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Churchill’s hidden years

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Have you ever wondered what Churchill did in the First World War? Most people recall the Dardanelles. Some ask ‘Wasn't he a soldier?’ But then they generally get stuck.

I began to think about this and took a closer look. I was staggered to find both how active he was and how controversial he was. I was even more surprised to find that everything we admire in Churchill the great war leader of 1940 can be found in the more obscure Churchill of 1914-18.

In that war he learnt the importance (and difficulty) of combined operations; the value of science and technology on the battlefield and at sea; the need for integrated command systems; the necessity of a genuine coalition in war time; the vital role of a very small war cabinet; the need for honest morale-boosting; and the prize of code-breaking. By 1939 all these things were second nature to him. So, what taught him these skills?

He came to appreciate combined operations from a realisation that Britain’s greatest military strength in 1914 lay in her navy. He wanted to use the navy to clear the Belgian coast and invade Germany via the Baltic – but his colleagues never allowed it.

Churchill looked at the useless slaughter on the Western Front and cried ‘Machines, not men’ because he alone intuitively understood that the future of war lay in tanks and other machines – but the generals did not agree.

In the councils of war Churchill saw that waging war depended on rapid decisions by a small and powerful group of leaders.

And he looked with horror as the petty squabbles between the independent French and British operations led to defeats and disasters – he recognised that only an integrated command system could win the war.

Then there was the prize of the Admiralty’s breaking the German naval code. So precious was this knowledge that Churchill never even told his naval commander-in-chief. Only the men and women behind the door of Room 40 knew from where there precious secrets came.

This, then, was Churchill’s war. It was like an apprenticeship for the even greater struggle to come. But I am left mystified as to why we hear so little about his massive contribution to the First World War and the extent to which that war built Britain’s greatest ever war leader.

To me the years 1914-18 are Churchill’s ‘hidden years’, for that is how they seem from accounts in most history books. 

By Richard Freeman

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