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WINSTON CHURCHILL

Churchill in 1918
Part 2

World War I

GOING THROUGH HELL

1914-1919

In a spiralling loss of control and a sinister and seemingly inevitable march of events, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, Serbia, France, and Britain go to war. Germany declares war on France, and invades neutral Belgium. Britain goes to the aid of France and Belgium. Germany enters a secret alliance with the Ottoman Empire, and launches war on two fronts.

Defending Antwerp

In three energetic years at the helm of the Royal Navy, Churchill had made sure that the British fleet is ready. Now, as the Germans overwhelm France, he personally intervenes to take charge of the defence of Antwerp. Indifferent to personal danger, he delays Antwerp's fall for a crucial week, so the British and French Armies can move northwest and hold the French ports, and the British army under Rawlinson can cover the escape of the Belgian army along the Flanders coast. The public knows nothing of this, however, and the press vilifies Churchill for interfering, quite unaware he has probably saved the French and British armies.

Trench warfare

The ghastly war grinds into trench stalemate, a few yards purchased with thousands of mutilated lives. A ten-mile belt of destruction, foggy with poison gas and screaming with massed machine-gun fire, shells, and strafing airplanes, stretches from the Channel almost to Switzerland. Filthy, hollow-eyed, the men in the trenches die in hopeless assaults and under shells hurled at them from three or five miles away. By the end of November, Britain and France have suffered almost a million casualties.

A plan to end the war

Appalled, Churchill declares reasonably, "A policy of pure attrition between arms so evenly balanced cannot lead to a decision." He looks for a solution and finds one in a plan suggested by Kitchener, the head of the Army: Attack the Dardanelles (which the Islamic Ottoman Empire has closed to Russian grain ships needed to feed the West) and defeat Germany and Austria-Hungary with a flanking movement on a new front. Churchill's admiral at the Dardanelles declares the plan is doable. The entire British Cabinet agrees.

The Germans will later describe Churchill's plan as pure genius. If it had been a success, the whole war and its terrible waste would have ended. But Churchill does not receive the support the plan needs. At the last moment Kitchener withdraws his support of the plan, and refuses to send the Division needed to take the peninsula. The admiral leading British ships at the Dardanelles has a nervous breakdown. The Brits and French systematically demolish Ottoman forts, but do not realise that their attack has been successful. According to some Ottoman historians, they had merely to sail up the Dardanelles to take Constantinople. However, when several of their ships are hit by mines and go down, they retreat.

Later in the year the offensive continues on land at Gallipoli. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and Irish, Scots and English regiments display extraordinary gallantry and courage despite horrific losses, but ultimately withdraw. For more see ANZAC site »

Again, the press and public misunderstand the strategy and Churchill's role. Only the MANCHESTER GUARDIAN understands his strategic vision, and what he might have achieved. Winston cannot defend himself except by compromising war secrets, and his enemies go in for the kill. He is made the whipping boy, and thrust out of the Admiralty. He resigns from the Government, and joins his old regiment in France. He is about to turn forty-one.

Back into the trenches

On arriving, he is asked whether he would prefer to serve as ADC at the comfortable chateau headquarters, or command a brigade in the field. He instantly opts for the trenches, and makes his way through an icy drizzle over a darkling plain lit by flashes of cannonade. His commander is unenthused by his arrival, and Churchill finds his bed is a pit four feet deep containing about a foot of water.

Being Churchill he manages in short order to obtain brandy, cigars, a tin bathtub, wading boots, a periscope, and hampers of food from London. He shares everything with his men, and asks to be sent to the edge of no-man's land, to learn more about trench warfare. He enjoys the company of Grenadiers, whose "indomitable good temper" and "inflexible discipline" impress him. He looks at the horrors of war with a clear, curious gaze, unfazed. In turn, the men love him. One of them remarks, "A cooler and braver officer never wore the King's uniform." To some, including Winston himself, it appeared that an unseen hand moved him time and again from fatal spots, so though his dugout was blown up by direct hits several times, he was always somewhere else.

Being Winston he always tries to make a difference. When he was First Lord he had developed the innovative idea of a tank, and had it designed, and built. Now he advocates its use, but the new Field Marshal, Douglas Haig, has no concept of how effective the tank or any of Churchill's strategic ideas might be. He prefers to stick to old rules of warfare, though they destroy men in their hundreds of thousands.

Churchill is sent to command a battalion in no-man's land. The men resent and distrust him at first, but find to their surprise that he is hard-working, persevering, and tough. One of them later writes, "I am firmly convinced that no more popular officer ever commanded troops." Winston, always keen at learning how things work, knows rather a lot about building shelters that will withstand bombardment, and how to handle sandbags.

When his battalion is combined with another, and Churchill loses his command to a senior officer, he returns to Parliament to advocate for better equipment, for rotating the men who were taking such savage punishment in the trenches, and for halting the doomed offensive of the Somme. He is right, but he is ridiculed, and once again the Government rejects his advice.

A lesser man would have been crushed. Churchill persists, in part because he has enormous belief in himself, in part because he has an undying devotion to his country. He is viewed by many as abrasive, brilliant but erratic, and self-serving. There is truth to this criticism, but it falls far short of defining the whole man.

In the meantime, the Royal Commission which has investigated the Dardanelles debacle clears Winston, says his plan was sound, and criticises those who failed to implement it. Kitchener, who has been drowned at sea, never has to answer for his failure.

Ministor of munitions

Appointed Munitions Minister by Lloyd George, the new PM, Churchill is indefatigable, and dramatically increases output. He begs the Cabinet to wait for American help to arrive and to halt further futile offensives. Again they reject his advice, and hundreds of thousands of Brits – scientists, artists, doctors, inventors, sons, brothers, husbands, fathers – die in Flanders Fields.

The Germans take Italy, and Romania. Bolsheviks take Russia, and Russia which has lost nine million people to the war, sues for peace, allowing the Germans to pull their men from the Eastern Front, and throw another million men at the Western Front. But meanwhile the naval blockade that Churchill established years earlier has brought the German people to the brink of starvation. Grasping at their last opportunity, the German Army launches an overwhelming offensive to win the war.

First they bombard the British and French lines heavily (with shells weighing up to one ton). The bombardment is so incessant that some men in the storm of fire go mad. Then the Germans send half a million men in a furious assault at British and French lines. In the first two attacks, the Brits and French, outnumbered three to one, fall back, but they do not break. It seems impossible that they can hold out, but they do, day after day.

Winston is running munitions factories in France, flying daily to the front, meeting with French commanders, and reporting to the PM. His tanks damage German morale by blasting a hole through the Germans' previously impervious lines, but on the Germans' third massive attack, a surprise assault to the south, they break through weak French defences and race toward Paris. They look unstoppable. It seems unlikely that the two American divisions that have finally arrived can hold them.

The Americans are Marines. Professional soldiers and Ivy League students, stubborn, and well-trained, they hold off the overwhelming might of the Germans for five days, and break the offensive. Winston later describes them as "the splendour of American manhood striding forward."

The Americans, now landing by the thousands every day, the Brits – including Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, and Canadians – and the French go on to defeat Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The battles where so many Brits and Allies died over the course of four years mingle horror and heroism. Their bloody litany includes but is not limited to:

The Battle of the Marne, Tannenburg, Ypres, Gallipoli, Verdun, Somme, Passchendale, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of Jutland, Cambrai, Arras, where Vimy Ridge was heroically captured by the Canadians, and Amiens.

Vision

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, Germany surrenders. Winston asks immediately for ships loaded with food, to be sent to the German people. His philosophy:

In war: resolution.
In defeat: defiance.
In victory: magnanimity.
In peace: goodwill.

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