The Life and Struggles of Winston Churchill: World War One

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Sir Winston Churchill

Winston found his post as Home Secretary depressing, but his next task in government as First Lord of the Admiralty brought him even greater trauma.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston found a readymade crisis already waiting for him. Three months before taking up his new post, an incident occurred on the Atlantic coast of North Africa which demonstrated how his new role would place him at the center of international events.

Crisis at Agadir

On July 1, 1911, a German gunboat, the Panther, steamed into the port of Agadir on the western, Atlantic, coast of Morocco. Agadir lay within the French sphere of influence. Ostensibly, the Panther was there to protect German commence, but the French felt threatened.

The British government was convinced that the Agadir crisis, as it came to be known, was only the first step in a move towards full-scale German naval presence in the area. The scene was now set for a confrontation that lasted well into the autumn of 1911.

The Royal Navy and the French fleet were placed on alert. Plans to avert a German invasion of France were laid. The Germans massed their fleet in the naval base at Kiel. The situation began to look increasingly dangerous, though fortunately, the Germans eventually backed down and withdrew their gunboat.

Forewarning of War

Nevertheless, for Winston Churchill, the lessons were clear. Agadir, he was certain, was the portent of a fast approaching war with Germany. The Agadir incident reinforced Winston’s longstanding view that the only was to protect Britain and its interests from the Germans was to make the Royal Navy invulnerable.

At the Admiralty in London, Winston embarked on a punishing program of activity to ensure that the Royal Navy remained superior to the German Imperial fleet. Over the next two and a half years, he inspected dockyards and ships under construction. He visited naval barracks and the submarine school at Portsmouth along the south coast of England.

Winston scrutinized timetables for repairs, refits and the restocking of ships with ammunition and torpedoes. During this time, he lived and worked on board the Admiralty yacht Enchantress.

Whatever time he managed to spend at home had to be snatched between engagements, although Clementine occasionally stayed with Winston on the Enchantress. When she had to return home, both she and Winston found separation painful. Winston was particular aware of his experience with his own distant father. He wanted to engage with his own children and fretted when his contact with them was intermittent.

Technological breakthroughs

Winston had a lifelong fascination with modern gadgetry. He was, for example, intensely interested in Admiral John Fisher’s concept of a super-dreadnought battleship which would be powered by oil instead of coal.

This was one of the most revolutionary innovations of the early twentieth century and it greatly strengthened the fighting power of the Royal Navy. The super-dreadnought, it was planned, would be able to reach a speed of twenty-five knots, and could carry a powerful battery of eight fifteen-inch guns. In 1915, Winston commissioned the first super-dreadnought, HMS Elizabeth and so instantly made all other naval vessels obsolete.

Winston was also enthralled by another equally exciting advance, aviation, and its potential as a new weapon of war. In 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers first pioneering flight, Winston was already envisaging a naval air force that could bomb and machine-gun enemy forces on the ground.

He not only championed such a force, but became such a keen enthusiast of aviation that he started to take flying lessons early in 1913.

Assassination and War

The following year, on June 28, 1914, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, ignited the conflict Winston had long foreseen. The murder set in train a series of interlocked alliances among the European powers.

Britain declared war on Germany, Austria’s ally, on August 4. Other countries in the network of alliances followed until by early November, the battle lines of World War One were inexorably drawn. Britain, France and Russia faced the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey.

World War One at Sea

At sea, Britain’s Royal Navy scored a first victory on August 28, 1914 by sinking three German cruisers in the Heligoland Bight in the North Sea. The British Grand Fleet was anchored in Scapa Flow, north of Scotland. This blocked access to the Atlantic ocean so that the much-feared German battleships were holed up in harbor.

Despite the blockade, though, there were still naval losses. The Germans sank three Royal Navy cruisers in September 1914, in the North Sea near Dogger Bank. Three more were torpedoed by German submarines in October and November that same year.

World War One on Land

The news on the Western Front in northern France and Belgium, where the British and French armies were in retreat, was no better. By October, the fighting France had settled into trench warfare, an atrocity of waste, squalor and death festooned with barbed wire.

A pall of depression hung over the British war effort. One of the first tasks of the war Council created by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, in December 1914, was to repair damaged morale. Another was to open a second front to end the stalemate in France.

The Dardanelles

The most promising opportunity appeared to be an attack on Ottoman Turkey, the weakest of the Central Powers. Accordingly, Winston developed plans to destroy the forts lining the Dardanelles, the 45 mile long strait linking the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara which guarded the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, which was later known as Istanbul. By securing the strait, Winston hoped to force Turkey out of the war and open up a route to Russia.

A joint Anglo-French fleet of fifteen battleships launched the assault in mid-February, 1915. Two heavy bombardments silenced most of the Turkish forts, but then things began to go wrong – seriously wrong and Winston found himself confronted by a savage and costly controversy

Sources:

  1. Joll, Professor James and Martel, Professor Gordon: The Origins of the First World War (Origins Of Modern Wars) (London, UK: Longman 2006) ISBN-10: 0582423791/ISBN-13: 978-0582423794
  2. Churchill, Winston: The World Crisis 1911-1918 (Penguin Classics) by Winston Churchill (London, UK: Penguin Classics, 2007) ISBN-10: 0141442050/ISBN-13: 978-0141442051