Churchill and the 'Unknown War'
Winston Churchill’s history of the First World War, The World Crisis, consists of four original volumes that focused mostly on the fighting on the Western Front and the Dardanelles campaign, and two additional volumes that covered the aftermath of the war up to 1928 (The Aftermath) and the fighting on the Eastern Front. The latter volume, titled The Unknown War: The Eastern Front, is probably one of Churchill’s least known books.
The Unknown War was published in 1931, when the future British Prime Minister and war leader was in the early period of his years in the political wilderness. Churchill had suffered financially as a result of the stock market crash, and wrote articles and books to make a decent living. At the time he undertook to write The Unknown War he was already under contract to write My Early Life and his multi-volume biography of Marlborough.
“Churchill’s mind,” writes John Lukacs, “was steeped in history.” J.H. Plumb noted that “[h]istory was the heart of [Churchill’s] faith; it permeated everything which he touched, and it was the mainspring of his politics and the secret of his immense mastery.” As a writer of history, Churchill was influenced by Gibbon and Macaulay. “Stunning passages and phrases,” notes Lukacs, “are abundant in everyone of his books.”
Churchill had written two articles in Colliers Weekly about the war on the Eastern Front, and in early January 1930, he proposed to expand them into a sixth volume on the Great War. He wrote to his publisher: “While I have not made up my mind whether I can fit this in with all my other work, I am at present quite favourably disposed to the idea.” He suggested that he might be able to complete the work by January 1931. Scribner’s accepted his proposal and Churchill received an advance of 2,500 pounds.
Churchill hired retired Lt. Col. Charles Hordern to research and draft the “military part of the material.” In the book’s Preface, Churchill expressed his debt to Lt. Col. Hordern “who for more than a year has assisted me in the assembly and sifting of material,” including “preparing the numerous maps without which the story would be unintelligible.” After its publication, Hordern wrote to Churchill: “I have lived with the book so much during these last few months that I cannot help feeling an acute sense of loss now that it is done.” He also wrote that working on the book was “the most congenial task anyone ever had.”
Biographer Roy Jenkins notes that Churchill also acquired a “sloping desk of appropriate height” for his study in his Chartwell residence so that he could work standing. “He needed the feel and look of printed proofs for his literary teeth,” Jenkins explains, “but he rarely worked at them seated as a writing table. It was nearly all done either upright or in bed.”
“In the five volumes of The World Crisis and The Aftermath,” Churchill explained in the book’s Preface, “I have told the story of the War from the British standpoint,” including the war at sea, the Dardanelles, and the battles on the Western Front. Those volumes contained only “brief summaries of the struggles of Russia with Germany and Austria in the East.” This volume, he further explained, “covers the agonies of Central Europe.”
In the book’s 24 chapters, Churchill described the weaknesses of the Hapsburg Empire and its restless subjects in the Balkans; the breakdown of the Bismarckian balance of power; the murder of the Austrian archduke and Austria’s ultimatum; the Kaiser’s “blank check” to Austria and the seemingly unstoppable military mobilizations of Germany and Russia; the battles of Krasnik, Komarov, Lemberg, Gumbinnen, Tannenberg, the Masurian Lakes, Lodz, and Warsaw; Brusilov’s offensive; the collapse of Russia, the end of the Romanov Dynasty, and the peace of Brest-Litovsk.
Churchill provides vivid portraits of the aging Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Russia’s Nicholas II, and their ministers and generals—the rulers, statesmen, and military leaders who bear “direct concrete responsibility for loosing upon mankind ... its most frightful misfortune since the collapse of the Roman Empire before the Barbarians.”
Especially noteworthy is his description of the talents, strategies, and infighting of the German generals, including Falkenhayn, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Mackensen, and Francois.
The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan called the First World War the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. Churchill agreed: “All three [Eastern Front] empires, both sides, victors and vanquished, were ruined ... The Houses of Romanov, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern woven over the centuries of renown into the texture of Europe were shattered and extirpated. The structure of three mighty organisms built up by generations of patience and valour and representing the traditional groupings of noble branches of the European family, was changed beyond all semblance.” They were replaced by “a fearsome set of internationalists and logicians [who] built a sub-human structure upon the ruins of Christian civilization.”