When the First World War began in August 1914 Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and a rising star in the governing Liberal Party. Less than two years later, he was a colonel on the Western Front, with his political career in tatters. How this talented politician and energetic administrator came to suffer such a grievous fall is the subject of Martin Gilbert’s book. In it, he uses both Churchill’s personal papers and a trove of documents that had only been recently declassified at that time to provide the fullest explanation of Churchill’s fall and gradual recovery.
At the center of this book was the Dardanelles, the failed British effort to open the water passageway between Europe and Asia in March 1915. The operation was a product of the frustration with the emerging stalemate in France and the desire to exploit Britain’s naval preponderance. Forcing the Straits, Churchill and others believed, would force the Ottoman Empire out of the war and provide Britain with better access to their Russian ally. Gilbert makes a compelling case that responsibility for the operation was a collective one, with other ministers and military commanders bearing a share of the blame. Yet Gilbert doesn’t ignore Churchill’s role in advocating for the operation, one that left him vulnerable to dismissal in the aftermath of the “shells scandal,” which forced Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to dismiss Churchill at the bequest of his new coalition partners in the Unionist Party.
Gilbert’s book provides a detailed examination of Churchill’s life during these years, as well as the times in which he lived them. At times the level of detail can seem overwhelming, yet for the most part Gilbert does a good job of covering one of the most dramatic and important periods of Churchill’s long life. Given it’s importance, it’s one that no reader interested in learning about Churchill’s career during the First World War can afford to ignore, though they should gird themselves for the amount of information they will absorb from it.