Churchill in the trenches

Churchill visiting General Fayolle at a French Army headquarters. He was presented with a French steel helmet which he continued to wear in the trenches even after British helmets had been issued.

Churchill carried on in government for five months after leaving the Admiralty, in the sinecure office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster but with a seat in the War Council. When Asquith reorganised the government in October, Churchill resigned as he could not ‘accept responsibility without power’. The natural course was for him to return to the army – he had told one of the officers of the Enchantress that his greatest regret in the event of war with Germany was that due to his official position he would be ‘unable to take a fighting part and share the risks and dangers with the officers of the services’. As early as 12 June the head of the army’s Southern Command offered him the colonelcy of the second battalion of the Oxfordshire Hussars, but perhaps that was just a formality as he was the senior major. In any case he declined. Now he was free to do that, but Captain Kincaid-Smith (a former Liberal MP and rebel who was now serving in the army) advised him not to back go to the Hussars: ‘The cavalry are as you know, all sitting behind at St Omer, … I should say do anything rather than join a unit in the cavalry corps – you would be bored to distraction in a week or so with this semi peace existence.’ His friend Captain Archibald Sinclair had a similar opinion: ‘If there is a difficulty about a higher formation surely the command of a Kitchener battalion would be a better position than that of second in command of a yeomanry regiment which in common with the rest of the cavalry can only work dismounted? Why not get a battalion – no-one could object to that on any grounds? A Scotch one as you are a Scotch member for the Scotch divisions of the [Kitchener’s?] armies (9th and 15th) have fairly eclipsed the others.’

Churchill did indeed leave to join the yeomanry at St Omer on 18 November, but once in France different prospects opened to him. He was taken to General Headquarters, ‘a fine chateau, with hot water, beds, champagne and all the conveniences’. There, Sir John French offered him command of a brigade as Asquith had done, but Churchill told him that ‘beforehand I must feel myself effectively the master of the conditions of trench warfare’ – for it was clearly very different from the conflicts had had seen in Cuba, India, Egypt and South Africa. He suggested a Guards regiment as ‘the best school’ and was sent to join the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. His letters to his wife, combined with other sources, give us one of the best pictures of life on the Western Front, at least in a quiet period, for unlike many soldiers he was not too traumatised to talk frankly about it.

At first he was not welcome in the battalion, and the colonel later admitted that his coming ‘was not a matter in which we were given any choice’. He found himself in odd and untidy trenches which offended his Sandhurst traditions. ‘The line of trenches – or rather breastworks we are now holding is built along the ruins of older lines taken from the Germans or built later by the Indians. The Guards are cleaning everything up and work day and night to strengthen the parapets and improve the shelter.’ He found that ‘the tradition and the system of the Guards asserts itself in hard work, smartness and soldierly behaviour’. One day he was sent for to meet the corps commander and set out across the fields among stray bullets and shells, only to find that the meeting had been cancelled as the staff car could not get through. When he was away the dugout in which he was sitting had been destroyed by a shell – it was ‘all chance and destiny’. They left the line soon afterwards with the troops singing Tipperary and The Farmer’s Boy, and Churchill was always keen on military singing. It was ‘like getting to a jolly good tavern after a long day’s hunting, wet and cold and hungry’. He had ‘a glorious hot bath’ in ‘this abode of comfort’. Back in the line in mid-December, he reported how ten grenadiers under a ‘kid’ of an officer had raided the enemy lines, ‘beat the brains’ out of two Germans and captured another one, though he had to keep quiet about how the officer had shot one of his own men by accident. The prisoner was well treated, ‘petted’ and given cigarettes and was apparently not unhappy that he was out of it. He enjoyed his time with the Grenadiers; in 1933 he dedicated the first volume of his book on Marlborough to them, ‘in memory of the courtesies and kindness shown to him by the regiment in the Great War’.

That December ‘Major the Right Honourable Winston S. Churchill’ produced a paper on ‘Variants of the Offensive’ dated from ‘General Headquarters, British Army in the Field’. It is no surprise that it was dedicated to means of attack, though not the frontal assault by unprotected troops. As well as his ideas on the tank which were already under development, he suggested shields carried by individual men or by small groups of up to 15, which might be pushed on a caterpillar track – but it is difficult to believe that he understood the forces involved. From his naval experience he suggested a torpedo net cutter to penetrate the barbed wire, and the use of trench guns. His Sandhurst training perhaps inspired his section on ‘The Attack by the Spade’. It was already common to dig saps in front of the lines, but he wanted to do it on a more extensive scale with perhaps 300 saps in 30,000 yards and men working for ten days until they were within 70 yards of the enemy line, where his artillery could not be used. It was ‘nothing more than the penultimate phase of a siege when the sap-heads are pushed into the fortress covered way and the counterscarp blown in: but it is a siege advance on a gigantic front’. In contrast to his later statements he was callous about casualties: ‘Any operation on the western front is justified if we take at least a life for a life. The more this is done the sooner a decision will be reached.’

He went home on leave over Christmas and by the beginning of January it was becoming clear that he was to take command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, mainly made up of Ayrshire men including many miners, with a sprinkling of English. The RSF was a lowland regiment so did not wear the kilt. One of the officers, Captain Gibb, imagined that Churchill might be sent to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who did wear the kilt, and were used to handling celebrities after being written about in the best-seller, The First Hundred Thousand, by Ian Hay. The 6th RSF had suffered great losses in the Battle of Loos, the first to involve the bulk of the new armies, and the first in which the British deployed gas. ‘Like all the rest of this Scottish division, it fought with the greatest gallantry in the big battle and was torn to pieces. More than half the men, and ¾ of the officers were shot, and these terrible gaps have been filled up by recruits of good quality, and quite young inexperienced officers.’ This allowed Churchill to bring in his friends Edward Spiers and Archibald Sinclair, whom he made second-in-command. The regiment was ‘pathetic’ – presumably meaning ‘exciting pity, sympathy or sadness’ rather than the modern sense which has overtones of ‘contemptible’. The young officers were ‘all small middle class Scotsmen – very brave and willing and intelligent: but of course all quite new to soldiering’. He drilled the men – ‘On the second day of Winston’s tenure of office he gave orders that all the companies should parade in a certain slushy meadow, when he intended personally to inspect the work of each company and meet the officers and men in their official capacity.’ He found ‘the regiment is full of life and strength and I believe I shall be a help to them’.

Churchill attended a lecture on the Battle of Loos by Major-General ‘Tom’ Holland on 18 January, and it confirmed his worst fears: ‘… his tale was one of hopeless failure and sublime heroism of splendid Scottish soldiers shorn away in vain – with never the ghost of a chance of success. 6,000 killed and wounded out of 10,000 in this Scottish division alone. Alas alas. Afterwards they asked what was the lesson of the lecture. I restrained an impulse to reply “Don’t do it again”. But they will – I have no doubt.’ For the moment he only communicated this opinion to his wife, for open criticism of his superiors’ tactics would be a serious offence for a serving officer. He was moved enough to mention the heroism of the Scottish Division in parliament a few months later, though he focussed on the Cameron Highlanders for some reason.

On the 20th he inspected the section of line that his battalion was to take over and compared it with the one he had served in with the Guards: ‘It is much the best bit of line I have yet seen all along the front. Incomparably better on every score than the sector where the Guards were. It is dry – the trenches are boarded and drained. The parapets are thick and bullet proof. The wire is good. The field of fire clear …’. It was ‘a jolly day’.

Churchill was replacing a well-liked CO and it was ironic that Gibb would have preferred it if he had replaced the unpopular brigadier or the over-aggressive divisional commander. But soon he won them over, and ‘materially altered the feelings of the officers towards him by this kindliness and by the first insight we gained into the wonderful genius of the man’ – and this was written in 1924 when his general popularity was still very low. But when he asked his officers ‘Do you like war?’ they pretended not to hear. The troops ‘seemed to be delighted with their new Colonel’ and hoped that his influence might be used to sort out various personal problems with the army administration. They loved it when he spoke to them individually as one of the ‘high heid yins’. His attitude to the men ‘was not marred by that condescending hauteur which goes so far to frustrate the efforts of a number of our regular officers’. But he was tactless in comparing the RSF unfavourably with their rivals, the Gordon Highlanders.

Churchill gave a dinner party for his officers to the accompaniment of bagpipes and ‘recognized as many Englishmen do not, that the pipes are instruments capable of playing definite airs’ and asked for Bonnie Dundee after his constituency – though to his wife he referred to the tunes as ‘doleful dirges’. He described his three ties to Scotland – his constituency, his wife and his regiment, which was greeted with ‘salvoes of cheering’. According to Captain Gibb, he declared war on lice and, well prepared as usual, he gave a discourse on their ‘origins, growth and nature’. On 26 January, before moving up to the line, he gave advice to his officers which he compared to that of Polonius in Hamlet:

Don’t be careless about yourselves – on the other hand not too careful. Keep a special pair of boots to sleep in and 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, and teach your men to laugh – great good humour 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.

Then, ‘On a cold raw day in January the colonel and the company commanders with a few other important officers of the battalion moved out of the billeting area in a motor omnibus bound for the neighbourhood of Armentieres and Plugstreet’ – arguably contradicting his wife’s later assertion that Churchill had never been on a bus. The latter place, a soldier’s pronunciation of the Belgian village of Ploegsteert, was relatively peaceful with shops still open and the church tower still standing – though it was knocked down by shellfire a few days later. The rest of the battalion arrived and they marched towards the trenches in columns of fours. They took over 1,000 yards of front ‘with the utmost precision in under two hours. I don’t think the Grenadiers ever did better.’ He wrote to his wife, ‘rest assured, there will be no part of the line from the Alps to the sea better guarded’. Again Churchill revived the knowledge of fortification he had gained at Sandhurst 20 years ago. ‘To see Winston giving a dissertation on the laying of sandbags …. You felt sure from his grasp of practice that he must have served apprentice to a bricklayer and a master-mason, while his theoretical knowledge rendered you certain that Wren would have been proud to sit at his feet …’. The officer he appointed ‘master of works’ had to ‘devise shelters and scarps and counterscarps and dugouts and half-moons and ravelins’. He devoted himself to the main tasks of a battalion in the line during a quiet period – ‘the subjection and annoyance of the enemy and the improvement of the trenches’.

The command of a battalion was the highest position in which an officer had regular contact with the men under him. It had a real identity within the regiment and often there was real affection for the colonel. The future Field-Marshal William Slim thought it was one of the four best commands alongside a platoon, when one was young, a division and an army – the battalion was ‘a unit with a life of its own; whether it is good or bad depends on you alone; you have at last a real command’. Churchill himself wrote: ‘I am anxious to make them feel their corporate identity and the sense of my personal control. A colonel is within his own sphere an autocrat who punishes and promotes and displaces at his discretion.’ A brigade included at least three battalions but the command was far more impersonal and distant. A division, another of Slim’s favourites, consisted of about 20,000 men and was commanded by a major-general. It was perhaps a more interesting formation, the smallest one to combine all arms of cavalry, infantry and artillery. In another campaign it might have offered some opportunity for independent action, but not on the Western Front where it was still under the direct orders of the corps commander and the commander-in-chief. Nor is it likely that Churchill could have risen to an independent command on another front, much as he would have loved it. Even if he could have overcome the prejudice against him, his service on the Western Front would have been valueless. So it is difficult to see where his military ambition might lead, for he would have to rise through many grades to have any real influence and authority.

He did take command of the brigade for a few days early in February but he did not enjoy it, partly because it was on a temporary basis. ‘So I remain here in command. It is not a very satisfactory arrangement, as of course I am only a caretaker and cannot attempt to take a grip of the whole machine. I do the office work and have prepared myself to meet any emergency; but otherwise I wait about from hour to hour.’ But permanent promotion remained an illusion, especially after Sir Douglas Haig succeeded Sir John French as commander-in-chief on 18 December, and was far less sympathetic to Churchill’s case. Despite French’s recommendation and reports of Churchill’s keenness, command was ‘impossible until W had shown that he could bear responsibility in action as CO of a battalion’.

Early in November Churchill had acquired a French poilu helmet or ‘casque Adrian’ which would protect his ‘valuable cranium’. It made him look ‘most martial … like a Cromwellian’ and he was photographed and portrayed wearing it. The British style helmet, reportedly based on even earlier warriors who had fought at Agincourt in 1415, was in the course of being issued at the time, and 500 had arrived at the 6th battalion by 24 January. At other times Churchill grudgingly accepted the Glengarry cap of the Scottish regiments, though he did not like it. When Sinclair was photographed in the standard peaked cap of the English regiments, it was regarded as the ‘perfidy’ of a ‘false Scot’, whereas Churchill’s blue helmet became his trademark. Visiting the troops in the trenches at least three times a day, ‘In wet weather he would appear in a complete outfit of waterproof stuff, including trousers or overalls, and with his French light-blue helmet he presented a remarkable and unusual figure.’

The battalion alternated in the line, being relieved after six days and sent to a rear base which was still within the range of enemy shells; though Churchill claimed he preferred it in the trenches, ‘where there is always something going on, and where one really is fighting in this great war for the triumph of right and reason’. On 13 February he watched an air battle overhead with some misgivings – ‘I was disgusted to watch one German aeroplane sailing about scornfully in the midst of 14 British …. As for our guns they fired hundreds of shells without lifting a feather of this hostile bird.’ In March he and Sinclair walked around the lines held by other battalions.

The same conditions and features reproduce themselves in every section – shattered buildings, sandbag habitations, trenches heavily wired, shell holes, frequent graveyards with thickets of little crosses, wild rank growing grass, muddy roads, khaki soldiers – and so on for hundreds and hundreds of miles – on both sides …. Only a few rifle shots and the occasional bang of a gun broke the stillness of the evening.

It occurred to him that he was now at the rank which he might have reached if he had stayed in the army. He wrote to Clementine: ‘It seems almost to me as if my life in the great world was a dream, and I have been moving slowly forward in the army all these years from subaltern to colonel.’ Despite all the disappointments and hardships he continued to be upbeat in his letters, but one wonders how much it was forced. With the Guards he claimed everyone said he looked ten years younger and he ‘had never been in better health and spirits’. He was ‘cool and indifferent in danger here’. With his officers he reminisced about military life and regaled them with anecdotes about Fisher and leading politicians, as well as commenting freely on Antwerp and the Dardanelles; but he did not have a good word to say for Asquith and he was ‘unenthusiastic’ about Kitchener. The officers tolerated his tin bath, ‘a thing like a great magnified soap-dish’ which needed a great deal of hot water to fill it. But Churchill needed his bi-weekly bath even in the front line.

Regulations barred senior officers from taking part in raids and reconnaissance in no-man’s-land, but in February he admitted to his wife: ‘You cannot show yourself here by day, but in the bright moonlight it is possible to move about without danger (except from random bullets) and to gain a very clear impression. Archie [Sinclair] was a very good guide. We went out in front of our own parapet into the no man’s land and prowled about looking at our wire and visiting our listening posts.’ It was evidently not the first time, for he wrote: ‘This is always exciting.’ He was out with Sinclair again a week later. He paid attention to his men’s raids across the lines, when patrols cut large sections of barbed wire and brought them back as trophies – however he deplored the bravado of one of the officers who fixed a union flag on the site, giving the Germans reason to be more vigilant. ‘Can you imagine such a silly thing.’

Corporal John McGuire described the experience of going on a raid with Churchill:

I strapped on a revolver and two Mills bombs, and at midnight Winnie turned up with his adjutant. He wore his trench helmet, trench coat and Sam Browne belt with revolver. We topped the parapet and slipped through a gap known only to scouts. Ten yards further on I lay down on the second line of trench concertina wire enabling the other two to cross. From there we crawled on our stomachs across muddy ground punched with shell holes. Near the German lines we settled into a hole and listened to the Germans talking. After two hours we crawled home. This was the pattern for all our trips. While we were out our own side never fired, but the Germans, worried by the silence, sent up Verey lights and followed up with heavy machine gun strafing. I often thought we’d ‘had it’ but Churchill showed no fear. He would smile and say, ‘They know I’m here, McGuire, they know I’m here.’

There was no major British attack planned at this time, though late in February Churchill’s leave was cancelled because a German offensive was expected, but it never happened. In January 1916 he claimed: ‘I could not leave the army in the field for any position which did not give me an effective share in the direction of the war’ – presumably in the War Cabinet. But his service was interrupted when he was allowed leave to speak in debates in the House of Commons. Already he was being drawn back to political life at home where, with his varied war experience, he might make some contribution even from the back benches. The prospect of the publication of the Dardanelles papers which might clear his name was a further stimulus. Since several battalions of the RSF had been reduced by battle it was decided to merge the 6th and the 7th, and the colonel of the latter was the senior, which gave a pretext for relieving Churchill. On 6 May he gave a farewell dinner to his officers and told them ‘that he had come to regard the young Scot as a most formidable fighting machine’. The adjutant represented the thinking of the others in saying ‘what it had been to serve under him’ and ‘every man in the room felt Winston Churchill’s leaving us as a real personal loss’. The commanding officer of the battalion which succeeded him remarked: ‘I went up to take over my little bit with Winston Churchill, who described himself as a cavalry soldier run to seed; all the same the service lost a good soldier when Winston took to politics.’ Churchill returned to what he called ‘the bray of Parliaments’. His short term at the front left him open to jibes, such as the one in The Nation in March 1919: ‘after a few weeks of shivering in the trenches, Mr Churchill himself preferred to shine in the Senate’.

One wonders what would have happened if Churchill had remained in command until the beginning of July, when the bloody Somme offensive began with the death of 20,000 men on the first day. Would he have been obliged to lead his men to their deaths in a battle which he knew to be futile? In August, after a month’s fighting at the Somme and while still a backbencher, he sent a memorandum to F. E. Smith which was placed before the cabinet, claiming

In personnel the results of the operation have been disastrous; in terrain they have been absolutely barren. And, although our brave troops … are at the moment elated by the small advances made and the capture of prisoners and souvenirs, the ultimate moral effect will be disappointing. From every point of view, therefore, the British offensive per se has been a great failure. With twenty times the shells, and five times the guns, and more than double the losses, the gains have but little exceeded those of Loos. And how as Loos viewed in retrospect?

He was even more scathing when he wrote about the battle in The World Crisis in 1927: ‘… the campaign of 1916 on the Western Front was from beginning to end a welter of slaughter, which after the issue was determined left the British and French armies weaker in relation to the Germans when it opened, while the actual battle fronts were not appreciably altered. … The battlefields of the Somme were the graveyards of Kitchener’s Army. The flower of that generous manhood … was shorn away for ever in 1916.’