Best known for his charismatic Second World War leadership and eloquent speeches, Winston Churchill’s reputation up to that point was much more controversial. Eccentric, bellicose and with limited regard for party lines, he divided opinion among his political colleagues and the public alike. His performance in the First World War continued that trend and though he made some good decisions, his war record is dominated by Gallipoli, one of the worst offensives of the war, where his aggressive mindset led to hundreds of thousands of wasted lives.
As First Lord of the Admiralty
In 1914 Churchill was a Liberal MP and First Lord of the Admiralty. He had held this postion since 1911. His main positive impact was his backing technological innovations such as aeroplanes and tanks. On the other hand he was responsible for disasters like the Gallipoli campaign.
His first major contribution was to encourage the Belgians to hold out for longer at Antwerp. This decision has been praised by some as a sensible attempt to buy time for improving the defences of Calais and Dunkirk, but it has also been criticised, especially by contemporaries, as a risky squandering of men and resources.
After the failed e in the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, in which the Allies sustained a quarter of a million casualties, he was removed from office. In fact, Churchill’s removal was one of Conservative leader Andrew Bonar-Law’s conditions for agreeing to enter into a coalition with Liberal Prime Minister Asquith.
On the Quiet Western Front
Anxious to improve his public image after a poor performance early in the war, he resigned from government and joined the army. He was made a lieutenant-colonel, having already served as an army officer in Africa prior to commencing his political career.
He was stationed at Ploegsteert on of the front’s quiet sectors. He was not involved in any set battles, but would periodically make visits to the front and to no man’s land, placing himself in greater danger than was typical of an officer of his rank. He returned after only 4 months, concluding that his abilities were best suited to politics after all.
Churchill Returns to Britain
In March 1916 Churchill arrived back in England and once again spoke in the House of Commons. His role in the remainder of the war was somewhat limited, but in 1917 he was made Minister of Munitions, a role he fulfilled competently, but which had declined in prominence since Lloyd-George had resolved the 1915 shell crisis.
His relations with David Lloyd-George, who had succeeded Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916, were strained at times, with Llyod-George remarking that ‘the state of mind revealed in [your] letter is the reason why you do not win trust even where you command admiration. In every line of it, national interests are completely overshadowed by your personal concern’.
Immediately following the war he was appointed Secretary of State for War, in which capacity he ruthlessly and often violently pursued British imperial interests, particularly in the new Middle Eastern territories acquired in the war.