Book Review: 'Unsinkable': Churchill and the First World War


by Richard Freeman

Stroud, Eng.: History Press - Spellmount / Chicago: Trafalgar Square, 2013. Pp. 272. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 0752498894

Churchill in the Great War

British naval historian Freeman gives us a detailed account of Churchill’s life and activities during the Great War.  But while Churchill is its subject, the book offers a great many insights into the British war effort at the highest levels, often giving deep looks at many of the other leading political and military leaders of the day, such as Asquith and Lloyd George, and gives us a taste of how in the midst of war politics often continued as usual, and frequently influenced war making, not always for the better.

The book opens with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.  Apparently the only member of the Cabinet not so obsessed with “Irish Home Rule” as the July Crisis erupted, Churchill actually began taking administrative measures to prepare the fleet for wartime service well before most of the other government leaders began to realize war was coming. 

Freeman tackles head on some of the severest criticism of Churchill’s role at the Admiralty.  He notes that not only was much of the criticism rooted in Tory hostility toward Churchill, who had “abandoned” the party to become a Liberal, but also much of it was based on fragmentary or even wholly inaccurate reporting, including the escape of the Goeben, the loss of the “Live Bait Squadron,” the attempt to hold Antwerp (which proved valuable, but for which Churchill received no credit) the disaster at Coronel, or the failure of the naval effort to force the Turkish Straits.  For example, Freeman makes a solid case that the Churchill, who strongly promoted the initial naval expedition against the Straits, was not the instigator of the Gallipoli landings, about which he in fact expressed reservations, and was in any case out of office during much of the planning and the execution for the operation.

Freeman then looks at Churchill’s months in the doldrums.  He then discusses Churchill’s decision to serve at the front, and does a good job of covering the man’s experiences in the trenches, where he did well and learned many lessons that proved helpful when he became Minister of Munitions in the final year of the war. 

Freeman argues, probably correctly, that in 1914 only Churchill and Lloyd George fully grasped the implications of a world war (though overlooking Lord Kitchener’s similar views), and that the war of 1914-1918  was  for Churchill a training ground for the greater challenge that lay in the future.  Although marred by some poor maps, this is an excellent look at Churchill and the war. 

Note: ‘Unsinkable’ is also available in various proprietary e-book formats.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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