Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Sep 29, 2014 in Carlo D'Este

Churchill’s Leadership in World War I

Churchill’s Leadership in World War I

By Carlo D'Este

Although he had hoped it could be averted, when war did come, Winston Churchill embraced it as his own, too much so in the opinion of many. There were two reasons for this: his natural tendency to take charge of any situation in which he found himself and, just as importantly, because Britain in 1914 lacked a true war leader.

Winston Churchill during his time as First Lord of the Admiralty

Winston Churchill during his time as First Lord of the Admiralty

In military matters Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was, by his own admission, wholly unsuited to the role of wartime leader. In military matters he all but ceded control and decision-making to the two most strong-willed men in his government: Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, and Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Indeed, upon examination of Asquith’s almost daily letters to a young woman with whom he was infatuated, Venetia Stanley, the war seemed more like an abstract distraction than a grave national crisis.

The British approach to World War I was self-destructive. With the exception of Churchill, the politicians tended to defer to the generals and the admirals on the grounds they were the experts and knew best, when, in fact, as the war progressed they too would prove incompetent. The ineffective and rudderless political leadership was a lesson Churchill would learn well and vow not to repeat during World War II.


With the exception of Kitchener, Churchill was the only other important figure in the British government who had seen active service in war. Thus, it was these two powerful men who emerged to dominate the first months of World War I. Churchill’s cousin, Shane Leslie, was correct in his assertion that, “No individual in the cabinet knew the smack and taste of war as Winston.”

Early in the war, it was evident to Churchill that there was a void at the top that urgently needed filling. The void was great and while his motives were clearly patriotic, it did not hurt that successful initiatives would enhance his personal and political standing. Having observed first-hand how the Boer War was botched, Churchill had justifiable misgivings about the wisdom of leaving war strictly to the generals and admirals.

Much like the Royal Navy, the British Army had retained in its ranks too many dinosaurs left over from the Victorian era who still occupied commands they were barely competent to hold. Churchill’s lack of faith would be amply justified over the next four troubled years as tens of thousands of lives were uselessly squandered in futile battles of attrition that mostly provided full employment for the graves registration units.

As the war degenerated into a state of paralysis and static warfare, Britain’s war leaders deluded themselves into believing that each new year would bring victory when, instead, it brought only more misery and death. The result was a bloody and prolonged stalemate with neither side capable of breaking the deadlock in France.

Sir Maurice Hankey, the Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defense, accurately described Churchill as “a man of a totally different type from all his colleagues. He had a real zest for war. If war there must be, he at least could enjoy it. The sound of guns quickened his pulses.” His zeal aside, Hankey noted a more important asset of Churchill: “When all looked black and spirits were inclined to droop, he could not only see, but could compel others to see, the brighter side of the picture … He brought an element of youth, energy, vitality and confidence that was a tower of strength to Asquith’s Cabinet in those difficult early days.”

Nor was it merely naval operations with which Churchill involved himself in the war’s first months. His activities encompassed all three environments of warfare: land, sea and air. On a daily basis he was bursting with ideas on how to end the stalemate and win the war. One of them was his offer of British logistical support for a Russian attack on Germany from the Baltic whereby troops would land near Danzig drive on Berlin and quite likely end the war by capturing the German capital.

British Admiral of the Fleet Lord John Fisher and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill speak after a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defense in London.

British Admiral of the Fleet Lord John Fisher (right) and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill speak after a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defense in London.

Churchill became a strong advocate of military policy and constantly lobbied Asquith with ideas and proposals of a military nature. The British Army he insisted was too small and would have to grow dramatically. Former prime minister Arthur Balfour reported a conversation on September 8, 1914 over dinner with Asquith and Churchill in which the First Lord spoke “airily of a British Army of a million men, and tells me he is making siege mortars at Woolwich as big, or bigger, than the German ones, in order to crush the Rhine fortresses.”

Such enormous numbers in the first days of the war implied full conscription at a time when no one at the top level of the British government wanted to hear such a daunting prediction from a war hawk like Churchill. Ultimately, his estimate was but a drop in the manpower bucket. By the time the war ended in November 1918 the British would mobilize 6.2 million men and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would later list a staggering 888,246 war dead for the United Kingdom and its Colonies.

When the War Office was unable to take over the aerial defense of the British homeland, Churchill readily accepted the mission for the Royal Navy in September 1914, thus making him Britain’s de facto air lord. As the new homeland air boss Churchill controlled not only aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service but also a number of the army’s Royal Flying Corps aircraft. Under his direction anti-aircraft barrages and searchlights were emplaced in and around London. In October, he learned that the new flying boat aircraft had been successfully tested in the United States and immediately directed the Admiralty to “Order a dozen as soon as possible.”

Leadership in a time of war is a very sharp, double-edged blade for which only the strong-willed need apply. Those who act decisively during a time of crisis, and succeed, attain heroic status. History, however, judges failure harshly and not always fairly. John F. Kennedy once said that, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” a lesson Churchill was to take from World War I. What separated him from others was not only his willingness – indeed, his zeal to lead – but that, having been stung by failure in one world war, he dared to grasp the reins of leadership in a second world conflict.

Part II presents Churchill’s leadership in the first months of World War I.