December 6, 2018

Université de Rouen

When one thinks of Churchill ‘at war’, the image that immediately springs to mind is that of Churchill in 1940-1945. Those who have a vague idea of his military ‘past’ – let it be recalled that he was 66 in 1940 – perhaps remember his adventurous youth in India, in the Sudan, in Cuba and during the Boer War. When speaking of the First World War, one thinks first of Churchill at the Admiralty, or of the Gallipoli fiasco – at a pinch, one remembers his plea in favour of the ‘tank’. If one asked members of the general public in Britain where Churchill was in the middle of the war, many would no doubt be surprised to learn that he was on the Franco-Belgian frontier, where his presence was immortalised when he posed for a photograph in the uniform of a French ‘poilu’ officer.

His biographers have always been embarrassed by this surprising excursion, this short ‘unreal’ period[1] in the political career which remained the ambition of his lifetime. It is probably Geoffrey Best who best expresses this uneasiness, in the introduction to the pages which he devotes to this interlude:

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He left for France on 18 November [1915] and was to be in France or just over the Belgian border (except when he was on leave in London) for twenty-three weeks. This was not much of a stint of active service, but one of its points of interest is in showing several of Churchill’s better features and a few of his worse. It is in any case an extraordinary episode.[2]

The reasons why Churchill, dejected by the thinly-disguised ostracism of the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, after the Gallipoli disaster (he was ousted from the Admiralty on 21 May 1915 and he sooned resigned – on 11 November – from the purely honorific Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster which he received as meagre compensation), asked to be sent to the front,[3] have never been conclusively ascertained. Sir Martin Gilbert’s Official Biography is absolutely silent on Churchill’s motivations, only telling us that ‘Churchill decided to go at once to join his regiment in France’.[4] It is likely that it is only in the deepest recesses of Churchill’s psychology that the origin of the decision might be found – but this means that nobody will ever know. Speaking like his daughter Mary of an ‘honourable way out’[5] is not entirely wrong, but it does not explain this spectacular decision, and one must probably not take too seriously the absence of regrets which he expresses to his wife Clementine: they remind us too much of the sour grapes of the fable.[6]

However it may be, Churchill disembarked at Boulogne on 18 November 1915 in order to join his former Regiment, the Oxfordshire Hussars. As a former member of the War Cabinet, Churchill was obviously not an ordinary officer, and he was greeted by an orderly who took him directly to the Commander in Chief, Sir John French, whose Headquarters were in Saint-Omer.[7] During their champagne dinner,[8] Sir John French offered him the choice between serving as his aide-de-camp and commanding a brigade. Churchill immediately chose the brigade, which carried with it the coveted title of general officer. But he had not seen fire since the Boer War, and he wished to have an experience of the trenches first. It so happened that the Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards was to be sent to the line on the 20th, and Churchill was immediately attached to it, with the rank of Major.[9]

The incongruousness of the sudden appearance of this ‘fallen politician’[10] in the Army, upon which Sir John French had sedulously abstained to comment – no doubt thinking of his own career when Churchill inevitably went back into politics – was however immediately underlined by his Colonel, who explained that he had not been consulted (and implied that he would be an unwelcome dead weight)[11] and by the Adjutant, who reminded him of the constraints of war and pointed out that his kit was far too voluminous for it to be carried to the frontline trenches, only adding as a concession: ‘We have found a servant for you, who is carrying a spare pair of socks and your shaving gear. We have had to leave the rest behind’.[12] To make the total break with his usual lifestyle even more apparent, the officers’ drink with their dinner was the one that he most disliked: ‘Battalion Headquarters when in the line were strictly “dry”. Nothing but the strong tea with the condensed milk, a very unpleasant beverage, ever appeared there’.[13] Not unexpectedly, Churchill forthwith asked his wife to send him some victuals ‘as soon as possible’, although his well-known gastronomic exigencies were tempered by his practical sense and military imperatives, as shown in his ‘order’ of 27 January 1916 :

About food – the sort of things I want you to send me are these – large slabs of corned beef: stilton cheeses: cream: hams: sardines – dried fruits: you might almost try a big beef steak pie but not tinned grouse or fancy tinned things. The simpler the better: & substantial, too; for our ration meat is tough & tasteless: & here we cannot use a fire by daylight.[14]

He also felt the need for more substantial beverages. Curiously, even though he was in France, he made repeat orders for his ‘own’ brandy from Clementine in London. The first order was sent on 26 November: ‘Will you now send me 2 bottles of my old brandy & a bottle of peach brandy. This consignment might be repeated at intervals of ten days’; then, on 8 January 1916 it was: ‘Go on sending brandy (my own) & tinned things of the ordinary type (but good quality)’, and on 23 January: ‘Brandy & cigars w[oul]d be welcome’. Apparently, the orders reached him safely since he acknowledged reception on the 29th: ‘Various good foods have arrived & the typewriter – & cigars and brandy’ and he liked the quality since he asked for more, together with food for the mind, on 8 February: ‘Send me a small Shakespeare – & the Burns – as I asked for. Also regularly boxes of those big cigars of my own,[15] & brandy’.[16] Fortunately, virtue is always rewarded, since when he decided to spend his second night even nearer to the German lines, he discovered that he was entitled to a ration of whisky, as all officers in contact with the enemy, ostensibly to keep the warmth of the body.[17]

In case this gives a frivolous image of Churchill, it must be said that his very first order was eminently practical, entirely concentrating on military equipment (which at the time was not supplied to the officer corps). The day after he arrived on the frontline, he wrote to Clementine:

I want you to get me the following things, and send them with the utmost speed to GHQ.

  1. A warm brown leather waistcoat.
  2. A pair of trench wading boots. Brown leather bottom, & water proof canvas tops coming right up to the thigh.
  3. A periscope (most important)
  4. A sheepskin sleeping bag; that will either carry kit, or let me sleep in it. […]
  5. 2 pairs of Khaki trousers […]
  6. 1 pair of my brown buttoned boots.
  7. Three small face towels. (1283-84)

Later, he was to ask her to send him his hot water bottle.[18]

In his correspondence with his wife, his mother, his brother and his friends – the most sustained correspondence which he entertained in the whole of his life, since he wrote daily to Clementine, sometimes several letters on the same day – Churchill describes what had become the routine of the Great War, except the attacks,[19] which he did not have the time to witness: the ruined villages, the cold, the rain, the snow, the frost, the rats, the artillery fire with no precise objective, the machine-gun fire sweeping over anything protruding from the frontline trenches. Most ex-servicemen also added the futile orders emanating from the high command – which Churchill does, except that in his case he probably owed them his survival. He recounts how the General who commanded the Army Corps asked to see him immediately on 26 November, with a car to pick him up three miles behind the frontline. This meant walking three miles in broad daylight under the shellfire. There was no car at the appointed rendezvous and an officer told him the meeting was postponed. An infuriated Churchill retraced his steps – only to find on arrival that the dugout which he had left for this wild goose chase had been bombed out a quarter of an hour after he left, killing the mess orderly who was inside.[20] Churchill emerged from the incident with increased fatalism, a trait which apparently made him a soldier who remained impassive before schrapnel and showed no sign of being affected by the din of enemy artillery.

Churchill’s ‘training’ in the frontline only lasted for a week. After six days, according to the rules, the battalion was relieved and he was again invited at the Saint-Omer HQ, finding himself again in the middle of political intrigue. Asquith wanted to get rid of Sir John French, and had summoned him to London to let him know. But then Churchill wanted a brigade, which Sir John French was in a position to offer him – but there was no time to waste before his elimination. Writing to his wife after this conversation, Churchill already imagined himself commanding the 56th Brigade: ‘Of course there will be criticism and carping. […] Please order another Khaki tunic for me as a Brigadier General’. ‘Be careful that secrecy is kept by the shop’,[21] he added. Of course, in keeping with the old saying on counting one’s chickens before they are hatched, the order was premature – and he asked her to cancel it on the 15th. In the meantime, he had re-joined the Grenadiers on the 11th and went back to the frontline on the 13th, for forty-eight hours. During the Saint-Omer interlude, General Fayolle presented him with a French poilu’s helmet,[22] apparently more resistant to penetration than the regulation British Brodie helmet.[23] From then on he was always seen with this helmet,[24] as on the celebrated photograph with his friend Archibald Sinclair, the future leader of a Liberal faction and future Minister for Air in 1940.[25] In his papers, now at the Imperial War Museum, Lieutenant-Colonel C.E.L. Lyne recounts a funny incident connected with Churchill’s ‘queer attire’: at one stage, one of his artillerymen ‘came into Battery Headquarters in a state of some excitement’. He had an alarming report to make:

I believe we have got a spy in our sector because I have just seen a bloke dressed in a Frenchman’s steel helmet and queer garments and speaking in a gutteral [sic] voice, who said ‘This is a good place for an OP’. Actually,… I thought it was a bloody awful place, so I’m quite sure he is a spy, so let’s go and arrest him.[26]

Back from Saint-Omer on 15 December 1915, Churchill received a telephone call from Sir John French, now in London where he learnt that Asquith had decided to replace him with Sir Douglas Haig. Sir John French told Churchill that Asquith had vetoed his appointment as a Brigadier, fearing – probably with some justification – the questions in Parliament on the pulling of strings from which the former Cabinet Minister would appear to have benefited. Churchill was to be only a Lieutenant-Colonel, and to command only a battalion. For him, it meant the end of his dreams of military advancement. ‘It was an insult to Churchill, who never forgave Asquith for it’, Douglas Russell tells us.[27] ‘His mind became obsessive about it. He regarded it as a gross betrayal’, Roy Jenkins adds.[28] Sir Martin Gilbert argues that it is this ‘betrayal’ which dissuaded Churchill from continuing to keep aloof from high politics and the intrigue in the War Cabinet, and that exactly one month after his arrival in France, on 18 December 1915, Churchill decided to resume his political struggle[29] – it being of course a moot point whether he had ever given it up deep in himself. To make things worse, no command was available on the Franco-Belgian front, and Churchill spent his time at Saint-Omer, in London for a three days’ leave, and visiting the French lines near Douai, with all these occupations reminding him of the perfectly familiar link between the military and political worlds.

One thing that makes the discussion more difficult is that Churchill was a perfectionist – for him if something was worth doing it was worth doing right. He was also a proud man, who wanted everybody to admire or at least approve what he did. So he was to prove an excellent battalion commander in the following weeks, making it impossible to question his military valour by suggesting that he no longer had his heart in it and that his thoughts now turned elsewhere, that is towards Westminster.

It was at Saint-Omer, on 1 January 1916, that he learnt of his command: he was to be in the Infantry, at the head of the thirty officers and seven hundred men of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, with Archibald Sinclair as his second-in-command. At the Battle of Loos, in September, the battalion had lost more than half of its men and three-quarters of its officers – and Churchill’s remit was to make it battle worthy again. This exceptional leader of men immediately asked his wife to send him a collection of Burns poems because, he wrote, ‘I will soothe & cheer their spirits by quotations from it’.[30] Two days later, he asked her for a Glengarry cap.[31] These psychological precautions did not seem to have been superfluous, for Churchill was apparently greeted with as little enthusiasm on the part of his Scottish subalterns as he had received from his commanding officer in the Grenadier Guards. To make things worse, when he arrived in his unit with a bath and its boiler,[32] this was perceived as a form of eccentricity. But Churchill would not be Churchill if he had not managed to seduce his soldiers with what Bédarida calls his ‘charming side’.[33] As one of the officers was to recall later, ‘he inspired confidence in gaining it’.[34]

After its period of theoretical rest – a period of intense drilling, in fact – in Moolenacker, between Armentières and Hazebrouck (France), where Churchill and Sinclair invited all the officers of the battalion to ‘an elaborate feast beginning with oysters & lots of champagne’[35] at the Hôtel de la Gare for their last evening in the rear, the battalion went to the frontline on 24 January on the opposite bank of the Lys River, near Ploegsteert (Belgium). The notion of a frontier had of course become totally meaningless,[36] since the whole area – a few square miles almost razed to the ground – was now the responsibility of the British Expeditionary Force. The British made the place their own with the vocabulary used: the unpronounceable Ploegsteert was rebaptised Plug Street, just as Ypres had become Wipers.

At ‘Plug Street’, Churchill established his advanced headquarters in the ruins of a farm called ‘Laurence Farm’, and his eccentricity appeared even more clearly to his subordinates when he set up his easel in the courtyard, where new shell-holes were continuously forming. He made so many paintings that he repeatedly asked Clementine to replenish his materials: ‘Send me another box of squeezer paint’, he wrote on 2 February.[37] Most were probably unsuccessful attempts and left unfinished, but four have survived. His pictures were really painted ‘after nature’: they showed ‘Laurence Farm’ and the surrounding landscape of devastation, and he was delighted when he found a way of rendering the effect of the shell-holes.[38] Churchill took pride in them, and he gave one of these oils to Sinclair as a present on the occasion of his wedding on 18 May 1918.[39] Of course what his subordinates did not know was that after his removal from the Cabinet, in the summer of 1915, Churchill found the best solace in painting, as he was to explain in an article of 1921.[40]

His advanced headquarters were not sufficiently advanced in his eyes, and at night he went on reconnaissance expeditions in no man’s land with his faithful Sinclair. During the day, he spent a lot of time in the drained cellar of a ruined convent,[41] observing German lines with the periscope which Clementine had sent him – he assimilated his post to a submarine’s conning tower.[42] All the time, the area was bombarded, and there was nothing one could do against a direct hit. Much depended on your luck, and in his letters to Clementine, Churchill tries to convey the fatalistic mood which prevailed at Plug Street. Most of his daily letters are extremely repetitive, with variations on the theme of the Germans’ continuous shellfire and its attendant casualties[43] and anecdotes on miraculous cases of survival, though we have a few descriptions of incursions into no man’s land under cover of dark, or of expeditions with Sinclair to visit the pastry shops in Armentières.[44]

In this war with little movement, the greatest risk was to be at the precise point where a shell exploded, and of course the longer one stayed in the same network of trenches, the higher the probability that one would fall victim to a ‘direct hit’. Churchill of course did not really stay in Flanders long enough to see the odds inexorably rise against him. But Churchill was in fact struck by a ‘direct hit’ – he only survived because thanks to his usual luck the shell which fell precisely on the cellar which he used as a shelter did not explode. At the risk of scaring his wife, he tells her about all these miraculous escapes in his daily letters, together with his movements under enemy fire with subordinates or generals on a tour of inspection. In the letter in which he recounts the story of the unexploded shell, he alludes again to his fatalism – but also shows that he is aware that morale may fall after prolonged exposure to enemy fire: ‘One lives calmly on the brink of the abyss. But I can understand how tired people get of it if it goes on month after month’.[45]

Still, he was extremely interested in modern developments in military technique. He asked an officer from the Royal Engineers to explain the latest advances in the art of fortification: for instance he learnt that at least three feet of earth or sand are needed to stop modern machine-gun bullets. He had a three-foot long stick made, and ran along his own frontlines with it, measuring the size of their heaps of earth under the fire of the German machine guns.[46]

But of course Churchill was not destined to stay long on the front line. On 2 March, his battalion was relieved and went back to the rear, with Sinclair temporarily in command while Churchill was on leave in London, where all sorts of plots were afoot inside the War Cabinet, and as we now know these plots were to bring Asquith down a few months later, in December 1916. Churchill plunged himself with delight again in that world, truly his world of predilection. As Martin Gilbert explains, ‘fifteen years of intense political activity were not to be obliterated by mud or noise or danger’[47] – the more so as the main plotters against Asquith, Lloyd George and Bonar Law, whom he met at Saint-Omer in the last days of January, told Haig that there was no longer any objection to entrusting a brigade to Churchill. With these political friends, Churchill saw himself as winning whatever happened: either they asked him to join a reconstructed War Cabinet without Asquith or they gave him the coveted promotion if he remained a soldier.

It so happened that an important debate on the naval war was to be held in the Commons and Churchill, though still a Liberal MP (for Dundee), intervened to speak vehemently against the Government, attacking the Admiralty and demanding the return of Lord Fisher to run it – which only raised sarcasm among his potential supporters since Fisher was a finished man. Even though he (justifiably) felt let down by his political friends, Churchill remained in London for a few days, in the vain hope of mounting an effective opposition. As Best puts it, ‘Parliament obsessed him, whether he willed it or not’.[48] His indecision culminated on 13 March, when he decided to go back to the front. From Dover, he sent a letter to Asquith asking to be relieved of his command. But when he arrived in Ploegsteert in the evening, he sent a wire to Asquith to tell him to take no account of his letter.

It is almost impossible to imagine Churchill’s frame of mind as he took up his command again, knowing that the Parliamentary obsession had seized him once more. His discomfiture in the naval debate seemed to open very few perspectives, and certainly did not justify his resignation from the Army. For Roy Jenkins, ‘It is very difficult to see why Churchill’s extended leave in early March should have moved his mind away from soldiering and towards a return to full-time London politics’.[49] The more so as ‘soldiering’ might still have its rewards. He hoped against hope that he would be offered the command of his brigade, which had fallen vacant. But on 19 March someone else got the job. The ‘sour grapes’ syndrome is again in evidence in his correspondence. ‘I do not mind this a bit’, he wrote to Clementine in the evening. ‘A Brigade w[oul]d give me no more scope & less personal interest’.[50] In the same letter, he announced that he was going back to the front line for a week – but again one may wonder about his fighting spirit. The new snub inflicted by his superiors in giving preferment to another could only make him decide to give up his military career forever. On 3 April he clearly announced the decision to his mother: ‘My mind is unchanged about returning. It is only a question of how & when. I expect to decide v[er]y soon now’.[51]

When one reads the letters to his wife, his mother or the plotters like Max Aitken, the future Lord Beaverbrook, it seems that hardly anything happened on the frontline. He seems totally oblivious of the constant bombardment and consequent risk to his life. ‘I am getting quite inured to the hazards of the day’, he wrote to Clementine on 26 March,[52] and two days later his description of the trenches to Max Aitken might be those of a holiday camp: ‘Meanwhile the days pass easily and swiftly there’,[53] a wording which he took up the next week in the letter to Lady Randolph already quoted: ‘The time passes quickly & easily both in and out of the trenches’.[54]

He was to spend exactly one more month with his battalion, with only a special leave to attend further debates on the conduct of the war in the House, notably on the controversial issue of conscription. He believed that he would be able to stay in London, his status as an MP taking precedence over his military duties, but his superiors urgently called him back to Ploegsteert, where he stayed until 3 May 1916. There was talk of an amalgamation between the 7th Battalion and his own, and he knew that the unit would be entrusted to the career soldier who commanded the 7th Battalion. He finally wrote to the military hierarchy to resign his commission on 6 May. His request was immediately accepted and he went back to London on 7 May – this time definitively.

Paul Addison was to speak of his ‘hundred days’ on the front,[55] deducting the leaves spent in London and the days spent on the rear, often with politicians visiting Saint-Omer or military chiefs useful – or so he believed – for his promotion to the rank of Brigadier, which he never obtained. His ‘better features’, to take up Best’s phrase, revealed or confirmed by these ‘hundred days’ are of course his perseverance, his bravery mixed with humour,[56] stoicism and fatalism,[57] and his humaneness – often however tainted with condescension and what Best calls his ‘autocratic[58] and sentimental paternalism’,[59] not to be confused with his gregariousness,[60] which was reserved to men of his own social background: the political and military elites. And if Best is not explicit about what he means by ‘a few of his worse’ features, it seems that he alludes to his occasional lack of political judgement and his impulsiveness, as demonstrated by the episode of the naval debate in March 1916.

What seems unbelievable in the ‘hundred days’ of the ‘Improbable Colonel’, as Jenkins calls him,[61] is that apparently none of the officers and men of his battalion ever felt that their chief was thinking of something else – Westminster rather than ‘Plug Street’. None of the later memoirs and testimonies suggested that his conduct betrayed his divided loyalties. But after all, he may have always remained a soldier first, as Paterson very aptly expresses it: ‘he was always a soldier dealing in politics more than a politician playing soldier’.[62]

For his hundred days in contact of the enemy, Churchill was to receive three medals: 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal – and the fact that they were generously awarded to millions[63] of British ex-servicemen in no way diminishes the merits of the temporary Lieutenant-Colonel (he was to be reinstated in the reserves with the rank of Major following a decision of the War Office dated 16 May 1916).[64]

In spite of the champagne, the brandy, the hot water bottle, the special boiler for his bath and the cigars it was definitely not a mock war.[65] Best is evidently right when he concludes in his second book on Churchill that his ‘brief spell in Flanders…was a quixotic episode that highlighted his bravery and eccentricity but did not otherwise add to his wartime usefulness’.[66] Looking back, however, it is undeniable that Churchill’s experience as a ‘poilu’ was to have at least two consequences – one positive in the short term: the reinforcement of his conviction that only the ‘tank’[67] could put an end to this useless slaughter[68] – the other negative in the long run: the reinforcement of his admiration for the tenacity of the French infantryman,[69] which made him mistakenly place too much trust in the French Army after 1933.


Addison, Paul. Churchill: The unexpected Hero. Oxford: University Press, 2005.

Bédarida, François. Churchill. Paris : Fayard, 1999.

Best, Geoffrey. Churchill: A Study in Greatness. London: Hambledon, 2001 (London: Penguin, 2002).

Best, Geoffrey. Churchill and War. London: Hambledon & London, 2005.

Churchill, Winston Spencer. My Early Life : A Roving Commission. London : Butterworth, 1930 (My Early Life, 1874-1908. London : Fontana, 1959).

Churchill, Winston Spencer. Thoughts and Adventures. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1932 (London: Odhams Press, 1947).

Churchill, Winston Spencer. ‘Sir John French’ in Great Contemporaries. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1937 (London: Odhams Press, 1947).

Churchill, Winston Spencer. ‘Painting as a Pastime’. Strand Magazine, 1921. Reprint in book form: London: Odhams Press & Ernest Benn, 1948.

‘Captain X’ [= Gibb, Andrew Dewar]. With Winston Churchill at the Front. London & Glasgow: Gowans & Gray, 1924.

COOMBS, David. Churchill : His Paintings – A Catalogue. Foreword by Lady Spencer-Churchill. London : Hamish Hamilton, 1967 (Second Edition. Coombs, David & Churchill, Minnie. Winston Churchill : The Artist and His Paintings. London : Chaucer Press, 2003. American Edition : Sir Winston Churchill’s Life through his Paintings. Foreword by Mary Soames. Delray Beach (Florida) : Levenger Press, 2003 ; Philadelphia : Running Press, 2004).

Gilbert, Martin, Sir. Winston S. Churchill. Vol.III: The Challenge of War: 1914-1916. London: Heinemann, 1971 (abbreviated as Challenge of War in the notes).

Gilbert, Martin, Sir. Winston S. Churchill. Vol.III – Companion, Part 2: Documents May 1915-December 1916. London: Heinemann, 1972 (abbreviated as Companion in the notes).

Gilbert, Martin, Sir. Churchill: A Photographic Portrait. London: Penguin / Heinemann, 1974 (abbreviated as Photographic Portrait in the notes).

Holmes, Richard. In the Footsteps of Churchill. London: BBC Books, 2005. Tie-in with the eponymous television series broadcast in 2005. The second part, ‘The Return of the Military Man’, takes the viewer for some ten minutes to the area where Churchill served, notably ‘Plug Street’ [showing one of his paintings of Lawrence Farm]).

Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London: Macmillan, 2001 (London: Pan, 2002).

KERSAUDY, François. Winston Churchill : Le pouvoir de l’imagination. Paris : Tallandier, 2000 (Second Edition, 2002).

PATERSON, Michael. Winston Churchill : His Military Life, 1895-1945. Newton Abbot : David & Charles, 2005.

Russell, Douglas Sharman. Winston Churchill Soldier: The military Life of a Gentleman at War. Foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert. London: Brassey’s, 2005.

Soames, Mary, Lady. Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter: A Memoir by his Daughter. London: Collins, 1990.

WHITWORTH, R.H. The Grenadier Guards (The First or Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards). Famous Regiments Series. London : Leo Cooper, 1974.

[1] ‘Equally unreal is this brief segment of Churchill’s life’. Jenkins : 290.

[2] Best, A Study in Greatness : 75.

[3] ‘I therefore ask you to submit my resignation to the King. I am an officer, and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France’. (Letter to Asquith, 11 November 1915, Duchy of Lancaster Office. Companion : 1250)

[4] Challenge of War : 570.

[5] Soames : 24.

[6] ‘How I ever c[oul]d have wasted so many months in impotent misery, wh[ich] might have been spent in war, I cannot tell’. (Letter to Clementine, 19 November 1915, General Headquarters BEF. Companion : 1278)

[7] ‘A few hours later I dined with Sir John French at the Chateau of Blondecq in which, at the time, he resided’. (‘Sir John French’: 67). The book includes a photograph of Churchill and Sir John French on horseback, taken just before their dinner (‘The author with Sir John French’, Plate 6). Churchill’s orthography is inconsistent. In ‘With the Grenadiers’ (Thoughts and Adventures : 67), he writes ‘The fast staff car soon carried me to the Chateau of Blondecque near St Omer’. Neither spelling seems to be correct: the château in question appears to be the Château du Hamel, at Blendecques (62575 Pas-de-Calais).

[8] ‘I am staying tonight at GHQ in a fine château, with hot baths, beds, champagne & all the conveniences’ (Letter to Clementine, 18 November 1915, General Headquarters BEF. Companion : 1276).

[9] It must be recalled that Churchill had been to the Military Academy, Sandhurst as he was prompt to point out in order to stifle any rumour of ‘string-pulling’: ‘Having been trained professionally for about five years as a soldier, and having prior to the Great War seen as much actual fighting as almost any of the Colonels or Generals in the British Army, I had certain credentials which were accepted in military circles. I was not a Regular, but neither was I a civilian volunteer’. (‘With the Grenadiers’. Thoughts and Adventures : 68).

[10] As Whitworth describes him in The Grenadier Guards, p. 213.

[11] Churchill did not bear him any grudge and made him a baron in 1952. One must add that Churchill respected his professionalism – the greatest honour which Churchill could do to a soldier – from the very first days: ‘its Colonel is one of the v[er]y best in the army & his knowledge of trench warfare is complete & profound. All his comments and instructions to his men are pregnant with military wisdom’. (Letter to Clementine, 21 November 1915, ‘Somewhere in France’. Companion : 1283).

[12] His words were later reported by Churchill himself (‘With the Grenadiers’. Thoughts and Adventures : 69).

[13] ‘With the Grenadiers’. Thoughts and Adventures : 72. Churchill expatiated on his dislike for his fellow countrymen’s favourite drink in My Early Life : 132.

[14] Letter to Clementine, 27 January 1916. (Companion : 1400).

[15] ‘Was it you who sent me cigars from Savory?’ (Post-scriptum of a letter to Clementine, 30 December 1915. Companion : 1348.) Sir Martin Gilbert indicates in a note that H.L. Savory & Co. of Bond Street were not Churchill’s usual suppliers – it was F.L. Smith, of Regent Street, from whom he bought over 3,000 cigars in 1915. There is no knowing how many were smoked in France from 18 November.

[16] Letters to Clementine. (Companion : 1364, 1391, 1405 & 1416)

[17] ‘With the Grenadiers’. Thoughts and Adventures : 72.

[18] Letters to Clementine. 30 December 1915 & 14 January 1916. Companion : 1347 & 1374.

[19] In The World Crisis, (part 3, ch 2 The Blood Test) he spoke derisively of ‘Good, plain, straightforward frontal attacks by valiant flesh and blood against wire and machine guns’ – but he never participated in any during his period of service as ‘poilu’.

[20] He recounts the incident in ‘With the Grenadiers’. Thoughts and Adventures : 75-78.

[21] Letter to Clementine, 10 December 1915. (Companion : 1323)

[22] Called « casque Adrian modèle 1915 » in the French Army, and light blue in colour in the Infantry. Churchill duly wears his new helmet in the group photograph with General Fayolle and Captain Edward Spears taken at Camblain L’Abbé on 5 December 1915. See Imperial War Museum site, photograph N° Q 49305.

[23] ‘I have been given a true steel helmet by the French wh[ich] I am going to wear, as it looks so nice & will perhaps protect my valuable cranium’. (Letter to Clementine, 8 December 1915. Companion : 1318).

[24] ‘My steel helmet is the cause of much envy. I look most martial in it – like a Cromwellian. I always intend to wear it under fire – but chiefly for the appearance’. (Letter to Clementine, 12 December 1915. Companion : 1327). The famous helmet is now at Chartwell.

[25] Churchill also wears it on his oil portrait by Sir John Lavery of 1916. Visible on:

[26] IWM 80/14/1, quoted in Winston Churchill : His military Life, 218.

[27] Russell : 365.

[28] Jenkins : 293.

[29] ‘From that moment Churchill aspired, not to advance his military career, but to rebuild his political one’. (Challenge of War : 617).

[30] ‘Now that I shall be commanding a Scottish battalion, I sh[oul]d like you to send me a copy in one volume of Burns. I will soothe & cheer their spirits by quotations from it’. (Letter to Clementine, 3 January 1916. Companion : 1354).

[31] (Letter to Clementine, 5 January 1916. Companion : 1358). He is seen with that cap on the close-up photograph of Photographic Portrait (N°140) and in the frontispice of Challenge of War.

[32] ‘…a limber filled with Churchill’s luggage – much more than the 35 lbs allowed weight. In the rear half […] a curious contraption: a long bath and boiler for heating the bath water’. (Memories of Lieutenant Hakewell Smith quoted in Challenge of War : 631).

[33] Bédarida : 161.

[34] ‘I have never known an officer take such pains to inspire confidence or to gain confidence; indeed he inspired confidence in gaining it’. (Memories of Lieutenant McDavid quoted in Challenge of War : 635)

[35] Letter to Clementine, 23 January 1916. (Companion : 1390).

[36] Such was the confusion between Belgian and French territory that Churchill thought that the interpreter who awaited him was a Belgian (‘We have a v[er]y attentive and spruce Belgian officer attached to us as interpreter – well embusquéd’, he wrote to Clementine on 29 January 1916. Companion : 1403). It was in fact André Maurois, who confirmed the fact to Sir Martin Gilbert (who also attributes Churchill’s mistake to the similarity in Belgian and French interpreters’ caps) in 1965 (Challenge of War : 655).

[37] Companion : 1409.

[38] Three (Nos. C2-C3-C4) of the four are reproduced in colour, and one in black and white (No. C1)  in Coombs’s  2004 Running Press edition, pp. 16-17.

[39] Coombs believes that ‘the figure calmly reading the newspaper’ among the ruins of ‘Lawrence Farm’ on the picture reproduced in black and white (the wedding present) may be Sinclair himself (ibid).

[40] ‘Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale’. Painting as a Pastime : 7.

[41] ‘We have seduced the nuns (don’t be frightened)…into culinary pursuits’. (Letter to Clementine, 29 January 1916. Companion : 1403).

[42] ‘The cellars of the convent “The Conning Tower” I call them are now clear of water’. (Letter to Clementine, 4 February 1916. Companion : 1415)

[43] According to the official statistics of the War Office, compiled by Sir Martin Gilbert, the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers had 15 killed and 123 wounded during Churchill’s period of command. (Companion : 1436)

[44] ‘Good cakes and sweets can be bought there’. (Letter to Clementine, 12 February 1916. Companion : 1420).

[45] Letter to Clementine, 20 February 1916. (Companion : 1432)

[46] Memories of Lieutenant Napier-Clavering quoted in Challenge of War : 671.

[47] Challenge of War : 679.

[48] Best, A Study in Greatness : 79.

[49] Jenkins : 303.

[50] Letter to Clementine, 19 March 1916. (Companion : 1457).

[51] Letter to Lady Randolph Churchill, 3 April 1916. (Companion : 1477).

[52] Letter to Clementine, 26 March 1916. (Companion : 1465).

[53] Letter to Sir Max Aitken, 28 March 1916. (Companion : 1469).

[54] Letter to Lady Randolph Churchill, 3 April 1916. (Companion : 1477).

[55] Addison : 84.

[56] In his Memoirs published in 1924, the Adjutant of the Battalion recalled the phrase which Churchill like to repeat to his subordinates: ‘War is a game to be played with a smiling face’. Gibb : 109.

[57] ‘Don’t worry about my safety – the Fates have decided that’. (Letter to Clementine, 23 January 1916. Companion : 1391). Looking back on this episode in his life in ‘With the Grenadiers’, he devotes two pages to ‘Chance, Fortune, Luck, Destiny, Fate, Providence’. Thoughts and Adventures : 73.

[58] The mixture between authoritarianism and affection vis-à-vis his civilian subordinates which all witnesses describe during his Downing Street years was already apparent in the short speech which he gave on his arrival at the head of the Royal Scots Fusiliers : ‘Gentlemen, I am now your Commanding Officer. Those who support me I will look after. Those who go against me I will break. Good afternoon Gentlemen’. Challenge of War : 632

[59] Best, A Study in Greatness : 77.

[60] ‘It was very much in his gregarious nature to make his officers a band of brothers’. Holmes : 129. Just as the battalion’s move to the frontline had been celebrated by a great dinner offered by Churchill to his officers at the Hôtel de la Gare in Hazebrouck, his departure was the occasion of a well lubricated lunch at Armentières on 6 May.

[61] This is the title of  Jenkins’s Chapter 16, which  is devoted to this episode in Churchill’s life: ‘An Improbable Colonel and a Misjudged Re-entry’.

[62] Winston Churchill : His military Life, 11.

[63] The exact figures will be found in Russell : 378.

[64] Russell reproduces the announcement in The London Gazette also on p.378.

[65] Kersaudy adds another factor – the dangers which he faced warded off his ‘black dogs’(and his bitter feeling of political impotence) by keeping his mind concentrated on the task at hand most of the day: ‘Ici, dans le confort très relatif des tranchées inondées et des fermes dévastées, il tient en respect pour quelques heures par jours ses deux plus redoutables ennemis : l’inaction et l’impuissance’ (Kersaudy, 178).

[66] Best, Churchill and War : 67.

[67] In his deservedly famous memorandum of 3 December 1915, ‘Variants of the Offensive’, Churchill spoke of ‘shields…pushed along either on a wheel or still better on a Caterpillar’. (Challenge of War : 591). The text is extensively reprinted in The World Crisis (part 3, chapter 14) and it is discussed both in Challenge of War (591 ff.) and in Churchill and War (75 ff.) He recounts the circumstances of its writing and how he thought it had been stolen by an enemy spy in ‘Plugstreet’. Thoughts and Adventures : 80-85.

[68] Russell : 379.

[69] Jenkins : 298.

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