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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.

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Great War Trench Art New Exhibit at National Churchill Museum

A new exhibit, “From Swords to Plowshares: Trench Art from the Great War,” features more than 110 objects crafted by soldiers and artists from artillery shells, bullets, shrapnel, aircraft parts, currency, and other miscellaneous objects. Called “trench art,” the objects have been transformed into vases, elaborate lamps, cigarette lighters, and ashtrays as well as other artistic works. Folk art designs with elaborate engraving and repoussé work have been incorporated into the works. Read More >

GUNS OF AUGUST 1914-2014 – The First World War: Riddles, Mysteries & Enigmas

Finest Hour 163, Summer 2014

Page 32

By Paul H. Courtenay

Sinking the Lusitania, and Other Conspiracy Theories


Q-My book on Churchill and the Lusitania (which FH will reprise in a future issue —Ed.) will rebut the allegations that Churchill conspired to cause her sinking. I am wondering if you know of any other “conspiracies” he was accused of, like knowing about Pearl Harbor but keeping mum. —DAVID RAMSAY, INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.

A-This and other alleged conspiracies are on our “Myths” web page, http://bit.ly/jVWSme. The Pearl Harbor story was refuted by Ron Helgemo (ex-CIA), and is the best we’ve read on the subject. Also dismissed is the claim that Churchill conspired to starve occupied Europe by withholding food shipments. Then there are… Read More >

GUNS OF AUGUST 1914-2014 – The Empire Goes to War: Changes Churchill Didn’t Foresee

Finest Hour 163, Summer 2014

Page 28

By Raymond A. Callahan

There are few more dramatic descriptions of the coming of World War I than Winston Churchill’s account, in The World Crisis, of the moment when Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, broke into the Cabinet’s interminable discussion of the intractable “Irish Problem” to read the text of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia. There follows a matchless account of the end of the long European peace and the war’s opening stages. Matchless—but not comprehensive.


Churchill was not, of course, writing a general history of Britain’s war but his account was, it is safe to say, more widely read and influential than that of any other British politician or general—so the omissions are of some consequence. And no omission is more striking than the imperial dimension of the British war effort, especially the role of the Indian Empire. India’s role would set in train changes that would powerfully affect Churchill’s career in the 1930s and the shape of the world war he would wage in 1940-45.1

The King-Emperor’s declaration of war on Germany automatically committed the Raj to war as well. That vast structure, supervised by what in retrospect seems a remarkably tiny cadre of British officials, possessed its own army, and had done so since its 18th century origins under the “Honourable Company.” In 1914 that army was 150,000 strong, its soldiers drawn from the “martial races”—a Victorian invention that in practice meant from the Punjab and the North West Frontier. There were also Gurkha regiments recruited from the client kingdom of Nepal, widely thought of (not the least by their officers) as the Indian Army’s equivalent of the Brigade of Guards.
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