Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
Review by Douglas S. Russell
Andrew Dewar Gibb, With Winston Churchill at the Front, Frontline Books, 2016, 256 pages, $39.95/£19.99. ISBN 978-1848324299
In the past few years renewed interest in Winston Churchill’s military career has been accompanied by publication of new books on his active service in Cuba in 1895, on the North-West Frontier of India in 1897, in Sudan in 1898, and in the Second Boer War, 1899– 1900. Frontline Books has done a signal service to Churchillians and military historians by returning to print an important contemporary account of Churchill’s frontline service in the Great War.
With Winston Churchill at the Front by “Captain X” (Andrew Dewar Gibb) was originally published in 1924 by Cowens & Gray, Ltd., as a small (3-1/4 by 6-3/8 inch) paperback priced at one shilling. Long out of print, first editions are now rare and priced in the hundreds of dollars. This reprint, however, is a handsome, hardcover book with a striking dust jacket. This is a welcome addition to the Churchill literature of an almost forgotten classic.
The new edition is much expanded from the original. There is a forward by Churchill’s great-grandson and ICS President Randolph Churchill and an introduction by Gibb’s son Nigel. Also included are excellent photographs and maps of “Plugstreet,” the area of the Western Front defended by the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers while under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill from January through May 1916.
The current edition is divided into three parts. The first consists of four well-done essays written by John Grehan, a senior editor at Frontline Books. These set out Churchill’s army service in four earlier wars together with a capsule history of the Gallipoli Campaign, which led to his leaving the cabinet and rejoining the army to serve in France. Part II contains the original nine-chapter text written by Gibb. Part III provides a streamlined summary of Churchill’s political career from the time he left the front until he became prime minister. There is also a detailed “Visitor’s Guide to Plugstreet” for the modern traveller.
Gibb’s fascinating book is the only detailed, contemporary account of Churchill’s service in the trenches during the First World War aside from Churchill’s own recollections published in Thoughts and Adventures. Gibb trained as an attorney before the war and later became Regis Professor of Law at Glasgow University, a King’s Counsel (KC), and a founder of the Scottish Party, later the Scottish National Party. During the war he was a captain in Churchill’s battalion, first as Officer Commanding B Company, later as battalion adjutant. He was both a careful observer and an engaging writer.
Gibb’s narrative takes the reader from Churchill’s arrival as the “escaped scapegoat” in January 1916 to a skeptical battalion of officers and men through to his departure from the front and return to London in May, having earned their respect. During that period the battalion was not engaged in any major battles. Being only eighty yards from the German lines, however, meant facing the real and daily dangers of artillery and sniper fire. During Churchill’s period of command, the battalion lost fifteen men killed and 123 wounded, a casualty rate of about twenty percent. Churchill himself had many narrow escapes from death or injury.
In Gibb’s view, Churchill at war was “in his element.” Through hard work, attention to his men’s welfare, courtesy, and charm, Churchill won over the men of the battalion. Gibb emphasizes Churchill’s traits of confidence, humor, and his remarkable physical courage under fire. “He never fell when a shell went off; he never ducked when a bullet went by with its loud crack. He used to say after watching me duck: ‘It’s no damn use ducking; the bullet has gone a long way past you by now.’”
By the end of May 1916 Gibb was no longer a skeptic about his commander. He concluded his account with the following judgment: “We came to realise, and realise at first hand, his transcendent ability. He came to be looked on as really a possession of our own, and one of which we were intensely proud. And much more, he became our friend. He is a man who is always apparently to have enemies. He made none in his old regiment, but left behind him there men who will always be his loyal partisans and admirers, and who are proud of having served in the Great War under the leadership of one who is beyond a question a great man.”
Douglas S. Russell is the author of Winston Churchill: Soldier, the Military Life of a Gentleman at War (2005).