Winston Churchill is most famous for his role as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. Did he fight in the First World War?
Winston Churchill briefly served in the British Army as a lieutenant colonel of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers during World War I. Churchill had been a soldier in his youth and he resigned from the cabinet to rejoin the army after being blamed for a number of military failures.
For more on Churchill’s role in World War I, read on.
Outbreak of War
When World War I commenced in 1914, Winston Churchill was a member of the British government as part of the Liberal Party. Churchill was a close ally of David Lloyd George, who would go on to become Prime Minister in 1916.
Even relatively early in his political career, Churchill’s talent for public speaking made him a valuable asset to the party. Churchill, who had served in the British Army during his youth, was deeply concerned by the possibility of Germany declaring war on France.
In October 1911, he was transferred to the Admiralty, with the role of overseeing the navy. While some politicians were in denial about the likelihood of war, Churchill was determined to prepare the navy for the possibility of a full-scale war.
This preparation included asking Parliament for the largest naval budget in British history, which was agreed to. He ordered the navy to be mobilized on August 2, 1914, seeing that war in western Europe was imminent. Just two days later, Britain officially joined World War I.
During the German siege of Antwerp in Belgium, Churchill personally traveled to the city to oversee the defense. Though the city fell to Germany, the resistance allowed the Belgian Army to retreat.
Churchill formed a partnership with Admiral Sir John Fisher, with whom he both cooperated and disagreed on a case by case basis. Churchill believed strongly in the Dardanelles Campaign, with the goal of attacking the Ottoman Empire, away from the trench warfare stalemate in Western Europe.
The naval attack failed and Admiral Sir John de Robeck refused to allow any further losses, withdrawing his fleet. Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and the leaders of the Admiralty supported de Robeck and blamed Churchill for the failure of the campaign.
When Admiral Fisher resigned, Churchill lost a vital ally and became an isolated figure in government.
The majority of Conservative members of Britain’s coalition Parliament demanded Churchill’s demotion from the Admiralty. He was removed and became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Churchill encouraged the Gallipoli Campaign, a land attack on Ottoman territory. However, his influence had been greatly reduced and reinforcements were too slow and too few to make a meaningful difference. The campaign failed.
Military Service and Return
With Churchill’s political reputation severely damaged by the first year of the war, he resigned from the cabinet in November 1915. He traveled to France as a lieutenant colonel of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers in the British Army and saw active service.
Churchill was an experienced soldier and military service was likely a welcome break from the intrigues of life in government. Even so, Churchill’s greatest talents were wasted as a soldier in the army.
In June 1916, Churchill’s battalion was merged with another and his command was no longer required. He could have asked to be transferred but returned to Britain as a private member of Parliament.
Churchill’s ally, David Lloyd George, became Prime Minister at the head of another coalition government in 1916. Lloyd George would almost certainly have included Churchill in his cabinet, but the Conservatives would not entertain the notion until 1917.
A commission had been formed to investigate the failures of the Dardanelles Campaign. In March 1917, they published their findings, which revealed that Churchill had largely been a scapegoat for the failings of the campaign as a whole.
Churchill was appointed as Minister of Munitions in July 1917, though he remained excluded from the cabinet. He had little decision-making power but encouraged the production of the first tanks, a project he had supported during his time at the Admiralty.
Churchill’s role in bringing the tank to the battlefields of the Western Front was his most beneficial contribution to the First World War and helped break the stalemate. His Great War experiences helped prepare him for some of the challenges he would face as Prime Minister in World War II, where he truly built his legacy.