Calling himself an “escaped scapegoat,” Winston Churchill served six months on the Western Front during the First World War. After having been dismissed as First Lord of the Admiralty over the Dardanelles campaign and moved to the sinecure position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Churchill finally resigned the latter dismal appointment in November 1915 and joined the army in France with the rank of Major. After a brief acclimatization tour with the Grenadier Guards, he was appointed to command the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. A battalion command was a disappointment, as he had been hoping to receive command of a brigade. Nonetheless, Churchill led the battalion in the trenches at Ploegsteert for five dangerous months before he resigned his appointment in May 1916 to resume his parliamentary career.
Aside from Churchill’s own correspondence from his period on the Western Front, the best source for his war service has been the little known short memoir, With Winston Churchill at the Front, by Captain X and published by Gowans and Gray in 1924. The anonymous author was later revealed to be Major Andrew Dewar Gibb, an officer serving in the battalion during Churchill’s tenure in command. Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1888, Gibb was a successful lawyer who went into politics and served as the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party from 1936 to 1940. His portrait of Churchill is a detailed intimate study that reflects the wariness the news of the politician’s appointment initially generated in the battalion and the respect Churchill garnered as their commander, with Gibb concluding that, “I am convinced that no more popular officer ever commanded troops.”
A new version of Gibb’s book has recently been published by Frontline Books, 92 years after the first edition, with the somewhat awkward title of With Winston Churchill at the Front, Winston in the Trenches 1916. Although the original text has been “unaltered and uncorrected,” Nigel Dewar Gibb, the son of the author, has enlarged the original volume with a new introduction as well as additional chapters and text. The introduction provides a biographical portrait of his father, with interesting personal touches, such as his father quitting eating out in protest at the high prices charged in restaurants. New text, based mostly on Churchill’s letters and writings, is combined in the book with the original manuscript. The original 1924 text is printed in bold and is interspersed with new text that is printed in lighter weight and indented. In reading the volume, alternating between the two texts is smooth and works well. The younger Gibb has uncovered some nuggets in his research, including that Churchill made a total of 36 “forays” into No-Man’s Land while in command of the battalion.
In this new edition, Nigel Dewar Gibb has told a more complete story of Churchill’s experiences with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The manuscript is supported by several interesting photographs.