What Was Winston Churchill’s Role in World War One?

Peter Curry

4 mins

17 Oct 2018

Image credit: New Zealand National Archives.

Best known for his charismatic Second World War leadership and eloquent speeches, Winston Churchill’s reputation up to that point was much more controversial.

Eccentric, bellicose and with limited regard for party lines, he divided opinion among his political colleagues and the public alike. By the mid 1930s, he was essentially a political persona non grata.

His performance in the First World War had contributed to a tarnished reputation. Although his interest in newer technologies was to prove prescient, his aggressive mentality was to cost thousands of British lives, particularly in the Gallipoli campaign.

Winston Churchill as painted by William Orpen in 1916. Credit: National Portrait Gallery / Commons.

First Lord of the Admiralty

In 1914 Churchill was a Liberal MP and First Lord of the Admiralty. He had held this position since 1911. His main positive impact was his backing technological innovations such as aircraft and tanks.

His first major contribution was to encourage the Belgians to hold out for longer at Antwerp.

This decision has been praised as a sensible attempt to buy time for improving the defences of Calais and Dunkirk, but it has also been criticised, especially by contemporaries, as a risky squandering of men and resources.

In 1915 he helped orchestrate the disastrous Dardanelles naval campaign and was also involved in the planning of the military landings on Gallipoli, both of which saw large losses.

The Gallipoli peninsula was critical for securing a sea route to Russia, which would let Britain and France support their ally, who was isolated from them geographically. The main plan involved a naval assault, followed by a landing which would aim to secure the Ottoman capital, Constantinople.

The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, and is considered the only major Ottoman victory of the war. After sustaining over 250,000 casualties, the invasion force had to be withdrawn to Egypt.

Churchill was removed from his position as Lord of the Admiralty. In fact, Churchill’s removal was one of Conservative leader Andrew Bonar-Law’s conditions for agreeing to enter into a coalition with Liberal Prime Minister Asquith.

Peter Hart argues that the Ottomans held back the allies “relatively easily,” and other historians suggest that it while it did drain Ottoman resources, it was still a disaster for the allies, and also saw men and materials moved away from where they could have been used on the Western front.

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On the western front

Anxious to improve his public image after a poor performance early in the war, he resigned from government and joined the army. He was made a lieutenant-colonel, having already served as an army officer in Africa prior to commencing his political career.

He came under machine gun fire at least once, and a shell once landed near his HQ, with a piece of shrapnel hitting a lamp’s battery holder he was playing with.

Churchill (centre) with his Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert. 1916. Credit: Commons.

He was stationed at Ploegsteert on of the front’s quiet sectors. He was not involved in any large battles, but would periodically make visits to the trenches and to No Man’s Land, placing himself in greater danger than was typical of an officer of his rank.

When the battalion was stationed on the frontline, Churchill and other officers would visit even the most forward positions in the heart of no man’s land to get a better assessment of the enemy.

He came under machine gun fire at least once, and a shell once landed near his HQ, with a piece of shrapnel hitting a lamp’s battery holder he was playing with.

He returned after only 4 months, concerned that he did not want to be away from the political sphere for too long.

Churchill returns to Britain

winston-ww1

The Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill meets female workers at Georgetown’s filling works near Glasgow during a visit on 9 October 1918. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

In March 1916 Churchill arrived back in England and once again spoke in the House of Commons.

His role in the remainder of the war was somewhat limited, but in 1917 he was made Minister of Munitions, a role he fulfilled competently, but which had declined in prominence since Lloyd-George had resolved the 1915 shell crisis.

His relations with David Lloyd-George, who had succeeded Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916, were strained at times, with Lloyd-George remarking that,

‘the state of mind revealed in [your] letter is the reason why you do not win trust even where you command admiration. In every line of it, national interests are completely overshadowed by your personal concern’.

Immediately following the war he was appointed Secretary of State for War, in which capacity he ruthlessly and often violently pursued British imperial interests, particularly in the new Middle Eastern territories acquired in the war, whilst arguing for the suppression of what he saw as a new Bolshevik threat.