Winnie the Warmonger

Ralph Zuljan

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill has been described as the second most influential person in World War II, eclipsed only by Adolf Hitler. But his influence did not arise in a vacuum. His political and military career spanned nearly four decades prior to the war.

Born in 1874 to wealthy and aristocratic parents Churchill's childhood and early education were distinguished only by poor behavior and worse grades. It was with great difficulty that he succeeded in entering the Royal Military College at Sandhurst when he was 19. Once at Sandhurst, however, things changed. Churchill graduated eighth in a class of 150.

Churchill served in the army for only five years after graduation, seeing action in a number of theaters. In 1899 he resigned his commission and ran for Parliament. He was defeated and returned to military life as a war correspondent covering the Boer War in South Africa.

While there Churchill, though a civilian, was made prisoner of war and effected a daring escape, thus acquiring war hero status. A hero was needed at the time, for the war was going badly for Britain and when Churchill returned to England his new status may have been a factor in his second, successful bid for a Conservative seat in Parliament.

Churchill's political career was marred by a number of electoral defeats in various ridings. It was not until he was elected in Epping in 1924 that he attained a permanent seat in the House of Commons. In the interim he switched party allegiances several times, starting as a Conservative, then a Liberal and finally settling as Conservative again before he became Prime Minister in 1940.

It was not that Churchill was an opportunist, changing Party affiliations for political gain. Rather, his firmly held convictions led him to switch parties when party doctrine changed.

It was the Liberal party that afforded Churchill his first Cabinet posting, President of the Board of Trade, in 1908. This posting also afforded him his first major political disaster, Tonypandy, which haunted him long past the close of World War II.

In 1910, striking coal miners in Tonypandy, Wales, began to riot. Churchill sent 300 London police officers to put down the riots and two miners were killed. His political opponents accused him of being an enemy of labor and the common people in the ensuing row. It was an event that would be instrumental in his wartime government's ousting in the election of 1945.

Despite his unpopularity with labor, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. Here he proved to be both effective and popular until his second great disaster, the Dardanelles campaign of 1915.

While the failure at Gallipoli was the nadir of Churchill's political career to date it had been preceded by another disaster, the defense of the Belgian city of Antwerp. Churchill was actually in Antwerp, directing the defense, until he was replaced by a British general. Despite the arrival of a new commander (with no new troops) Churchill himself gave the order to retreat and the Belgium surrendered to Germany. Churchill was blamed for the loss of Antwerp and his detractors added this to the odium of Tonypandy.

Trench warfare had produced a deadlock in the First World War on the western front. Something new was needed and Churchill had some ideas. One of these was for "landships." Nicknamed tanks for security reasons, the new weapon was used to great effect by 1918 and has remained a prominent feature of warfare ever since.

Another idea was to attack in the Dardanelles, a body of water in Turkey. This was decided for a number of strategic reasons and the potential gains were great. A new route into Austria-Hungary and Germany could be opened and the war might be brought to a speedier end.

British bombardment of Turkish forts began on February 19, 1915 and continued until mid-March. The Turks were supposedly about to surrender when, on March 18, three British warships ran afoul of a minefield and sank. The commanding Admiral withdrew and refused to continue the attack, despite Churchill's orders to the contrary. Instead, he called for land troops. It was over a month later that these forces arrived and by that time the Turks had had time to resupply and rearm. The British were repulsed, with tremendous losses.

A scapegoat was needed, and it was Churchill. He was dismissed as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Although he continued to serve in Cabinet for a short while, he resigned in November 1915 and joined the army to fight in France.

Tonypandy, Antwerp and Gallipoli all combined to keep Churchill out of any real position of power, until after the beginning of the Second World War.

Major Churchill was not warmly received by his brother officers but he was promoted to lieutenant commander and given command of a battalion. Churchill was happy to be in active service again, and popular with his men but he was needed more in Parliament than in the front lines. He resumed his seat in May 1916.

Although Churchill was cleared of blame in the Dardanelles affair it continued to plague him. There was considerable opposition to his June 1917 appointment to Cabinet as Minister of Munitions. He proved very able in this capacity, increasing production by about 20 percent.

A year later the "war to end all wars" was over.

The postwar years saw Churchill involved with foreign affairs in two different Cabinet posts, Minister of Air and War and Colonial Secretary, unseated and reelected. It was a busy time for Churchill, made busier by his constant campaigning for vigilance about what he perceived to be the growing threat of Hitler, the Nazi party, and German rearmament.

British government policy towards Hitler, at the time, was one of appeasement -- later viewed as a policy of peace at any price, even at the expense of supposed allies and treaty commitments. Churchill's warnings earned him only ridicule and a reputation as a paranoid warmonger.

Originally published in "World War II" at on October 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003. 

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