The World Crisis by Winston Churchill (Part 1: 1911 – 1914)

Winston Churchill was a prolific author, and received the Nobel prize in Literature in 1953. His more well know historical works are his six volume memoirs of the Second World War, and his four volume History of the English Speaking Peoples. Both of these sit upon my shelves, but I started with his lesser known history/memoir of World War I, The World Crisis.

Though I am reading the “Abridged and Revised Edition, With an Additional Chapter on The Battle of the Marne”, I’m making my notes in accordance with The World Crisis‘ original separated books (that, and the fact that the book is longer than my memory). The Abridgment contains the first four volumes:

  • Volume 1: 1911 – 1914
  • Volume 2: 1915
  • Volume 3: 1916-1918
  • Volume 4: The Eastern Front

Volume 5, The Aftermath, is not included in the Abridged version, and is difficult to find. If anyone has a spare copy, they are welcomed to speed it my way.

The first volume was published in 1923, with the last volume and the Abridgment in 1931. Initially it was to only cover the Admiralty and the naval war with Germany, but expanded to cover the full of the war, including Churchill’s defense of his own actions in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli (the genesis for these volumes, according to the intro from Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert) and Churchill’s disdain for the decisions in the trench warfare stage.

As opposed to an event by event history, this is more of an observer’s record, with the observer in this case having a front row seat to the Admiralty, the fall of Antwerp and other events. It falls short it detailing some of the non-naval happenings at the beginning, and it is certainly biased; but it is an excellent read, infused with Churchill’s passion.

Part 1 starts with the lead up to the War, with the first seven or eight chapters reviewing the posturing of the nations involved, including the standoff at Agadir (which could have started the war that much earlier) and the preparation of Britain, especially of the Admiralty.

As would be expected, since Churchill spent the first part of the war as the First Lord of the Admiralty, this volume is mostly about the build up of the navies, the transport of troops and the war at sea. These logistics included trying to move troops from Australia, New Zealand, India and Canada. Churchill describes the communications of the time that made this a huge challenge, with delays and unknowns about where certain German Naval vessels might be hiding, waiting to sync the troop carriers. He also describes in great detail decisions and processes to build ships with larger armaments. And, after the war begins, he goes through the decisions on if and then how to get British troops across the Channel onto France.

Though it is not part of the sea battle. Churchill does describe The Battle of the Marne, how it went, how it could have went. The Germans made the mistake that Hitler would learn from, by fighting a war on two fronts, committing troops against Russia that could have filled the gap that the British rushed into that stopped the German push at the first Battle of the Marne. As Churchill says at the end of this chapter:

Thus, by a succession of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events was decided almost at is beginning the fate of the war on land, and little else was left but four years of senseless slaughter.

Churchill also describes his time on the ground in Antwerp, observing and advising on the siege whilst troops come to ensure the safe retreat of the Belgium army. He got so involved that he “…telegraphed on the 4th to the Prime Minister offering to take formal military charge of the British troops in Antwerp and tendering my resignation of the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty. This offer was not accepted.”

There is an in depth description of the effort and success of clearing the seas of German ships 4 months into the war. He accounts for 102 ships of the fleet, while searching for the German ships Emden and Königsberg, having allocated ships for convoy duty, patrol and defense and having lost the ships Good Hope and Monmouth in a sea battle off the Chilean coast with the German ships Nurnberg and Scharnhorst (later sunk off Argentina).

He also included that tidbit that the British had the luck of finding a drowned German sailor that had the German wireless codes on him, giving them the ability to intercept messages (similar to cracking WWII Enigma codes but on a smaller scale).

The first German Naval bombing on British soil is described, and the inability to track them down and retaliate (causing fear in the German populace).

The last chapter provides the background and lead up on Turkey, the site of the British mistakes at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, of which Churchill was quite involved.

On to part 2, covering 1915.

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