Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895–1945

By Anthony Tucker-Jones.
Anthony Tucker-Jones.
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Winston Churchill as a Young Officer

Although my aim was to see how the first part of this book covers Churchill’s activities in World War One and to review the subject for our Roads to the Great War blog, I ended up reading the whole book because it is so notably well written and full of surprising details. The author’s scholarship and clarity are evident on every page, and his maps, illustrations, notes, references, bibliography, and index make this publication a truly valuable addition to Churchill studies

To understand Churchill’s role in World War One—and indeed all his subsequent attitudes and functions in war-time Britain—we must be aware of his early background: his social roots and his budding military inclinations. As has often been pointed out, his family heritage and military traditions played heavily on him as a child. Not surprisingly, he felt his career lay with the military, and as soon as he became a student at Harrow in 1888 he joined the Harrow Rifle Corps. There, we learn, he

. . . delighted in getting his hands on the standard army rifle and firing live ammunition. These were no toys. The Martini-Henry rifle kicked like a mule and its soft slug easily smashed bone and cartilage creating horrific wounds…The rifle’s long sword bayonet was also a skewering accident waiting to happen. Letting schools loose with such weapons seems reprehensible, but they were the children of the Empire (p. 35).

When he went on to Sandhurst in1893 he did well. He was commissioned a second lieutenant with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars on 20 February 1895 but found he was bored with peacetime service. He was allowed five months leave from the Hussars, so he looked around for an adventure and soon found it with the waning Spanish Empire. By pulling strings and leapfrogging official channels, he traveled to Cuba and connected with the Spanish forces fighting the rural rebels. On his 21st birthday he set out with a column of Spanish troops and took part in a three-day battle. He came under fire; there were some casualties, but their leader, General Valdez, was fearless in his white uniform and took great risks by making himself an obvious target. Churchill noticed this and apparently saw in the General a role model (pp.37–39).

From then on Churchill’s life took on the aspect of a ripping yarn, the kind published in comics to inspire and thrill the youth of Victorian Britain. Cuba had not satisfied him; the only spot in the Empire that seemed to offer chances of action and fame was the wild Northwest Frontier of India. True to form, by 1896 he had by a series of contacts finessed his way to the Frontier. While there he also wrote articles for the Telegraph newspaper, which were to be the basis of his first of many books. His actions in India included a firefight in which 50 soldiers were killed and 100 wounded. On 30 September he was in action with the 31st Punjab Infantry, which suffered 60 casualties. He wrote of the opposing Pathan tribesmen: “They kill and mutilate everyone they catch, and we do not hesitate to finish off their wounded” (p.44).

April of 1898, the British had yet to retake Khartoum. By pulling strings again, Churchill managed to get himself posted to the 21st Lancers with Kitchener in the Sudan. Here this book gets a bit chronologically confusing, since Churchill’s adventures in the Sudan, exciting as they are, were covered in the Prologue, before his earlier Cuban and Northwest Frontier exploits are described. At the Battle of Omdurman he again distinguished himself:

Churchill galloped forward with his troop and through enemy lines that were only about four deep. Looking back, he saw one man from his troop fall and be hacked to death…lunging left and right [he] fired ten shots from his pistol, killing three men by his own reckoning and possibly three others. The first swordsman who attempted to hamstring his horse was killed with two bullets. The second was so close that the weapon touched the man before he discharged it (p.23).

In May 1899 Churchill resigned his commission in the army. His writing and his political ambitions were coming to the forefront, but on 11 October 1899 war broke out between Britain and South Africa (p. 49). Tucker-Jones takes two chapters to handily describe and analyze Churchill’s role in the Boer War, his actions, capture, and escape, the small fortune he made by reporting and writing about the war, and his resulting popularity (and in some cases enmity). On returning to England, he ran as the Member of Parliament and won, “in part thanks to his well-publicized hijinks in South Africa” (p. 63).

Churchill’s actions, attitudes, and achievements would all determine his role in the Great War that broke out in 1914. His political career had progressed (not without some bumps) until in October 1911 he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty (p. 72). Typical of the author’s clear and content-full style, Tucker-Jones relates:

Admiral Fisher and Churchill Working at the Admiralty

The navy prospered under Churchill, with him overseeing the impressive Dreadnought battleship programme, building up the Royal Naval Air Service and introducing a naval staff for the very first time. Churchill’s passion for excitement remained unabated and in 1913 he started to learn to fly. His wife, though, was naturally anxious that he would kill himself and the following year he promised to give it up (p. 72).

Two chapters (Chs 5 & 6) entitled “A Haunting Lesson” and “Cat on Hot Bricks,"’ focus on Churchill’s activities in WWI, shedding light on the politics and actualities of the Gallipoli campaign and war on the Western Front. First however, Churchill, spoiling for military action, quickly got himself to the siege of Antwerp in October 1914, offering to resign from the government and lead that city’s defense. He was recalled almost immediately by an astounded Prime Minister Asquith just before the city fell on 10 October (p. 73).

Much has been written about the Gallipoli campaign, which as the author points out was in principle sound but disastrous in its execution. Ships, troops, landings are well covered here, with a helpful map of the Dardanelles. Of particular interest, however, are some of behind-the-scenes situations, such as the dispute between Churchill and Admiral John Fisher regarding the operation. This disagreement came to a head on 15 May 1915, when Fisher,

. . .sick of Churchill’s operational meddling, resigned. This very publicly signaled a complete loss of confidence in the First Lord of the Admiralty. It also fatally undermined Churchill’s standing with the Royal Navy. The stress of working with Churchill had proved too much for Fisher who appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. This was a terrible blow for Churchill who met with Asquith to offer his own resignation. Asquith initially declined to accept it; however, it was impossible for Churchill to hang on and he was replaced on 27 May. It was a deeply upsetting time for him. When the war had broken out, he was one of the three most powerful men in the country. Just 15 months later he was a political car crash (p. 78).

But of course he couldn’t be kept down for long. He requested an appointment to East Africa, where the war was not going well, but General Jan Smuts was chosen instead. He then volunteered for military service on the Western Front and arrived at the HQ of Field Marshal John French in November 1915. Soon he was made a lieutenant-colonel by Sir Douglas Haig and appointed commander of a Scottish battalion. He spent time in the trenches, experienced bombardment, and took risks that other men wouldn’t—all the time wearing his distinctive blue French army helmet (pp. 81-83).

Off to the Western Front

Returning to England in May 1916, he became Minister of Munitions and “threw himself into this role with great gusto” (p. 85). He wasn’t happy with how the military was deploying its new weapon, the tank, but he was an enthusiastic proponent of gas, especially mustard gas, and had 100 tons of it supplied to the British Army by the end of September 1918 (p. 86). Some two months after the war ended, Lloyd George promoted Winston Churchill to joint Secretary of State for War and Air, making him the very first Secretary of State for Air (p.87). .

He had once again survived and flourished. How he continued to do so during the interwar period and in the Second World War is impressively described by Tucker-Jones in the rest of this excellent book.

David F. Beer

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, David. I am going to have to read the book now.