23 March 2023
Graham Caldwell describes Winston Churchill’s time as a Battalion Commander on the Western Front in 1915, plus the experience he had for this role.
The Gallipoli-Dardanelles Campaign may have been the only decent strategic idea of WWI, but its planning and execution was a disaster. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was blamed in the press and forced to resign. Whilst still remaining a member of parliament, Churchill applied to re-join his Territorial regiment in November 1915 at the age of 41. The last time he'd been in combat was 16 years earlier in South Africa during the Second Boer War. It would be the like the present-day equivalent of the Defence Secretary putting on a uniform and joining the front-line troops in Syria. However, Churchill was well within his rights to do so because, on 20 February 1895, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Queens Own Hussars; promoted Lieutenant the following year and granted permission to be temporarily attached to other regiments.
Left: Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Winston Churchill wearing his iconic French (Casque Adrian) helmet in 1916 (Sir John Lavery)
On 6 December 1895, as an observer during the Cuban War of Independence against Spain, Churchill was awarded his only gallantry medal, the Cross of the Order of Military Merit (1st Class) for: ‘Valorous conduct displayed in the engagement between government forces and the main body of rebels’. Then, in August 1898, Churchill saw action on the North West Frontier of India and in the Sudan, taking part in the famous charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman, when of the 350 cavalrymen, 70 troopers and 119 horses were killed. On leave, acting as a war correspondent, he became a prisoner of the Boers during the Second South Africa War, but escaped taking up a commission in the South Africa Light Horse, an irregular cavalry regiment, transferring in November 1901 to the Imperial Yeomanry as a Captain, seeing action and gaining six clasps to his Queens South Africa Medal. Finally, resigning from the Army in July 1900, Churchill was offered a Captaincy in the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH) a part-time Yeomanry regiment, which formed part of the Territorial Force from 1908.
Right: Colourised photograph of 21-year-old Churchill in his uniform of the 4th Queens Own Hussars, shortly after being commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1895
Promoted Major since May 1905, Churchill, wearing his QOOH uniform, witnessed German army manoeuvres in October 1913 alongside Kaiser Wilhelm II. In letters to his wife Clementine he wrote of his intent in taking up active service to rehabilitate his reputation, but this was balanced by the serious risk of being killed. Churchill was still on the books of the QOOH, which had been in France since September 1914 as a component of the 2nd Cavalry Division. As such he was offered the command of one of its squadrons and immediately started to dig out his uniform and purchase the necessary kit.
Promotion to Brigadier-General proposed
Left: Poster for the 1972 movie Young Churchill starring Simon Ward. This featured the famous charge of the 21st Lancers, outnumbered six-to-one against tribal Dervishes during the 1898 Sudan War (Columbia Pictures)
As a past Home Secretary and Admiralty First Lord, when Churchill arrived in France on 18 November 1915 he was invited to join Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force at his St Omar headquarters. The two men had known each other since the Boer War and were close friends. Sir John sought a role that would be more appropriate to Winston’s status and suggested that he could become one of his senior aides-de-camp, or that he might prefer to take command of a brigade, subject to a vacancy, which was a Brigadier-General’s billet. Churchill gladly accepted, feeling that his Army experience during the previous 20 years was as good as any other General brought out of retirement, but felt he needed experience in the front line before taking command of four infantry battalions comprising around 4,000 officers and men. Churchill chose the Guards, thus arrangements were made for him to report on 20 November 1915 to Lieutenant Colonel George Jefferys, commanding the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards at Neuve Chapelle. On meeting Churchill, Jefferys said: “I think I ought to tell you that we are not at all consulted in the matter of you coming to join us”. After a prolonged silence Jefferys Adjutant added: “I am afraid we have had to cut down your kit somewhat Major. There are no communication trenches here. We are doing all our reliefs over the top. The men have little more than what they stand up in. We have found a soldier-servant for you, who is carrying a spare pair of socks and your shaving gear. We have had to leave the rest behind.’
Right: Major Churchill, Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, with wife Clementine, at the Territorial annual camp, Aldershot 1910
Churchill accepted the situation and the group continued toward the forward trenches in sombre silence. The Grenadier’s war diary recorded: ‘The Brigade took over line of trenches opposite Pietre. All in a very bad state, communication trenches flooded and front-line breastworks crumbling and not bullet-proof. Major the Hon. Winston Churchill, who has just resigned from Government, arrived to be attached to the Battalion for instruction and accompanied the Battalion to the trenches’. Churchill spent four weeks training with the Guards learning the job of a battalion commanding officer. In early January 1916 Churchill was told that he would get the 56th Brigade, but word reached Westminster that Churchill was shortly to be promoted from Major directly to Temporary Brigadier-General, causing the War Office to block it on the basis that he was merely a Territorial Major; had not been in France more than a month; had not yet commanded a battalion and that there were numerous battalion commanders with greater experience who should be considered first. At the same time Sir John was recalled and replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig, thus depriving Churchill of his sponsor.
Left: Churchill sporting the cap badge of the South Africa Light Horse in 1900, in which he accepted a temporary commission, earning six clasps to his Queens South Africa campaign medal
Haig recalled Sir John French’s overture in his diary: ‘Sir John wished to speak about a delicate personal matter. He wanted to give Winston Churchill an infantry brigade. This had been vetoed, but he was anxious that Winston should have a battalion. I replied that I had no objection because Winston had done some good work in the trenches and we were short of battalion commanders.’ Whilst bitterly disappointed, Churchill acquiesced to accept Haig’s offer to take command of a battalion. After first pencilled in to command the 9th (Service) Battalion, Kings Royal Rifle Corps, his eventful posting was to the 6th (Service) Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers.
On 5 January 1916 Churchill was advanced to Temporary Lieutenant Colonel in the QOOH, but recorded on attachment to the Royal Scots Fusiliers (RSF) and ordered to wear the traditional Glengarry bonnet. The 6th RSF (a component of 9th (Scottish) Division commanded by Major General William Furse) had been in the Battle of Loos three months earlier, suffering over 50% casualties and was stationed near Meteren when Churchill arrived, recovering at two-thirds strength with 30 officers and 700 men, but it lacked a second-in-command, which allowed Churchill to request his friend, Major Archie Sinclair, who had been commissioned into the Life Guards in 1910, but was currently with the Guard Machine Gun Regiment. They formed a lasting friendship, Sinclair becoming Churchill’s Secretary of State for Air during World War II. Churchill’s battalion Adjutant was Captain Dewar Gibb who, in 1924, published the book With Winston Churchill at the Front under the synonym Captain X.
Right: Officers on 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916. 2i/c Major Sinclair (wearing service cap) and the Adjutant, Captain Gibb, sit either side of Lieutenant Colonel Churchill
Churchill’s rather impressive arrival was recorded by Captain FG Scott: ‘Just before noon an imposing cavalcade arrived. Churchill, Archie Sinclair and two grooms all on black chargers, followed by a limber filled with Churchill’s luggage; much more than the 35lbs allowance. In the rear was a curious contraption; a long bath and boiler for heating the bath water’. Churchill shared his bath with his officers, who judged it a great luxury. At lunch Churchill made a short speech to his officers, “Gentlemen, I am now your Commanding Officer. Those who support me I shall look after. Those who go against me I will break. Good afternoon Gentlemen.” Everyone agreed they were not going to like their new CO, but they would soon change their opinion of him.
Left: Winston Churchill at French XXXIII Corps HQ on 15 December 1915, on the occasion of being gifted with a French helmet by General Emile Fayolle (standing next to him)
On 26 January 1916 it was the battalion’s turn to occupy the front line. The area was forward of what was left of the village of Ploegsteert, forever pronounced Plug Street by British Tommies. The 6th RSF rear trench area was situated around four farms. Battalion HQ was at Laurence Farm and is the subject of a watercolour by Churchill, which he titled Plug Street: Battalion Headquarters 1916, now on display at the Queen Victoria School, Dunblane Perthshire. Churchill made the last night in the rear memorable by treating all his officers to a feast complete with oysters and champagne at the Station Hotel in Hazebrouck with General Furse as guest of honour.
Churchill, who felt that the Glengarry bonnet didn’t suit him, had taken to permanently wearing a French steel helmet, known as the Casque Adrian, presented to him by General Emile Fayolle, GOC XXXIII French Corps. It would become a distinctive Churchillian image of his time on the Western Front and is now on display at Chartwell, a National Trust property at Westerham Kent.
Right: The devastated Belgian village of Ploegsteert in the municipality of Comines-Warneton, where the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers arrived in January 1916
Clementine sent Winston regular food parcels, which included three bottles of brandy and cigars shipped out to him every 10 days! Respect was earned when Churchill accompanied patrols into no man’s land 36 times, clad in his iconic waterproof trench coat, but the men found it a nerve racking experience because he refused to whisper, always speaking in his usual loud voice! But it was noticed that he never ducked when a bullet went past or if a shell went off. Danger never bothered him, in fact Churchill relished in the experience of war. On 3 February a shell landed on the roof of the room adjacent to battalion HQ whilst Churchill was toying with his Orilux trench torch. Suddenly a piece of shrapnel split the battery holder in two less than two inches from his right wrist. The lamp and the metal splinter was kept by Churchill as a memento of almost losing his right hand.
Tour of duty ends
Churchill’s hunger to return to politics grew stronger and by May 1916 he had made up his mind to wait for a suitable opportunity to present itself. When it was decided to amalgamate the 6th RSF with the 7th RSF, both at half strength, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Gordon of the 7th RSF, being senior, took command, freeing Churchill to honourably resign his commission. Lord Kitchener accepted Churchill’s resignation on condition that he agreed not to apply for military service again during the war. Whilst Churchill never did lead his battalion in an offensive action during his five months, Lieutenant Jock McDavid praised his time with them when he wrote: ‘Morale was low, but after a very brief period he accelerated the morale of the officers and men to an unbelievable degree by his sheer personality. We laughed at lots of things he did, but there were other things we did not laugh at for we knew they were sound. He had a unique approach which did wonders for us’.
Left: Winston Churchill painted when he had the chance. This watercolour rendition is of the damaged Laurance Farm where he set-up battalion headquarters (Sir Winston Churchill)
On 16 May 1916 Churchill led his battalion out of the trenches for the last time, writing to his men on 4 April 1916: ‘I can assure you that I shall always regard this period, when I had the honour to command a battalion of this prestigious regiment in the field, one of the most memorable in my life’. In July 1917 Churchill was appointed Minister of Munitions and in 1919 Secretary of State for War. Whilst wartime Prime Minister, in 1941 Churchill was appointed Hon. Colonel of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, which explains photographs of him wearing the regiment’s uniform as a full Colonel during World War II.
Collecting Churchill memorabilia
There is an abundance of Winston Churchill collectables, particularly in Toby Jug or porcelain figurines, similar to this example in the uniform of a Warden of the Cinque Ports from stokeartpottery.co.uk for £159.95. For the philatelist’s, this mint sheet of Churchill commemorative Leader and Statesman stamps, from kenmorestamp.com (USA) will only set you back $7.50.
Churchill carried a C96 Mauser Broomhandle Pistol as his favoured side-arm. In fact it saved his life in the Sudan at the Battle of Omdurman 1898 and later on when a Boer War correspondent. The early C96 Mauser Broomhandle Pistol was the first automatic pistol of its kind. CMR Classic Firearms Specialises in Boer War, WWI and WWII C96 Mauser Broomhandle pistols and accessories so usually has stock of them - see www.cmrfirearms.com.
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