Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, resigned from Herbert Asquith’s wartime cabinet in November 1915. He took the blame for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, though many view him as having been merely the scapegoat.
A soldier and a politician
Despite admitting that he was “finished,” the future Prime Minister did not slide into mediocrity, but took a modest command on the Western Front.
Churchill is most famous for his role in World War Two, but his career began long before, having been an MP since 1900.
By the time he became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, Churchill was already a political celebrity, famous – or perhaps infamous – for “crossing the floor” to join the liberal party, and for his eventful stint as Home Secretary.
Churchill had been a soldier and enjoyed glamour and adventure. He believed that his new position in charge of the Royal Navy suited him perfectly.
The outbreak of the First World War
By the time war broke out in 1914, Churchill had spent years of building up the fleet. He confessed to being “geared up and happy”.
As 1914 came to an end, it became clear that the deadlocked Western Front would not yield a decisive victory any time soon.
Churchill spent the next few months devising a new plan to win the war. He urged the government to attack the Dardanelles, the body of water that lead to Istanbul, capital of Germany’s ally the Ottoman Empire.
It was hoped that taking Istanbul would force the Ottomans out of the war and increase the pressure on the Kaiser’s forces, and the plan had enough merit for the government to act upon it.
Churchill initially planned for the operation to be carried out entirely by naval firepower, rather than landing troops.
In February 1915, the plan to force the Dardanelles with seapower alone came to nothing. It became clear that soldiers would be needed. The resulting landings at various points on the Gallipoli Peninsula was a costly miscalculation that ended in evacuation.
Churchill was not alone in supporting the Gallipoli plan. Nor was he responsible for its outcome. But given his reputation as a loose cannon, he was the obvious scapegoat.
It didn’t help Churchill that the government was facing a crisis of its own. Public confidence in the ability of Asquith’s cabinet to wage a world war and keep the armies supplied with adequate munitions had hit rock bottom.
A new coalition was needed to bolster confidence. But the Conservatives were deeply hostile to Churchill and demanded his resignation. Backed into a corner, Asquith had no choice but to agree, and on the 15 November the resignation was confirmed.
Demoted to the ceremonial position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the hurt and demoralised Winston resigned from the government altogether and left for the Western Front.
On the front line
Though undoubtedly a low point of Churchill’s career, he made a fine officer.
Despite being somewhat unorthodox, he led from the front, showed physical bravery and displayed a genuine concern for his men, regularly visiting their trenches on the edge of No Man’s Land.
In fact, he was well known across the front for organising popular entertainments for his troops, as well as relaxing the British Army’s notoriously harsh discipline in his battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
He returned to Parliament some months later, and took the role of Minister for Munitions. The position had become less prominent following Lloyd George’s resolution of the shell-shortage crisis but was a step back on to the political ladder nonetheless.
Header image credit: Winston Churchill as painted by William Orpen in 1916. Credit: National Portrait Gallery / Commons.