It has been just over a century since Winston Churchill took command of a down at heel Scottish infantry battalion.
How did the man who led Britain to victory in the Second World War and fired so many senior commanders during that conflict fare when he led a frontline unit?
The official announcement on January 4th, 1916, that the bumptious politician was taking command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers was greeted with dismay by its officers. Churchill had joined the 4th Hussars as an officer in 1895, after graduating from Sandhurst, but left the army in 1899 to pursue a career in politics. The officers of his new battalion found that few of their superiors who had known Churchill as a young cavalryman, who often doubled as a war correspondent, had a good word to say for him.
The battalion's officers felt that if Churchill was being given command of a Scottish unit, why not send him to those glamour boys of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The Argylls traditionally had a very high number of graduates of English private schools amongst its officers.
“We should all have been interested to see him in a kilt,” noted the adjutant of the 6th RSF, Captain Andrew Gibb. Others suggested another kilted unit, the Black Watch, might be more suitable as it recruited from Churchill's parliamentary constituency of Dundee.
One officer, demoted to make way for Churchill’s choice for second-in-command, predicted that the descendent of the legendary Duke of Marlborough had “come to teach us to click our heels and polish our guns and turn us into a first class eyewash battalion”.
In fact, Churchill was more of a frontline soldier than some of his officers may have realised, though it had been some time since he had seen action. The last time Churchill, whose family had pushed him into a career as a cavalry officer because they thought he was too stupid to be a lawyer, had been to war was as lieutenant during the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the century.
After training at Sandhurst, Churchill was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the prestigious 4th Hussars. Before he'd even completed his basic induction to the regiment Churchill took leave to go to Cuba as a war correspondent. He joined a Spanish anti-insurgency patrol hunting for Cuban rebels and even managed to get himself shot at.
“There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result,” he was later to note.
On his return to the regiment, Churchill quickly engineered yet another absence. This time it was with a British column sent out to deal with an outbreak of violence on India's Northwest Frontier. And again he arranged to cover the fighting for a London-based newspaper. This time the bullets came a lot closer and Churchill earned a reputation for personal bravery by rallying some wavering Indian troops and leading them in a counter-attack.
The next big British military campaign was the reconquest of a Sudan and Churchill was determined to join it. The 4th Hussars were not part of the expedition but Churchill's American mother Jennie managed to pull the necessary strings to have him sent to Sudan. This was over the objections of the expedition's commander, Herbert Kitchener, who was very far from happy with the young Winston's pervious activities as a war correspondent. But not only was Churchill foisted on him, but the young officer was also, against new regulations, allowed to file newspaper reports. The highlight for Churchill was taking part in a pointless and costly charge by the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman.
But Churchill was by this time impatient to follow what he regarded as his true calling – politics. But the price of a seat in the British Parliament was more than Churchill could afford on a lowly Lieutenant’s pay. His time in the army had already served its purpose of bringing him to public attention and launching his far more financially lucrative writing career. He resigned from the army in 1899 and stood, unsuccessfully as it turned out, as the Conservative Party candidate for the Oldham seat in the House of Commons.
When the Boer War broke out, Churchill saw a chance to further enhance his public image and set off to South Africa as one of the highest paid war correspondents of the era. Things worked out even better than expected for him. When an armoured train he was travelling on was ambushed, he, against all laws of war, helped lead the defence of it. He was captured, jailed by the Boers but then managed to escape. This time he'd done enough to become a national hero, known throughout the British Empire and worthy of election to the House of Commons. He served briefly as an unpaid cavalry officer, once again combining military service with war reporting, before returning to Britain and a safe Conservative seat in parliament. He quickly became one of the best known and most controversial figures in British politics in the years leading up to the First World War. He notoriously switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1906
He had maintained his links with the army in 1902 by joining the part-time soldiers of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars and by 1905 held the rank of major. This led him to hope for a senior battlefield command when he resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915 as a result of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign
By late 1915 the regular British Army had been pretty much wiped out and former officers were in high demand to train and command the flood of civilian volunteers who were now filling the ranks of Lord Kitchener’s New Army. Retired pre-war Majors quickly found themselves commanding battalions.
The 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers was a New Army unit. The battalion was in the process of being rebuilt after losing two-thirds of its officers and half of its rank-and-file members at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. There was only one regular army officer serving with the battalion. The rest of the officers had only volunteered to serve only as long as the war lasted.
Churchill had expected to command a brigade of four battalions but accepted that he needed some recent frontline experience first. He was sent to the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards for a crash course on trench warfare.
He was given a frosty reception. His fellow officers, almost all diehard Tories, had not forgotten his defection to the Liberal Party in 1904. But Churchill’s forays into the frontline soon earned him grudging respect. Though some have suggested that Churchill spent as much time as he could in the front line because alcohol was allowed in the trenches but banned at headquarters. He even managed a short spell as the battalion's acting commanding officer when Jeffreys was absent.
After a month with the Guards, Churchill believed he was now ready to command a brigade. But the new commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Douglas Haig, had no intentions of honouring his predecessor Sir John French’s promise to Churchill. Haig had been told by friends that the politician was a spy for the cabinet back in London and could not be trusted. Churchill was instead given command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Churchill swallowed his disappointment and started brushing up on his knowledge of the iconic Ayrshire poet Robert Burns. Many of the Scots in the battalion came from Ayrshire. He promised his wife Clementine, the daughter of a Scottish soldier, that he would not attempt to mimic a Scots accent.
Churchill brought with him to the battalion 25-year-old Scottish aristocrat and cavalryman Major Archie Sinclair as second-in-command. The pair showed up at the RSF’s camp with two servants and a large wagon. The wagon’s load included a bath and a water heater. When Churchill first joined the Grenadier Guards he was allowed only a spare pair of socks and his shaving kit.
The pair had 10 days to lick the battalion into shape before it went back into the frontline.
Churchill’s first impressions of his new command were not good. “This regiment is pathetic,” he wrote to Clementine. He described his officers to her as “small middle class Scotsmen” who although very willing and intelligent, lacked essential military experience. He dubbed the battalion overall as “slovenly”.
His first meeting with his officers did not go well. He sat silently and stared intently at each in turn before announcing: “Gentlemen, I am now your commanding officer. Those of you who support me, I will look after. Those who go against me, I will break. Good afternoon gentlemen”.
Churchill’s introduction to the whole battalion was equally disastrous. Drill had never been his strongpoint and he muddled the sequence of orders necessary to fix bayonets before, according to some sources, commanding the infantrymen to trot to the right in threes.
But the rank and file took pride in having such a public figure commanding them, though many had been active union members in civilian life. They often referred to him as the Duke of Churchill, Lord Churchill or even Viscount Churchill. They were also delighted when Churchill insisted on taking some high ranking visitors to the frontline, where several of them snagged their smartly tailored uniforms on the barbed wire.
In addition to heavy doses of square bashing and target practice, Churchill also demanded improvements in the battalion’s sanitary and catering arrangements. “We are here to make war – on lice,” he told his officers before launching into a lengthy lecture on the life cycle of the louse and its impact on warfare ancient and modern. Churchill dominated every conversation and sought to give the impression that he was an expert on every subject discussed.
In exchange for hard work and loyalty from his battalion, Churchill pulled every string he could to secure it the best equipment and food available. The battalion was one of the first receive the steel helmets and he even managed to get the football team new strips.
The rank-and-file were impressed that Churchill was prepared to take their side against officious corporals and sergeants and treated the men as intelligent human beings whose welfare was important to him. Churchill’s officers were less impressed by his approach to discipline. They were concerned that he was giving too many men a second chance. It became a standing joke in the battalion that every man hauled up in front of Churchill on a disciplinary charge claimed to have fought at Loos because it had been realized this meant an almost automatic reprieve.
As an experienced political operative Churchill proved better at schmoozing with the rank-and-file than many of his middle-class officers. Once, Churchill came across a teenage soldier he'd earlier reprimanded for not carry his rifle while in the front line trenches and noticed the boy was limping. Churchill asked what was wrong and the youngster told him his boots did not fit but no-one would issue replacements. Churchill immediately took out a piece of paper and scribbled a note addressed to the boy's company quartermaster: “Supply bearer with one pair of boots immediately.” Such gestures went a long way to earning the respect of his troops. Though Churchill had not disciplined the boy for not having his rifle when they first met, a corporal he caught next night in the same situation was busted back to private.
Churchill was also a savvy enough politician to know the power of flattery.
“Although an Englishman, it was in Scotland that I found the three best things in my life: my wife, my constituency and my regiment,” he once announced to his officers. His declaration of regimental loyalty should be judged by his insistence on wearing the uniform of the Oxfordshire Hussars in later life.
Before the battalion went back into the trenches, Churchill hosted a drunken party for his officers at a local hotel. He also advised them to consume alcohol in moderation while in the trenches but not to litter their dugouts with empty bottles.
“Live well but don’t flaunt it,’ he advised, mindful of the packages of luxury food, including cheeses and hams, he was receiving from home.
“Laugh a little and teach your men to laugh,” he added
“Get humour under fire. War is a game best played with a smile. If you can’t smile, grin. If you can’t grin, keep out of the way until you can.”
Once the battalion went into the trenches, Churchill was a frequent visitor to the frontline positions. He visited the sentries three times a day, often in the middle of the night, and went out into no-man’s land on almost 40 patrols. These excursions were not always popular with the men who had to accompany Churchill. One compared him to a baby elephant. “He used to shout in a loud gruff voice ‘You go this way, I’ll go this’ or ‘Come here I’ve found a gap in the wire, come here at once’’’, recalled Lieut. Edward Hakewill-Smith. Though the chubby-faced South African had graduated from Sandhurst military academy in 1915, Churchill regarded his hand-picked second-in-command Major Sinclair, commissioned into the Life Guards in 1910, as the only true regular officer in the battalion. Churchill referred to Hakewill-Smith as “Bomb Boy”. The South African commanded the 52nd Lowland Division during the Second World War. Sinclair would be Churchill’s wartime Secretary of State for Air.
Churchill would equip himself with waterproof trousers, knee-high boots, a stylish water proof coat and a torch when he ventured into the trenches. Once, early on in a patrol, a German machinegun opened fire and started sweeping across no-man's land. As the machinegun chattered Churchill and his men dived for cover in a shell crater. It was then Churchill noticed a glaring light was giving away the location of the crater.
“Put out that bloody light,” he ordered. It was only then he realized that it was the flashlight attached to his belt which had been accidentally activated when he crouched down in the crater.
Often he would be seen wearing a French steel helmet which he intended to be as iconic as Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s two-badge black beret became during the Second World War. Churchill scorned the glengarry bonnets his officers wore. He took one look in a mirror of himself wearing one, exclaimed “Christ”, and was seldom seen in one again. Sinclair also scorned the glengarry and stuck with his Household Cavalry cap.
He made a point of not ducking for cover when under fire. But he confided to his cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough that: “The only thing to dread is some really life wrecking wound which left one a cripple, an invalid or an idiot”.
“But one must hope that is not on the agenda of the Fates.”
He sent a battery powered lamp with a lump of shrapnel in it back home as a souvenir. What he did not tell his wife was that the lump of shrapnel had come within two inches of taking off his hand when a shell hit battalion headquarters.
He told Hakewill-Smith when they came under fire: “It’s no use ducking, the bullet has gone past you”. But he was quick to reprimand to officers who hung a British flag on the German barbed wire for drawing the enemy’s attention to a flaw in their defences. The sight of an officer kissing the nose piece of a shell which had wounded him so badly that he had to be invalided home filled Churchill with disgust.
His attempts to motivate his men to greater military efficiency by praising the deeds of the neighbouring Gordon Highlanders failed to have the desired effect on them. “We heard so much of the Gordons from their own lips and in the papers that to have them presented as military paragons stuck in the gullet,” explained Capt. Gibbs.
Churchill had little hesitation in calling up the division's artillery and demanding they shell the Germans while his men raked the opposing trenches with rapid rifle and machinegun fire. These “hates” often led to retaliation from the German artillery, most of which fell on the British support lines and not the Scots' positions. In many cases Churchill had withdrawn his men from the bits of the frontline where he expected the Germans to concentrate their retaliatory shelling.
Churchill's call for British artillery fire was often in response to German attacks which had killed or wounded his men.
“Come on, war is declared,” he once announced as he walked into the battalion command post after learning the Germans had killed one of his men and wounded two others. In one “hate” a British shell fell short and killed two of Churchill's men.
Once, while in the front line watching British shells thumping into the German trenches, Churchill turned to Gibb and asked with obvious relish “Do you like war?”
Gibb did not, but said nothing. He had learned long before that it was easiest to simply agree with whatever Churchill said. But this time he could not bring himself to voice agreement and instead pretended not to hear the old warhorse.
Churchill worked his men hard to fortify his frontline redoubts with sandbags. The unpopular commander of the brigade the RSF was part of visited Churchill shortly after German shelling had badly damaged the frontline redoubts and shelters. The brigadier complained to Churchill about the apparent lack of sandbagging “Men cannot go living here; look at it, it's dangerous, it's positively dangerous.”
The bumptious Churchill could not resist playing to the gallery of officers accompanying the brigadier.
“Yes sir,” he agreed. “But you know, it's a very dangerous war.”
He scotched the notion that his presence actually attracted German shelling. “If they knew I was here they wouldn’t send over few shells like this,” he announced during one attack. “They would turn on all their guns and blot the place out.”
The one time Churchill admitted to being worried was when he thought he had lost a top secret report on a pet project of his; for a vehicle he called a “caterpillar” and would go down in history as the tank. When a shell hit battalion headquarters while he was reading on the memo, Churchill conducted what he described later as a “dignified yet decided retreat” to the cellar. When he returned to the surface there was no sign of the memo. Believing that there were German spies in the area, he feared the worst. Three anxious days elapsed before he found the memo tucked into an inside pocket of his army tunic.
Churchill had been mistaken for a spy shortly before the RSF took over responsibility for the trench sector from the Border Regiment. He had been spotted during a personal reconnaissance of the frontline by an artillery officer. The officer reported seeing a man in “queer garments” and wearing a French helmet fussing around in the frontline. The giveaway that the man was a spy, at least as far as the artilleryman was concerned, was that the stranger announced that he had found an excellent place for an observation post, when in fact it was a “bloody awful” location for it.
When not under fire Churchill would sit outside his headquarters listening to gramophone records or reading William Shakespeare. Sometimes he would get out his paints and easel and attempt a landscape. It was not always a relaxing past-time, either for him or his men. For six days his mood became blacker and blacker as he struggled to capture the shadowing on a particular shell hole. Then a strategically placed dab of paint did the trick and his mood suddenly lightened, much to the relief of his officers.
Churchill left the battalion in May 1916 before it saw another major battle. During Churchill’s 125 day tenure as battalion commander it lost 15 men killed and 123 wounded. He was passed over for command of a brigade and when the 6th Battalion was amalgamated with its sister 7th Battalion, a regular officer took over the new battalion. Churchill had already decided by then that he could do more for the war effort by resuming his seat in Parliament.
By then he had proved himself to his men and the senior officers of the 9th Scottish Division. “He loved soldiering,” recalled Capt. Gibb in a book he wrote in the 1920s about Churchill’s time with the 6th Battalion. “It lay very close to his heart and I think he would have been a great soldier.”
One of the division’s senior artillerymen, Colonel Tim Holland declared: “He turned the battalion from moderate to damned good.”
Lieutenant Colonel William Croft of the 9th Division’s 11th Royal Scots said Churchill described himself as a “cavalry soldier gone to seed”. But Croft noted ruefully that: “the service lost a good soldier when Winston took to politics”.
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