Winston Churchill on the Western Front: ‘I am afraid only of people who cannot think.’

In early 1915 — during the first year of World War I — Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, commanding the vast forces of the British Navy. He was barely 40 years old. Few doubted that one day he would be prime minister.

Winston Churchill during World War I; watercolor, Jim Stovall

By the end of the year, he was a battalion commander in the British Army serving in a relatively quiet sector of the Western Front. In those intervening months, Churchill had helped plan an invasion of Turkey and had absorbed most of the blame — much of it unfairly laid at his feet — when the operation was badly bungled. He was forced to resign his cabinet post, given a meaningless government position, resigned that, and sought and received a commission in the Army. His fall from public power had been precipitous and without precedent in his charmed life.

A good account of Churchill’s time at the front and the reasons he was there can be found in this article by Stephen Miles in Military History (Nov. 2014): Source: Winston the Warrior: Churchill on the Western Front 1915-1917 | Stephen Miles – Academia.edu

While at the front, Churchill started reading poetry, particularly the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, a British soldier not well known at the time but whose anti-war poetry would later become famous. Churchill not only read Sassoon’s poetry but memorized them and recited them whenever he could. He was advised by a fellow officer to leave Sassoon alone and that one day the poet might write something about him.

“I am not a bit afraid of Siegfried Sassoon,” Churchill replied. “The man can think. I am afraid only of people who cannot think.”


Source: William Manchester, Winston Spenser Churchill: The Last Lion (Volume 1: Visions of Glory), p.580.


Prelude: The Troops (1918)

Siegfried Sassoon

Dim, gradual thinning of the shapeless gloom
Shudders to drizzling daybreak that reveals
Disconsolate men who stamp their sodden boots
And turn dulled, sunken faces to the sky
Haggard and hopeless. They, who have beaten down
The stale despair of night, must now renew
Their desolation in the truce of dawn,
Murdering the livid hours that grope for peace.

Yet these, who cling to life with stubborn hands,
Can grin through storms of death and find a gap
In the clawed, cruel tangles of his defence.
They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin, and nothing blossoms but the sky
That hastens over them where they endure
Sad, smoking, flat horizons, reeking woods,
And foundered trench-lines volleying doom for doom.

O my brave brown companions, when your souls
Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead
Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,
Death will stand grieving in that field of war
Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.
And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.

 

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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