Not Our Finest Hour: Churchill and Britain’s Forgotten Wars of 1920

David Charlwood

5 mins

11 Feb 2020

Winston Churchill was upset. For months, the British government had been not so secretly providing military aid and advisers to one side in the Russian Civil War.

Now, at the start of 1920, it seemed the writing was on the wall. The Bolshevists were winning.

Three months before, the pro-Tsarist White Army had been 200 miles from Moscow. Now, half the typhus-infected force was retreating pell-mell back over the Estonian border, while in southern Russia, the White Army was barely clinging on to a foothold near Rostov.

On 1 January 1920, Churchill confided in his private secretary:

It looks to me as if [General] Denikin will come to an end before his supply of stores.

The Polish-born, devoutly Russian Orthodox and rabidly anti-Semitic General Anton Ivanovich Denikin was less convinced.

He appealed again to the British for more aid, but he had already received £35 million in material assistance and the majority in Cabinet refused to send any more.

Russian Civil War

The positions of the Allied expeditionary forces and of the White Armies in European Russia, 1919 (Credit: New York Times)

“We hope to march to Moscow”

British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, remarked to his golfing partner that Churchill had been

most insistent, and prepared to sacrifice men and money.

But there was little appetite among any of the Cabinet members, other than the 45-year-old Minister for War, for foreign military entanglements.

In the weeks that followed, the White Army retreat became a rout. With the aid of British soldiers, the Royal Navy evacuated thousands of pro-Tsarist fighters and their families to the Crimea, leaving southern Russia to the victorious Bolshevists.

On 31 March 1920, at an evening meeting at Downing Street, the Cabinet decided to end all support for Denikin and his White Army. Winston Churchill was absent, on holiday in France.

Denikin was sent a telegram encouraging him to “give up the struggle” and the remnant of the White Army – around 10,000 men – was left stranded on the Crimea as the Royal Navy sailed away.

Wladiwostok Parade 1918

Allied troops parading in Vladivostok (Credit: Underwood & Underwood).

The whole debacle appalled the British soldiers who had been acting as military advisers. One colonel recorded in his diary that once the British withdrawal became known he was ashamed to face his Russian colleagues, noting it was:

a cowardly treachery. Winston [Churchill] is the only one who is playing honestly.

The conflict in Russia was just one of Britain’s forgotten wars of 1920. And Churchill was strongly supportive of military action in all of them.

Trouble closer to home

Instead of ushering in a new era of peace and goodwill among men, the Armistice that ended the First World War marked the start of a new wave of localised violence around the world, some of it very close to home.

1920 was the height of the Irish War of Independence, which saw Irish Volunteers – who would later become the Irish Republican Army – step up a campaign of violent resistance to British rule.

Military carrying out reprisals (Credit: Public domain).

The killings of policemen and the attacks on police barracks were responded to with reprisals. Innocent bystanders and whole communities increasingly bore the brunt of the anger and frustration of state security forces.

As the year wore on, the apparent policy of reprisals even began to be criticised in the English press, with ‘The Times’ reporting:

Day by the day the tidings from Ireland grow worse. Accounts of arson and destruction by the military … must fill English readers with a sense of shame.

It was clear where Churchill’s sympathies lay. In a memo marked “SECRET”, he brashly asserted to his Cabinet colleagues:

I cannot feel it right to punish the troops when goaded in the most brutal manner and finding no redress, they take action on their own account.

He even went as far as to support the idea that:

reprisals within strictly defined limits should be [officially] authorised by the Government.

The police in Ireland – The Royal Irish Constabulary – were already being supported by additional recruits in the form of the Black and Tans, who became notorious for their brutal methods and deliberate targeting of communities. Technically, however, they remained police officers, not soldiers.

Deploying mercenaries to Ireland was Churchill’s idea. In May 1920, he put together a proposal to recruit “men between the ages of 25 and 35 who have served in the war”.

Unlike the Black and Tans, the Auxiliaries were not attached to Irish police units, they were paid for by Churchill’s War Office.

Burning of Cork

Churchill’s Auxiliaries took part in some of the worst violence of war in Ireland, including the Burning of Cork (Credit: Public domain).

His proposal was accepted. Churchill’s Auxiliaries took part in some of the worst violence of war in Ireland, including the Burning of Cork, in which soldiers prevented firefighters from putting out the fire that engulfed the famous City Hall.

“Recalcitrant natives”

As the violence in Ireland escalated, the British faced an uprising in one of their farther flung territories.

Iraq had been conquered near the end of the First World War and while the British were at first welcomed as liberators, by 1920 they were increasingly viewed as occupiers. An uprising began in August and quickly spread.

While soldiers were rushed from India, the forces already in Iraq relied on air power to put down the insurgency.

Churchill was a strong advocate of the use of aircraft and even encouraged the head of the Air Ministry to speed up

experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment upon recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury upon them.

DH9a over Iraq

The British bomber aircraft de Havilland DH9a over Iraq (Credit: Public domain).

Historians have since leapt upon Churchill’s remark and typically quoted his suggestion in truncated form, without admitting the complicating fact that Churchill’s vile proposal for using chemical weapons was intended to maim, rather than kill. He was clearly seeking a quick end to conflict.

In the post-war world, which in the minds of many should have been yearning for peace, Churchill was a belligerent Minister of War.

He stubbornly clung to a 19th century view of Britain’s place in the world that shaped his attitude to events.

In a note penned to his Cabinet colleagues on the Iraq uprising, he laid bare his feelings:

The local trouble is only part of a general agitation against the British Empire and all it stands for.

Nick Lloyd, PhD, FRHistS, is Reader in Military and Imperial History at King's College London based at the Joint Services Command & Staff College in Shrivenham, Wiltshire. His new book, Passchendaele: A New History is out now.Listen Now

David Charlwood holds a first class honours degree from Royal Holloway and has worked as an international journalist and in publishing. 1920: A Year of Global Turmoil is his first book for Pen & Sword Books.

David Charlwoof 1920 A Year of Global Turmoil