In giving up his government post to go out to the horrific battlefields of Flanders and ‘take some active part in beating the Germans’, Churchill demonstrated again the courage he’d displayed in those battlefields of the North West Frontier and Sudan. And he certainly experienced the horrors and dangers of the trenches first hand.
He wrote to Clemmie of ‘[f]ilth and rubbish everywhere, graves built into the defences & scattered about promiscuously, feet & clothing breaking through the soil, water and muck on all sides; & about this scene in the dazzling moonlight troops of enormous rats creep & glide, to the unceasing accompaniment of rifle & machine guns & the venomous whining & whirring of the bullets which pass overhead’ (Churchill to Clementine, 23 November 1915).
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The onset of the WWI in August 1914 thrust Churchill into the limelight again, but this time at centre stage in an international crisis. For a ‘man of action’, this was the place to be. Eager to emulate the deeds of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill felt anticipation and excitement – and the promise of glories to come – as the prospect of war became unavoidable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill issued the order to the Navy to act – to ‘commence hostilities’. WWI was to be a time of great personal challenge for Churchill; it was to demand personal bravery and resilience in the face of both physical danger and intense mental battles. He did indeed ‘put his head into the lion’s mouth’.
‘I’m finished … I’m done. What I want above all things is to take some active part in beating the Germans … I’d go out to the Front at once.’
Churchill to Violet Asquith, in Champion Redoubtable: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914–1945 (ed. Pottle)
© Churchill Heritage Ltd, with kind permission of Anthea Morton-Saner, on behalf of Churchill Heritage Ltd
Before too long, rather than playing with his nephew’s watercolour paintbox, Churchill was tackling oil painting. On learning of Churchill’s experimentation and enthusiasm a near neighbour, Sir John Lavery, the renowned Anglo-Irish and official WWI artist, together with his talented artist wife Hazel, gave practical advice and help and encouraged this new hobby. Later in 1915, Churchill was often to be found working in Lavery’s studio in London, not far from the house Churchill and his brother Jack were sharing, with their families, on Cromwell Road. Churchill was to take his paints with him wherever he travelled – at home and abroad – throughout this life. Enthralled with his new hobby, he painted during the First World War while at the Western Front in early 1916 (as a Lieutenant-Colonel with the 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers), at ‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) in Flanders. On his return from the First World War and during the 1920s, even when embroiled again in political life, Churchill continued to paint. In fact, painting intensified as a pleasure and it was at this time that he wrote two articles about it, praising the enormous rewards to be gained from painting as a pastime.