This book, originally published in 1932 by Nigel Dewar Gibb, under the pseudonym “Captain X,” is now out in a new version with insertions from modern archivists. His son adds an introduction to his father and is an officer in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the unit commanded by Churchill on the Western Front.
Churchill presents an American with interest in the Great War with a character unlike any from our history. Here was Churchill, due to the military importance of the Royal Navy, the equivalent to our modern Secretary of Defense, putting on the uniform of a serving officer, volunteering to go into combat. We’ve had famous personalities such as Ted Williams and Jimmy Stewart who joined up in wartime, but seldom, if ever, have we had a serving politician leave their position to serve in anything like similar circumstances.
Churchill, 41 years old, was already one of the most public men in England. He had been a member of Parliament for more than a decade; more than a back bencher, he was in the leadership as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was a major figure in the conduct of the war.
However, this was Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, an individual confident that he was a Great Man, no matter what the circumstances might present. He knew the Dardanelles plan would have saved countless lives; have shortened the war; and emphasized his greatness to one and all.
This visit to the Western Front was not his first time actively participating in the war. Upset by the early developments in Belgium at the start of the war, as First Lord he traveled there to see what could be done. The Germans were charging toward Antwerp, and the British had to stop them. Winston, being Winston, took charge. He dominated the scene, the King of the Belgians, ministers, soldiers, and sailors. So great was his influence that with 20,000 British troops he believed he could have held Antwerp against any onslaught. This was the essence of Churchill, not the desk-bound authority over the Royal Navy. There he was, under a rain of shrapnel tranquilly smoking a cigar and looking at the progress of the battle. He futilely asked Kitchener to be put in charge of the Naval Brigade.
When he was forced out of his office after the disaster of the Dardanelles, he couldn’t just remain a back bencher. He felt he had to do more to support the war effort. During his remarkable lifetime, Churchill was a correspondent, a politician, a diplomat, a painter, a bricklayer, a noble, a gourmand, a lover of champagne, an innovator, an orator, but fundamentally, a soldier. So, at the end of 1915, what else could he do but serve.
|Tribute to Churchill Near Ploegsteert Wood Where |
He Served in 1916
Let there be no misunderstanding: Captain Gibb became a fan: “I am firmly convinced that no more popular officer ever commanded troops. As a soldier he was hard-working, persevering, and thorough. And he loved soldiering: it lay near his heart, and I think he could have been a very great soldier.”
The foreword by Churchill’s son, Randolph, presents a summary. From a scapegoat for the Gallipoli debacle to the request for the command of a brigade (which would have required the rank of general), Churchill launched his wartime military service with the verve for which he is remembered.
As a friend of Field Marshal Sir John French, Churchill expected to immediately stand among the leading British military officers. He was encouraged by the proposal for command of a brigade, but when French was replaced by Haig, he was assigned to a battalion, which only required a rank of lieutenant colonel. Churchill engaged in this assignment with his usual vitality. He unashamedly liked the excitement of battle. While his wife was concerned, his attitude expressed his lack of fear of dying.
What was remarkable to those in his unit was his concern for the details of a soldier’s life. In fact, his confident attitude was one facet of his leadership style. He earnestly wanted to communicate with and understand the average soldier. Churchill’s attention to the details was remarkable: he declared war on lice; he created baths out of brewery vats; and he used his influence to secure new equipment and clothing. Being who he was, he did what he could to improve rations. He even saw to the creation of a football field and arranged matches. It probably didn’t hurt his evaluation by the other officers that he shared his bathtub with them.
Given his political position as a member of Parliament and a close associate of those in power, occasionally he left the trenches, returned to London, talked to the very people making major decisions about the war including the prime minister, and gave speeches on current issues of the day. His service ended when he decided that he could make more of a difference as a politician than as a soldier. He believed that the war should be fought on the defensive, not sending men to die in the offense.
This is a view of Churchill different from every episode in his memorable life. He faced danger and could have died had he made some “inconsequential decision.” If there was a question as to whether he was a professional soldier, with this adventure that status was resolved.