Finest Hour 182, Fall 2018
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.