!’ was the figurative reply! He arrived in October 1911 in “stern mood and buoyant heart”. He started making changes at once – forcing the resignation of the elderly First Sea Lord (Sir Arthur Wilson) and changing all the Sea Lords. He advances Prince Louis of Battenburg, an excellent professional sailor, to the delight of the Royal family, and begins a series of modernising reforms long overdue.
He gets the rising star in the army, Sir Douglas Haig, to supply a paper on War Staff organisation and begins to force the Royal Navy to accept the idea (against extraordinary resistance from men who thought they knew everything there was to know about taking a fleet to war); he begins the major programme of converting the ships from coal to oil fired boilers, and thinks through the impact this will have on strategy (less coaling stations; more control of oil producing regions in the Middle East); he presses for increased pay for the sailors and improved terms and conditions; Celia discovered that one of the ways he used his City stockbroker brother, Jack, was to investigate whether special insurance could be provided for men in the submarine service (typically humane Winston); he created the Royal Naval Air Service – so keen on flying – once went up 10 times in one day – and had to be warned to stop taking so many risks!
He loved being in charge of the Navy! He used the Admiralty yacht, Enchantress, all the time, visiting ports, fleet reviews and, famously, touring the Mediterranean in 1912 and meeting Asquith, Kitchener and Ian Hamilton out there for discussions about future amphibious warfare (three years ahead of Gallipoli).
But most of all Winston’s tenure coincided with the German Naval Laws that massively increased their fleet and Winston became the leading advocate for building two new battleships for each new German one. He saw it as a way of telling Germany not to contemplate ‘trying it on’. He made agreements with France that, if they looked after the Med, we would look after the Channel and the North Sea. He wrote war scenarios (that should have been the job of a Naval War Staff) consistently painting the Germans as the enemy to be faced down. The idea was NOT to fight Germany but to make sufficient alliances to make her see that war was not worth it. At one stage he offered Germany a ‘naval holiday’, with no new shipbuilding, but Germany saw that as just a way of perpetuating Britain’s massive superiority at sea. They didn’t like Winston’s idea that the Royal Navy was essential to us but that a German fleet was merely a ‘luxury’.
His big test was in December 1913 when he had to force through his naval estimates for 1914/15. The reforming Liberal government needed cuts in other departments to build the new funds for pensions and National Insurance, but Winston, even after delaying some shipbuilding, still needed an increase of £3 million up to £50.6 million for the Royal Navy. David Lloyd George, who owed Winston a great deal after WSC supported him during the Marconi Scandal, reneged on their friendship and led the fight against Winston. Then Canada said she could not afford the three Dreadnoughts she had promised to build and Winston had to ask for even more money! A real crisis developed, WSC threatened resignation that would force an election, especially when Lloyd George took the row to the press. Lord Grey swung behind Winston; then Asquith, the King and, decisively, the City of London. In a great 2½ hour speech on 17th March 1914, Winston won the day.
On 15th July 1914, there was a test mobilisation of the Fleet, a routine matter not connected to the assassination of 28th June. As it ended, Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia – Winston called it the most insolent document ever sent by one nation to another. It was rejected two days later and Winston, with First Sea Lord Prince Louis, decided not to disperse the fleet but to keep it in being. On 27th July he sent pre-war warnings to the Mediterranean fleet; on 28th July he assured the King that the Navy was ready for anything, and he began mounting guards on depots, stores etc. Next day precautionary warnings went out to all ships and that night the home fleet was ordered to its war stations. On 30th July he appointed Admiral Jellicoe as Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet (the Royal Navy resented the dismissal of Admiral Callaghan. Clemmie wrote one of her wise letters of advice to WSC warning him not to create festering resentments and to make a nice provision for the ousted Admiral). Joint War Code books were issued to the French and British fleets.
“I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like this? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity”
On 1st August Winston recalled all naval reservists to the colours and made a fateful decision to keep two Dreadnoughts about to go to the Turkish navy. (We kept other ships in our yards and offered full compensation). A shadow was put on Germany’s Goeben as it sailed around the Med looking for a coaling station!
2nd August – Germany declares war on Russia; 3rd August – she invades France and Belgium; 4th August – When Germany completely ignored Britain’s ultimatum over Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
Lloyd George later recalled that Winston burst into the Cabinet room that night, “radiant, his face bright, his manner keen …you could see he was a really happy man”. (In the run up to the crisis WSC had written to Clemmie: “I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like this? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity”. I say ‘Commeth the hour; cometh the man’?)
He was sending torrents of orders out to the Royal Navy. He is, of course, vilified as a warmonger by his critics but he had expressed a continuous hope that the crisis would pass over. Once war was declared he threw himself into action with all the enthusiasm we might expect. With Asquith as acting Sec of State for war (since the Curragh mutiny of 1914), Winston was by far and away the most experienced military man in the cabinet (though only a major of yeomanry cavalry, the Oxfordshire Hussars). Lord Kitchener, of course, became the senior military adviser when he reluctantly took the job from Asquith. WSC could concentrate on the Navy – supposedly!!
Winston was, at first, afraid that his Tory critics would make difficulties for him (they really did hate him!!) But he received many letters of support from them, showing that the wartime truce would hold – for now.
The first great War Cabinet was held on 5th August, with Winston giving a masterly presentation of naval preparations, and its readiness to take the army to France. Kitchener drops a bombshell by banning all daytime sailings. The Navy adapted its plans to meet the requirement and the first great achievement of the war was the transportation of the British Expeditionary Force to France with no delays and not one single casualty. The sheer puissant majesty of the Home Fleet was already paralysing the German Grand Fleet. The Navy was soon chasing all German shipping from the high seas and escorting Dominion troops to their destinations in the UK (Canada) or Egypt (ANZACs). A blockade of the Central Powers was imposed from the very start of the war and would ultimately prove fatal to the German economy and war effort.
There were early problems for the Admiralty. Nothing ever goes entirely smoothly in a war situation. The Goeben and the Breslau escaped in the Mediterranean and got to Turkey, where Germany scored a brilliant propaganda coup by handing them over to the Turkish navy as compensation for the lost Dreadnoughts. German minelayers had successes sinking British ships in the North Sea; German submarines wreaked havoc off the Dogger Bank, sinking three cruisers in one action. We could not prevent the German Grand Fleet raiding the east coast of England, shelling Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepools.
But Winston functioned well at the helm of a navy fulfilling multiple obligations across the seven seas and coping with additional burdens all the while – war with Austria-Hungary and Turkey being added to the list. He relished the work and the more the better. He tried to encourage the Russians to intervene in the Baltic or even move troops to France. When Kitchener, whose Royal Flying Corps was at full stretch, asked the Admiralty and its Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) to take responsibility for the entire air protection of the UK Winston accepted with alacrity.
“We gave only to endure to conquer”, he said after a naval success at Heligoland in August. Very few thought it would take more than four years.
And when he found he had far more naval reservists on hand than he had ships for them to crew, what does he do? Creates an entire division of naval infantry and marines – the famous Royal Naval Division – for use wherever it would be needed. [This became a way into the war for many of the ‘great and the good’ who wanted to see action quickly – even his step-father George Cornwallis-West found a battalion command there!]
And there was other family to be looked after. Clemmie and the children (with Goonie and hers) were on holiday on the Norfolk coast; he was able to heal a family rift with the Duke of Marlborough by getting Kitchener to appoint him a special messenger for use by the War Office. His brother, Jack, importuned Winston so constantly to get the Oxfordshire Hussars into the war sooner rather than later, that the exasperated War Office finally sent them off to France to guard the RNAS airfields in and around Dunkirk. The RNAS had already created its own motor machine-gun armoured cars over there for the purpose. It wasn’t long before Jack was fighting with his regiment in the critical days of First Ypres.
There is a constant flow of letters between Winston and Jack, with the latter keeping Winston up to speed with the land campaign and the new phenomenon of industrialised warfare, and the former imploring his brother to keep out of harm’s way. He gets quite emotional about Jack and is instrumental in getting him an important staff job at Sir John French’s headquarters. Jack at first doesn’t thank him for making him leave the regiment but comes to accept that there is value in the staff work where his fluent French was so useful.
Winston made frequent visits to France, with his RNAS squadrons there as a convenient excuse. But it was clear to everyone that his restless spirit couldn’t keep him tied to a desk in London. Some of his cabinet colleagues were expressing their annoyance at this just as the great crisis arose at Antwerp. After losing the frontier battles a large part of the Belgian army had taken refuge in this vital port city. This had the happy effect of forcing the Germans to detach two large army corps from their offensive to invest the city.
Winston’s part in the defence of Antwerp has provided ammunition and good deal of hilarity to his critics but they completely fail to see the affair in the wider context of the war on the Western Front. The Belgians had first asked for help on 3rd September but the Dutch refused any access by sea/river. On 30th September the Germans began a heavy bombardment and within a couple of days, the situation was critical. Kitchener was very concerned. On 3rd October the Belgian government quit the city, Winston immediately pledged the Royal Marine brigade and the French offered two divisions of troops. (Don’t hold your breath when the French do that!) By noon the next day not only had the 2,000 RMs arrived but so had Winston himself. He appeals to the Belgians to hold on – help is at hand. By 5th October Winston is offering to resign from the Admiralty and take a high military command to defend the city. He, a substantive major of yeomanry, asks for the rank of lieutenant general! Asquith infamously mocks this in one of his letters to his mistress, Venetia Stanley. On 6th October Winston is in the front lines overseeing the deployment of the two naval brigades of the Royal Naval Division – we have to admit that these men are shockingly under-trained and unready for active service but they were got there fast, the British of Rawlinson’s army corps were never going to get nearer than Ostend and the French were never going to appear at all. Winston makes it clear to Asquith that he wants to leave the Admiralty and fight as a solder. The PM says “he could not be spared from the Admiralty” and orders him home. Grey was a little more generous: “I am sitting next to a Hero… I admire his courage and gallant spirit and his genius for war”.
The city was forced to surrender on 10th October. It had held out for week longer thanks to Winston – a vital period of time for the BEF to re-deploy up to Flanders and check the Germans at Ypres. Sir John French would later thank him for it. But the Tory Press couldn’t resist the chance to stick the knife in, starting with Gwynne’s attack in The Morning Post “The Antwerp Blunder”, followed by his letter to the cabinet that WSC “is unfitted for the office he now holds”. Some of the press rallies to him: “he did his duty like a man”. We know the criticism wounded him at the time but I stress again it was a brave, original and really important move.
The RND was hopelessly outclassed – it lost 57 killed (a number greatly exaggerated by the Tory press), 158 wounded, 936 captured and 1500 interned in Holland.
Winston returns to work at the Admiralty – getting our ships to bombard the Belgian coast after Germany takes Ostend, sending more RNAS planes to help stem the German advance, encouraging Kitchener to be less alarmed about a possible German invasion of the UK, supporting the RNAS bombing raids into Germany (very popular with the public as a way of ‘striking back’ at the enemy (rather like the Royal Air Force in the Second World War), tries to censor the news of the loss of the Dreadnought Audacious (until the American papers publish pictures of her going down off the coast of Northern Ireland). The Tory press made his life a misery. When Asquith mentioned it might help if Jack Fisher returned as First Sea Lord, Winston jumped at the idea. (Prince Louis had been less than helpful over Antwerp). The anti-German attacks on Prince Louis made it easier for him to resign and Fisher was back. (The King agreed very reluctantly; he warned about Fisher’s mercurial nature!)
It took all Fisher’s restless energy to carry the Admiralty through the next crisis – defeat in the south Atlantic in the battle of the Coronels, at the same time as the Emden was causing havoc in the Indian Ocean and giving its pursuers the slip.
Poor Winston had to be told firmly to stop going to HQ BEF every time he went to Dunkirk ‘on naval business’. It seems Lord Kitchener took a particular exception to this perceived interference. What we should all be grateful for is Winston’s use of Royal Navy funding to begin the research that would lead to the invention of the armoured fighting vehicle, the tank, as a means of crushing barbed wire and crossing No Man’s Land and breaching enemy trench systems. Yes, another example of his ‘interfering’ in matters outside his sphere of responsibility, but thank God for it!!
December 1914 saw a fine victory off the Falkland Islands that avenged the Coronels and destroyed the German fleet in the south Atlantic. The Navy’s duties expanded to take in war on Turkey, which opened with Admiral Carden’s Eastern Mediterranean squadron rather gratuitously shelling the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles. It is silly to say that this ‘alerted’ the Turks to our interest in the area – I think the Turks were perfectly aware of their importance already.
Parliament was adjourned in November 1914 for two months. By the time it met again a new and dramatic turn of events had occurred. The Russians, facing a major Turkish offensive in the Caucasus, appealed to London and Paris for a ‘diversion’ to take the pressure off. Winston seized the chance for action and asked Carden for his ideas. Carden came back with a lengthy programme of bombardment to destroy the outlying forts, get up to the narrows and reduce those forts and finally sailing a fleet into the Sea of Marmora for a direct attack on Constantinople. The shelling began in February and, with landings of marines and sailors, the outer forts were reduced before bad weather set in. Winston had become the great advocate for a ‘ships only’ involvement in the region. By the time the attack was renewed in March it had been decided to send troops out to assist and soon the whole thing was getting out of hand. In April we find ourselves embarking on the Gallipoli campaign – at a time when we were stretched to the very limit in France and Flanders. (With supreme irony the Turkish offensive had perished in the snowy Caucasus but by then Winston had got the French and Russians involved and everyone wanted to get on and ‘do something’.)
We cannot go into the details of this great campaign, led by Winston’s personal friend Sir Ian Hamilton, but it degenerated into trench deadlock every bit as bad as on the Western Front. Fisher is obsessed with operations in the Baltic and opposes Winston at every turn over the Dardanelles. The naval planning went wrong somewhere along the way. Gunnery experts should have been at hand to explain that great warships – used to firing large shells very long distances on a flat trajectory – were not suited to bombarding forts on shore. The minesweepers sent out – civilian manned converted trawlers – could not make headway against the Dardanelles current. Plans to convert destroyers into powerful minesweepers were shelved when Admiral de Robeck (who had replaced an ailing Carden) lost his enthusiasm for the project after the serious defeat of 18th March 1915 – 3 battleships sunk by mines; three damaged. They were old ships and not a serious loss to the order of battle, but the Navy doesn’t like losing ships!!
Fisher had famously said, “Damn the Dardanelles! They will be out grave”. He was always threatening to resign over it. “The more I consider the Dardanelles, the less I like it!” He resented WSC’s still frequent trips to France when he would be left to mind the shop, and harangued PM Asquith in opposition to any further involvement in the eastern Med, especially after German U-boats arrived and began sinking our ships out there. Two things combined to bring matters to a head. The Times launched the ‘shell scandal’ over the inadequacy of our artillery on the Western Front and Jackie Fisher finally sent in the resignation he so often threatened. (Some say that he was exasperated by seeing a telegram to another Sea Lord that WSC had marked as not being important enough to bother the First Sea Lord with; others that plans to reinforce the Dardanelles were the last straw). Asquith ordered Fisher to return to his duty; Winston begged him to stay. All in vain.
Fisher said something interesting about Winston. “His heart is ashore, not afloat! The joy of his life is to be 50 yards from a German trench”.
But the Tories took this ‘double whammy’ of scandals to demand a Coalition government and their price was Winston’s head on a platter – they still hated him with a passion – their press savaged him.
May 17th 1915 – he knows he will soon be out of office. Asquith dumped him quite unceremoniously but some Sea Lords made it clear that, while they would serve under Winston, they would not serve under his replacement. It has to be said that in the Royal Navy in general there was relief at being spared any more of Winston’s ‘breezy atmosphere’. Winston made some effort to solicit Tory support but there were too many past animosities for that to work. Indeed Arthur Balfour would succeed WSC as First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston accepts the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster – the lowest seat in the cabinet, without portfolio (and only responsible for appointing magistrates around the country) but still on the War Council. JL Garvin in The Observer published a generous review of his ‘well-won reputation’ ending with the prophetic words: “ he is young. He has lion-hearted courage. No number of enemies can fight down his ability and force. His hour of triumph will come”.
Clemmie saw what the dismissal really meant to him: “The Dardanelles haunted him for the rest of his life. He always believed in it. When he left the Admiralty he thought he was finished. I thought he would never get over the Dardanelles; I thought he would die of grief”. Clemmie’s one remaining ambition was to dance on Asquith’s grave!! We must understand that Winston could impel great loyalty but also invoke great hostility. Too many people saw his enthusiasm for victory as a love of war for its own sake.
Needless to say, Winston convinced himself that he could still do great work for the country’s war effort from his lowly cabinet post – but, in political terms, he was no longer a man who had to be listened to. He had to ask for any sort of office accommodation at all – he had just two staff (Eddie Marsh and Henry Beckenham). He circulated papers on British naval strength, on national service a.k.a. conscription, on the Dardanelles. The Oxfordshire Hussars invited him to take command of a battalion of the regiment – a very great temptation but he felt obliged to keep a watching brief on the Dardanelles. Indeed, he had to defend Ian Hamilton against some very back-stabbing criticism. In his letters to brother Jack, Winston poured out his frustration at not being able to direct events as he used to.
It was about now, of course, on weekend visits to Hoe Farm (Surrey) that his sister-in-law, Goonie, awakened his interest in painting (first planted by his mother, Jennie), subsequently nurtured by Hazel Lavery. He considered taking a military commission at Gallipoli; Jack talked him out of that but suggested a ‘fact-finding’ visit might be useful. Asquith agreed; Kitchener and Curzon/FO vetoed the idea. Now Winston’s questions designed to get something going in the Dardanelles were simply not answered. He had reached his nadir.
Winston was a personal friend of Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief BEF and Johnny French often asked him to GHQ as a visitor. It wasn’t long before the idea that Winston might get a brigade command on the Western Front was suggested. He was so annoyed with endless attacks on him over Antwerp, the loss of the three cruisers and the Coronels defeat that he began to demand that the official papers on those issues be published. This led to him being cold-shouldered by Asquith and co to an alarming degree, especially when he suggested adding the papers relating to the origins of the obviously failed Dardanelles campaign.
Instead, he watched as troops were moved from Gallipoli to Salonika, Ian Hamilton was sacked, and the whole campaign began to wind down. When the Dardanelles Committee was wound up Winston had absolutely no input into the higher direction of the war at all. On 11th November 1915 Winston resigned his place in the Cabinet and left the government.
Within a week he was at GHQ BEF and Sir John was offering him an aide de camp job or a brigade. The very next day Winston reported to HQ Guards Division and was attached to the 2nd Grenadier Guards as a major for some practical training. The soldiers delighted in making ‘the politician’ work very hard but Winston soon had enough of HQ life and was demanding front line duties. He coped with the rigours of army cooking but the heavy consumption of strong tea and condensed milk was not to his taste much! To his mother he wrote, “Do you know, I am quite young again”. He had one narrow escape when he was summoned to meet the corps commander, Haking, and the dug out he left received a direct hit, killing the only man still there. He greatly enjoyed his time with the Guards and already displayed that humanity that was his hallmark. He found a sentry asleep and, instead of putting on a charge (that could lead to the death penalty), he gave the young lad a good fright.
Winston was back with Sir John French on 1st December and was full of ideas for dealing with the trench deadlock – shields on caterpillar tracks, sapping forward to within 60 yards of the enemy front line. French offered him a brigade and Winston began to select his staff. He went back to the Grenadier Guards for a spell and then got confirmation that he would have a brigade in the excellent Tom Bridges’ excellent 19th Division. The Tories in London were furious and began a vitriolic press campaign against him. Then came a bombshell – Sir John French was replaced as CinC BEF by Sir Douglas Haig but worse still, Asquith had vetoed Winston’s promotion. ‘Perhaps you might give him a battalion’. Haig asked to see Winston immediately and offered him the next available battalion (which turned out to be 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers). Winston accepted reluctantly. Haig, to his credit, agreed to read Winston’s interesting paper “Variants of the Offensive”, full of ideas for breaking the trench deadlock. We should note that, on a Channel crossing for a Xmas break, sailors of the lower deck sent their compliments to Winston for all he had done for them in his time at the Admiralty.
1st January 1916 – he gets his battalion, in 9th Scottish Division. He asks Clemmie for a volume of Burns’ poems – the men might like to hear him quote from them. The 700 or so men of the RSF were a bit resentful at getting such a ‘political’ CO at first. He arrives on a fine black charger and gives cavalry orders to a mystified infantry unit! The battalion had been knocked about at Loos (September 1915) and was doing long spells of trench duty – 6 days in and 6 out. It needed nursing back to health. Winston personally drilled the unit (unheard of for a colonel); he made sure all billets and cookhouses were kept clean and well supplied; he kept up a rigorous training regime. Gradually he won the trust and affection of the battalion. They went into the line together at Plugstreet on 20th January 1916 – a fairly quiet sector, especially in the winter. He was extremely lenient in matters of disciplinary offences – often dismissing charges at once. His fellow officers felt this undermined the authority of the NCOs especially. He instituted strict delousing procedures; lively sports days; encouraged the men to sing on the march. And, of course, he made himself familiar with the front line, where he scorned danger. He showed General Furse (the division’s commander) around the front line. Winston was acting brigade commander for a short while when the General was away. He did some nice watercolours of the area.
Asquith had hinted to Jennie Churchill at a dinner that he would ‘help’ Winston’s army career, but that was a mealy-mouthed lie. Neither he nor Haig had any such intention, though General Furse had strongly recommended him for a brigade after such a solid start as a battalion commander. After visits to the Western Front, both DLG and Bonar law added their voice to that demand, which didn’t please the beleaguered Asquith one little bit.
Clemmie had been assiduous on Winston’s behalf in rebuilding his position in the Liberal Party. He tried to get her to rethink her deep distrust of Lloyd George. He also asked her to keep in touch with the leading Tories. In one telling letter, he said that 6pm was “a bad hour for me…I feel the need of power as an outlet worse then, and the energy of mind and body is strong within me”. Garvin’s Observer openly appealed for WSC to be recalled to government as Air Minister.
In March 1916 Winston came home on leave. He plunged into political dinners and talks (via Jennie) and determined to speak in the House of Commons as a critic of the Asquith government and the running of the war. Balfour and the Admiralty bore the brunt of it, but he ruined the effect of a long and detailed speech by ending with an appeal for the return of Jackie Fisher. Nothing but ridicule in both houses of parliament and in the press greeted his effort. Margot Asquith described WSC as “a hound of the lowest sense of political honour, a fool of the lowest judgement, and contemptible”.
His response was to write to Kitchener and say that he saw his duty “to give undivided attention to Parliamentary and public business for some time to come”. Asquith was happy to extend Winston’s home leave indefinitely – he was no longer a threat. He returned to the battalion in Flanders for one last spell and, fortuitously for him, the 6th and 7th Battalions Royal Scots Fusiliers were to be merged and he could claim a sort of ‘constructive dismissal’ and so return to London a free man. His officers remember how assiduous he was in making sure that they each got a ‘good billet’ after the amalgamation. Winston had decided that Westminster was ‘my true war station’.
He became a vocal critic of the last days of Asquith’s government – at the folly of attritional warfare (the Somme); at the delay in setting up a separate Air Ministry; on the abuse of military honours; against the premature use of tanks in France; agitating for a commission of inquiry into the Dardanelles (at the very moment that Kitchener drowned in the North Sea). He wrote in a letter to Jack: “I am learning to hate!”
He watched from the sidelines as Lloyd George (DLG) became first Minister for War (July 1916), and then Prime Minister (December 1916). DLG would have taken WSC into government but the dominant partners in the coalition were Tories. Bonar Law said to DLG, “I would rather have him against us every time”. Privately Winston was sure he was the man to guide the nation to victory (but sadly not in this war but the next one!) Winston was genuinely baffled and saddened by DLG’s failure to give him a ministry. Clemmie had a far better understanding of her husband’s failure to convince others of his true worth. To Jack, Winston had written: “Is it not damnable that I should be denied all real scope to serve this country, in this tremendous hour?” To another, he would say: “of course I have every right to complain of LG who weakly and faithlessly bowed to Northcliffe’s malevolent press.”
He remained a backbench critic of the government. Some of his ideas were very sound – especially for recruiting 300,000 black labourers to relieve the work pressure on the British soldiers on the Western Front. He gave evidence to the Dardanelles Inquiry; many people clamoured for him to be given the new Air Board (not yet a Ministry). He toured the Western Front in 1917 – was feted by the French and kept at arms length by Sir Douglas Haig (who had been told by Lord Esher about WSC’s clever but unbalanced mind!) At home Tory grandees like Curzon and Derby were doing all in their power to keep Winston out.
Finally, in July 1917 DLG offered Winston a cabinet post and they soon agreed that he should get Munitions (to replace the ineffective Addison). [He had to stand for re-election in Dundee and secured a comfortable majority]. He made forceful speeches to his heads of department and soon won over any who doubted his value as Minister. The Ministry had been set up by DLG in 1915 and had vastly increased the output of all types of military equipment but Winston found many things still to improve and make more efficient. His central secretariat was able to stop a lot of duplicated effort. He even got a famous trade union agitator, David Kirkwood, restored to his job at a Scottish munitions factory in the safe knowledge that shell production there would soar – and it did. He also protected the worker’s rights to belong to TUs and even to engage in labour disputes: “We cannot win this war unless we are supported by the great masses of the labouring classes of this country. We cannot possibly win unless they sustain us and go with us…” He often backed demands for higher wages against recalcitrant employers. [We must remember this is a capitalist war with arms manufacturers making staggering levels of profit. The workers producing that profit wanted their slice of the cake.] Winning 12½% rises for munitions workers sparked a great wave of industrial unrest as all the other war workers demanded the same. Winston tended to agree with them! He approved of ‘official’ TU action but was much more severe towards ‘unofficial’ action, while recognising that this was often caused by blockheaded employers singling out trade union activists for dismissal and the inevitable ‘sympathy’ strikes.
Needless to say, Winston started giving advice well beyond his remit, and if he was occasionally invited to the War Council he was certain to weigh in with all sorts of measures to the annoyance of the sitting members, especially the Tory ones.
Bu August 1917 he was able to publish his new organisation of the Ministry of Munitions, making it leaner and more efficient, with less waste over duplicated effort. He gave a slightly complacent steel industry a good shake up.
Winston could now tour the Western Front and be sure of a great welcome. Douglas Haig found him much more agreeable than he had been led to believe and makes a rare diary entry praising a politician for his vision and his keen awareness of the needs of the BEF. It was also a chance to see brother Jack (now on the staff of 1st ANZAC corps), who often acted as tour guide for Winston on recent battlefields. Everyone noted how close Winston liked to get to shell fire!
He joined a War Cabinet committee to decide overall policy on gun allocation amongst the allied armies, involving still more travelling to France for joint meetings with the French and Italians. He was a great advocate for the complete mechanisation of war – ‘masses of guns, mountains of shells, clouds of aeroplanes’. And, of course, he now had control of tank production. He makes quite a lot in his memoirs (“The World Crisis”) about this side of his work but, as part of my duties at Birmingham University, I have overseen a research student demonstrate that Winston did not get it quite right and that production fell a great deal short of expectation (though the new models were very much more efficient than the old).
But he did increase production, severely hampered by the loss of manpower to meet urgent needs elsewhere, and did especially well in raising the numbers of aircraft engines. He thought ahead, drawing up a colossal programme of production for the year 1919, which would have been decisive if the German army hadn’t collapsed already. That year would have seen the overwhelming use of tanks, planes, gas and guns to pave the way for the victory of our infantry. When someone suggested the Germans might develop a landmine capable of stopping our tanks, Winston immediately began devising an antidote to that (involving attachments to the front of our tanks) – that is just the sort of war leader he was.
By an incredible stroke, Winston was actually in France and fairly near the front (staying with his old 9th Division) when the great German offensive of 21st March 1918 began. “Through the chinks in the carefully prepared window, the flame of the bombardment lit like flickering firelight my tiny cabin”. He was finally persuaded to leave in the Duke of Westminster’s car, and only just in time before the road to the rear was cut. On his return to London, he was able to convey the seriousness of the situation and to galvanise the government into sending reinforcements pouring across the Channel, and he pledged 2,000 new guns by April 6th to replace our grievous artillery losses. Then he was back over to France putting all his energy into supporting the work of Marshal Foch, the new generalissimo, and his boss, Georges Clemenceau. Urgent appeals to America to speed up the despatch of troops to France were high on the agenda. Soon 120,000 a month were on their way (to be fully equipped by Britain and France once they had arrived).
I should point out that Winston was so much in France on ‘munitions business’ that he requested a permanent HQ there for his Ministry – and Douglas Haig backed him to the hilt. Chateau Verchocq was made available to him to conduct his business at the various inter-Allied conferences going on in 1918.
Winston, while warning of war-weariness at home, was still firmly fixed on victory in 1919 when the Western Front was changed by the French counter-attacks in July and the British in August (the great, unsung, battle of Amiens). From the Chateau Verchocq Winston was able to follow these exhilarating events closely. Jack would often take him close to the fighting line. He was soon writing to DLG in London assuring that final victory was at hand. Now his visits to England were all too brief and he gloried in ‘the sort of life I like’ in France. He could still find time to negotiate with Chile to buy its entire production of nitrates for the Allies. He never forgot his principal task as M of M.
Winston wrote to congratulate Haig on another string of victories and hailing the surrender of Bulgaria as a sign that the enemy was beaten. Haig’s reply could not have been any warmer and particularly thanked WSC for the strong support he gave during the dark days of March/April 1918.
October 1918 – touring the arms factories in Scotland – getting them to keep up the good work. Before the month was out he was in the liberated areas of northern France; he was invited by General Birdwood to Lille, where he stood with Jack watching the 47th (London) Division march in triumph through the city. A rising young staff officer appears in the photo – Colonel Bernard Law Montgomery! He pushed along so far into Belgium that, on 29th October, he came under artillery fire from the German rearguard!! Driving at 40 miles an hour, he nearly shot into the German lines!!!
He returned to England on 30 October, the day Turkey surrendered; A-H soon followed; and then the armistice negotiations requested by Germany. The general euphoria was a little soured by DLGs announcement that he intended to continue in coalition with the Tories after the war ended – to the great annoyance of his own party and a flat contradiction to what he had told Winston. When Winston demanded to know the make up of the post war cabinet, the old rancour between them was revived.
Still, DLG invited Winston to the special Cabinet meeting on 10th November to discuss the imminent surrender of Germany. All animosity was set aside by the signing of the armistice on 11th November. That very morning Winston called a meeting of heads of M of M departments – to discuss the sale of surplus stocks of war materials, and transferring their Labour department to the Ministry of Labour – business as usual as soon as possible!! As he pondered what to do with three million munitions workers and their booming factories, Big Ben struck 11am and he watched the Civil Service pour onto the streets to celebrate the end of the ‘war to end all wars’.
In typical Winston fashion, just as he did in the last stages of the Boer War, he sought peace and harmony with the former enemy at once. On the evening of 11 November Winston dined at No 10 with just DLG, FE Smith and Sir Henry Wilson. Winston’s first idea was to load ‘a dozen great ships with provisions’ and rush them to Hamburg. Wilson recorded: “DLG wants to shoot the Kaiser. Winston does not”. He would oppose excessive reparation demands – he was acutely aware of the revolutionary danger in Germany – the ‘Bolshevik menace’ became an immediate and abiding concern. Perhaps we should have listened to him a little more carefully?
© 2017, John Lee. All Rights Reserved. Republished by kind permission of the author.