February 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which granted the right to vote for women of property over the age of 30. Despite women’s suffrage being debated in the public sphere as early as the mid-nineteenth century, the formalised suffragette movement did not begin in earnest until 1903 when the Women’s Social and Political Union came into being.
The Balfour Declaration, though short in length, was one of the most significant and controversial documents in modern history. Written by Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, to prominent Jewish figure Lord Walter Rothschild in 1917, the letter stated that Britain would support ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ but at the same time not ‘prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. This declaration had long-lasting consequences, resulting in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict which remains a subject of intense debate.
Churchill was appointed Home Secretary following the January 1910 election, when the Liberal party was again returned to power. It was during this time that he most clearly demonstrated that strange mix of his nature – of the radical reformer and the reactionary. While he helped introduce reforms to the prison system, reducing sentencing for younger people and improving conditions, he also opposed strikers and refused to support votes for women.
Speaking to munitions workers in Glasgow in early Ortober, Churchill said, “I cannot say that I am over-sanguine at the present time of the speedy termination of the conflict … We must make certain that whatever may be the course of the war in 1918, the year 1919 will see our foe unable to resist our legitimate and rightful claims…” He particularly opposed a negotiated peace. Unconditional surrender was the only arrangement he would accept.
The moment for which he and his nation had fought occurred on November 11th. Churchill would later describe it in The World Crisis. “It was a few minutes before the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I stood at the window of my room looking up Northumberland Avenue towards Trafalgar Square, waiting for Big Ben to tell that the War was over. My mind strayed back across the scarring years to the scene and emotions of the night at the Admiralty when I listened for these same chimes in order to give the signal of war against Germany to our Fleets and squadrons across the world. And now it was all over! … All the Kings and Emperors with which we had warred were in flight or exile. All their Armies and Fleets were destroyed or subdued …
“The minutes passed. I was conscious of reaction rather than elation. The material purposes upon which one’s life had been centred … crumbled into nothing … leaving a void.
On 4 July Churchill spoke to the Anglo-Saxon Fellowship at Westminster about the war. ‘I am persuaded that the finest and worthiest moment in the history of Britain was reached on that August night, now nearly four years ago, when she declared war on Germany.’ He saw the war as “an open conflict between Christian civilisation and scientific barbarism’ and declared that not only must Germany be beaten but ‘she must feel that she is beaten’ in order to ‘deter others from emulating her crime.’
Labour problems plagued the production objectives of the Minister of Munitions. In some cases he blamed management. The Government assumed control of the Alliance Aeroplane Works because Churchill disapproved of their labour relations practices. In another case, he argued for conscripting the workers whose strike impeded tank production.
On 8 August the British offensive in France began and Churchill insisted on being present in order to observe the effectiveness of tanks in the battles. East of Amiens he came within a few thousand yards of the front. What he saw convinced him that, despite the apparent inferiority of some British equipment, the tide had turned and victory was inevitable. He returned to Paris where he lived comfortably at the Ritz and met with allied leaders regarding munitions problems. He also visited French Premier Georges Clemenceau, who complained about British manpower shortages. Churchill, for his part, argued against the transfer of manpower from munitions production to the fighting forces. He wanted priority given to tank production. He also wanted to increase the production of airplanes for bombing. “This is the moment to attack the enemy, to carry the war into his own country, to make him feel in his own towns and in his own person something of the havoc he has wrought in France and Belgium. This is the moment to affect his morale, and to harry his hungry and dispirited cities without pause or stay.’
Churchill was in France where he spent much time with French Premier Clemenceau. Although very impressed with the old man, he was also cautious. To Clementine he wrote: “He makes the same impression on me as Fisher: but much more efficient, and just as ready to turn round and bite! I shall be vy wary.”
From France Churchill successfully conveyed the need for additional military support, first to Lloyd George and then to Woodrow Wilson. Soon 480,000 more U.S. troops would be sent to Europe.
After the surrender of Russia, the Germans had launched a massive assault in the west. In response, Sir Douglas Haig issued an ’order of the day’ to his troops: “There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.’ Churchill never doubted the end result. He wrote to his friend the Duke of Westminster: “… the English-speaking world is settling down to war and becoming more fiercely devoted to it month by month. Presently the British will be more bitter than the French. Later on, the Americans will be more bitter even than the English. In the end we shall beat the heart out of Prussian militarism.”
Churchill had established munitions factories in France and in order to be nearer to them he established continental offices at Chateau Verchocq. The biggest problem, however, was manpower, and the Ministry of Munitions was releasing 1,000 men per day to serve in the army.
Alarmed at the implications of a Russian peace with Germany, Churchill admonished Prime Minister Lloyd George for giving priority to Naval recruiting: “The imminent danger is on the Western front: & the crisis will come before June. A defeat here will be fatal. . The Germans are a terrible foe, & their generals are better than ours”
In February Churchill visited France. Returning to his old trenches at ‘Plugstreet’ (Plaegsteert) he found only desolation and ruin. He could not even recognize the church and the ruins of the farm- houses. He commented that “the little graveyard has been filled and then smashed up by the shells.”
On a visit to Ypres he found “absolutely nothing except a few tree stumps in acres of brown soil pockmarked with shell holes touching one another. This continues in every direction for 7 or 8 miles.”
Despite the carnage on the continent he did not forget the threat at home. He wrote Clementine that the full moon increased the danger of attack on London and asked her to remove herself and the children from danger.
The horror of the attacks at Passchendaele, which began 12 October is best described by Churchill himself: “The British offensive against Passchendaele unrolled its sombre fate. The terrific artillery pulverized the ground, smashing simultaneously the German trenches and the ordinary drainage. By sublime devotion and frightful losses small indentations were made upon the German front. In six weeks at the farthest point we had advanced four miles. Soon the rain descended, and the vast crater fields became a choking fetid mud in which men, animals and tanks floundered and perished hopelessly.”
Fully aware of the consequences of what was happening on the Western Front, Churchill asked: “If we lose three or four times as many officers and nearly twice as many men in our attack as the enemy in his defence, how are we wearing him down?”
On the Eastern Front, Russia was collapsing from within. In October Lenin returned from exile and on 6 November Bolshevik mobs joined by soldiers and sailors, and the workers’ Red Guards, stormed the Czar’s Winter Palace in Petrograd. With civilian and military casualties well over ten million, Russia wanted peace but a civil war between the Bolsheviks and Kerensky’s government ensued. Hostilities between Russia and Germany would end with the December signing of a treaty at Brest Litovsk in Byelorussia.
The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, wanted to bring his old friend Winston Churchill back into the Cabinet. Following the advice of Lord Beaverbrook that the anti-Churchill sentiment could be overcome, he appointed Churchill as Minister of Munitions on 17 July.
The response was as expected and was as intense in the Government coalition as anywhere. The Morning Post warned that “neither the War Office nor the Board of Admiralty is likely to be safe from his attention” and both the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary for War threatened to resign. A delegation of Tory MPs demanded the intervention of Andrew Bonar Law but the Tory leader did not think it was worth risking the dissolution of the coalition. Churchill expressed surprise at the vehemence of the concerns, particularly because it came from more than his political opponents.
The Morning Post was the most outraged of the press. The appointment, it stated, “proves that although we have not yet invented the unsinkable ship, we have discovered the unsinkable politician. ” It still blamed the Dardanelles on Churchill, “whose overwhelming conceit led him to imagine he was Nelson at sea and a Napoleon on land.”
The Churchills purchased a new home at Lullenden in Sussex. Lady Randolph signed the Deed shown recently on ICS’ visit), suggesting that she provided backing or some other form of support.
After the report of the Dardanelles Commission, the political fate of Churchill lay in the hands of his old friend, Lloyd George. Churchill opposed the attack on the Western Front, wanting to wait until American forces could arrive in Europe. Lloyd George realized that it would be better to have his friend in the Government rather than criticizing from the outside, but his Tory allies were adamantly opposed to Churchill’s inclusion. Churchill later wrote that he was told by Lloyd George that he would eventually be brought in: “I became to a large extent his colleague. He repeatedly discussed with me every aspect of the war and many of his secret hopes and fears.”
In late May, Churchill returned to the continent, where he met Marshal Foch, Sir Henry Wilson, and Sir Douglas Haig, among others. One of the others was Lord Esher, Liaison Officer between the British and French War Offices and a pillar of the political establishment. A letter from Esher to Haig outlines the views that many had of Churchill at the time: “A true appreciation of Winston Churchill — of his potential uses — is a difficult matter. The degree to which his clever but unbalanced mind will in future fulfill its responsibiities is very speculative. He handles great subjects in rhythmical language, and becomes quickly enslaved by his own phrases. He deceives himself into the belief that he takes broad views, when his mind is fixed upon one comparatively small aspect of the question.
As Churchill celebrated the New Year at Blenheim, he realized that his chances of coming back to power were not good. As he wrote Lord Fisher: “Our common enemies are all powerful today and friendship counts for less than nothing. I am simply existing.”
The return to power would follow only exoneration by the Dardanelles Commission of Enquiry. In a letter to the Commission Churchill declared: “If ever there was an operation in the history of war which once having been taken should have been carried through with the utmost vigour and at the utmost speed it was the military attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula.” The War Office, he charged, was aware of the incompetency of the generals even if the Cabinet was not. After the military defeat, the politicians were also found wanting in failing to renew the offensive.
Upon receipt of a draft copy of the Commission Report from Lloyd George, Churchill wrote a long response to the Commission which concluded: “Public opinion is unable to measure the true proposition of events. Orthodox military opinion remains united on the local view that victory in 1915 could only be found by pouring out men and munitions in frantic efforts to break the German entrenchments in the West. The passage of a few years will throw a very different light on these events. They will then be seen in a truer proportion and perspective. It will then be understood that the capture of Constantinople and the rallying of the Balkans was the one great and decisive manoeuvre open to the allied armies in 1915. It will then be seen that the ill-supported armies struggling on the Gallipoli Peninsula, whose efforts are now viewed with so much prejudice and repugnance, were in fact within an ace of succeeding in an enterprise which would have abridged the miseries of the World and proved the salvation of our cause. It will then seem incredible that a dozen old ships, half a dozen divisions, or a few hundred thousand shells were allowed to stand between them and success. Contemporaries have condemned the men who tried to force the Dardanelles —History will condemn those who did not aid them.”
Churchill received a letter of praise from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regarding his ideas for caterpillars (tanks). Churchill compared them to the armoured ships called monitors. “The monitor was the beginning of the torpedo-proof fleet, the caterpillar of the bulletproof army.”
He spent most of this time preparing his defense of his actions for the Dardanelles Commission, which had begun its hearings in August. In one appearance before the Commission in September, he had made five points: “In regard to the operation, there was full authority, there was a reasonable prospect of success, greater interests were not compromised, all possible care and forethought were exercised in the preparation, and vigour and determination were shown in the execution.” He concluded that “the operation ought not to be condemned, even if it was not carried to its conclusion, simply on the grounds that it involved risk.”
But others did roundly condemn the operation, and Churchill’s role in it. He expressed frustration that he was unable to appear before the Commission to respond to attacks like that which appeared in the Daily Mail about “the contemptible fiasco of Antwerp and the ghastly blunder of Gallipoli.” He responded in print “on the course of the war by land and sea” and the Antwerp expedition in The London Magazine and The Sunday Pictonal.
On July 1 the tragic Allied off ensive began near the Somme River. On the first day the British suffered eighty thousand casualties, including twenty thousand dead. Although Churchill was an admirer and friend of the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, he was sickened and revolted by the carnage. Later he compared Haig to a competent and confident, but distanced, surgeon who would not reproach himself if the patient died.
When Lloyd George was appointed to the War Office to replace the deceased Lord Kitchener, Churchill thought he might be brought back into the Government as Minister of Munitions but the position went to Edwin Montagu. Churchill’s disappointment was great but he had to reconcile himself to the implacable bitterness towards him exhibited by leading Tories. Lord Derby told Lloyd George that any party formed after the war must exclude Winston. “Our Party will not work with him … he is absolutely untrustworthy as was his father before him and he has got to learn that just as his father had to disappear from politics so must he, or at all events from official life.”
Churchill’s anguish appears in letters he wrote to Archie Sinclair:
“I do not want office, but only war direction . . I am profoundly unsettled: & cannot use my gift” and to his brother Jack: “Is it not damnable that I should be denied all real scope to serve this country, in this tremendous hour? … I writhe hourly not to be able to get my teeth effectively into the Boche… Jack my dear I am learning to hate.” He was greatly frustrated to think that if he had not gone to the front but “had stayed Chancellor of the Duchy and shut my mouth and drawn my salary, I should today be one of the principal personages in direction of affairs.”
Although disappointed at not being given command of a brigade, Churchill settled in as commander of a battalion, the 6th Royal Scots Fusilers. He blamed Asquith, whom he called a “weak and disloyal chief. “Clementine met the Asquiths socially and wrote her husband: “You know what the P.M. is – He loathes talking about the War or work of any sort.”
Initially Churchill was not popular with his men and his cavalry training did not prepare him for command of infantry, but he learned quickly. He cared for his troops but neither he nor his men expected him or his officers to forego their own physical pleasures. Among other suggestions to his officers were these gems: “Keep a special pair of boots to sleep in and only get them muddy in a real emergency and live well but do not flaunt it.”
In late January he led his troops into battle near the Belgian town of Ploegsteert, commonly called “Plug Street.” His own bravery in battle won the respect of his men.
In March he returned to England and spoke in Parliament. Incredibly, he demanded that the First Lord of the Admiralty recall Lord Fisher to the post of First Sea Lord. His friends and family were aghast. Worse still, First Lord Arthur Balfour’s response in Parliament ridiculed Churchill. Upon returning to Ploegsteert Churchill wrote his wife that he intended to leave the army as soon as possible. The war he wanted to fight was at Westminster.
Although Churchill remained on the Dardanelles Committee as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he had no power to take action on any decisions. This, of course, in no way stifled his imagination nor his ardour to be involved, and he sent numerous reports and memos to his colleagues, including the Prime Minister. His main arguments were that the attacks on the Western Front were doomed to failure and that Britain must press forward in the Dardanelles.
One recommendation was that he and Lloyd George should form a special sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to report on the whole operation in the Dardanelles but there was little sympathy for Churchill’s position. As Germany and Austria entered Belgrade and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, the Dardanelles Committee gave priority to the Western Front.
Churchill was not pleased when Sir lan Hamilton was replaced by Sir Charles Monro at Gallipoli. He later said of Monro: “He came, he saw, he capitulated.” Kitchener personally visited the Eastern Front and agreed with Monro: “It is an awful place and you will never get through.”
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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.