15 November 1915 – Quitter

Never happy unless he is the center of attention, Winston Churchill has chafed at Hoe Farm ever since he lost his cabinet position in a shakeup this May. Serving as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is hardly the best use of his talents, he reasons, especially in wartime. Bored with learning to paint, unsatisfied giving speeches on strategy when he once made Admiralty policy, and tired of defending his embarrassment at Antwerp, today he appears in the House of Commons to announce his resignation from politics in order to serve once again in uniform. Before he goes, Churchill makes one more defense of his disastrous strategy in the Dardanelles.

[T]he naval attack on the Dardanelles was a naval plan, made by naval authorities on the spot, approved by naval experts in the Admiralty, assented to by the 1st Sea Lord, and executed on the spot by Admirals who at every stage believed in the operations (and were confident and are still confident of success). I am bound, not only in justice to myself, but in justice to the Fleet, who require to know that the orders sent to them from the Admiralty are those which carry the highest responsible professional authority, I am bound to make that clear. While I am willing to bear any responsibility which I may properly assume, and certainly ready to take the blame for anything that goes wrong, I will not have it said that this was a civilian plan, foisted by a political amateur upon reluctant officers and experts . . . All through this year I’ve offered the same counsel to the Government; undertake no operation in the West, which is more costly to us in life than to the enemy. In the East, take Constantinople; take it by ships if you can; take it by soldiers if you must; but take it, and take it soon, and take it while time remains. The situation is now entirely changed, and I am not called upon to offer any advice on its new aspects. But it seems to me that if there were any operations in the history of the world which, having been begun, it was worth while to carry through with the utmost vigor and fury, with a constant flow of reinforcements, and utter disregard for life, it was the operations so daringly and brilliantly begun by Sir Ian Hamilton in the immortal landing of the 25th April. That is all I have to say about the Dardanelles.

These words are so detached from reality as to border on delusion. Hamilton has been an abysmal failure at Gallipoli, and Churchill’s own public statements helped ensure the operation would be a fiasco by telegraphing his intentions to the Turks. Despite having dispatched a far larger force than originally envisioned, thus tying up large forces that might better be used elsewhere, the fighting in the Dardanelles has bogged down in a state of trench warfare every bit as bloody and useless as the Western Front. Today the 52nd Division undertakes another very limited assault on Turkish positions, winning a trifling bit of ground and then declaring a great victory afterwards. It is a minor boost to the morale of a shattered army, but the minister of war has been on the scene for two days, and his personal inspection has dispelled any notion from his mind that victory is possible.

Yet Churchill is not alone in his delusions. Reporting the resignation, the Guardian newspaper runs an op-ed farewell that belongs in a collection of the world’s most obsequious press clippings.

We deeply regret the resignation of Mr. CHURCHILL. His absence from the counsels of the Government is a great national loss, for in our opinion – though we dare say that there are few now who share it – Mr. CHURCHILL had the best strategic eye in the Government.

That he has not been included in the new War Committee of the Cabinet is the occasion rather than the cause of his resignation. No doubt, even after all that has been said by members of the Government, he feels that his exclusion is a censure on the Dardanelles expedition, with which his name is associated in the popular mind.

Our own view, frequently expressed, is that though the expedition has been so mismanaged the strategical idea has been proved by what has happened since to have been not only sound but brilliantly prescient. There have been two opportunities of winning the war. One was last October, before the fall of Antwerp. The other was this spring, when a great effort by land and sea would have won through to Constantinople and saved us all our troubles in the East now. Mr. CHURCHILL saw them both at the time, and though his ideas were adopted, neither in Flanders nor in the East did they have anything like a fair chance.

Perhaps this thought is in his mind when he says in his letter that even when decisions of policy are rightly taken the speed and method of execution may determine their success. But bitterly though he must feel the attacks on his war policy, he would not have left the Government had he felt that he could do effectual service in it. He leaves it because he refuses to be responsible for a war policy over which as a mere member of the Cabinet not on the War Committee he has no control.

Lord John Fisher, whose resignation from the Admiralty over disagreements with Churchill regarding the Dardanelles expedition helped precipitate the crisis which cast him out of the cabinet, is asked for comment the day after his farewell speech.

Certain references were made to me in the speech delivered by Mr. Churchill on Monday. I have been 61 years in the service of the country, and I leave my record in the hands of my countrymen. Mr. Asquith has stated that Mr Churchill said things which it was better should be left unsaid, and had not said things which will have to be said. I am content to wait. It is not fitting to make personal explanations affecting the national interests when the country is in the midst of a great war.

Hoping to be placed in command of a full brigade, Churchill is disappointed again when he must settle for a mere battalion. He is gifted a French Adrian helmet in December, and immediately begins to wear it rather than the standard issue Brodie helmet in order to stand unique at all times. It is another example of his desperate need for the spotlight, a character trait that also leads him to become known as the commander with the most ‘active’ sector on the British line — meaning that he gets men killed at a steady rate in order to produce the most glowing reports possible, that his image might advance the farther. His reputational rehabilitation will be less bloody than his grand strategic errors, but only as a matter of scale.


A trench map of the sector at Ploegsteert where Churchill will expose himself to enemy fire many times