In 1914, Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, in the Liberal war cabinet. He was dismissed from the Admiralty after the Dardanelles campaign, as part of the Conservatives’ price of entering the National Coalition, but remained in Cabinet. When he was also excluded from the War Council in November 1915, he went to serve at the Front, as a major then a colonel. He returned to government in July 1917, as Minister of Munitions.
Churchill saw that the war had not and could not be won: For the time being the stupor and the collapse which followed the World War ensure a sullen passivity, and the horror of war, its carnage and its tyrannies, has sunk into the soul, has dominated the mind, of every class in every race. There were gains from his Dardanelles campaign: destroying enemy forces and equipment, and tying the Ottomans up in that place; but the ships did not force their way through the Straits to Russia, the landings established no beachhead, and the Allied dead were 56,707, just greater than the Ottoman figure. It was seen as a defeat.
Churchill defended it robustly. The Dardanelles might have saved millions of lives…I believe history will show they acted for the best, and will record its opinion that this was the right thing to do, and that if one could have got more power and influence to push it through with vigour it would have made an enormous difference and would have saved us the torments and tortures of the last two years of the war. Don’t imagine I am running away from the Dardanelles. I glory in it; but he admitted he was “ruined” over it.
He did not take well to criticism. Criticism should be restrained when the party criticised is not able to reply, especially when he is not able to reply without disclosing facts which would do harm to the critic as well as the party criticised if they were disclosed…. We are waging this war, on which from day to day our vital safety depends, and no one who is concerned with military departments ought to have his attention drawn away from the immediate needs of his military and naval operations for the purpose of going at undue length into matters which lie in the past.
While waiting on Skyros to go into action, Rupert Brooke was bitten by a mosquito. The wound became infected, and he died on a hospital ship, aged 27. Churchill wrote, Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely offered.
Before accepting command of an infantry brigade, Churchill requested experience of trench warfare as a Major. Then, he was given command of a battalion: 1000 men rather than 4000. War was diabolical. No more strategy, very little tactics; only the dull wearing down of the weaker combination by exchanging lives; only the multiplying of machinery on both sides to exchange them quicker. So morale was essential. He told his officers, Laugh a little, and teach your men to laugh- great good humour under fire- war is a game that is played with a smile. If you can’t smile grin. If you can’t grin, keep out of the way till you can.
On the first day of the Somme, 20,000 British soldiers were killed. In his book The World Crisis, Churchill wrote, they grudged no sacrifice however unfruitful and shrank from no ordeal however destructive. Struggling forward through the mire and filth of the trenches, across the corpse-strewn crater fields, amid the flaring, crashing, blasting barrages and murderous machine gun fire, conscious of their race, proud of their cause, they seized the most formidable soldiery in Europe by the throat, slew them and hurled them unceasingly backward.
The generalissimo of an army of two million men, already for ten days in desperate battle, has little or nothing to do except to keep himself fit and cool. His life is not different, except in its glory, from that of a painstaking public official, and far less agitating than that of a Cabinet Minister who must face an angry Chamber on the one hand or an offended party upon the other.
Churchill, in Government, provided the machinery for exchanging lives: I accepted from Mr. Stettinus a contract of over £100,000,000 sterling to supply the whole requirements of the United States Army in medium artillery (6-inch guns and howitzers) for the campaign of 1919.