On 30 July 2013 BBC4 broadcast a documentary called Churchill’s First World War. The BBC website describes it as follows:
Drama-documentary about Winston Churchill’s extraordinary experiences during the Great War, with intimate letters to his wife Clementine allowing the story to be told largely in his own words. Just 39 and at the peak of his powers running the Royal Navy, Churchill in 1914 dreamt of Napoleonic glory, but suffered a catastrophic fall into disgrace and humiliation over the Dardanelles disaster.
The film follows his road to redemption, beginning in the trenches of Flanders in 1916, revealing how he became the ‘godfather’ of the tank and his forgotten contribution to final victory in 1918 as Minister of Munitions. Dark political intrigue, a passionate love story and remarkable military adventures on land, sea and air combine to show how the Churchill of 1940 was shaped and forged by his experience of the First World War.
The programme was billed as being a drama-documentary, but the dramatisations were fairly limited: scenes of Churchill (Adam James) in the trenches and making a speech and shots of Clementine (Verity Marshall) at home. Most of it consisted of comments by experts, archive footage and extracts from private papers. The majority of these were letters between Winston and Clementine, but there were also extracts from the papers of others, including Admiral Jackie Fisher, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s wife Margot and Andrew Gibb, an officer in Churchill’s battalion on the Western Front.
Churchill began the war as First Lord of the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s political head. In July 1914 the bulk of the fleet was at Portland on the south coast. He decided to move it overnight to its war station at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which was, according to Prof. Andrew Lambert of King’s College London, the critical point.
Prof. Gary Sheffield of Birmingham University said that Churchill’s problem was that he was not trusted. He regarded himself as a soldier, perhaps a warrior, and possessed an unquestioning belief in the British Empire, as did most British people at the time.
In 1914 Churchill wanted to be involved in the land campaign, which was then more significant than the war at sea. The RN’s air arm, the RNAS, had sent units to Dunkirk in order to bomb Zeppelin bases, which gave him an opportunity. They were accompanied by armoured cars, which were supposed to protect the airfields, but also undertook what David Tilley, Curator of the Tank Museum, describes as ‘buccaneering patrols.’
Churchill would build on the RNAS’s experience with armoured cars to carry out experiments with trench crossing machines, eventually leading to the development of landships, or tanks. Prof David Ceserani of Royal Holloway London noted that Churchill was a very modern military figure who appreciated the value of science and technology in warfare. However, he was an egomaniac, who had enormous self-confidence and energy, but sometimes struggled to work out what was a good idea and what was a bad one.
On 3 October the port of Antwerp was on the verge of surrender. Holding it would stall the German advance. Churchill rushed the Royal Naval Division, made up of naval reservists without ships and marines, to Antwerp, with some of them travelling in 100 commandeered buses. He wanted to resign his Cabinet post and be appointed a general. According to Sheffield, this caused derision amongst his Cabinet colleagues, who laughed at him.
Antwerp fell on 10 October, and 1,000 member of the RND were interned in the Netherlands. Churchill was branded a reckless adventurer by the Press, although Lambert noted that the extra week that the Germans took to capture Antwerp did make some difference to the war.
Lambert and Sheffield agreed that Churchill wanted to emulate his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough by producing a war winning stroke. He saw Gallipoli as being his chance, but the campaign ended in disaster. Churchill fell out with Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the navy’s professional head, the First Sea Lord. Lambert said that each really wanted the other’s job. The deterioration in their relationship was shown by Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, via letters held by that archive.
The failure at Gallipoli meant that the ruling Liberals had to bring the Conservatives into a coalition government. Churchill had originally been elected to Parliament as a Conservative, but then switched to the Liberals, so was distrusted and disliked by the Conservatives. He lost his job as First Lord, though he remained in the Cabinet.
It was at this time that he took up painting. It had a therapeutic effect on him, although Alice Martin, the House and Collections Manager at Chartwell, his former home, noted that he painted a very dark self-portrait at this time: usually his paintings were bright.
In late 1915 he resigned from the Cabinet, and sought a commission on the Western Front: he was a Major in the Oxfordshire Hussars, a yeomanry [reserve cavalry] unit. He hoped that Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, would give him command of a brigade, but French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig before this could be finalised. Haig gave Churchill command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Churchill was English, but he was MP for a Scottish constituency, Dundee.
It was probably better for Churchill that he was given command of a battalion rather than a brigade; the latter would have been too big a promotion, and would have meant that he would have been out of touch with the average soldier.
Clementine, according to Dr Tiffany Jenkins, agreed. She knew he was under great danger in the trenches, but urged him to stay for the sake of his political career, which was more important to him than his life. Clementine saw Winston’s war lust and realised that she was the only person who could restrain him. She wrote to Asquith defending Winston when he was sacked as First Lord, but Jenkins said that she was really accusing Asquith of being weak.
Packwood noted that Clementine was his defender and anchor in Westminster whilst she was in France. She was very busy, since she was also involved in setting up canteens for munitions workers. She and Winston wrote to each other almost every day whilst he was at the Western Front.
Patrick Hennessey, a former Army officer, noted that Churchill, a cavalry officer commanding an infantry battalion, got off to a disastrous start, but quickly turned it round. He recognised the importance of making the men’s conditions better, and targeted lice. His battalion became, and remained, one of the least lice plagued battalions on the Western Front. His time on the Western Front showed him as caring, focussed and sensitive. He possessed the ability of great military commanders to be imperturbable under fire.
On 7 March 1916 Churchill returned to the House of Commons. He had by then made his peace with Fisher, and made a very badly received speech calling for Fisher to be recalled. He returned to the Front, staying to May, when his battalion was merged with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers because to casualties
Churchill believed in attrition by metal and machines rather than men. He noted that the Allies had lost air superiority, and criticised the government and the generals. He said that: ‘Machines save life. Machine power is a substitute for manpower. Brains will save blood.’ He wanted tanks to be used in a mass attack, so was angry when the secret was given away in November 1916 by an attack of only 50 tanks.
Churchill was close to David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister in late 1916. He hoped that this would mean his return to the government, but Prof. Richard Toye of Exeter University pointed out that Lloyd George was not initially in a strong enough political position to bring Churchill back to office.
By the summer of 1917 U boats were threatening to starve Britain into submission. Lloyd George took the risk of appointing Churchill as Minister of Munitions in July 1917 as his spirit and imagination were needed to increase production of the equipment and ammunition required to win the war. Churchill also had the grasp of detail needed to organise munitions production. He was not, however, in the War Cabinet so was excluded from the highest level of strategy and decision-making.
Sheffield commented that Churchill wanted to build up resources, wait for US help and win the war in 1919. However, the Germans took the offensive in March 1918. Ceserani noted that this converted the war into one of manoeuvre in which tanks, trucks and logistics were vital. Churchill’s Ministry of Munitions replaced the huge losses of tanks and guns in March 1918 and provided the enormous quantities of ammunition needed in 1918.
At Amiens in August 1918 the British Empire forces combined the use of tanks, artillery and aircraft to defeat the enemy. This led to the 100 days campaign that culminated in victory.
Lambert argued that the First World War convinced Churchill that he was a man of destiny because he could recover from anything.
The programme showed that Churchill made many mistakes during the First World War, losing office for a while and ending the war with a lesser political position than he had held at its start. However, its conclusion was that during the First World War:
‘No man learnt more of war command. It was a bitter but complete apprenticeship…First would come more wilderness years… But when summoned again, a greater warlord, steeled by the Great War, was ready and prepared to fulfil his destiny.’
For UK viewers, the programme is repeated on BBC4 at 2240 on Thursday 1 August, and is available on the I-Player until 6 August. It will probably be shown again on BBC4: such programmes tend to be shown a lot.