Churchill Archive Platform - The Origins of The First World War

In 1923 Winston Churchill published The World Crisis, 1911-1918. At the time, an intense debate over responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914 was underway. The Treaty of Versailles had attributed sole responsibility to Germany and its allies, while German diplomats, intellectuals, and the retired political and military elite of the Kaiserreich responded with vigorous criticism of British, French, and Russian pre-war policies. In this context, Churchill’s study – with its original letters, deft biographical sketches, and sweeping perspective – represented an important contribution. His account was wide-ranging, but it privileged what Paul Kennedy later called the rise of Anglo-German antagonism as the central feature of pre-war international politics. According to Churchill, the Kaiser, William II, sought hegemony in Europe and threatened British naval pre-eminence. The Liberal government pursued a largely defensive policy, responding to the German naval challenge and willing to accommodate Germany’s vague imperial aims.

While Churchill had always had and voiced an interest in international politics, from 1908 onwards, he became an increasingly important figure in policy-making. The Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire and the naval scare of 1908-9 brought Anglo-German relations into sharp focus.

In October 1911 Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. The main goal of his policy was to demonstrate to German leaders the futility of the naval race. While Churchill was open to a ‘naval holiday’ deal with Germany – an agreement to limit expenditure and construction – he doubted whether any agreement would stick. Therefore, he campaigned for increased naval spending. David Lloyd George’s opposition to the Admiralty’s financial demands in late 1913 brought Churchill to the brink of resignation. Effectively Churchill’s threat worked, but had war not intervened, it was likely that naval spending would have been curtailed in 1915.

Despite major public debates focusing on the construction of Dreadnoughts, recent historical research has demonstrated that pre-war naval policy was highly complex. Churchill became close to John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, the pugnacious admiral behind the Dreadnought. By the eve of the First World War, Fisher and others favoured a naval posture, dependent on a combination of Dreadnoughts, cruisers, submarines, and other vessels. The blockade of Germany was central to naval thinking. Submarines could enforce the blockade, deterring German naval and merchant vessels from venturing into the North Sea, while other British ships could stop ships carrying supplies to Germany. In the interdependent world economy of the early twentieth century, the blockade would strangle Germany.

Although he was always aware of the possibility of a European war, Churchill was also confident that a combination of diplomacy, deterrence, and the prospect of political and social catastrophe would lead the great powers to favour peace. And until the July crisis, this analysis was correct. In the July crisis, Churchill – alongside the Foreign Secretary Edward Grey – was the most forceful advocate of intervention. His mobilization of the fleet in late July anticipated British support for Russia and France, but his interventionist stance was in a minority in the Liberal cabinet until 2 August. For Churchill, British entry to the war was necessary to prevent German dominance in Europe. Britain’s island story, he recognized, was interwoven with its position as a European great power.

Where to Find Documents within the Churchill Archive

This is by no means an exhaustive list but a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests. Advanced search facilities can provide more targeted results.


This class contains a diverse range of papers, including notes and correspondence with colleagues, acquaintances and the general public on topics of general interest, on party political matters and appointments to various positions.

  • CHAR 2/36: Although President of the Board of Trade, these letters from 1908 and 1909 demonstrate Churchill’s involvement in foreign affairs and the uneasiness of Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, about his interventions. In the previous file there is an interesting letter about the possibility of Anglo-German cooperation in the Ottoman Empire.
  • CHAR 2/39: The competing pressures on the Liberal cabinet during the naval scare of 1908-9 are evident in this file. A petition from the Peace Society condemned extra expenditure, but by late 1909 Churchill accepted the increased tempo of British construction as a necessary response to German plans, as is evident in his memorandum of a conversation with the German ambassador, Count Metternich (CHAR 2/39/86-92).
  • CHAR 2/53: Explore this file for correspondence after Churchill’s appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty when he had to steer a course between the demands of the radical wing of the Liberal party for an end to the naval race with Germany, and the heightened fears of German aggression in the wake of the Second Moroccan crisis.
  • CHAR 2/62: By 1913 the relationship between Churchill and Grey had become more harmonious. Churchill remained under pressure to reduce naval expenditure from radical groups in the Liberal party, but he argued successfully for further increases in the 1914 budget. CHAR 2/62/77-78 is particularly interesting as it records a visit of a deputation from the Manchester Liberal Federation to Churchill in October 1913. See correspondence on this in this file.


This class contains material in connection with Churchill’s huge output of literary and journalistic work and includes material relating to The World Crisis.

  • CHAR 8/46: Letters from readers following the publication of Churchill’s The World Crisis. These include many leading participants in the First World War. Few refer specifically to his account of the origins of the war, but they show the context in which Churchill published his book. Of particular interest is the very different views of British and French politicians in 1923 during the French occupation of the Ruhr. Louis Loucheur, a moderate in French politics, remained bitterly sceptical about German intentions.
  • CHAR 8/52: This file contains the proofs of The World Crisis. Churchill made very few amendments, but a close reading of the published text and these proofs demonstrates occasionally telling alterations of phrase and tone.


This class contains speeches, speech notes and related material, including those on diplomatic issues, domestic and international politics.

  • CHAR 9/43: In early 1912, the British and German governments made their first serious attempt at rapprochement. Richard Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, visited Berlin, but the tone of Churchill’s speech at Glasgow made German leaders sceptical of the Liberal government’s intentions. The speech repays close attention not only for its immediate diplomatic impact, but also for setting out Churchill’s thinking about British security. See CHAR 9/43/41-42 for an article from the Times reporting on this event.
  • CHAR 9/44: Speeches formed an essential element of domestic and international politics before 1914. They functioned as a means of communicating intentions, explaining policies to audiences at home and abroad, and of offering assurances. Here Churchill spoke to an audience in Sheffield about the First Balkan War, but he also offered some reflections on international politics and his views of war in general. The file also contains notes for other speeches and an interesting memorandum by the journalist J. A. Spender on the Sheffield speech.
  • CHAR 9/47: Churchill delivered variations of the same speech at various venues in late 1913. This file shows how he crafted his words to suit his audience. While the Irish Home Rule crisis occupied most attention, he also defended naval expenditure, whilst simultaneously noting the improvement of Anglo-German relations.


This class contains papers arising out of Churchill’s activities as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911–1915) and until 1915 and includes correspondence with colleagues, officials, acquaintances, and the general public.

  • CHAR 13/2: John ‘Jackie’ Fisher was one of Churchill’s most important advisers before the war. In this file, Fisher offers a wealth of advice on naval affairs, from personnel to technology, from strategy to high politics. The letters also display Fisher’s robust character.
  • CHAR 13/13: Churchill was open to a ‘naval holiday’ with Germany – an agreement to limit expenditure and construction. He discussed the merits of a possible deal with Grey, and Ernest Cassel’s memorandum of his meeting with William II, Admiral von Tirpitz, and the Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg is also in this file. Churchill also discussed the Anglo-French negotiations in summer 1912 for the distribution of their fleets in the North Sea and the Mediterranean.