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Perfect Preparation: What Churchill Learned from the First World War

Finest Hour 182, Fall 2018

Page 08

By Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts is author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny (reviewed on page 42) and a member of the International Churchill Society Board of Directors.

Winston Churchill famously wrote about his feelings on becoming prime minister in May 1940, “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.”1 It was true, and no part of his life had been a better preparation than 1914–18. The way that Churchill learned from his and others’ mistakes of the Great War, putting the lessons to good use in the Second World War, is an object lesson in statesmanship.

On the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Churchill set up the Admiralty War Group, which consisted of himself and the four most senior admirals there. It met daily—sometimes several times a day—to take all the most important strategic decisions. This concentration of power worked well, and agreed upon the overriding objectives for the Royal Navy in the conflict. Elsewhere in Whitehall, however, the organization of the war under Herbert Asquith, the prime minster, was ludicrously haphazard. Decisions were taken by a few ministers called together ad hoc in emergencies without minutes being taken. Only at the end of November 1914 was a War Council of eight members formed, which soon grew to thirteen. From his own experience, therefore, Churchill learned how important it was to take a grip on the organization of the central decision-making bodies and to keep the numbers involved as small as possible.

In the first days of the war, Churchill also set up a new Royal Naval Division, an infantry force under the control of the Admiralty rather than the Army, which was repeatedly to distinguish itself in action in many of the bloodiest engagements of the war. It proved the template for later units that he brought into being in the Second World War, such as the Special Air Service, Special Boat Service, Commandos, and Parachute Regiment.

Locus in quo

On 19 August 1914, only a fortnight after the outbreak of war, Churchill visited the mayors of Calais and Dunkirk to discuss the redoubts they were building there. His personal knowledge of these Channel ports was further enhanced in May 1918 when Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig gave him the Chateau de Verchocq in the Pas-de-Calais. Knowing the area intimately was to prove invaluable in the Second World War when decisions had to be taken about the defence of Calais and evacuating the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk.

On 26 August 1914, Britain’s Russian allies captured the code and cypher books from the German light cruiser Magdeburg after it ran aground on the Estonian coast. These allowed the cryptographers in the Admiralty’s Room 40, the codebreaking operation that Churchill had set up some time earlier, to start decoding German signals in real time. Churchill did not inform the Cabinet, but kept the secret within the Admiralty War Group. It was also Room 40 that intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram that helped bring the United States into the war in April 1917. Long before Bletchley Park, therefore, Churchill appreciated the vital importance of signals intelligence.

On 7 September 1914, the Belgian Government asked for a force of twenty-five thousand men to defend Antwerp against the German Army moving rapidly towards it. “The Admiralty regard the sustained and effective defence of Antwerp as a matter of high consequence,” Churchill told Asquith, Secretary for War Lord Kitchener, and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. “It preserves the life of the Belgian nation: it safeguards a strategic point which, if captured, would be of the utmost menace.”2 Churchill went to Antwerp to try to prevent the city falling, which it did not do until 10 October. He was much criticized, and in 1931 he reflected on the whole episode in his essay A Second Choice: “I ought, for instance, never to have gone to Antwerp,” he wrote. “I ought to have remained in London…. Those who are charged with the direction of supreme affairs must sit on the mountain-tops of control; they must never descend into the valleys of direct physical and personal action.”3 Yet in going, he displayed the same determination to be at the centre of events that he was to show again and again in the Second World War, as he climbed onto rooftops during the London Blitz, tried to watch D-Day from the Channel, attended Operation Dragoon in a warship, visited the front line in Italy, and so on. Doing so gave him insights into the conflict that he could not get from the mountain-tops.

After the battleship HMS Audacious hit a mine off Lough Swilly on 27 October 1914 while carrying out firing practice, Churchill kept the information out of the newspapers, not wanting to advertise that the Grand Fleet was north of Ireland. His belief in trusting the people occasionally had to be tempered by common sense, and in the Second World War there were also several occasions that Churchill similarly ordered press black-outs, such as after the loss of the RMS Lancastria with 4,000 lives in June 1940, the Bethnal Green tube disaster that cost 173 civilian lives in March 1943, and the Slapton Sands debacle that killed 800 American soldiers in April 1944.

Chain of Command

Churchill’s appointment of the seventy-three-year-old Lord “Jacky” Fisher, whom he described as “a veritable volcano of knowledge and of inspiration” taught him a lesson he was not to forget in the Second World War.4 Along with Haig, Beatty, and Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, Fisher became an over-mighty subject, virtually unsackable by the politicians. In the Second World War, Churchill always kept his generals and admirals under no illusions about their subordination to the civil power. Similarly in the Great War, Lord Kitchener could not be removed due to his enormous popularity, despite the many mistakes he made. In the Second World War, Churchill made himself Minister of Defence, giving him command over the Service ministers, none of whom he allowed to wield anything like the power that Kitchener had possessed.

Churchill differentiated between “the brass-hats” of the military and “frock-coats” of the politicians and thought that all too often in the Great War the former decided on which battles and campaigns were fought where, using their immense authority with the press and public,while the politicians all too often had to accept it. In his Second World War memoirs, Churchill cited the fact that after the failure of the naval attack of 18 March 1915, he had been wrong in “trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position.”5 As Minister of Defence after May 1940, he would come up against some tough and even domineering Service chiefs in the Second World War—Alan Brooke, Andrew Cunningham, and Arthur Harris among them—but they knew themselves always to be in a subordinate position.

On the day that Fisher took up his post, the enemy ships Goeben and Breslau shelled Odessa and Sevastapol in the Black Sea. In reply, Churchill ordered the bombardment of the Turkish Outer Forts of Sedd-el-Bahr and Kum Kale in the Dardanelles, which was duly done on 4 November, the day before Britain and France declared war on Turkey.6 To commence hostilities without a formal declaration of war was a serious matter, but Churchill was to do it again on 3 July 1940, when he ordered the shelling of the Vichy French fleet at Oran.

“The British people have taken for themselves this motto,” Churchill declared at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at the Guildhall on 9 November 1940, “Business carried on as usual during alterations on the map of Europe.”7 The phrase “Business as usual” was to be employed frequently during the Second World War, when it raised morale when chalked up on seemingly bombed-out enterprises during the Blitz. Later, in November 1914, Churchill raised the fearful prospect of having to fight on without France, saying, “But even if we were single-handed, as we were in the days of the Napoleonic Wars, we should have no reason to despair of our capacity—no doubt we should suffer discomfort and privation and loss—but we should have no reason to despair of our capacity to go on indefinitely.”8 This too, was a useful preparation for the speeches he had to give after the Fall of France in 1940.

The Dardanelles

At the first meeting of the War Council on 25 November 1914, Churchill floated the idea of the Navy forcing the Dardanelles by sailing through the Sea of Marmara and anchoring off Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and then either shelling the city into submission or occupying it, or both. The resulting Dardanelles campaign proved central to Churchill’s appreciation of war-fighting during the Second World War. Historians will long debate the pros and cons of the campaign, but one participant who approved of it was a thirtytwo-year-old Captain (later Major) Clement Attlee of the South Lancashire Regiment, who believed all his life that, as he put it, “the strategic conception was sound.”9 On 20 December 1915, Attlee was to be the penultimate man to leave Suvla Bay. He was convinced that the Dardanelles strategy had been a bold and correct one, and, in the view of his biographer John Bew, this “gave him his lifelong admiration for Churchill as a military strategist which contributed enormously to their working relationship in the Second World War.”10

Clement Attlee

The Dardanelles debacle taught Churchill a great deal that was to stand him in excellent stead during the Second World War. “A single, prolonged conference, between the Allied chiefs, civil and martial, in January 1915, might have saved us from inestimable misfortune,” he wrote in his history of that time, The World Crisis.11 He learned much about his own limitations, never once overruling his Chiefs of Staff when they unanimously rejected his schemes in the Second World War, and he did not encourage or become complicit in their silence if they disagreed with him, as he had with Fisher. Churchill also learned that it was sometimes better to cut one’s losses than massively to increase the stakes, as the Allies had at Gallipoli. So in Norway, Dakar, Greece, and elsewhere in the Second World War—and especially with RAF fighter squadrons over France in mid-May 1940—he vigilantly guarded against mission-creep, and disengaged without allowing considerations of prestige to suck him into deeper military commitments.

“I would not grudge a hundred thousand men because of the great political effects in the Balkan Peninsula,” Churchill wrote to Fisher in January 1915 of the coming Dardanelles attack, “but Germany is the foe, and it is bad war to seek cheaper victories and easier antagonists.”12 Churchill was to follow this important Clausewitzian precept during the Second World War, when he and President Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the Germany First policy, giving the job of punishing Imperial Japan only second priority despite its attack on Pearl Harbor.

David Lloyd George

At the time of his expulsion from the Admiralty in May 1915, Churchill wrote, “I am strongly in favour of a national Government, and no personal claims or interests should stand in its way at the present crisis.”13 Asquith’s ability to form a Coalition Government presaged what Churchill was able to do a quarter of a century later, when Attlee and Churchill’s friend Archie Sinclair, by then leader of the Liberal Party, joined him in his own National Government. On 9 June 1915 Churchill had told Sinclair, then serving in the 2nd Life Guards, “Between me and [David] L[loyd] G[eorge] tout est fini. I want a breath of fresh air.”14 The crisis had finally allowed Churchill to see through the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, his former friend but in fact secret enemy. “You are a clever fellow!” he told Lloyd George to his face, “You have been scheming for this for months, and have left no stone unturned to get what you wanted.”15 The Dardanelles put iron into Churchill’s soul, and it taught him that he could not trust Lloyd George or that there could be such a thing as true friendship at the top of politics. In the Second World War, Lloyd George supported peace negotiations with Hitler, and Churchill was forced to sack or demote close friends—such as Bob Boothby, Alfred Duff Cooper, and Roger Keyes—who had failed in their jobs for one reason or another.

Gallipoli also taught Churchill how to behave in a supreme crisis, something he never forgot during the Second World War. It is not true that he suffered from depression, let alone manic depression or bipolar disorder, but like anyone else he did get depressed when things went disastrously wrong. The strains of the Second World War—when there were plenty of similarly low moments such as the sinkings of HMS Prince of Wales, Repulse, and Hood and the fall of Singapore and Tobruk—saw him emotionally prepared in a way he would not have been had it not been for his devastating experiences over the Dardanelles.

The failure of the Allies’ imaginative plan to turn the Turkish flank at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli Peninsula in August 1915 was due in large part to Lt-Gen. Sir Frederick Stopford’s wasting of opportunities that were never to recur. Almost exactly the same thing was to happen at Anzio in January 1944, which gave Churchill a terrible sense of déjà vu, though neither could be blamed on him. Yet he never sought to escape responsibility for what had happened at Gallipoli, so long as it was fairly distributed.“Not a line, not a word, not a syllable that was produced by naval and expert brains of high competency,” he said in his resignation speech, “without the slightest non-expert interference, but I approved of the plan; I backed the plan; I was satisfied that in all the circumstances that were known to me—military, economic, and diplomatic—it was a plan that ought to be tried, and tried then.”16 When during the Second World War his leadership was questioned, he always insisted upon votes of confidence being debated in the House of Commons as soon as possible. “Criticism is always advantageous,” he told the House of Commons. “I have derived continued benefit from criticism at all periods of my life, and I do not remember any time when I was ever short of it.”17

“I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes,” Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine soon after resigning.18 He had made colossal mistakes during the Dardanelles debacle, but the lessons he learnt from them were of immense value a quarter of a century later. General Stopford’s performance at Suvla Bay in particular joined those of the Boer War generals in a long catalogue of military incompetence. One of the reasons that Churchill sacked so many generals in the Second World War was that he had formed a generally low opinion of the caste in his wide personal experience before that point.

Into Battle

Churchill’s time in the trenches of the Western Front in 1915 and 1916 was an excellent preparation for his hour and trial a quarter of a century later. It was while he was there that his several near-death experiences convinced him that he was indeed “walking with destiny,” and was being saved for great things. The way that he took Clementine’s excellent advice regarding staying in the trenches and not returning to politics prematurely—advice that it broke her heart to give, as it could have led to his death—also convinced him about her sound political judgement and made him heed her words of warning in June 1940 about becoming unbearable to his staff.

Above all, Churchill’s time in the trenches taught him what the men in the front line wanted and needed in order to fight well—in terms of leadership, of course, but also more practically in terms of bread and beer, weaponry and equipment, de-lousing exercises and entertainment, length of sentry duty, the least tiring way to shoulder a rifle, and all the other myriad issues that he sent blizzards of memoranda about to the War Office in the Second World War. He understood soldiers’ psychology better than any prime minister since he had entered the Commons, all of whom had been civilians.

When visiting the headquarters of Gen. Haig on the Western Front, Churchill was deeply unimpressed by the way that the chiefs of Intelligence emphasized evidence to support Haig’s preconceived theories. “The temptation to tell a chief in a great position the things he most likes to hear is the commonest explanation of mistaken policy,” Churchill later wrote in The World Crisis. “Thus the outlook of the leader on whose decisions fateful events depend is usually far more sanguine than the brutal facts admit.”19 In the Second World War, Churchill deliberately appointed senior commanders such as Alan Brooke and Andrew Cunningham who made it their business never to sugar the pill for him.

Total War

The need for Total War, the complete harnessing of the power of the State for victory, became clear to Churchill by 1916. “Everything in the State ought now to be devised and regulated with a view to the development and maintenance of our war power at the absolute maximum for an indefinite period,” he told the Commons that August.20 “This nation at war is an army,” he added in November, “it must be looked upon as an army; it must be organised like an army; it must be directed like an army; and it ought to be rationed and provided and supplied like an army. That is the brutal fact to which we are being hurried remorselessly by events, which we cannot in the least control.”21 He urged the Government to control food prices, nationalize shipping, and prevent “the accumulation of extortionate profits in the hands of private individuals.”22 This speech was his first advocacy of the Total War measures that were not fully adopted in the First World War, but generally were in the Second.23

Churchill’s godfathering of the concept of the tank in the Great War also presaged his support for all kinds of new weaponry in the Second World War. “It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armoured shelters, in which men and machine-guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof,” he had suggested in 1914. “Used at night they would not be affected by artillery fire to any extent. The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all wire entanglements.”24 The success of the tank encouraged him to support the efforts of military inventors in the Second World War such as Sir Percy Hobart, who promoted the use of various ingenious variations of the tank for use on the beaches of Normandy, known as “Hobart’s Funnies.” It was not until 26 April 1917 that the Admiralty finally adopted the convoy system to protect merchant vessels at sea. Churchill had long argued for a system whereby merchantmen moved only in large groups protected by warships, regardless of the fact that they would inevitably attract far more attention from U-boats, but he was never able to convince the rest of the Admiralty on the issue. “The astonishing fact is that the politicians were right,” he was later to write, “and the Admiralty authorities were wrong.”25 Here, too, Churchill learnt from the Great War, and the convoy system was adopted early in the Second World War.

Give Us the Tools

When Churchill was appointed as Minister of Munitions on 17 July 1917, he was at last able to get to grips with the shells shortage that had, along with Gallipoli and other failures, brought down the Asquith Government. He mobilised the war economy as far as he was able, in a position that employed two and a half million workers and was the biggest purchasing business and industrial employer in the world. This important post in the Great War gave Churchill an enormous advantage when it came to dealing with his Ministers of Supply and Production during the next world war. He also suggested to Lloyd George, prime minister by 1917, the idea of using artificial floating harbours to attack the Frisian Islands of Borkum and Sylt in 1917, a precursor to the use of the Mulberry Harbours off the Normandy coast on D-Day.

Visiting the front line in February 1918, Churchill conceived the idea that he later worked up into a Cabinet memorandum advocating the dropping of “not five tons but five hundred tons of bombs each night on the cities and manufacturing establishments” of the enemy.26 The war was won before that became technically possible, but the seeds of what was to become the Combined Bomber Offensive of 1943 were clearly already in Churchill’s mind.

He was only a few miles behind the Allied lines when the Germans launched their massive Ludendorff Offensive along the Western Front on 21 March 1918, in the hope of finally breaking through and winning the war before American troops started to arrive in large numbers. Churchill would reminiscence about the Spring Offensive for years afterwards. It left him with a profound respect for the German capacity for attacking even while seemingly exhausted and helps explain why he was less surprised than others when the Germans launched their massive Ardennes Offensive counterattack in December 1944.


On 30 March 1918, Churchill discussed the strategic situation with Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister. “The old man is very gracious to me and talks in the most confidential way,” he told Clementine.27 “He is an extraordinary character. His spirit and energy indomitable.” Churchill was particularly impressed when, in a discussion about the Parisian munition and aircraft factories that were under threat from the German advance, Clemenceau told him, “I will fight in front of Paris; I will fight in Paris; I will fight behind Paris.”28 Echoes of this speech can be heard in Churchill’s own exhortation to the war council of French premier Paul Reynaud at the Tours prefecture on 12 June 1940, to fight in Paris and behind Paris. These urgings, however, were ignored by the French, who—unbeknownst to Churchill—had already declared Paris an open and undefended city.

In an extraordinary memorandum of April 1918, Churchill suggested that Britain should try to persuade the Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky to re-enter the war after the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in March. “Let us never forget that Lenin and Trotsky are fighting with ropes around their necks,” he argued. “Show them any real chance of consolidating their power…and they would be non-human not to embrace it.”29 The offer was not made, but it is easy to see in it the precursor of the immediate offer of the evening of 22 June 1941 to ally with Stalin’s Russia the same day that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, despite Churchill’s lifelong anti-Communism.

In a speech celebrating America’s Fourth of July in 1918, Churchill propounded a message that was to become central to his thinking during the Second World War. “Deep in the hearts of the people of these islands,” he said, “in the hearts of those who, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, are styled ‘our British brethren,’ lay the desire to be truly reconciled before all men and all history with their kindred across the Atlantic Ocean, to blot out the reproaches and redeem the blunders of a bygone age, to dwell once more in spirit with them, to stand once more in battle at their side, to create once more a union of hearts, to write once more a history in common.”30 The Churchill of the Harvard Speech of 1943, in which he went so far as to offer something approaching a common Anglo-American citizenship, is evident.

Again and again, therefore, in matters great and small, the First World War was a lesson for Churchill of how to fight the Second World War. In successes and failures, it was the perfect preparation for his hour and trial.


1. Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Folio Society, 2000), p. 525.

2. Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume III, Part 1, May 1915–December 1916 (London: Heinemann, 1972), p. 97.

3. Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), pp. 11–12.

4. Royal Archives, Windsor, GV/PRIV/GVD/1914.

5. Winston S. Churchill, Their Finest Hour (London: Folio Society, 2000), p. 15.

6. Julian Thompson, Gallipoli (London: Carlton Books, 2015), p. 3.

7. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, Volume III, 1914–1922 (London: Chelsea House, 1974), p. 2340.

8. Ibid., p. 2348.

9. John Bew, Citizen Clem (London: Quercus, 2017), p. 13 and p. 86.

10. Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (London: Haus, 2015), p. 61.

11. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, Volume II, 1915 (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1923), p. 4.

12. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Volume III, The Challenge of War, 1914–1916 (London: Heineman, 1971), p. 236.

13. Gilbert, Companion Volume III, Part 2, p. 898.

14. Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, THSO 1/1/2.

15. A. J. P. Taylor, ed., Lloyd George: A Diary by Frances Stevenson (London: Hutchinson, 1971), p. 59.

16. Complete Speeches, p. 2399.

17. Ibid., p. 2343.

18. Mary Soames, ed., Speaking for Themselves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), p. 149.

19. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, Volume III, Part 1, 1916–1918 (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1927), p. 193.

20. Complete Speeches, p. 2485.

21. Ibid, p. 2503.

22. Gilbert, The Challenge of War, pp. 801–02.

23. A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 65.

24. Gilbert, Companion Volume III, Part 1, pp. 377–78.

25. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, p. 137.

26. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, Volume IV, The Aftermath (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1929), p. 146.

27. Soames, p. 206.

28. Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1937), p. 300.

29. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (New York: Holt, 1991), pp. 389–90.

30. Complete Speeches, p. 261.

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