Admiralty, Army & Arsenal 1914-1919

"War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid."

When World War One erupted, Churchill threw himself into the operational details of the Royal Navy. One operation - the Dardanelles Campaign - cost him his position and haunted him for many years. Forced to leave the Admiralty and given a token position, he resigned from government and rejoined the Army, commanding the 6th battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers in the trenches of France.

Upon his return to Parliament, a new coalition government appointed Churchill head of the Munitions Office. After the war's end, Churchill moved into the dual roles of Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air simultaneously.

Europe at War

June 1914- January 1916

"Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?"

Less than a year after its outbreak in August 1914, the Great War produced a bloody stalemate for the British and French on the Western Front and serious setbacks for the Russians on the Eastern Front. Allied military officials needed solutions to this twofold problem. Invading the Gallipoli Peninsula via the Dardanelles strait, reinforcing Russia, and knocking Turkey out of the war looked promising.

Churchill did not invent the Dardanelles strategy. The idea, among others, had been discussed for some time. One alternative was a more direct attack on Northern Germany form the Baltic Sea that would relieve Russia and threaten the rear of the German Western Front. Churchill initially preferred the northern option, but eventually he embraced the Dardanelles campaign and became its champion. The campaign seemed made for the British forces: they had naval superiority and troops from Australia and New Zealand (later called ANZACs) not yet committed in France.

But the operation failed for lack of proper coordination between the Army and Navy, and second guessing and hesitancy on the part of commanders. Churchill later wrote, "The campaign of the Dardanelles had been starved and crippled at every stage by the continued opposition of the French and British High Commands in France to the withdrawal of troops and munitions from the main theatre of the war."

The Dardanelles failure was a crisis for the government and, while there were many fingerprints on the operation, Churchill took the blame. Asquith remained Prime Minister only by entering into a coalition with the Conservatives. The price the Conservatives demanded was Winston's head - he was forced out of the Admiralty and the debacle pinned on him.

"I am the victim of a political intrigue," Churchill bitterly remarked, "I am finished."

Isolation and Escape

"I will accept any office - the lowest if you like - ...if not, some employment in the field."

Dismissal from the Admiralty was a crushing blow to Churchill. Clementine remarked, "... I thought he would never get over the Dardanelles; I thought he would die of grief."

Churchill accepted an obscure Cabinet post with no formal duties - The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster - hoping he could still influence policy. But, he found, "I was out of harmony with the views which were prevailing... I knew too much and felt too keenly to be able to accept Cabinet responsibility for what I believed to be a wholly erroneous conception of the war. I therefore in the middle of November [1915] sought permission to retire from the Government."

Winston then asked to be posted to the fighting in France.

Happy as a Pig in Mud

"Amid these surroundings, aided by wet and cold, and every minor discomfort, I have found happiness and content such as I have not known for many months."

In November 1915, Churchill arrived in France. He expected to be given a Brigade and Brigadier General's rank, but Prime Minister Asquith vetoed any high command. Instead, Winston was given command of a battalion of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

The battalion viewed skeptically a failed politician as commander. But, Winston's personality, military experience, and knowledge overcame their reservations.

Winston led by example, often venturing into No Man's Land on night patrol. One companion relayed, "He never fell when a shell went off; he never ducked when a bullet went past with its loud crack. He used to say, after watching me duck: 'It's no damn use ducking; the bullet has gone a long way past you by now."

Churchill grew frustrated as the consequences of governmental policies he had opposed played out before his eyes in France. After six months, when his casualty-depleted battalion was merged with another unit, Churchill returned to the fray in Parliament.

No Man's Land

"Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent...
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens." –Wilfred Owen, Exposure. (British Officer)

No Man's Land, the area between opposing trench lines, varied in width from just fifty yards to a half mile, and looked like a lunar landscape.

Artillery barrages cratered the land and blasted all vegetation. Bombardments were intense and so concentrated that shrapnel is still plowed up each spring by local farmers.

No one dared venture into No Man's Land unless during an attack during the day, and peering over the top of the trench could attract a sniper's bullet .The periscope was the only safe method to view the area.

Nighttime was different. Patrols crept about probing enemy defenses, repairing barbed wire fences, or recovering dead and wounded. Listening posts were manned to give warning of enemy movement. Flares briefly illuminated the scene, trying to catch enemy patrols and bring them under fire.


"There is a constant spice of danger. Daily shells, some very near; and a certain amount of risk in moving about by day and night. I have also had my tiny dog hole where I sleep in the line smashed up by a shell which had it detonated perfectly would have been the end of my chequered fortunes."

The trenches epitomized the Great War in the West.. There were front-line trenches back by support trenches. Trenches for reserve troops were farther back still. Communication trenches linked all trenches and were used to bring supplies and reinforcements forward.

Trenches were built for protection, but were not necessarily places of safety. Artillery and gunfire caused one third of the casualties suffered in the trenches. But many other dangers lurked in the trenches - including rats, lice and disease.

Rats grew cat-size feeding on corpses. Lice carried Trench Fever. Constant damp produced Trench Foot that could lead to gangrene and amputation. Then there was the smell - rotting flesh, stagnant water, overflowing latrines, unwashed bodies, gunpowder, cigarette smoke and molding sandbags - the stench of death overcrowding, poor sanitation, and disease.

Churchill impressed his men with tough but fair discipline and attention to their living conditions. One officer reported, "To see Winston giving a dissertation of the laying of sandbags, ...rendered you certain that Wren would have been proud to sit at his feet."

Winston's Advice to His Officers
"Don't be careless about yourselves - on the other hand not too careful. Keep a special pair of boots to sleep in & only get them muddy in a real emergency. Use alcohol in moderation but don't have a great parade of bottles in your dugouts. Live well but do not flaunt it. Laugh a little & teach your men to laugh - great good hum'r under fire - war is a game that is played with a smile. If you can't smile, grin. If you can't grin, keep out of the way till you can."

The War of Men and Machines

"...the air is free and open. There are no entrenchments there. It is equal for the attack and for the defense. It is equal for all comers."

World War I introduced innovations that would transform warfare two inventions - the airplane and the tank - would realize their full potential only in later wars. However, Churchill envisioned their wider application and was an early and consistent champion of both.

Beginning with his days at the Admiralty, Winston promoted the development and use of aircraft which saw tremendous technical advances during four years of war. From observation craft, airplanes developed into specialized fighters and bombers. Most of the tactics and doctrines that would profoundly affect World War II were attempted in World War I.

The tank was conceived to break through barbed wire and trench fortifications and to support advancing troops with machine gun fire. Winston endorsed its development while at the Admiralty in a memo to Prime Minister Asquith on 5 January 1915. The first experimental trials came in early 1916 in the later stages of the battle of the Somme. At Combai in November 1917 tanks were used en masse for the first time in history.

Feeding the War Machine

"This is a very heavy department, almost as interesting as the Admiralty, with the enormous advantage that one has neither got to fight Admirals nor Huns!"

When the Asquith government lost power because of their conduct of the Great War, David Lloyd George formed a new coalition government. Lloyd George, a former Liberal ally of Winston's, gave him charge of all war industries as Minister of Munitions - over a storm of protest from Conservative MPs and the Press who remembered the Gallipoli debacle.

Churchill quickly reorganized the department and streamlined operations. The skill Winston had displayed at the Board of Trade before WWI with labor disputes enabled him to resolve several controversies without compromising war production. He also established a Tank Board to facilitate improvements in one of his favorite new weapons.

The Munitions office under Churchill became so effective that in April 1918, Churchill was able to deliver twice as many guns and airplanes as had been lost in the recent German offensive, and replace every tank with a newer, better model.

"The former trickles and streamlets of war supplies now flowed in rivers rising continuously."

The Eleventh Hour

"No war is so sanguinary as the war of exhaustion. No plan could be more unpromising than the plan of frontal attack. Yet on these two brutal expedients the military authorities of France and Britain consumed... the flower of their national manhood."

Four years of attack and counter-attack on the Western Front yielded horrific casualties but little change in position.

In February 1917, revolutionaries overthrew the Tzar of Russia. Wanting to take advantage of the resulting instability, Germany transported V.I. Lenin and thirty-one other Bolsheviks from Switzerland to Russia in March. Germany knew that a Bolshevik led Russian government would cease hostilities on the Eastern Front. Their hunch paid off. In a second revolution in October, the Bolsheviks gained power and in March 1918, Russia pulled out of the war, signing a separate peace with Germany (Brest-Litovsk).

In the spring of 1918, now free to concentrate solely on the Western Front, Germany began five major assaults, hoping to end the war before the Americans, who had declared war in 1918, could arrive in sufficient numbers to affect the outcome.

The early stages of the German attack looked promising. Small elite attack units broke through the lines opening a path for infantry supported by artillery. However, Germany, weakened by years of naval blockade, did not have the resources to capitalize on its initial success. Each assault failed, leaving the Germans progressively weaker.

When the Allies counter-attacked, they used their own variation on German tactics. The technique was the rolling barrage: artillery fire laid down in front of the infantry attacking a key area that had been scouted by aircraft. As the infantry advanced, the artillery fire moved forward ahead of them. The first break-through came for the British Fourth Army near Amiens with an infantry attack supported by seventy-two tanks. The combination of technology and tactic effectively defeated the Germany army and Germany sued for peace.

Armistice was agreed to and fighting ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month: 11:00 am, 11 November 1918.

The Victor's Peace

"This is not peace; it is an Armistice for twenty years." –Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Chief of the French General Staff, Supreme Allied Commander

For six months, the victorious heads of state debated settlement of the First World War at the Paris Peace Conference. They signed the main treaty 28 June 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in Paris. There was no German delegation present.

It took three more years and four supplemental treaties to settle the boundaries of new states carved from the former territories and colonies of the Central Powers.

These treaties mandated:

  1. A "War Guild Clause" requiring Germany to accept sole responsibility for the war.
  2. Germany pay war reparations, later set at 6,600 million British pounds.
  3. Germany give up all colonies and territories and be forbidden to unite with German-speaking Austria.
  4. The Rhineland be permanently demilitarized, providing a buffer for France.
  5. A League of Nations be created to resolve international disputes and assist nations that were victims of aggression.
  6. The German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish empires be broken into nations, mandates, or protectorates governed by the League or the victorious empires.
  7. The German Army be limited to 100,000 men with no conscription, tanks, heavy artillery, aircraft, or airships. The German navy be reduced to a small coastal defense force with no submarines.
  8. That Germany lose territory and population: the province of Eupen-Malmédy to Belgium; Alsace-Lorraine to France; Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark; and most importantly much of western Prussia to create a new Polish state. Significantly this now meant that East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany by what became known as the "Polish Corridor". This was to provide the new Polish state access to the Baltic but would prove to be a contentious issue. The German city of Danzig, at the head of the Polish Corridor was to become an international city administered by the League of Nations.

Within a year, the United States Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, signed a separate peace with Germany, and left the British and French divided over whether to modify or strictly enforce the treaty. The so-called "War Guilt Clause" became a major rallying cry for German nationalists of the 1920s and 30s. Scholars still debate, as did the politicians of 1919, whether the Treaty was too harsh or too lenient, and whether strict enforcement of the Treaty would have prevented World War II.

The Post-War War Office

"Kill the Bolshie, Kiss the Hun."

With the war over and munitions production shutting down, Lloyd George appointed Churchill to the War Office in 1919. Although Winston wanted the Admiralty as a vindication of his earlier dismissal, he accepted when the Secretary of State for Air was added, making him Secretary of State for War and Air simultaneously.

Churchill faced two pressing issues:

Winston established a system that released soldiers based on length of time in service, their wounds, and family circumstances. This policy was widely viewed as fair and effective.

Dealing with the British troops in Russia was another matter. Since the Revolutions in 1917 and the separate peace with Germany in 1918, the British had no consistent policy on intervention in the Russian Civil War although they had initially supported the Anti-Bolshevik (White) army.

Churchill's anti-Bolshevik stance was widely known: "Of all the tyrannies in history, the Bolshevik tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, the most degrading." Winston produced a blizzard of memos and arguments on both sides of the question trying to get his government to adopt a policy - any policy.

Churchill's enemies seized the opportunity to characterize him as "unreliable" and "unsteady" - either a warmonger or a vacillator.


“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill