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.
Edward E. Gordon and David Ramsay are co-authors of Divided on D-Day: How Conflicts and Rivalries Jeopardized the Allied Victory at Normandy (Prometheus Books, 2017).
The commander sighed. “Well, there it is: it won’t work but you must bloody well make it.”1 With these words Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, instructed Lieutenant General Sir Frederick E. Morgan in 1943 to begin preparing a cross-channel invasion plan. From the first day of the war, America’s leaders were determined to confront and defeat the German army speedily by invading northwestern Europe. But because the British had recently been decisively defeated by German forces at Dunkirk as well as in Norway and Greece, Churchill and the British armed forces chiefs of staff were much more cautious. They still remembered the slaughter of an entire generation on the Western Front during the First World War.
Britain’s war leaders also harbored grave doubts about the battle readiness of US soldiers, believed that American generals lacked combat experience, and were skeptical about America’s ability to increase the production of war materials rapidly.
Historians commonly represent Winston Churchill’s relationship with Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig as antagonistic. Churchill was one of the British government’s most outspoken proponents of an “eastern” strategy during the First World War, urging operations against the junior members of the Central Powers. Haig’s own views on strategy, on the other hand, were resolutely orthodox. A committed “westerner,” the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) believed that victory could only be achieved through offensives against the main force of the German army in France, and he was suspicious at best of any diversion of resources and manpower to subsidiary theaters.
Churchill and Haig’s disagreements over such fundamental issues made the two men obvious opponents in wartime debates as well as the controversies that persisted long after the war had ended. According to one historian, Churchill’s postwar publications “set many of the terms for the debates which would rage around Haig’s reputation for the rest of the twentieth century.”1 Churchill played a key role in perpetuating the misleading image of Haig as an inept “butcher” who sacrificed a generation of Britons in futile offensives like the Somme and Passchendaele.
In giving up his government post to go out to the horrific battlefields of Flanders and ‘take some active part in beating the Germans’, Churchill demonstrated again the courage he’d displayed in those battlefields of the North West Frontier and Sudan. And he certainly experienced the horrors and dangers of the trenches first hand.
He wrote to Clemmie of ‘[f]ilth and rubbish everywhere, graves built into the defences & scattered about promiscuously, feet & clothing breaking through the soil, water and muck on all sides; & about this scene in the dazzling moonlight troops of enormous rats creep & glide, to the unceasing accompaniment of rifle & machine guns & the venomous whining & whirring of the bullets which pass overhead’ (Churchill to Clementine, 23 November 1915).
The onset of the WWI in August 1914 thrust Churchill into the limelight again, but this time at centre stage in an international crisis. For a ‘man of action’, this was the place to be. Eager to emulate the deeds of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill felt anticipation and excitement – and the promise of glories to come – as the prospect of war became unavoidable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill issued the order to the Navy to act – to ‘commence hostilities’. WWI was to be a time of great personal challenge for Churchill; it was to demand personal bravery and resilience in the face of both physical danger and intense mental battles. He did indeed ‘put his head into the lion’s mouth’.
‘I’m finished … I’m done. What I want above all things is to take some active part in beating the Germans … I’d go out to the Front at once.’
Churchill to Violet Asquith, in Champion Redoubtable: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914–1945 (ed. Pottle)
Before too long, rather than playing with his nephew’s watercolour paintbox, Churchill was tackling oil painting. On learning of Churchill’s experimentation and enthusiasm a near neighbour, Sir John Lavery, the renowned Anglo-Irish and official WWI artist, together with his talented artist wife Hazel, gave practical advice and help and encouraged this new hobby. Later in 1915, Churchill was often to be found working in Lavery’s studio in London, not far from the house Churchill and his brother Jack were sharing, with their families, on Cromwell Road. Churchill was to take his paints with him wherever he travelled – at home and abroad – throughout this life. Enthralled with his new hobby, he painted during the First World War while at the Western Front in early 1916 (as a Lieutenant-Colonel with the 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers), at ‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) in Flanders. On his return from the First World War and during the 1920s, even when embroiled again in political life, Churchill continued to paint. In fact, painting intensified as a pleasure and it was at this time that he wrote two articles about it, praising the enormous rewards to be gained from painting as a pastime.
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On this day in 1940, Winston Churchill gave to the House of Commons what many consider to be his most famous speech: "Their Finest Hour". This speech was made following France’s armistice, and espoused British national survival in the face of Nazi tyranny.
This speech can be read in full in Winston Churchill’s "The War Speeches", found in the first volume "Into Battle" (which was published in the U.S. and Canada under the title "Blood, Sweat and Tears"). We have many fine copies of "The War Speeches", including a newly acquired, Churchill-signed copy that can be found on our website by searching "208643".
The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.