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).
But despite the rubbish and rats, and the whining and whirring of bullets, he was happy.
Churchill came near to death several times. On the morning of 16 February 1916, his temporary headquarters was shelled during his breakfast: As he wrote to Clemmie: ‘Archie & I persevered in our breakfast – till a tremendous bang, clouds of debris & the whirring of splinters proclaimed our house hit again – this time our dining room was pierced on the other side’.
When his battalion was amalgamated with another, rendering his command redundant, he returned to London, honour intact. Fortified by a sense of purpose, he resumed political battles at home. Flanders had schooled Churchill in the realities of trench warfare – he really had ‘seen action’ – and he could give his colleagues in the House of Commons a soldier’s view of the conflict.
‘I am happy here … I always get on with soldiers. I do not certainly regret the step I took … I know that I am doing the right thing out here … Do you know I am quite young again?’
Churchill to his mother, Lady Randolph, 24 November 1915