The Cult of Churchill is something that’s become embedded in the British psyche in the post-war era; the British bulldog spirit, siege mentality and “we will never surrender”, have become so ingrained in our minds that they’re values invoked in every situation. In a way, and irrespective of one’s opinion on the merits or otherwise of Mr Churchill, we nationalists have much to thank him for. Were it not for this island nation, “us against them” mentality, the tumultuous episode that is now dubbed Brexit may never have happened. His memory allows us to believe, sometimes against rationality, that we really can go it alone.
Yet Churchill, this superhero of the British spirit and celebrated victor of the Second World War, is perhaps not worth the high praise he posthumously attracts. On closer inspection one finds that his victories came at a high price for the British Empire, the British state and the British people, or in any case were not his victories at all. After all, this was a man who entered public life in 1900 when Britain ruled the waves. Our vast empire surpassed anything seen on this earth since Rome. But in 1955, when he retired from public life, Churchill sat at the helm of a castrated, second-rate power, ridiculed abroad and impoverished at home. Can it be merely an unfortunate coincidence that the decline of this great nation occurred in direct correlation with Churchill’s ascent from an obscure journalist to unrivalled Prime Minister?
In this article, we’re going to look at the First World War and Winston Churchill’s role therein. His influence over this particular period in British history in fact began in 1911, when he entered government as First Lord of the Admiralty under Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. He had previously served, albeit briefly, as a remarkably young Home Secretary under the same government, after crossing the floor from the Tories to the Liberals in 1904 – as it happens, the Tories were routed at the 1905 election, suggesting that young Winston’s reported switch of allegiances as a result of the Tories’ abandonment of Free Trade was very little more than an opportunistic attempt to finish on the winning side.
Churchill’s first act of any impact on the events that led to the Great War came in 1912, when the young First Lord of the Admiralty held secret talks with a French delegation, alongside Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary since 1905. Unbeknown to the public, parliament and, apparently, the remaining members of the cabinet, Sir Edward Grey had already held secret talks with the French back in 1908, striking a gentleman’s accord to intervene in anyway Franco-German war on the side of the French. This was a sharp departure from Britain’s previously unshakeable commitment to splendid isolation, lest her interests were directly threatened – an isolationist policy strongly supported by most of the Liberal cabinet. In 1912, First Lord Churchill and future Prime Minister David Lloyd George were brought in on the secret. Under Churchill’s initiative, both he and Sir Edward Grey laid the ground for British intervention in a future war between France and Germany by persuading the French to move the entirety of their naval fleet to the Mediterranean, in order to counter Italian and Austro-Hungarian shipping in that region. The implication here, of course, is that the Royal Navy would secure the channel and Baltic coasts on behalf of the French, to the detriment of any German manœuvres in these areas.
Churchill’s stance on intervention in a potential continental conflict put him at odds with the majority of both the cabinet and the country. Whilst Asquith and the remaining Liberal imperialists were concerned solely with British interests, which incidentally found no conflict emanating from Germany, Churchill was the aggravating voice of doom, perversely claiming that the Kaiser’s construction of a High Seas Fleet would endanger British interests – even though the Kaiser and his Naval officers had repeatedly affirmed their commitment to Britain’s law of the seas; not to construct a fleet that would, in addition to Britain’s next largest competitor, be within 10% of Britain’s overall naval displacement. Already, rivals and detractors were referring to young Winston’s anti-German prejudice.
When crunch-time came about in 1914, Churchill was practically alone in his enthusiastic support for continental military intervention. The events of the summer of that year shook the corridors of power across all of Europe. As we know, the catalyst for The Great War came in the form of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and Habsburg Empire. The Austrians issued Serbia a 10-point ultimatum which, upon its almost certain rejection by Serbian leaders, would serve as a legitimate pretext for a short, sharp punitive war to project their power over the disgruntled Slavic elements of the empire. As it happened, the Serbians accepted in their entirety the first 9 points, and at least partially accepted the 10th. Thus war was declared, somewhat reluctantly by an Austrian royalty, in an attempt to save face. The Austrians did not want a war on a European scale. Nor did the Russians, the French and especially the Germans. The British government shared this general disinterest in a Europe-wide war, except for one seemingly rogue element; First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
Of the 18 Liberal cabinet members, more than a dozen had voted not to go to war should the situation arise. A Liberal caucus in the House of Commons had voted against war by a ratio of 4:1. Why, then, did Britain end up in a World War within mere weeks? The responsibility for the course of events that was to follow lies entirely at the feet of Winston Churchill, along with this co-conspirator Sir Edward Grey. When calls for a conference of ambassadors broke down, Churchill could hardly hide his excitement. “My darling one and beautiful: Everything tends toward catastrophe & collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?”, he wrote to his wife Clementine. “Churchill was the only Minister to feel any sense of exultation at the course of events”, wrote biographer John Charmley.
On 4th August 1914, at 11pm, Britain’s ultimatum to Germany – withdraw your forces from Belgium or we’re at war – expired. David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was despondent. “This is not my crowd… I never want to be cheered by a war crowd” he remarked, after being cheered by a crowd baying for blood over the Kaiser’s violation of Belgian sovereignty. He was not alone. Nobody in the cabinet really wanted war, and war was only declared as a result of a 75-year-old pledge to secure Belgian neutrality – the feeling was that the British Empire must defend her honour by standing by its promises to the weak. Thus, a state of war was brought about, if very reluctantly. Even the Kaiser, who today we charged with seeking world domination, was frantically trying to prevent war right up to the 11th hour.
Lloyd George later relayed the scene to a friend, when he was sat with his equally disconsolate Prime Minister Asquith in parliament when war broke out; “Winston dashed into the room, radiant, his face bright, his manner keen, one word pouring out after another how he was going to send telegrams to the Mediterranean, the North Sea and God knows where. You could see he was a really happy man.” Lloyd George and Herbert Asquith could barely hide their disgust at their bloodthirsty First Admiral. A few months later, with 50,000 British, 85,000 French and up to 100,000 German soldiers laying dead after the First Battle of Ypres, Churchill remarked to Violet Asquith (Herbert’s daughter); “I think a curse should rest on me, because I am so happy. I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet – I cannot help it – I enjoy every second!”
Furthermore, there was the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, a pet project of young Winston’s that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of British, ANZAC and French troops. It had long been the wish of Churchill to take Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire (one wonders why), and he demonstrated a reckless eagerness in achieving this task. In early 1915, after numerous disasters on the Western Front against a well-drilled German Army, Churchill sent the allied troops to the Mediterranean in decommissioned ships based upon erroneous reports of a weakened Ottoman military – not dissimilar to the ‘dodgy dossier’ that was used as a pretext for the Blair-Bush invasion of the Middle-East in 2003. Churchill’s willingness to act on poor intelligence, and to send unprepared, unequipped forces to challenge the world’s largest empire resulted in more deaths even that the disastrous Ypres campaign.
Churchill later said of the Kaiser that we should “acquit him of the charge of striving for world domination”. A sensible statement, given the truth of it. But even based on the evidence of the nascent stages of the First World War, we could quite easily level the charge of warmonger squarely at the feet of the young Churchill. Throughout all of Europe’s corridors of power, Winston stood alone in wanting a European war between the great powers. Not the Kaiser, the Emperor Franz Joseph, the French Cabinet nor the Ottoman Empire desired such a war; even the British Cabinet led by H. H. Asquith and David Lloyd George were very reluctant in sending their troops to what they saw as a foreign war detached from their Empire’s interests.
In Part 2, we will examine Churchill’s role in the Second World War, both in terms of his efforts to bring about a confrontation between the British Empire and Hitler’s Reich as well as his subsequent rejections of generous peace offers once war had broken out. We will also look at his role in the unnecessarily punitive Treaty of Versailles, and how this laid the foundations for the aforementioned second war. Finally, we will ask the question, based on all of the evidence, whether Churchill’s actions accelerated the decline of the British Empire and, perhaps somewhat controversially, whether Winston Churchill’s warmongering was ultimately responsible for the catastrophic destruction of this Empire.
Understandably, such a topic can be unsettling, especially to British patriots who have bought into the Cult of Churchill. But this is the beauty of history. Through educating ourselves thoroughly, we may move past the dogmas and poorly understood but widely accepted cults and myths that surround our nations, and instead move toward more enlightened positions from which we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. No amount of veneration of posthumous condemnation will bring back the British Empire, nor will it do justice to the millions of soldiers on both sides who lost their lives, but crucially, we will know next time not to be so quick as to trust warmongers and those who seek to profit from the death-cult that is the military-industrial complex.