|1 May 2023
|Notable RMAS Alumni
The son of a Conservative politician and an American mother Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born at the family seat, Blenheim Palace, on 30th November 1874. Not apparently academically gifted he scraped through the entrance exam and was educated at Harrow School before passing the Sandhurst entrance exam at the third attempt and joining E Company in September 1894. Alas, little is known of his performance at Sandhurst other than that he passed out 20th of 130 cadets in his intake. Tragically, generations of cadet files were destroyed in the Second World War, to free up additional space for clerks to work in. Nevertheless, Churchill was commissioned into the 4th Hussars, based in Aldershot in late 1894.
Peacetime soldiering was not for the young subaltern so he managed to take some leave and travelled to Cuba where he became involved with skirmishes during the civil war supplementing his income by writing reports for the Daily Graphic he was also awarded two medals by the Spanish government. The 4th Hussars were then posted to India, to the peaceful backwater of Bangalore. However, on the basis of his reporting in Cuba he managed an attachment to the Malakand campaign as a reporter, eventually being awarded the India General Service Medal and seeing a degree of low-level combat. He also published his first book The Story of The Malakand Field Force, which was well received.
By now bored with garrison life and rapidly gaining a reputation as a ‘gong hunter’, Churchill used his family contacts to organise an attachment to the 21st Lancers during General Kitchener’s Sudan campaign, with extra duties as a reporter for The Morning Post. At the Battle of Omdurman on 2nd September 1898, the Dervish Army fought to a standstill in suicidal charges against the well-defended British position before Kitchener ordered the cavalry to destroy the fleeing remnants of the enemy. The 21st, with Churchill attached to A Squadron, charged a force of around 1500 Dervishes. Churchill shot one man with his revolver in an action that resulted in dozens of British casualties. Afterwards he was detailed to take six men and collect the 21 dead from the regiment (nearly a quarter of the 21st were killed or wounded). Later, in his book The River War, Churchill was critical of the treatment of Dervish wounded and Kitchener’s decision to desecrate the tomb of the Mahdi, their spiritual leader. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Queen’s Sudan and Khedive’s Sudan medals.
Returning to the 4th Hussars, Churchill resigned his commission to forge a career in politics. However, after failing to win the seat of Oldham in the 1899 election, he travelled to South Africa as a War Correspondent for the Morning Post and was captured when the armoured train he was travelling in was shelled and derailed. However, he escaped and, after hiding in a mine and stowing away on Boer trains, he reached safety. Undoubtedly his exploits were exaggerated in his reports but it made the prospective politician a household name. Towards the end of the conflict he joined the South African Light Horse earning the Queen’s South Africa medal with six clasps.
Finally winning Oldham in the ‘Khaki Election’ of 1901 he served as first a Conservative, then Liberal MP until 1908 when he gained his first ministerial position as President of The Board of Trade followed by 18 months as Home Secretary. During this time he, again, displayed his courage when he took personal charge of the Siege of Sidney Street after Latvian criminals had murdered three policemen. In 1911, Churchill became First Lord of The Admiralty, focussing on preparing Britain for the inevitable war with Germany. Having overseen the Navy’s efforts in the first year of the Great War, he was one of the main proponents of the disastrous invasion of Gallipoli, designed to knock Turkey out of the war. After the humiliating retreat, leaving behind some 60,000 Allied dead, he was demoted to Chancellor of The Duchy of Lancaster.
However, Churchill was not one to take such a setback lying down, so lobbied for a return to uniform firstly in the Grenadier Guards then, as an acute shortage of suitably experienced Commanding Officers became felt, as a Lieutenant Colonel commanding 6th Battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers in the trenches near Ploegsteert on the Western Front. Despite his fame, Churchill was a popular commanding officer using his influence to acquire items for his soldiers that were stuck in the logistics chain. He also lobbied for the introduction of steel helmets, having ‘liberated’ a French helmet for his own use.
There was, however a down side and the battalion was constantly visited by people wanting to see this former minister in action. On one occasion he was summonsed to a meeting with a senior officer and, having walked several miles to the rear area, he was infuriated to find that the General had called off the meeting. When he returned to his front-line dugout, it had been destroyed by a large German shell. Always the innovator he had his wife, Clementine, send him a large battery torch, of a new design. While on patrol in no-man’s-land he fell into a shell hole and the torch switched on in his pocket sending a location beacon to the German lines. After a frantic scramble, as his Adjutant and Regimental Sergeant Major grappled with him, the torch was finally extinguished. For his service in the war, he received the 1914/15 Star, War Medal and Victory medal. By now, too useful to remain on the front line, he returned to parliament and was made Minister of Munitions tasked with improving the quality and supply of shells for the final offensives of 1917 and 1918.
The rest of Churchill’s career has been covered in dozens of books. Suffice it to say that he always maintained a keen interest in the Army, often to the point of meddling. During the Second World War, he insisted in visiting every front as many times as possible, providing security nightmares for his protection staff, as well as for the local commanders. Fully in keeping with the rules that applied to every other service man and woman he was awarded the 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Italy Star, France and Germany Star and Defence and War medals. In all, the arch ‘gong hunter’ amassed 14 operational service medals from 1895 to 1945.
Churchill never forgot the regiment he spent most of his early years trying to get away from and, between 1941 and 1958 he was Colonel of The Regiment of the 4th Hussars. After amalgamation with the 8th Hussars in 1958 he remained as Colonel of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars until his death in 1965. It is perhaps fitting that the name of probably its most famous alumnus lives on at Sandhurst in the main auditorium, The Churchill Hall.
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