Winston Churchill: Aspects in Focus
By James Brewer
Winston Churchill deserves to be much better recognised for the “the extraordinary contribution he made in the First World War” to the campaign by Britain and its allies, a leading military historian has told a seminar in London. Among other leadership qualities, Churchill had a special love of the Navy and promoted the welfare of sailors.
Giving the keynote address at the event Winston Churchill: Aspects in Focus, John Lee said that while Sir Winston is widely recognised as the saviour of Western civilisation for his leadership during the Second World War and his understanding of the Cold War, far fewer people are aware of his contribution in the First World War.
Mr Lee, a former executive officer of the British Commission for Military History, said that the proverbial ‘man in the street’ might have heard the Churchill name linked to Gallipoli, but it is less likely that his roles regarding Antwerp 1914, the development of the tank, infantry service on the Western front or control of the Ministry of Munitions are as well known.
In August 1914 Winston was First Lord of the Admiralty. Mr Lee said that many historians contended that, had he died about then, his immortal epitaph would have been: “When war came, the Fleet was ready.”
He had already as home secretary in 1911 shown his awareness of the dangers. When the Kaiser sent a gunboat to Agadir in Morocco and started blustering about Germany’s ‘place in the sun’. Churchill immediately saw this as a threat that should be faced sooner rather than later. He foresaw a British Expeditionary Force going to France to be supported by 100,000 Indian troops joining them via Marseilles (exactly what happened in 1914); that Belgium should be integrated into the allied war plan and so on.
He was told that there were large stocks of naval cordite in and around London left unguarded and, when the Admiralty refused to lift a finger, he as home secretary got the army to post guards on them immediately. He would be denounced by his (Tory) critics as a ‘scaremonger’, but ‘better safe than sorry’ was his motto.
Prime minister Asquith was so impressed by Churchill he offered him the post of First Lord of the Admiralty, which he eagerly took up. As soon as he took up the post in October 1911 he started making changes – forcing the resignation of the elderly First Sea Lord Sir Arthur Wilson and changing all the Sea Lords. He advanced Prince Louis of Battenberg, an excellent professional sailor, to the delight of the Royal family, and began a series of long-overdue modernising reforms.
He began the major programme of converting the ships from coal to oil-fired boilers, thinking through the impact this would have on strategy (fewer coaling stations; more control of oil producing regions in the Middle East); he pressed for increased pay for the sailors and improved terms and conditions; and asked his stockbroker brother, Jack, to investigate whether special insurance could be provided for men in the submarine service. He created the Royal Naval Air Service – so keen on flying was he – and once went up 10 times in one day – and had to be warned to stop taking so many risks.
“He loved being in charge of the Navy,” said Mr Lee. “He used the Admiralty yacht, Enchantress, all the time, visiting ports, took fleet reviews and, famously, touring the Mediterranean in 1912 and meeting Asquith, [Lord] Kitchener and [General Sir] Ian Hamilton out there for discussions about future amphibious warfare (three years ahead of Gallipoli).”
Most of all, Winston’s tenure coincided with German naval laws that massively increased their fleet and he became the leading advocate for building two new battleships for each new German one. “He made agreements with France that, if they looked after the Med, we would look after the Channel and the North Sea,” said Mr Lee. “He wrote war scenarios (that should have been the job of a Naval War Staff) consistently painting the Germans as the enemy to be faced down. The idea was NOT to fight Germany but to make sufficient alliances to make her see that war was not worth it. At one stage, he offered Germany a ‘naval holiday’, with no new shipbuilding, but Germany saw that as just a way of perpetuating Britain’s massive superiority at sea.”
His big test was in December 1913 when he had to force through his naval estimates for 1914/15, against cuts the Liberal government of Lloyd George needed in favour of building the new funds for pensions and National Insurance. Churchill threatened resignation that would force an election, and Lord Grey swung behind him, then Asquith, the King and, decisively, the City of London. In a great 2½ hour speech on March 17, 1914, Winston won the day.
He was sending torrents of orders out to the Royal Navy. “He is, of course, vilified as a warmonger by his critics but he had expressed a continuous hope that the crisis would pass over. Once war was declared he threw himself into action with all the enthusiasm we might expect.”
The first great achievement of the war was the transport of the British Expeditionary Force to France with no delays and not one single casualty. “The sheer puissant majesty of the Home Fleet was already paralysing the German Grand Fleet. The Navy was soon chasing all German shipping from the high seas and escorting Dominion troops to their destinations in the UK (Canada) or Egypt (Anzacs). A blockade of the Central Powers was imposed from the very start of the war and would ultimately prove fatal to the German economy and war effort.”
Winston’s part in the defence of Antwerp provided ammunition to his critics but they completely failed to see it in the wider context of the war on the Western Front. He sent 2,000 Royal Marines and arrived on the front lines himself. The city was forced to surrender after holding out for week longer thanks to Churchill. This vitally allowed the BEF to re-deploy to Flanders and check the Germans at Ypres.
Mr Lee said of the traumatic failure at Gallipoli that Churchill was “more sinned against than sinning.”
The historian summed up: “Winston functioned well at the helm of a navy fulfilling multiple obligations across the seven seas, and coping with additional burdens all the while – war with Austria-Hungary and Turkey being added to the list. He relished the work and the more the better. He tried to encourage the Russians to intervene in the Baltic or even move troops to France.
Later in the seminar, in a joint presentation with Celia Lee, John Lee examined Winston’s relationship with his brother Jack.
Their verdict was: “We have two brothers, who loved each other dearly. One soaring to the highest role in the land, and going down in history as the greatest Briton who ever lived, and is widely recognised as the saviour of Western civilisation during and after the Second World War; the other loyally supporting his brother at every step of the way, sacrificing, or allowing to be sacrificed, his true choice of a military career in the interest of his beloved family.”
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Jack was too old for active service but was a constant companion and support to his brother, who was soon achieving his crowning glory as Prime Minister, 1940-1945. Jack thought it hugely amusing that he was routinely mistaken for Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to Britain. Though diagnosed with a heart tumour, and nursing his terminally ill wife Lady Gwendoline, known as Goonie, Jack made time to organise a canteen at Downing Street that greatly improved the productivity of Winston’s staff there.
In 1914 Jack was in Flanders with his regiment, and served with distinction at a crucial stage in the First Battle of Ypres. Thereafter his superb command of the French language saw him appointed to British General Headquarters in France. He kept Winston fully informed in their constant stream of letters of the army’s progress. He ended the war as Military Secretary to the Fifth Army and came home with a Distinguished Service Order for his service in liaising with the French Army.
Having such a famous and successful brother was, of course, to Jack’s advantage. Jack took every opportunity to join him on the Admiralty yacht, Enchantress; Winston once wrote to Clemmie that “Jack was always happy in the circle of military things.”
The one-day seminar was sponsored by the Polish Hearth Club (known as Ognisko, which was the venue), with The Churchill Society of Tennessee-International Churchill Society. Speakers were drawn from academia, the medical profession and the retired military, to focus on differing perspectives of the life of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.
On show during the event was a reproduction of a portrait in pastel of Churchill (with signatures of son Randolph Churchill and granddaughter Celia Sandys). The portrait by Barbara Kaczmarowska Hamilton – a fine selection of whose work graces the walls at Ognisko – hangs in the room where Winston was born at Blenheim Palace. Photos accompanying this article taken at the seminar are courtesy of Mrs Kaczmarowska Hamilton, who is known to her family and friends as Basia.
John Mather, who chaired the meeting and is a US-based senior physician and medical biographer, spoke of Churchill’s treatment at the Middlesex Hospital in 1962 for a broken hip.
Dr Mather said that Churchill made many trips to the south of France after his retirement as prime minister. On June 28, 1962 while staying at a hotel near Monte Carlo he slipped on a rug in his bedroom and fell heavily on his left hip. An X-ray showed his left femur had a broken neck. He then had a large, tight plaster cast, extending from his chest down his left leg, applied under general anaesthesia by a French orthopaedist. Over the strenuous protests of the French doctors Churchill insisted on going back to England for further treatment. He was flown back the next day and admitted to the Woolavington Wing at the Middlesex Hospital, where surgery was performed later that evening.
Lord Moran, Churchill’s personal physician, brought in Prof Sir Herbert Seddon, who had recently been consulted on a bad fall Churchill had at home. It was then that Dr Campbell Golding, the Middlesex senior radiologist, found that Churchill had previously broken the vertebrae in his neck. This had healed many years previously, but had left Churchill with a hunched-over walk for the past decade or so.
Seddon, a distinguished orthopaedic surgeon, recommended that the Middlesex orthopaedist Philip Newman carry out the surgery with him as the assistant. Newman’s only concern was obtaining consent from Dr Peter Dinnick, the senior anaesthetist at the Middlesex, given Churchill’s history of strokes and pneumonia. Dinnick conferred with Newman’s usual anaesthetist and it was agreed that surgery was imperative and that a safe anaesthesia could be administered. Churchill was operated on in the main hospital theatre. During the procedure, there was a brief rise in blood pressure which was brought under control and Churchill regained consciousness without having a stroke.
In the following weeks, he developed pneumonia and a thrombophlebitis in his left leg veins but without further serious complications. Churchill started walking after two weeks, and was discharged 55 days later, having given the medical, physiotherapy and nursing staff a difficult time because of his intermittent confusion and cantankerous disposition. Newman and Dinnick were in frequent attendance, successfully managing an elderly overweight patient with a long history of strokes and a susceptibility to pneumonia. At his discharge, Churchill insisted on having a cigar to brandish at the crowd that had gathered, and he was quickly moved into a waiting ambulance to take him to his home in Hyde Park.
Churchill found that the most agreeable way to take his medicines was with whisky or brandy, despite the protests of nurses. One consultant described looking after Churchill as a great honour but a “hair-raising experience, not one to be repeated on a regular basis.”
Dr Mather is president of the Churchill Society of Tennessee, a chapter of the International Churchill Society, USA.
Other speakers included Anthony Churchill on “Churchills and the Isle of Wight,” Tania Crasnianski on “Winston Churchill and his doctor, Lord Moran,” Allister Vale on “Churchill’s pneumonias 1943-1944.” Lt Col (Retd) Anthony Mather and Capt (Retd) Barry De Morgan on “the funeral procession of Sir Winston Churchill,” and Elisa Segrave and John Warburton on “Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing.”