Churchill’s WW1: From Humiliation to Redemption

Being born in Blenheim Castle, built by his ancestor the 1st Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo, would leave an indelible imprint on the impressionable youngster. He believed that he was born to greatness. Another streak also drove the red haired youth; a deep desire to impress his parents both of whom, due to their social commitments, neglected the youngster who craved their affection.

Churchill’s humiliation during WW1 was unquestionably the folly and slaughter at Gallipoli but what was his ultimate redemption and what did it take to overcome the stigma?

Main picture: Churchill’s favourite pasttime – painting which he only discovered later in life

Churchill was to remark on his appointment at Prime Minister in 1940 that “the whole of my past life had been in preparation for this moment.” It was his destiny, as Churchill viewed it, to obtain greatness in the field of battle or as a warlord but it was not to be during WW1 but during WW2 as Prime Minister.

Many other people and nations have also evoked destiny either in hindsight or as a motive for a proposed action. For instance America viewed it as their manifest destiny to occupy the whole of the continental landmass to the West Coast during the 1800’s. Likewise Hitler was to proclaim that it was his destiny to liberate the German people from the clutches of the Jewish hordes. Tellingly Churchill has the most indisputable claim to an innate craving from an early age to greatness. With two exemplars, Marlborough and his father Randolph Churchill, he possessed ample examples and paradigmatic insight into power.

Blenheim Palace in the Cotswold where Churchill was born
Blenheim Palace in the Cotswolds where Churchill was born

Having never experienced the maternal affection that he so craved as a pre-adolescent child, Clementine – Clemmie or alternatively Cat were Churchill’s affectionate sobriquets – occupied more than the position as an intimate spousal partner. On the contrary, they were soul mates. Whether Churchill was in the trenches of Flanders or meeting FDR in America, he would apprise Clemmie not only of the facts of what was happening but also declare his affection for her. The signature denouement of the letter would be a hand drawn rear view of a cat or occasionally a clowder of cats with the word Clemmie lovingly drawn with the final E resembling a bushy tail.

Their relationship was based upon emotional reciprocity. Revealingly at one intimate moment she bemoans the fact that maybe their relationship was becoming more of a friendship, a tad too platonic. Churchill berates her with gusto that same day and reassures her of his love.

The red haired Winston on the right with his brother Jack and his mother, Jennie Gerome, an American socialite and beauty.
The red haired Winston on the right with his brother Jack and his mother, Jennie Gerome, an American socialite and beauty.

This flurry of letters over their lifetime has enabled the historians to fully explore the mind of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.

As Churchill himself readily admitted, he was a man in a hurry. The pivotal driving force was a desire to emulate his father’s meteoric rise in politics. The impetus was a yearning to prove his worth to his disinterested parents and more so after being called a “wastrel” by his father when he failed to obtain admission to Sandhurst Colleague on his first attempt.

At 39 years of age, Churchill stood on the cusp of greatness. As First Lord of the Admiralty, his previous military experience both as a hussar at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan and as a reporter in the Boer War in South Africa had burnished his credentials for fearlessness in the face of danger.

An aerial shot of Blenheim Palace
An aerial shot of Blenheim Palace

Ever eager for action, Churchill was the only senior political figure who was expectantly awaiting the possibility of war. Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister, was an ineffectual leader who lacked the imagination and energy to lead a nation at war. In this he was unsuitable as a war leader.

After the formal declaration of war by Britain on 4th August 1914, Churchill was in his element. The excitement, the passion, his desires were all channelled with prodigious zeal into the war effort. It took Clemmie to caution Winston about his blood lust. In this she was over-reacting. She mistook his gift and enthusiasm for war for its worst manifestation – death and destruction.

In fact Churchill would come to abhor the ponderous military mind whose only solution was bloody attritional war. Churchill could not abide the sheer waste of human lives. As Rowan Atkinson would so memorably comment in the TV epic Black Adder; “the effect of the slaughter was only to move General Haig’s table a few feet closer to Berlin”.

Churchill might not have been so mordant in his viewpoint. Instead he fired off missives to all and sundry in positions of authority. None trivialised the possibilities of alternative solutions. Most were marked by an open-minded strategic thought process that foresaw the solution to victory not in the killing fields of Flanders but rather some innovative solution.

Winston Churchill 1910 in Hussars Army Uniform on Horseback
Winston Churchill 1910 in Hussars Army Uniform on Horseback

It was in this fertile overzealous mind that Churchill in 1915 conceived of an offensive on the periphery of the Central Powers as the German, Austrian-Hungarian-Ottoman alliance was formally known.

Churchill was not the only person with a strategic thought process. Sequestered in the Savoy Hotel in Cairo dutifully performing his map making duties with all its tedium and mind-numbing boredom, sat one, Thomas Edward Lawrence – more famously known by the sobriquet as Lawrence of Arabia – whose equally prolific mind was pondering the same question as Churchill. Lawrence, a most unlikely military officer – a captain – he was the opposite in every way – demeanour, bearing and thinking – from the bureaucratic ponderous military mind as was a Churchill.

The enigmatic TE Lawrence later to be lionised as Lawrence of Arabia
The enigmatic TE Lawrence later to be lionised as Lawrence of Arabia

Apart from both having a disdainful regard of the average military officer, they both yearned for some decisive military action. Ironically and unknown to one another both alighted his vision on the Middle East. As sophisticated, if unconventional military thinkers, they viewed the moribund Ottoman Empire as ripe for the plucking. Whereas Churchill viewed a coup de main to the jugular, TE Lawrence foresaw that Alexandretta on the southern Anatolian littoral of the Mediterranean as a more suitable option. As Churchill was to remark so vainly to Lloyd George, the shadow PM and leader of the liberal party, “If I succeed, I will be a very famous man.” To me, this was not one of Winston’s most endearing comments. Egotism and vanity are the tawdry unsavoury by-products of drive and determination writ large.

T.E. Lawrence in Wadi Rum, 1917. Auda Abu Tayi is seen in the background
T.E. Lawrence in Wadi Rum, 1917. Auda Abu Tayi is seen in the background

TE Lawrence’s motives were not as selfishly motivated. Instead they reflected the austere stoic character of Lawrence intent not on self-glorification or hubris but rather the attainment of a goal. In selecting Alexandretta, Lawrence had based his approach on the inevitability of an Arab revolt. After many centuries of harsh Turkish rule, the denizens of the Ottoman Empire no longer wished to swear fealty or genuflect to their Muslim brothers. Churchill’s vision was rather more grandiose in scale and impact. If the truth be told, it was unparalleled in its ambition and scope. As Churchill envisioned it, a component of the Grand Fleet would sail up the narrow straits of the Dardanelles and enfilade Constantinople, the latter day Istanbul. The prevailing wisdom was that the ill-equipped and ill-led Turks would, when faced by a superior professional army implode, leaving the British forces to sweep up the pieces.

So profound was their sense of superiority that little or no thought was given to the alternatives or even contingency plans. It was all bravado and gung-ho planning. The fact that the Dardanelles is a narrow strait in which ships were vulnerable from both littorals was not considered. Even the highly likely possibility of mines in the narrow waterway was not contemplated. This hastily and ill-conceived plan was presented by Churchill as the panacea to the killing fields of France. The staid dogmatic Asquith initially demurred but ultimately was persuaded and relented.

A doleful self-portrait when his dak demons haunted him
A doleful self-portrait [by Churchill] when his dark demons haunted him. Churchill had only taken up painting on turning 40.

This action bore all the hallmarks of possibly ending The Great War in 1915 with its progenitor Churchill being hailed as a hero.

With the decision made, Churchill was like a bull in a china shop. With evangelical zeal he railroaded and badgered everybody into action. Whereas his idea might have been fine on paper, the fact that there were competing priorities regarding troop allocations, unsuitable vessels to serve as landing craft, in fact the whole panoply of suitable military equipment not the least of which were suitably trained soldiers to act as marines, were dismissively brushed aside. None of the challenges arising from the minutiae of the operation seemed to deter Churchill.

Beset by rampant delays from the landing party side, he demanded that the navy make a dry run through the Dardanelles to the Sea of Marmara barging their way against the swiftly flowing tide. To the admirals, Winston’s stance was perplexing. Why forewarn an enemy of one’s future intentions by making such a foolhardy move? But Churchill was unmoved, implacable. His unquestioning belief and self-delusion did not listen to wise counsel that one had to adopt the tactics of a master poker player and never reveal one’s hand in advance. All protestations to the contrary were all to no avail.

Map of the Dardanelles. The high risk nature of this endeavour is clearly evident
Map of the Dardanelles. The high risk nature of this endeavour is clearly evident

With steadfast conviction, Winston ordered the fleet to enter the Dardanelles.

Meanwhile in Egypt, the Allies – Britain and France – were assembling their mainly untried raw recruits and putting them through their paces. With a paucity of British troops available as most reinforcements had been earmarked for despatch to France in order to replace the horrendous losses being suffered in the mincing machine that was Flanders, the British were compelled to rely on their colonial troops, the New Zealanders and Australians – the Anzacs as they came to be known.

As the naval flotilla forged its way eastwards through this sinew of water, they were being monitored by the astounded Turks. The Dardanelles, formerly known as Hellespont, is a 61km stretch of water connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Water follows in both directions but at different depths. From the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean it flows as a surface current and as deep underwater current in the opposite direction.

HMS Canopus fires a salvo from her 12 in (300 mm) guns against Ottoman forts in the Dardanelles
HMS Canopus fires a salvo from her 12 in (300 mm) guns against Ottoman forts in the Dardanelles

Recovering from the initial shock the shore-based guns of various calibres opened fire. The 16inch guns on the battleships returned fire. A heated exchange of fire ensued. The Turks smirked. They held all the jokers in their hands and the Allies in the Entente Cordial were blissfully unaware thereof. Goaded by a disdainful Churchill they sailed ever onward.

Then disaster befell the fleet. They struck a network of mines. First one and then another two battleships sank in rapid succession. The rest were ordered to turn tail and return down the Aegean much to the Churchill’s chagrin.

With two months before the first Allied troops could set foot on dry land on the Gallipoli peninsular all that Churchill could do was sulk in frustration.

The last moments of the French battleship Bouvet, 18 March 1915
The last moments of the French battleship Bouvet, 18 March 1915

The first landings were to be at Anzac Cove on the southernmost tip of the peninsular. All that the ill-trained and ill-equipped troops had as extemporised landing craft were rowing boats into which they first clambered and then gently rowed themselves ashore.

Almost like a gentle cruise on the river during a regatta in full swing, they complacently and unhurriedly made their way towards the shore. Overlooking the tepid crystal clear water of the Aegean, were the sulking ridge lines of the rocky spine traversing the length of the Gallipoli peninsular. Nothing stirred on the slopes as the soldiers insouciantly rowed ashore.

Without warning the hillside came alive with machine guns blazing down on the hapless troops trapped aboard their minute craft on the open sea. In spite of their prodigious efforts, most never made it alive to the shore.

Rowing ashore
Rowing ashore

This unfolding tragedy was to play itself out the whole day both at Anzac Cover and Helles Bay. After the navy’s abortive attempt to storming through the Dardanelles, the Turks had indeed been forewarned of a possible Allied invasion. Arab troops had hurriedly been marched in from the Alexandretta area in Syria together with other Ottoman troops. Instead of unoccupied ground, the troops had encountered two obstacles: towering hills with well dug-in enemy troops. It was not what they had bargained for.

With hindsight, the most suitable landing area was on the coast of the Sea of Marmara where long sandy beaches without abutting hill slopes, were an ideal landing area. It was not as if the military planners were unaware of this as a possibility, instead the reason for the decision had been more prosaic: they had not weighed the pros and cons of any other area. Instead the nearest landing area had been selected without due consideration. For this, the Allied would pay dearly in human lives; 53 000 dead and 150 000 wounded as a consequence.

Anzac landing
Anzac landing

Later another landing was attempted at Suvla with the same tepid unhurried landing and advance up the hillocks. The officers in their lassitude did not embolden the troops to seize the hilltops with alacrity. Instead they prevaricated. This allowed the Turkish commander, Kemal Ataturk to rush reinforcements through overnight. The advantage was lost. By not urging their men frantically along, they forfeited the advantage and allowed the Turks to occupy the ridges yet again.

Yet again the Tommy or the digger – as the Aussie troops were called – died.

Yet again Churchill bemoaned the wasteful loss of life in his impotent rage.

Incompetence, ruinous policies, woefully inadequate planning – call it what you will – the end result was the same; death on an industrial scale.

Anzacs coming ashore
Anzacs coming ashore

Churchill’s haste, inability to restrain his eagerness and ultimately his reckless disregard for detail would come to haunt him over the following months. As the campaign’s greatest protagonist and as the political head of the navy, Churchill would have to face the ineluctable consequences.

In December 1915, the troops vacated their dug-outs on the shores and slopes and retreated to the safety of their ships. All that they would leave behind were their dead, their spent cartridges and their broken equipment.

Landing at Anzac Cove

Churchill in shame and disgrace was demoted and given a junior government position. Clementine bore Winston’s pain and suffering as if it were her own. In an overeager attempt to vindicate him, she wrote an intemperate letter to Asquith blaming Asquith for his weak leadership. Steeled by the criticism, Asquith was resolute and most likely, intensely annoyed at her temerity. 

Beset by impotence in a sinecure of a job, Churchill brooded. The first manifestation of his deep dark demons – euphemistically referred to as his “black dog” by Winston himself – made their appearance. Churchill sought solace in painting. A self-portrait from his period at Hoe Farm is indicative of his gloom. In it he portrays himself in dark Stygian dolefulness.

Another Churchillian trait now re-emerged: the need for decisive change. In order to redeem himself, he re-joined his old regiment, the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and elected to be posted to France. This was a high risk strategy. With losses in combat amounting to 25% of the manpower, life expectancy was brief at best. In spite of Clemmie’s imploring and sharing her grave misgivings, Winston was resolute. He refused to relent. Like in the Dardanelles, once the decision had been made, it was as if the die had been caste & the Rubicon crossed.

Churchill as Commander of the Scots Fusiliers
Churchill as Commander of the Scots Fusiliers

Ultimately Churchill joined the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, a Scottish regiment, opposite the Belgium hamlet of Ploegsteert. In typical English fashion, they disadained foreign languages. Unable to pronounce the Dutch word, they nicknamed the village Plug Street. In spite of an inauspicious start, Churchill finally made his mark. Fortunately for posterity, Plug Street was at the extreme limit of the Ypres Salient. As such it remained a quiet sector throughout Churchill’s tenure as Commanding Officer.

Churchill had partially redeemed himself.

Further good news was to follow. A Commission set up to advice on the causes of the Gallipoli debacle had ascertained that Churchill was not the main architect of the failure. Instead incompetence, paucity of appropriate equipment, ill-trained troops was found to be the underlying causes. In fact words prefixed with ill such as ill-trained, ill-advised predominated.

Even before Churchill’s Flanders interlude, he had been advocating the use of machines to replace the wanton waste of human lives. Using the navy as the source of funds, he had been instrumental in the development of a tracked mechanical monster derisively referred to as “Churchill’s Follies.” In official correspondence, they were christened Tanks so as to confuse the enemy.

Australian 18th Battalian Stokes Mortar at Ploegsteert on 20th January 1918
Australian 18th Battalian Stokes Mortar at Ploegsteert on 20th January 1918

On his eventual return to government albeit at a lowlier post than he previously held, Churchill had vigorously pushed for their adoption. Against the strenuous advice of astute military minds, they were first used in penny-packet fashion during the Somme Offensive. Again the British had forfeited total surprise by using these potentially war-winning machines both in small numbers penny-packet style and in an inappropriate manner over unsuitable ground.

Churchill’s bifurcated personality – both strategic and reckless in tandem – had revealed its astute side, its foresight. By the Battle of Cambria lessons learnt were applied. Tanks were used en masse over ground not churned into mud by incessant five days of artillery fire. Instead after a brief barrage, the tanks charged – in reality crawled at 5mph – their way across to the German lines.

Churchill’s megalomania took hold of him. It held sway. He envisaged the use of 10 000 tanks in an epic battle in 1919. Being in charge of armament’s production, Winston was ideally placed to give effect to such grandiose plans.

Lusitania_1917

In the forthcoming offensive, the British forces prevailed. The German troops started surrendering in droves. Their morale had been shattered and their martial ardour sated.

An Armistice was signed.

Churchill’s vision had set the British Army in the direction of the future: the all-force or combined arms approach to warfare still practiced today. Churchill’s role in that process has never been fully recognised or acknowledged. Ironically the strategic thought was lost in the inter war years only to be resuscitated by the Germans in the pre-WW2 period. Finally only under Montgomery at El Alamein had these principles been re-applied again.

Clementine and Winston Churchill at Hendon Air Pageant
Clementine and Winston Churchill at Hendon Air Pageant

Full unequivocal redemption would have to wait until his appointment as Prime Minister on 10th May 1940 on the eve of the German invasion of France.

What Churchill would have to endure during that interlude was the riling chant “Remember the Dardanelles” which would haunt him until his final redemption during WW2. Largely due to that experience, like steel forged in the cauldron of disgrace, would it emerge tempered and hardened to tackle the Nazi challenge.

For this the British public would forever owe Churchill an eternal debt of gratitude.

winston_churchill2


Lesser men would have succumbed to the humiliation and left public service.

Instead he cast his detractors and his demons aside and overcame adversity stronger and more resilient to face an even greater challenge in the Nazi juggernaut.

2 Comments

  1. Just happened on this essay and enjoyed it, along with Chuchill/Astor piece…but the 1st Duke of Marlborough, who is mentioned in the beginning passage, died a century before the napoleonic wars and Waterloo. The heroic leader of the allies there was of the 1st Duke of Wellington. I thought to mention this, having visited Blenheim Palace years ago and learning more about Churchill’s ancestor (who had built it) than I otherwise would have.

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