2015 preview: Churchill and warriors without equal

In the second of a three-part series on the year ahead, Stephen McGinty anticipates war commemorations honouring ordinary soldiers and the greatest of leaders

The funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. Picture: Getty
The funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. Picture: Getty

IN 2015 Winston Churchill will feature in three anniversaries, twice as a hero beloved by his nation and once as a villain. The first anniversary falls on 30 January, when it will be exactly 50 years since Britain stopped to watch the state funeral of the Prime Minister who led the nation to “Their Finest Hour” and victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

On that cold winter morning, half a century ago, even the cranes dipped their iron heads in respect as the barge carrying Churchill’s body sailed down the Thames. He was, as a BBC public poll announced decades later, “the Greatest Briton”.

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Few would have argued with such a conclusion on 8 May, 1945, Victory in Europe Day, when operations against Hitler’s armies finally came to an end.

Later this year the 70th anniversary of that date will be marked, when Churchill joined the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, having first nipped back to 10 Downing Street to collect a crucial prop, explaining to his bodyguard Inspector Thompson: “I must put on a cigar. They expect it.”

Yet there was to be no celebratory stogie for Churchill’s most uncomfortable role, one in which many Australians and New Zealanders still cast him; villainous architect of Gallipoli.

For 100 years ago, when the fighting on the Western Front had become bogged down by trench warfare and Lord Kitchener exclaimed: “I don’t know what’s to be done… This isn’t war”, it was Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, who came up with what would turn out to be a lethal solution.

2015 marks the centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign which lasted from 19 February, when the Royal Navy launched a naval attack on Turkish guns, until the 19 December, when the order to withdraw was finally issued. By the time the evacuation order was issued, 28,200 British soldiers had been killed, 11,254 were missing presumed dead and 78,095 were wounded.

Churchill would resign from the admiralty and go off to lead soldiers in the Western Front.

Yet in January 1915, he knew exactly what was to be done, even if Lord Kitchener did not.

The Royal Navy would open a back door to Germany and instead of focusing all their might on the Western Front, Britain would take on Germany’s new ally, the Ottoman Empire. The idea was that the Royal Navy would sail into the inland Sea of Marmara and launch a bombardment on Constantinople that would force Germany to send troops from the Western Front as reinforcements, thus weakening their position.

Unfortunately what stood in Britain’s way was a narrow 40-mile channel linking the Aegean Sea and Sea of Marmara, a stretch known as the Dardanelles, along whose banks the Turkish army had a line of forts. For almost a year the British Army and the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) would fight and fail to clear a safe passage. As the British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett wrote, it was “the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the Battle of Bannockburn.”

This time the Scots were among the losers. Captain CS Black, of 1/6th Highland Light Infantry, wrote after their departure: “The good comrades, who had come so gaily with us to the wars, who had fought so gallantly by our side and who now would lie forever among the barren stones where they had died. Never a kindly Scot would there be to tend their graves; their memory was left to the mercy of foes. No man was sorry to leave Gallipoli, but few were really glad.”

Early this year, Scotland’s War, a ground-breaking research project which aims to build up the most detailed portrait ever assembled of our nation during the First World War, will be officially launched.

Yvonne McEwan, the director, said: “1915 is probably one of the most important years of the war because everybody realised we were not just at war but at total war on many fronts: it was not just the war in Europe, but the war in the Middle East and Far East and it was a global war and within it the Scots were establishing themselves both in terms of the military and in various support roles such as medicine.

“From the initial fighting on a large scale in Europe, it had become a global war and the reality had sunk in that it was not going to be over by Christmas or when the leaves fall. All of a sudden everybody at the war office had to rethink their strategy. For me 1915 is one of the most important years of the war.”

This year 22 May will also mark the 100th anniversary of the Gretna rail crash, when 500 Territorial soldiers of the 1/7th (Leith) Battalion of the Royal Scots bound for Gallipoli were caught in a collision between five trains on the Caledonian Railway Main Line.

In total, 226 people died, 246 were injured and of the 500 soldiers, only 60 made it to roll call the next morning. The disaster remains the worst rail crash in Britain’s history. Those soldiers who survived were marched from the railway to the barracks, and were, tragically, mistaken for prisoners of war and stoned by onlookers.

Yet not all the battles took place between soldiers. May will also mark the 100th anniversary of the co-ordinated rent strike in Glasgow, when the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, set up by suffragette Helen Crawford and Mary Barbour, a carpet printer, persuaded 25,000 tenants, mostly women, to refuse to agree to landlords’ demands for increased rents.

Those who were unable or unwilling to pay faced eviction but such were the tactics of what became known as “Mrs Barbour’s Army” – including bombing sheriff officers with bags of flour – that Lloyd George passed legislation to prevent rent rises for the remainder of the war.

The anniversaries contained within the next 12 months are not confined to the First or Second World War, as 18 June, 2015 will also mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the 22-year Napoleonic wars – a long campaign in which the persistent threat of invasion served to bind the union.

A million men from the British Isles had fought in the army and navy since 1793, out of a population that rose from 10 million to 14m. The fatalities totalled 311,000 before the bloodshed ended during ten hours of fierce combat which even the Duke of Wellington described as “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.

The role of Scottish troops will also be remembered. For, as Andrew Roberts, military historian and author of new biography Napoleon the Great, says: “Wellington couldn’t have won the battle without his Scots.”

The anniversaries will also include 20 January, the 750th anniversary of the first English parliament in 1265 and 15 June, the 800th anniversary of King John putting his seal on the Magna Carta, while this summer will mark the 700th anniversary of the siege of Carlisle when Robert the Bruce, fresh from his victory at Bannockburn, failed to penetrate the thick walls.

This will indeed be a year to remember.