Churchill and the Great War

Woodstock 1874 - London 1965

Winston Spencer Churchill was born on 30 November of 1874 in Woodstock, son of lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill, an important conservative politician. Churchill went to the military school of Sandhurst and was a correspondent in South Africa at the time of the Boer war, then in Afghanistan and in India. In Sudan, he participated in the war against the Dervishes, distinguishing himself in the Hussar regiment during the battle of Omdurman. He entered politics in 1900 in the conservative party, and then moved to the liberal party in 1906. In 1908, he was president of the Board of Trade and between 1910 and 1911 was minister of the interior. He is recalled as one of the protagonists of the Allied victory in World War II. In fact, he also had an important role in the Great War.

At the outbreak of World War I, Churchill occupied the important role of first Lord of the Admiralty; he was thus the political director of the Royal Navy. On 5 August 1914 he went to Antwerp where he responded to a request for aid from Belgium, sending three thousand marine infantry troops. To break the impasse in the trenches he began development of the battle tank, financed with Royal Navy funds. Like other members of the government, Churchill was convinced of the impossibility of a solution to the war on the western front and the need for strong military support for Russia.

Between August and September of 1914 the Russian forces were beaten in Tannenberg and on the Masurian Lakes. The invasion of eastern Prussia concluded with a serious debacle for the Tsarist armies. They lost a significant amount of equipment, including 500 cannons, that could not be replaced due to Russia’s reduced industrial capacity. With the Tsarist Empire in difficulty the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the conflict further complicated the situation. Russia, incapable of replacing the lost material, needed a significant amount of supplies from its western allies, and the closing of the Bosphorus left the long route through Siberia as the only passage.

In November of 1914, Ottoman operations began in the Caucasus. The Russians, although managing to block the attacks and come out victorious in various encounters, were subject to significant pressure on most fronts. On 2 January 1915, the Grand Duke Nicholas, commander of the Russian troops in the Caucasus, asked Kitchener to implement a military operation that would lighten Turkish pressure on the Russian forces. Due to the impossibility of sending troops, Kitchener planned a demonstrative naval operation against the Dardanelles, in order to destroy the only two munitions factories of the Ottoman Empire.

Winston Churchill convinced Kitchener to undertake a broader operation with the landing of a strong contingent at Gallipoli to conquer the Straits. Originally, the plan included simultaneous landing on the island of Borkum in the North Sea and an attack on the Straits; in view of the difficulty, it was decided to limit the operations to Dardanelles soil.

Overall, the strategic function that Churchill conferred to the operation of the Dardanelles went well beyond opening a supply route to Russia, encompassing the entire conflict. The blow from the loss of Constantinople would convinced the Ottoman Empire to surrender, eliminating the Caucasus front and protecting Suez and the petroleum deposits in Persia. In Churchill’s view a major allied presence in the Mediterranean would also have driven Italians and Greeks to break the stalemate, making a concentrated attack on Austria-Hungary.

The Gallipoli landing, too ambitious for the means used and confronted with the effective defence of the Turkish troops, ended as a complete failure with serious losses. Churchill, considered solely responsible for the disaster, was forced to retire. Excluded from the government, he enlisted in the army, fighting on the French Front, with the rank of Major in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. In 1917, after a commission of inquiry had absolved him from any responsibility for the disaster of the Dardanelles, he assumed the role of Minister of Munitions, in charge of military supplies. His support for the development of the battle tank and the airplanes contributed to the British victory in World War I.