In modern times it is useful to learn the travails of the past. Churchill at war, is a perfect example of someone defending the Anglo-Saxon heritage of freedom, division of powers, open markets, and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Only Bush, Blair, Brown it is alleged, and some other leaders understand Islam’s threat to Western Civilisation. It is very similar to the universal designs that predatory Nazism and corrupt Communism had upon unsupspecting states.
In his own recorded history of the First World War Churchill charges that, like the Second World War, the first was completely unnecessary and could have been prevented if wiser counsels and less weak and pathetically Byzantine alliances were in existence. Britain through covert arrangements finalised before 1914, had committed itself to the French-Russian side of the European chess board though it was never spelled out why or how Britain could or should support either France or Russia in a general engagement against Germany – the predetermined enemy. It was generally agreed in the 3 or 4 years preceding 1914 that Germany would strike for pan-European mastery when her fighting strength was able to contain two fronts – one on the east with Russia and the second in the west with France. The German army was by most accounts superior to the French and her fleet though not nearly as large as the British could still cause deep anxiety at the British admiralty. In fact there never was a decisive engagement between the British and German navies during the First World War, the only notable tangle being the battle of Jutland which gave neither navy an increase in fighting reputation.
It was obvious that pre-1914 Britain could bring little influence to bear on the Continent and its small volunteer force was tiny compared to the great conscript armies of Europe. Whether the Liberal government in power in 1914 would have entered the war at all without Germany invading Belgium is open to question. However with typical arrogance Germany ignored the usual British concern over the strategic importance of the Low Countries smashing the Belgian defences and forcing the British to intervene. Unlike their Teutonic cousins the British are not a warrior race and the unpreparedness of British war capacity both in 1914 and 1939 well illustrate this point. British success in the world was premised on free trade and peace and not upon martial prowess and in both world wars the British nation was psychologically unprepared for the conflict.
Besides the pending Armageddon in Europe the maintenance of the empire in 1914 was a full task in itself. In 1914 there were 200.000 men under arms in Ireland where a revolt over Home Rule seemed inevitable; in England the miners, the railwaymen and the transport workers were each claiming union recognition for the railwaymen who had thus far been excluded from the TU; and all workers were appealing for a 48 hour work week. As well British forces had to face nationalist troubles in Egypt and India and not to mention in August 1914 the armed and deranged power of a grasping degenerate Germany.
The British in short were being racked by the evolutionary and even Darwinian strains of liberalism which its democratic institutions could barely contain and affront. Thankfully for the British war effort many of the domestic squabbles were delayed while the death dance with Germany played on. Domestic problems were sidelined due to the early misfortunes in the war for the British and French forces. The Allies suffered many military reverses and only a stubborn French resistance at the Marne in late 1914 prevented a quick German victory. In fact in 1911 Churchill had predicted this very occurrence in the advent of a Continental war. Churchill had predicted that on the 40th day of the German attack the German line would be thrown back due to Allied resistance and logistical difficulties. On day 41 the French won the battle of the Marne preserving Paris and French freedom. After the battle of the Marne the British nation settled in for a long war.
At the outbreak of the hostilities the Navy was more than ready. It transported the British army to France without loss of life and under Churchill’s constant prodding attacked the island of Sylt off the north coast of Germany, sinking a destroyer, a cruiser and crippling five more ships. Churchill at the request of the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchen, undertook the air defence of the British Isles and dubbed this airfleet the Royal Naval Air Service. He also sponsored the development of the tank, and thanks to his efforts the British were able to use the land carrier with devastating success in the final two years of the war. Without Churchill’s innovative demands and constant championing of the tank concept it may never have seen the battlefield, and may never have played such a decisive part in the fall of Germany in 1918.
Churchill began the war as Asquith’s golden boy. But his triumphs were short lived. The first cause for concern was something called the ‘Dunkirk’ Circus. This project was conceived from the trepidation’s that the Huns might capture the channel ports. The French requested assistance in the defence of the Dunkirk perimeter. Kitchen asked Churchill’s help and Winston sent across the channel his naval marines replete with 50 motor omnibuses from London to give them the requisite mobility. The Dunkirk Circus appeared in various towns in the area, giving the Germans the impression that a large force of British regulars was co-operating with the French in the area. It was successful and Churchill spent a good deal of time in France with his marines, much to the chagrin and anger of his colleagues, the Conservatives and the press, who wondered in scathing public rebukes why the First Lord was not at his desk in London doing his job ? The Prime Minister Asquith was not amused with his Alcibiades.
Then in late September 1914 Churchill delivered a flamboyant and damning speech in which he made a very unwise observation that soiled his name for years to come, “So far as the Navy is concerned we cannot fight while the enemy remains in port….If they do not come out and fight they will be dug out like rats from a hole.” Well, the very next day three British ships were torpedoed off the Dutch coast and sunk. This was a ‘bait’ squadron which had been ordered 3 days previously to return to England. If this order had been immediately obeyed the loss would have been avoided. His speech posed him in a ridiculous light and coupled with the Dunkirk Circus gave his enemies plenty to hurl his way. The next step of mishappenstance, though again not the direct fault or cause of Churchill, was the fall of Antwerp.
In 1914 war tidings were grim. The early German successes in the war in 1914 led Churchill to cross the channel to Antwerp to stiffen the Belgian and Allied defence of the city so crucial for the control of the Channel ports and the north western European coast and indeed in some respects for the safety of Britain, which would lie imperilled if the seaboard was controlled by a violent foe. The Antwerp escapade though it ultimately did not prevent the Germans from taking the city was crucial for defence of the coast since it delayed the German advance down the coast by 3 or 4 vital days allowing the British and French to re-deploy and organise their defences to hold the key channel ports. But this very sound decision of Churchill to lead the defence of Antwerp was vitiated by his clumsy offer to Asquith and the Cabinet to resign and take field duty if he were given the command of sufficient forces to satiate his military ambition. It was a very rash and improbable communication much hailed by his critics as an example of his unreliability.
Churchill was forced then to keep himself close to the rudder and he forced himself to remain in London. In so doing came to rely on the productivity and innovation casted off by his relationship with the brilliant old sea dog Jackie Fisher. The Fisher – Churchill combination continued to work at a frenetic rate, Churchill’s political diminishment notwithstanding. After a sharp defeat of a British naval squadron off the coast of Chile, spirit and prestige was revived when the German admiral Von Spee was killed off the Falkland Islands with the loss of his whole squadron. It was a smashing victory and redemption for the Churchill-Fisher combination. Then suddenly Turkey entered the war on the side of Germany, and Russia demanded that the Allies take action in the Middle East to draw off some Turkish pressure on Russian forces. Churchill at once seized upon the idea – offered on many occasions – of forcing the fortresses that flanked the narrow straits of the Dardanelles by a naval operation alone that would allow the Allies to capture Constantinople and push Turkey out of the war.
The attack was given Cabinet approval and went ahead at first as a naval operation. On February 19 the fleet opened up the bombardment of the straits. Kitchen a short while later promised troops. For the first 10 days the attack went well with the outer fortresses falling. Then suddenly the progress stopped. Turkish resistance was much stiffer than anticipated and sea mines were causing damage and anxiety to the British and French navies. On March 18th 1915 the Allied navy massed for a decisive attack and blasted the shores with such a cannonade that most of the defences were swept away. The navy steamed on to what seemed to be victory when the vessels struck a row of mines sinking 3 older ships and crippling four more. The attack was called off and the naval officers after some deliberation refused to continue the attack unless the army intervened and commenced a land campaign.
Churchill was apoplectic. He felt that victory was in sight but he could not force his naval commanders to reengage. Local commanders had ultimate authority and direction at the scene and the military command in London which was not organised properly to enact final decisions or reach a connected vision of strategy, could do little to impress its views on men thousand of miles away. Five long precious weeks were wasted until the French, Anzac and British troops stormed the Gallipoli shores. Surprise as a variable was cast away, the Turks and their German allies had mounted an intricate and obdurate system of defences and German submarines began to appear in the domain complicating the operation. Gradually the Navy pulled out and left the whole task to Kitchener’s army which straggled and floundered on the rocky shores locked in strife with a desperate enemy in control of the high points of the landscape. In December 1915 Gallipoli was evacuated with well over a quarter of a million French, British and Anzac casualties.
Churchill supported by later historians and enemy documents makes a very convincing argument for himself and the Gallipoli attack in his fascinating book on World War One, The World Crisis. It is known that the Turkish gunners during the last naval assault of March 18 had only enough ammunition to fight one more such action. The Turkish and German defenders were astonished that the British had not pushed forward. In fact the German naval gunners had already determined that the Navy would win and that holding out much longer was hopeless. Most experts agree that a combined land-sea operation would have succeeded. Churchill should be faulted for not being patient enough to wait until the army was ready for such a combined assault. He was too enamoured of a naval-only success. However, in his defence it is certain that the amateurish, haphazard decision making around the operation, with no clear cut authority and overall plan was not his fault. Remarkably no machinery of consultation existed between the naval and army departments and consequently Churchill’s power to persuade and help control complex co-ordinated operations was severely limited. This was not helped by the absolute dominance of the war lord, Kitchener. He was not just a hero, but a god, a famous general with great successes recorded in Egypt, the Sudan and South Africa. If the government had been better organised and more cohesive the war could have conceivably ended in 1915, with Turkey knocked out of the war, the Russian armies fighting the Turks in the Caucasus liberated to direct their fury against the Germans, the Balkans enlisted on the side of the Allies and Allied armies pouring into the soft, unprotected ‘underbelly’ of Germany. If successful Gallipoli could have saved millions of lives.
However Fisher resigned over the Dardanelles fiasco and this coupled with Antwerp, the Dunkirk circus, the apparent loss of paramount naval supremity and Gallipoli all forced Churchill to resign. Ten months earlier he was one of the most powerful men in England. Gallant, brave, an accomplished writer and orator, blessed with boundless energy and close relationships with key politico’s, his star’s lustre was dazzling and its light appeared to shine far into the future. Yet by 1915 though he was only 40 it appeared to many that his career was finished. He still had a quality of immaturity possessed of great ideas but with no real or stable sense of proportion. The relinquishment of power was bitter as Churchill wrote “I knew everything but could do nothing.” Little else can describe the painful forfeiture of power better. What brought about this rapid de-elevation ?
The answer lies in his personality. Much of the blame was unfair. He was the most important and vital minister in Britain during this period and had rendered valuable service in the cause of freedom. His small but gallant Naval Air Force was scouting German Zeppelins with increasing success, the Dunkirk Circus had fooled the Germans into believing that forty thousand British regulars threatened their flank and forced them into retreat, and the prolongation of the Antwerp defence had saved the channel ports from Hunnish occupation. It was more the flamboyance and self-assuredness of the First Lord that aroused suspicions and opposition. Churchill forgot that he was a politician and therefore had to tie either the Conservatives or Liberals to his tail to create a following. Not doing so appointed the day for his expulsion from the government when the vicissitudes of fate came calling.
The Conservatives still hated him and some of his Liberal colleagues were overwhelmed by the man’s ambition and capacity. From most accounts it is safe to say that Churchill was not a well liked fellow in either a political or personal sense. His parliamentary colleagues recognised his genius but he offended their amour-propre. People did not interest Churchill but ideas. His absorption in his own affairs illuminated a vanity that was hard for some to accept. Churchill’s incisive, compelling monologues tended to disregard the feelings and opinions of his audience and created the aura of gross insensibility which is a determined flaw in a democratic statesman who must not only expand ideas but impel others to accept them.
To assuage his sorrow Churchill headed to the front lines in 1915 in command of a brigade and experienced life and very nearly death in the trenches. Though it was a political difficulty, his scope of power was increased to that of a battalion commander in Belgium, though Churchill knew that a substantial military career was not to be his. His battalion – the Royal Scots Fusiliers – were nonplussed that a politician had been thrusted into their midst. On his second day with the group Churchill won over his men by gathering the officers together and announcing solemnly; “War is declared, gentlemen, on the lice.” This was followed by an erudite and expanded lecture on the origin, growth, and nature of the louse, with particular emphasis on its decisive role in the history of warfare. The officers were not only amused and shocked, but fascinated.
With the spectacle of a great and creative mind bursting with hard work and focused on the comparatively small needs of a battalion, excitement and activity was assured. Churchill especially impressed his men by his coolness under fire and the complete lack of nervousness with bullets spluttering about as he would almost recklessly expose himself to enemy fire. By all accounts he was a trusted and quite effective Leader – interested in all details of the men, their methods and wants, the operations and the enforcement of military discipline and fairness. Though only at the front for over four months it gave Churchill a comprehensive experience of the horrors and follies of war and the undeniable bestial conditions that the men at the front fought, lived and died in.
Churchill was however a Leader and a statesman and not a warrior at the core of his being. When the combination of battalions ended his military career he took the opportunity to race back to London to participate in political opposition and await the detailed investigation of the Dardanelles event by a special commission. Churchill was anxious that his character and public career should receive a fair hearing. The Dardanelles report was published in 1917 and gave Churchill a rather favourable press, severely criticising the Prime Minister Asquith, for his handling of the War Cabinet and for Kitchen who as Secretary of War did not send troops sooner. Churchill was not exonerated but importantly for him not crucified by the commission. A resuscitation of his political career was now possible.
In 1916 Lloyd George claiming a liberal-democratic war, based on crusading moral principles and responsibilities, became Prime Minister and was masterful in his management of the British war effort. Indeed many historians have suggested that without his leadership of Britain during the war, victory may have come later if at all. Domestic disputes were still quiescent though less so after the 1917 Russian revolution, where Russia was ripped open by the wolfish, bloodthirsty Bolsheviks which knocked it out of the war and gave Europe the misguided but enthusiastically received messianic appeal of bolshevism in its war weary nations. This dulled the appetite of Britain and France to fight on.
Men of mettle. intelligence and dedicated to ultimate victory were therefore needed and George wanted Churchill’s energies and imagination and great leadership capacity working for the government and not skulking on the opposition benches tearing holes in government policy. Though the opposition to Churchill was extremely intense especially in Conservative circles, Churchill was appointed as Minister of Munitions in 1917. The noise against his appointment was deafening especially astonishing Churchill who was deeply unaware at the amount of hostility that he had created in political circles. Since Churchill was officially an independent candidate and not a member of either the Liberal or Conservative Party he was not included in the War Cabinet which curtailed his activities probably to his own benefit. As George recorded in his memoirs, “Unfortunately genius always provides its critics with material for censure — it always has and always will. Churchill is certainly no exception to this rule.”
At the Ministry of Munitions Churchill took over the control of a huge organisation composed of 12000 civil servants in 50 departments. Churchill combined the 50 groups into less than a dozen new ones and he set up a Council of business men somewhat like the Board of Admiralty and over the business men he put a clamping committee, small and powerful to direct affairs. The organisation was a triumph. This Ministry covered an enormous field – it was not only responsible for guns and shells but for all sorts of rolling stock and the design and production of aircraft as well. Churchill had to appreciably increase the munitions for the tank and machine gun corps which he did extraordinarily quickly and also to supply the American military with supplies until the USA could bring their factories onto a war footing. He in effect made a gentlemen’s agreement by which the UK promised not to make a profit and the USA promised to make good a loss. The deal worked spectacularly. Winston established extremely cordial relations with his counterpart in Washington – Bernard Baruch – who was to become indispensable for Britain in its World War Two efforts to receive American armaments during the dark days of 1940 and 1941.
The appalling and senseless First World War sank deep into consciousness of the British nation and explains why bolshevism was granted receptive audiences throughout Europe and why the nations of Europe were eager to appease Hitler 20 years later. At the Battle of the Somme a British offensive in 1916 claimed 420.000 British casualties in one month. From August to September 1917 at Paaschendaele Belgium, 300.000 Empire soldiers were wounded or killed in a campaign to claim a few square miles of territory with many of the victims drowned in torrential rains. Even after the successful conclusion of the war with the dramatic and sudden German disintegration in the early summer of 1918 the British and French populace could never erase the carnage and mindless mutilation of 4 years of war and became profoundly anti-war and pro-pacifist.
This pacifist feeling and urge to rebuild a better world was manifest in the 1918 election where Lloyd George and his coalition government retained power. At this juncture the Liberal party, once the prime mover in all that was progressive and enlightened, was all but finished, weak, divided and without firm mass support. The Conservatives took the urban vote, and the Labour party the worker vote. The Trade Unions on which Labour depended became enormously strengthened by the war experience and their membership doubled to roughly over 8 million by 1919. Given the voting reforms in 1918 this power became effectively used as the electorate was extended from about 8 million in 1914, to over 21 million in 1918.
After the successful close of the First World War the Imperial mystique was powerful and even enhanced. British possessions in the Middle East and Africa grew, with concomitant increases in raw material resource including oil. It appeared that British economic strength given the severity of the peace reprisals hoisted upon Germany and the minimisation of her once severe economic threat, could enjoy something of a comeback. In the 1920’s under Lloyd George all major industries were returned to private hands. The Government also began trumpeting a consistent financial policy to ensure an eventual return to the Gold Standard, meaning that the City of London, the British class system, and private capitalism all appeared to continue unchallenged.
However fiscal reality overshadowed the blissful feeling of Empire grandeur. Financial and military constraints to manage the Empire were severe and India with its growing nationalism was becoming ever more of a moral and financial burden. There was a huge increase from the war effort in national debt and the subsequent loss of foreign markets especially in Germany and France. Lloyd George had also committed his government to the necessary but costly endeavour of building 200.000 houses for immediate public purchase in 1919. Massive post-war unemployment was fast becoming a crippling political problem for the British government, as was the realisation that perhaps the greatest threat to international stability was the narrow minded, nescient Versailles Peace Treaty effected in 1919. Covert, secret treaties concluded during the war between Britain and its allies, with unjust terms for financial reparations from Germany as described by J.M. Keynes’ ‘Economic Consequences of the Peace’ written in 1919, showed conclusively that the reparations imposed on Germany would lead to its financial ruin and thereby to the permanent weakening of the European economy. Keynes also devoted eloquent, penetrating prose, in describing the corrupt atmosphere of the Versailles arrangement and in particular Lloyd George’s debasing and unstatesmanlike conduct.
Churchill though he was the most visible advocate of better social conditions was assigned by George as the Secretary of State for War and Air. This was a key position in post war Europe, a Continent which was far from stable and where, the insipidity of Bolshevism was threatening to take over Germany. Churchill and others promulgated that given these internal disruptions a certain magnanimity towards Germany would be prudent since she was and is the central player in the concert of Europe. In fact the Bolshevist menace occupied a great deal of Churchill’s energies in 1919 and 1920. He firmly believed that if enough Western material and support were offered to the non-Bolshie forces in Russia, Lenin’s precarious revolution which during these years was in great danger of being eclipsed by military forces loyal to the Russian monarchy and to a lesser degree supportive of democracy could be eradicated.
That Bolshevism was foul baboonery was obvious to any but the most ardent and simple socialist utopian. Lloyd George however considered that the Russian anti-Bolshevist generals were not liberal democrats and that foreign intervention counter-productive and expensive. And though Churchill was right about Bolshevism being imposed by force, Britain was too exhausted by the Great War to intervene militarily or even spiritually. The prospect of another conflict was too horrifying to consider and most of the volunteers in the army were clamouring to be disbanded. Thus in part through Western weakness the irrationality of Bolshevism laid its clawed hand on the heart of Russia. A tragedy still apparent in the mindset, lost integrity and general disarray of the Russian people and nation today.
After dispensing with his duties as Secretary of War, Churchill was directed by George to sort out painful and essential problems in the Colonial Office. In the brief 18 months of 1921-22 when Winston was Secretary for the Colonies he justly claimed the mantle of peace maker. He enacted two very important settlements. The first was in the Middle East. Churchill still carried the great hope that Britain would conduct itself in a pure manner regarding native or colonial populations and government. His experience taught him that democracy was not applicable at all times in all locations to all peoples, yet fair government rested not on military power but on moral law. Churchill in effect cut military deployment and largess in the colonies especially in the newly acquired territories in the Middle East where Air power was substituted in some measure for troops to garrison the Empire. It was in this quarter as well that Churchill strove gamely within the British protectorate of Palestine to broker peace between the Jews and Arabs, and to push the idea of a Jewish state in the region in accordance with the Balfour declaration of 1917 which stated that the Jews were to be accorded a national home in the Middle East. Churchill was convinced that Zionism would bring with it prosperity if only peace could be arranged between the implacable parties.
He called upon the aid of the amazing Englishman Lawrence of Arabia, and settled in Cairo during a conference, the grievances of all concerned parties. The proposals were sent to Cabinet. First, the British must appease Arab emotion by placing the Emir Feisal on the throne of Iraq and transfer to his brother the Emir Abdulla the government of the Transjordan. Secondly, British troops must be withdrawn from Iraq and order maintained via the Air Force. Thirdly, adjustments must be made between the Arabs and Jews that would serve as a sure foundation for peace. In sum it was a proper and practicable arrangement and with it the acceptance of the proposals, tension in the Middle East declined dramatically.
At this time Ireland also raised itself after the war eager for Home Rule and a resolution to its problems. It was a violent land with Sinn Fein outside of Northern Ireland dominant and using force to implement its rule. Churchill as Colonial Secretary in 1921 was entrusted to keep military control and internal peace until proper democratic procedures could be enacted to appease the demands of the Catholic South. To restore the military balance on the island Churchill recruited Ulster men to patrol Ireland and to meet violence with violence. Though clashes ensued both sides and the British government could find enough common ground to effect the transfer of power to Southern Ireland as a dominion, effective December 6 1922. Churchill’s part as a conciliatory statesman, ignoring the clamour of extremists from both sides and unbowed by military threats was crucial and leading. The world seldom thinks of Churchill as a conciliator but in this case he worked tirelessly and sagaciously to defuse an intricate and maddeningly emotional dispute. He handled innumerable situations with tact, writing repeatedly to the leaders involved, smoothing away misunderstandings, emphasising goodwill, minimalising petty conduct, praising, extolling and suggesting. In the end the tragedy of Ireland final settled down to peace.
In the fall of 1922 a national election transpired which effectively destroyed the Liberal party and forced Churchill to make his way towards the Conservatives. Public disapproval and weariness with the coalition or ‘national’ government of Lloyd George had reached new heights of fervent expression. Since 1916 George had sat upon the pinnacle of British public duty. However George’s persistent womanising and remote, Olympian and not entirely trust worthy character had defaced to some degree the validity of his rule. Public disgruntlement at its Leadership became irreversibly hardened in 1922 when Britain was on the verge of war with Turkey over the defence of the Greek position in Asia minor and the protection of the Dardanelle straits. War did not erupt, but Lloyd George and his government including Churchill were tossed from office and Ramsay MacDonald, the utopian Leader of the leftist Labour party became Prime Minister. Macdonald was challenged by the stable and peaceful Stanley Baldwin the Conservative Leader, Prime Minister in 1923-24, 1924-1929, and 1935-7. Both Macdonald and Baldwin were appropriate shepherds for a country that desperately wanted peace and safety and to escape the horrors of war.
Churchill also lost his working class seat in Dundee Scotland and was banished into exile for 2 years. It is peculiar that an aristocrat would have as his political base a blue collar, sweated town such as Dundee which had absolutely nothing in common with an Oxfordshire squire. Barred from public duty by the election result Churchill spent most if his time with the family, writing, painting and patiently biding time until the political scene cleared and opportunity would be revealed. In this period Churchill began his massive history of the First World War. The five volumes of the “World Crisis” as it was called, were published between 1923 and 1931. It is a truly significant work about national, international and personal power. It is not so much a history as a colourful drama, with Churchill never far from the centre stage. It was a eulogy to the decaying grasp of British domination of the world scene, with 1922 revealing the spread of socialism engulfing Europe, with Ireland and Egypt lost as independents from the Empire and the first ever Labour Party in power. Much had changed and much was still in train to be altered since Churchill had first entered Parliament 21 years earlier. Across the globe peaceful hopes were supreme. Martial glory was dreaded.
The new doctrinaire of peace and rebuilding was reflected in British arts represented by the literary Bloomsbury group — a creative association that included Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, both intimating through their novels a decline of Western liberal self confidence in the face of rising competition and corruption. In the mid 1920’s Britain was a society rapidly changing and transmuting. Large proportions of the population had emerged from the war with middle class aspirations; home ownership, a quiet contented family, leisure, domestic comforts and employment security. There was a gradual erosion of church and puritan values with ‘smart young things’ wearing less restrictive and dour costumes and fewer young people openly religious. The rural population declined steadily as unemployment in the non-urban areas grew and families migrated to the city to locate work.
In 1923 an event occurred which proved extremely advantageous for the career of Churchill. Bonar Law the Conservative Prime Minister and Winston’s intractable political opponent resigned and soon afterwards died, leaving Stanley Baldwin, the Chancellor of the Exchequer as Prime Minister. Baldwin was a stolid, pipe smoking, shrewd English politician dedicated to eradicating unemployment which at that time hovered around the one million mark. He was a protectionist, an advocate of high tariffs to stimulate economic growth and employment. But since Bonar Law had pledged in the 1922 election to do exactly the opposite, Baldwin needed a mandate from the public to initiate such reform.
Baldwin thus picked the only issue capable of uniting all Liberals into one unit. Churchill fought as a Liberal Free Trader at West Leicester, noisy and excited. His violent denunciations of the Labour party and of socialism, drew packed houses and infuriated his opponents, who pitched any and all recriminations they could lay their hands on. Churchill was so bitterly hated by a large section of the working class that when he spoke on 3 December 1923 in London, the city was obliged the send both mounted and foot police as protection. Churchill described the crowd as “..more like Russian wolves than British workmen – if they are British workmen – howling, foaming, and spitting, and generally behaving in a way absolutely foreign to the British working classes.” Churchill lost by four thousand votes. Overall no party could command enough seats to form a government. The Labour and Liberal parties formed a coalition with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. Another election was soon inevitable since a Labour government held in power by Liberal support could never hope to enact change. The Labour party had an equal share of Liberal minded men such as MacDonald and radicals intent on real socialism.
Shortly thereafter a Conservative seat fell vacant in Westminster London. Churchill at once set about getting himself adopted as the Conservative candidate. His powerful Tory friends intervened on his behalf but to no avail. The Conservative party adopted the nephew of the retiring Conservative member. Churchill continued undaunted calling himself an anti-socialist independent. Many Tories supported Churchill. There was a fear that since Westminster was a Conservative stronghold Churchill’s candidacy might split the Conservative vote and allow Labour to win. Churchill fought the campaign entirely against the Socialists. Blood, thunder, doom and ruin were interwoven with tales of tragic incompetence if Labour would lay its hands on power. Notable peers, Conservative members and newspapers canvassed for him. Despite the glittering support Churchill lost by 43 votes to the Conservative candidate Nicholson.
Churchill was far from downcast. The road at least to the Conservatives was clear. His Liberal bridge lay burned and the support of so many notable Conservatives gave him great heart. He was positioned as the most powerful Conservative weapon against a socialistic revolution. After nine months of governing the Liberals finally withdrew their support from MacDonald’s and another election was called in the fall of 1924. Churchill fought in this election as a Conservative at Epping and was victorious. His remarkable journey back to a party that reflected his ideals of economic orthodoxy, social reform and colonial morality was complete. It staggered his enemies who could not believe that he had once again switched party flags.
Soon after this victory and remarriage Churchill somewhat incredibly became Chancellor. It was an amazing transformation. Since 1918 Churchill had made a steady if not swift progression to his natural political home of conservatism. The Liberal party had by 1922 outlived its usefulness. Churchill had no choice if he prized his political future but to join the Conservatives. That Stanley Baldwin gave Churchill the second most important post in the government dazed even the staunchest of Churchill’s supporters. Given the complex spectacle and challenges of post war finances, reparation schedules, the gold standard issue and the grappling of the debt problem, the Chancellorship in the mid-20’s would prove to be an extremely laborious effort.
Why did Baldwin give Churchill the second most powerful position in the nation ? He simply feared Churchill and especially the political and oratorical combination of Churchill and Lloyd George. If Churchill was left out of power, a Centre Party with Churchill and Lloyd George and the Conservative orator and Churchillian supporter F.E. Smith could conceivably be formed dissipating greatly any governmental power base. Baldwin had no desire to be blasted by 3 such heavyweights. An astute party manager, Baldwin forced Churchill to accede to the Chancellorship where party pressure would keep him in line. Or so he hoped. And indeed in donning the robes once worn by his father Churchill showed himself a loyal and capable supporter of Baldwin and his government.
Though not trained in the world of commerce or finance Churchill mastered his post with precipitate speed and enjoyment challenging the experts and doctrinaires on all policy issues. However the mid-late 1920’s decline in exports and decreased employment opportunities in the export trades can be in large part traced to his decision to return Britain to the Gold Standard. This decision can be regarded as a rather disastrous move. In fact Churchill’s tenure at the Exchequer was marred by strife and labour bitterness, depression and industrial disquiet. Most of this calamity can be traced to business and financial pressure exerted upon British governments beginning in 1918 to return the British pound to the pre-World War 1 Gold Standard rate. A standing committee of experts appointed by the Lloyd George Government in 1918 to investigate the position urged that the decision be accepted and only the emphatic and brilliant economist John Maynard Keynes raised a howl of objection. In 1925 Britain sat between two stools of economic philosophy of society.
On one sat the school of market determination insisting that wages and prices are calculated by the strict, inviolable laws of supply and demand. Upon the other resided the Keynesians, preaching a managed economy and limited but effective government interference and resource allocation. Though Keynes intellectually gnarled the return to Gold he very importantly did not offer an alternative. The political and business pressure on Churchill to keep the parliamentary promise and return the country to gold was immense. It was viewed as a way to defuse inflation since the government would be constrained in its printing of money. All of Britain’s major economic partners had adopted or soon would pass under the heel of the Gold Standard. And though Churchill repeatedly hesitated imploring his civil officials to defy Keynes’ predictions he could find no plausible alternative to what many had expected to be a fait accompli.
The result meant a serious overvaluing of British Coal and Steel exports and generally exacerbated the inequality of comforts among the classes that divided the nation. Unfortunately for Churchill and his government economic woes dovetailed with sagging spirits. In much of the West there arose in the mid-late 1920’s a certain disappointment with Western values and the terrible cycle of industrial decline, unemployment, and social bitterness led to the worst explosion of class conflict that Britain had yet known in 1926. In April of that year Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to renew a subsidy to the coal industry. This subsidy was considered essential to maintain the coal industry’s productive capability, and its repeal ignited a class-based nation wide general strike in early May 1926.
For nine days the country literally stopped functioning. As the struggle between the government and the unions deepened Churchill was again the most active member of the government to quell the disturbance basically commanding the creation and publication of a special government newspaper to keep the public informed about the strike, the position of the government and the developments at garnering reconciliation. Thankfully it was bloodless and the strike ended abruptly. However, the class divisiveness engendered by the strike plagued the nation for at least the next 20 years or more with 1926 injustice being revived as late as the 1984-5 coal disputes.
This was the signal event of his Chancellorship. After the excitement of the strike, balancing budgets, limiting unemployment and reducing income taxes became Churchill’s standard fare. He did not enact any other change as effacing or important as the return to Gold. The most notable feature of Churchill’s remaining tenure from 1926-1929 as Chancellor was his stubborn defence of free trade and economic orthodoxy. As the months passed on Churchill’s bellicose defence of free trade began to rattle and decrease his own status within the Conservative party, where many, including Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, favoured protection to give British industry relief from the high rates of unemployment. Churchill demurred and would not countenance such unorthodox blasphemy. For his colleagues this became a point of frustration. This was elevated in degree by Winston’s dominating, energetic manner. His colleagues were beginning to tire of Churchill’s overpowering presence, clever memoranda, forays into departments other than his own, and the vast literature of ideas and action points. Baldwin confided to a friend that Churchill’s lack of team skills was a disadvantage that outweighed his contributions and that he would not want Churchill in another government. He and his successors kept this promise, and Churchill was ostracised from office and power from 1929 to 1939.
In 1929 Baldwin’s government went to the polls. Labour emerged as the largest party and formed a government with Liberal support and Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister for the second time. In 1931 MacDonald deserted the Labour party and joined forces with the Conservatives in forming a National Government to deal with the financial crisis produced by the crash of Wall Street in 1929. This National Government was primarily Conservative in nature and though MacDonald was Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin was the real power broker and King maker.
This was the dawning age of the common man, where the spoils of power, prestige and money were to be distributed to a greater swath of society than ever before. The 1930’s marked the rise of the common man’s perception that society’s ills were not being repaired. He began to doubt the wisdom of being ruled by his so-called ‘betters’, those of the oligarchic aristocratic powerful elite, who by birth, money or talent and energy had hoisted themselves up to the summit of the noble ruling range. Was this system to continue indefinitely, the common man began to ask ? And as he surveyed the scene of poverty, unemployment, lost opportunity and vast resources wasted on war and death, he rightly began to question why it was that security, proper wages, better education and health were eluding his grasp ? Industrial and political control became mandatory and very quickly the common man became the richest political prize and a requirement for all politicians to woo and master.
Churchill was concerned that the Labour party, in the early stages of its development lacked the resolve and skill to govern. Largely this was correct. He did and could not blame the working man for erupting against the grave state of unemployment and desiring the fulfilment of hopes and promises. However, he was sceptical of magical remedies to cure the issue of 1-2 million men out of work. The great Keynes forwarded a mammoth plan of large borrowings for public works to relieve unemployment which Churchill readily denounced with veracity as ‘camouflaged inflation’. Thankfully neither the Labour Government nor the Conservative opposition were tempted by such schismatic views. Balanced budgets, and acceptable wage and price levels were deemed the wisest course.
Though it can never be forwarded that Churchill was a brilliant economist, he did have a solid grasp of the underlying principles of sound finance. What was distasteful to Winston was the blight that party politics radiated upon important economic questions. In June 1930 he delivered a lecture at Oxford University sponsoring the suggestion that economics must be separated from politics, “I see no reason why the political Parliament should not choose in proportion to its Party groupings a subordinate Economic Parliament of say one-fifth of its numbers, and composed of persons of high technical and business qualifications. This idea has received much countenance in Germany. I see no reason why such an assembly should not debate in the open light of day and without caring a half-penny who won the General Election, or who had the best slogans for curing unemployment, all the grave economic issues by which we are now confronted afflicted. I see no reason why the Economic Parliament should not for the time being command a greater interest than the political Parliament; nor why the political Parliament should not assist it with its training and experience in methods of debate and procedure. What is required is a new personnel adapted to the task which has to be done, and pursuing that task day after day without the distractions of other affairs and without fear, favour or affection.”
This was met with a cold indifference and Churchill found himself almost alone in its avocation. To compensate the pen provided distraction and he wrote his autobiography My Early Life, quite an amusing tale that finishes with his entrance into Parliament and his marriage ending with the words, “I married and lived happily ever afterwards.” The public was amazed by the tolerant and gentle humour of the work, much of it directed against himself. It was not the evocations of a combustible politician, but more the reflections of a man detached from life’s strife and living on high, above the corrupt daily battle of the House of Commons. This was soon followed by series of newspaper articles and essays ranging in subject from one on ‘Moses’ to ‘Shall We All Commit Suicide?’, bounded and reprinted in a book called Thoughts and Adventures. The last literary piece to appear in the early 30’s was the thick fifth volume of the First World War, The World Crisis, The War on the Eastern Front.
Also revealing but seldom known was that Churchill seldom spent a week-end away from his country house, Chartwell, which was close enough to London that a long troupe of friends would motor down for dinner engagements. Winston’s preferred element of relaxation was ardent political debate, late into the evening, with an early waking, working in bed, smoking of a large cigar and the afternoons engaged in children, farming and building. Churchill loved construction. He built a tree-top house, a goldfish pond, a bathing pool, a cottage, a brick wall, dammed a lake, and made miniature waterfalls. This love of design sprang from his interest in applying a methodical and systemic technique. The appeal of writing stemmed from matching sentences together to form paragraphs which then had to be arranged into a coherent pattern. Such it was with the creation of physical objects. The fabrication of the cottage and long wall induced Churchill, the arch-Conservative, to join the bricklayer’s association as a professional that could lay one brick per minute. Needless to say the Labour party was unamused. The public had no opportunity to see this side of the man; devoted to animals, family and estate projects. To the general mass Winston was pugnacious and formidable with a robotic appetite for work, a brilliant mind, unstable character and a flaming ambition.
Churchill’s immersion and occupation in the scholarly world was disturbed by one of the great debates in British history. In the early to mid 1930’s it was India – and the granting of nationhood to India – which dominated Churchill’s activities as he sat out of power. The Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties all supported the extension of dominion or independence to India and the details of the bill were in the hands of a multiparty commission. The Viceroy’s of India (Lord Halifax followed by Lord Irwin) were in favour of granting India the freedom that she demanded; first in drawing up a Federal Constitution; and second in extending self-government in Dominion status. Undoubtedly public opinion had been sharpened by the protracted struggle and lessons of Ireland. India was simply requesting what had already been granted to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There was much to be lost by ruling with repressive force and much to gain by granting concessions and acting in accordance with the inclinations of a great subcontinent.
Churchill was adamantly opposed to any relinquishment of British control or influence. He was almost alone in his extreme criticism. And though his opponents used some chicanery to push the India Bill through Parliament Churchill’s hard and prickly position alienated and diminished his stature. His Demosthenic railings against Indian self determination were viewed with suspicion and then scorn by his contemporaries. Winston passionately and correctly believed that India was indispensable for the maintenance of the British Empire – it was certainly the jewel in the crown. Without it the rest of Britain’s imperialistic holdings would surely slip away. He also correctly surmised that without the resources and captive markets of the great subcontinent Britain could have difficulty surviving as a prosperous country and that once granted independence India would be riven with sectarian violence and bloodshed. However his obstinate badgering and negative criticasting did not prevent the bill from being given Parliamentary approval in 1935 as it rightly deserved. You cannot keep a subcontinent like India in permanent subjugation.
The Conservative party was outraged with Churchill’s obduracy over a 5 year period in trying to kill the India bill. Churchill was always consistent in his advocacy that India was inseparable from fortune in the affairs of Britain. However his pronounced, rash and incongruous campaign severed his ties with the Conservatives. He was a Tory in name, but the wilderness was his home. He became a political untouchable for much of the 1930’s. Legendary, brash, and self serving, or so the great mass believed when Churchill’s name was invoked. Though Churchill had a mystical belief in his own greatness and ultimate destiny most of his friends conceded during the early 1930’s that his career was finished. He had now quarrelled heavily with all three parties. The boats were burnt, there was no retreat. The Conservatives had quite reluctantly forgiven him once, and now that their suspicions had in their own minds been justified by Churchill’s extremity over India they were unlikely to grant absolution a second time. The Liberal Party was dead and the Labour party viewed Churchill as the Beelzebub of the House of Commons. In what direction lay the future ?
Strangely enough, when opportunity appeared at low ebb, Churchill began in 1931 the work on his famous ancestor the Duke of Marlborough which prepared him for the challenges of leadership during World War Two. It was the sweat, thought and inspiration poured into this literary masterpiece with its own story of weakness, subterfuge, tyranny and salvation that so peculiarly mirrored the events of the Second World War. This indoctrination prepared Churchill beautifully for the leadership of Britain at the darkest hour in its history. Ever since he was a young lad, Winston had consumed all the information he could imbibe on his great forbear John Churchill. Here was a tale that contained every element of drama; the story of the poor youth who came from unknown origins to become one of the greatest generals of all time and who saved England and half of Europe from the despotic maniacal control of France’s King Louis the XIV; of the pretty youth who fascinated the King of England’s mistress; the ambitious man who became the richest man in Europe; the sought after hero who loved his wife with unbounded passion for over 50 years; the conquering god who never lost a battle; the political diplomatist who ruled England by effective power during his tenure as war-lord. Nothing was missing. It was the perfect tale of dash, flash, glory and power. Love, war, espionage, revolution, King’s, Queen’s, romance and success all weaved and threaded themselves into one astonishing life.
It is small wonder that Winston became attracted to writing this thrilling record. The skill of Churchill’s account resides in his ability to bring all of the characters into life. The complicated relations are dealt with at a confident brilliant pace, and reveals a century (late 17th to early 18th) of resounding change. As a literary piece it compares with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and as an artistic expression it has few historical equals. Thankfully this story of power and struggle was not written by a historian but by a politician hobbying as a historian. Only a man who understood the current of political life could have written such a detailed and satisfying explanation of the jostling that takes place in political circles. Even more vital it was a theme of freedom and the restoration of England’s and of Europe’s independence. Such a thesis fuelled all of the innermost fires of Churchill’s fibre, “Since the duel between Rome and Carthage there had been no such world war. It involved all the civilised peoples; it extended to every part of the accessible globe; it settled for some time or permanently the real relative wealth and power, and the frontiers of every important European state.”
These words were written during 1933, the year Hitler came to power. Away from artistic endeavours Churchill began to discharge time and energy into comprehending and communicating the threat of Hitler’s Germany, collecting testaments and information on the gravity of Hitler’s menace from all parties and sources. Winston in his speeches consistently exhorted a full support of the League of Nations and tried to draw Russia into a Grand Alliance to ring and contain German ambition. However, his appeals rang hollow in the halls of the pacifist democracy and in the circles of power. Almost by default it appeared that the dove Ramsay Macdonald, and his Labour party would be a reliable guide to lead affairs for the 1930’s. Militarism was scorned and war in the 1930’s dismissed and pressing economic questions had to be resolved. The second Labour government under Macdonald was a disaster, not only due to ministerial incompetence but also to the stock crash, and the financial derangement which drove unemployment to over 3 million men, hastening the decline of important first and secondary industries, and showing to the world the inefficient work practices, and dearth of British business and entrepreneurial skills. British society was in tumult during the 1930’s.
In 1936 fascist Italy was busy conquering Ethiopia, and Franco was waging civil war in Spain supported by Germany and Italy against the government. In both cases the British government adhered to non-intervention though public psychology was greatly stirred by the Spanish war and Jewish refugees brought home the nightmare of Hitler’s Germany. Still the election of the Conservative party and Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister confirmed the people’s desire not to get involved with Europe or at least not another Continental war – no matter how bitter and distasteful they might find the events.
MacDonald was replaced in the mid thirties by the decaying Conservative Leader Stanley Baldwin who with his faltering powers was no more effective than his predecessor in curing the employment and economic problems ruining British society. But remarkably and in a very British-like manner, the UK compared to the Continent, displayed a great stability and affinity for liberal democratic governance and law. Whilst the baboonery of fascism skipped and capered in Germany, Italy. Japan and Spain, and whilst Russia was raped by the Bolshevik monsters, Britain, saddled with a distressing economic and social condition showed no real inclination (outside of a small fringe that supported Oswald Mosley’s fascist party) to gravitate towards revolution or anarchy. It was superhumanly stable.
This lasted until 1937. This mood of pacifist peace began to harden itself and grow bitter. The change of attitude was not due to domestic disunity but forced by foreign affairs. The rise of the demented Hitler finally drew a response in 1937 in the form of a British commitment to increase military preparedness. In 1936 Hitler marched into the allied occupied Rhinelands in direct infringement of the Versailles treaty. Only Churchill called for a military response. It was a gigantic bluff on the part of Hitler. France was immobile with fear and refused to move without British support. Baldwin would not commit himself and urged the French to take the matter to the League of Nations. As we know today, if the French army had advanced into the Rhine area scarcely a shot would have to have been fired to disperse the German force. Hitler had occupied the Rhineland in direct violation of his Chief of Staff advice with only a handful of troops. The democracies were inert and Hitler rightly guessed at the lack of resolve and courage of France and Britain.
While France stood gaping and Britain remained pawing the ground, Churchill attempted to galvanise the world through collective action; “If the League of Nations were able to enforce its decree upon one of the most powerful countries in the world found to be an aggressor, then the authority of the League would be set upon so majestic a pedestal that it must henceforth be the accepted sovereign authority by which all the quarrels of the people can be determined and controlled. Thus we might upon this occasion reach by one single bound the realisation of our most cherished dreams.” No action was forthcoming and the political leaders and newspapers of the day played down the crisis. However Baldwin’s stock was falling and Churchill’s was climbing.
The British had long been harangued by Churchill for their blindness to Hitler’s menace. The 1930’s make tragic reading. If but a tithe of Churchill’s advice and will had been effected the desolation of the Second World War would never have transpired. Efforts were made but they were too small to meet the challenge. Beginning in 1935 a new fighter based Air Force was being patiently constructed, and well known scientists dedicated to remilitarizing Britain like Henry Tizard and his rival, Churchill’s mentor Frederick Lindemann, were given ample access in corridors of power. Though the armed forces were being renewed, it was a case of far too little too late. The great German advantage in air and land power could not be overcome in a few short years by a determined but still rather small British remilitarization campaign.
The vacillation and blind insipidity of Britain, France and America during the 1930’s even now defies comprehension. At that time nearly every foreign correspondent was aware of the derision in which the dictators held the democracies and their determination to wage war while the waging was good. Masses of paper appeal to this theme. In 1937 Herr von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to London had a long talk with Churchill telling him openly that Germany must have a free hand in Eastern Europe. When Churchill stated that Britain would not allow this the German replied, “In that case war is inevitable. There is no way out. The Fuhrer is resolved. Nothing will stop him and nothing will stop us.” It is difficult to find another period in history when war was so unconcealed and obvious.