Excerpt: Winston S. Churchill and the Shaping of the Middle East by Sara Reguer

Today we are pleased to present an excerpt from the first chapter of Sara Reguer’s recently published book, Winston S. Churchill and the Shaping of the Middle East, 1919-1922. While most books on Winston Churchill attempt to cover the whole of his political career, in this volume Reguer focuses solely on Churchill’s role in Britain’s foreign policy with regards to the Middle East in the post World War I period.

From the Preface: 

There are many people today who think that the political issues in the Middle East started with the creation of the State of Israel. However, the seeds for these issues were planted by the British and the French in the post World War I period. This book not only delineates the Western imperial policies that led to today’s problems, but, by focusing on the activities of one of the most important political figures—Winston S. Churchill—it carefully traces their evolution. For Britain, it meant developing an overarching policy for Iraq and Palestine/Transjordan, because the main focus of British impe­rial power was India. The Middle East was viewed at that time as a strategic overland route to the Far East.

There have been many books written about the mandate period of both Iraq and Palestine, but most give the early mandate short shrift. There have also been many books written about Winston Churchill, but most focus on him through the lens of a biographer. The purpose of this book is to uncover the actual shaping of Middle East policy that still has an impact on today’s realities.

Winston S. Churchill and the Shaping of the Middle East is currently available wherever you buy your books.

By October 1922, when the Lloyd George Government fell from power, the British Empire had reached its maximum territorial extent and seemed on the point of stabilizing all its imperial relationships. One of the newest areas to come under direct British control was a large section of the Middle East. The problem presenting itself to the British Government was how to deal with these new territories under the changed world conditions. There are innumerable elements to this problem and to treat the whole sub­ject in equal depth for the whole period—from the acquisition of the Middle East until the end of Lloyd George’s reign—would be a daunting task. The present attempt is more modest.

Winston S. Churchill’s decision making shaped policies and events in the Middle East, and the unfolding developments there linked them­selves to his career. He was introduced to the Middle East in 1898 when, as a war correspondent, he participated in Kitchener’s campaign into the Sudan. The first opportunity he had to shape policy in the area came with his appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. This study was originally planned to cover the decade 1912-1922, but after assembling all the material, it proved to be unmanageable. The present story begins in January 1919 with Churchill’s appointment as Secretary of State for War and Air, and ends in October 1922 when, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, he loses his position of power and his seat in Parliament. The period is of major importance because it is one of flux: World War I loosened the hold of imperial tradition, and Churchill could experiment and innovate.

I am limiting the geographic scope of the study as well. Since the Fertile Crescent represented that part of the Middle East that was most substantially changed by World War I and its peace settlement, and since it was the area most directly under Churchill’s control for the time period I am exploring, I am limiting myself to it. References to Churchill’s activities relating to Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia and Turkey will be made only if they have direct bearing on the developments of the Fertile Crescent.

I have attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the time in this one area and to tell the story of Churchill’s decision making in detail. It is not a biographical work; that was done by Martin Gilbert. I have examined the decision making process and the resultant policies, and have sought to assess Churchill’s accomplishments. As import as the content of policy making is, once that policy is decided on, it would count for naught were it not imple­mented. No one in a high government position, or in any high administra­tive post, can hope to change things overnight or to carry out a new policy just by taking over a new position. The work involved in doing so is long and often arduous. Churchill was no exception to this rule. He was an exception in that despite the hurdles confronting him he did manage to implement a new policy for the Fertile Crescent. I have attempted to trace how he accom­plished what he did and have uncovered an expert maneuverer with a broad array of methodological tools at his disposal. I have sought to assess both the multifarious and frustrating obstacles Churchill had to overcome as well as the arsenal of methodological weapons he used.

A question immediately arising is: can an individual make history? Or is the individual so governed by the situation which already exists when he moves onto the scene that his actions count for little? How large a part does chance play? Any attempt at writing a book about one person must deal with these three persistent elements and examine their interplay. Certainly the individual faces an existing situation, a product of earlier times, yet he may very truly affect events through his responses.

Winston Spencer Churchill has been, for over a century, an object of great interest. There are those who admire him as one of all-time blessings Britain ever received; and there are probably just as many who detest any­thing and everything about him. Anyone who evokes such polar responses must have been unusual and even his most ardent detractors have to admit, albeit unwillingly, that there was something indefinable that Churchill pos­sessed separating him from the normal run of people.

In trying to find an answer to the question of whether Churchill influ­enced history, specifically, events related to the Fertile Crescent from 1919 through 1922, I found myself in a dilemma: How could I possibly get to understand Churchill’s personality and his individuality. His own introspec­tive observations, a primary source, very often have to be treated with great caution as many were written after the events occurred; yet, these observa­tions do serve to show what the man was thinking at some point in time. As for the comments of contemporaries, another basic source for under­standing the man, there were his admirers and his detractors, so again the material had to be treated with caution. The best sources, and the richest, for understanding Churchill and answering the basic question of whether or not he influenced the history of the Fertile Crescent are his deeds. But before letting the narrative take over, I believe it worthwhile, as part of the stage setting, to try to piece together some sketch of the man himself.

Churchill’s admirers describe him as having a resourceful mind, full of such scope of vision and imagination as to place him in the category of genius. They point to his youthfulness with all its concomitant traits of enthusiasm, vivacity, vitality and lack of inhibition. “He must know all, taste all, devour all. He is drunk with the wonder and the fascination of living. A talk with him is as exhilarating as a gallop across country, so full is it of adventures, and of the high spirits and eagerness of youth.”¹ His open ambition, self-confi­dence, as well as egocentricity seem to be the prerequisites for success for he firmly believed in his personal destiny and behaved like someone important thereby impressing others that this must be so. He was a man of great cour­age, an invaluable asset to all at the outset of the war. “When all looked black and spirits were inclined to droop, he could not only see but could compel others to see, the brighter side of the picture.”²

Churchill’s detractors mistrusted him for all the traits that his admir­ers valued. They feared the impetuous risk taker and despised his brusque­ness, impatience and scorn and his disregard for personal sensitivities. They explained that “his mind was a powerful machine, but there lay hidden in its material and its makeup some obscure defect which prevented it from always running true.”³ They could not pinpoint exactly what it was, but when the mechanism malfunctioned, its very power caused disaster to himself, his causes, and his associates.

All agreed that Churchill’s capacity for work and concentration was prodigious and that he was a master of detail, but it was his speaking ability, more than any other trait, that endowed him with such influence. “What people really want to hear is the truth—it is the exciting thing—speak the simple truth,”⁴ taught Bourke Cockran, young Churchill’s host during a visit to New York in 1895. Churchill greatly admired Cockran and modeled him­self after him, mastering the New Yorker’s lessons on the basic techniques of oratory and conversation.

Churchill learned how to express himself in lucid and compelling lan­guage. He developed a command of the beauty and imagery of the English language combined with magnificent epigrams and humor, and formidable invective and raillery into a powerful weapon to convince individuals, com­mittees, the Cabinet, Parliament and mass meetings of his point of view. His oratory “is rich and varied in its essential qualities. The architecture is broad and massive. The coloring is vivid, but not gaudy. He strikes the note of grav­ity and authority with a confidence that one can hardly reconcile with the youthful face.”⁵ He was not an impromptu speaker and had a slight speech impediment, but he was adept at foreseeing the mood of Parliament, and possible questions and arguments that might be raised. His capacity for assimilating facts, reaching to the core of the matter, and framing plans or solutions, together with an initiative and determination added immeasur­ably to his ability to influence and persuade all who would listen.

The year 1919 introduced Churchill, the new War Secretary, gradually to the interconnected complexities of the Middle East problem: demobili­zation, economizing, the Bolshevik menace, opposition from other offices, opposition from his own office, France’s ambitions, and the lack of a Turkish peace treaty. He developed his innovative policy to meet the challenge but was frustrated when he tried to implement it. No matter which way he turned in 1920 to settle the Middle East problem, which had now boiled down to a conflict between the aims of policy and economy, he was still frustrated. Solutions eluded him mainly because no one government office controlled the Middle East. His drive to empower the Colonial Office with control over the area in turn affected his career as he was appointed Colonial Secretary to solve the Middle East problem once and for all.

As Colonial Secretary, Churchill first set up his new Middle East Department and perfected the outlines of his policy for the region. Then he conferred with all the Middle East specialists at Cairo to work out details of his policy and took a side-trip to Palestine to negotiate with Amir ‘Abdallah over custodianship of Transjordan. His next step was to obtain Cabinet and Parliamentary approval of this policy but before doing this he had to over­come many hurdles some of which proved to be unsurmountable. Once he gained Parliamentary sanction in mid-1921 Churchill felt that he could leave the daily running of Iraq and Palestine, his two major areas of concern in the Middle East, to his Department and to the two High Commissioners. His attention was drawn to other areas, especially to Ireland. Iraq progressed slowly along the lines drawn for it but Palestine hardly progressed at all and Churchill’s disgust resulted in a policy of drift.

During 1922 Churchill wanted to give his attention to Ireland and party politics but a crisis in Iraq returned to his attention to this area. After a show­down between the Colonial Secretary and the king of Iraq, the issue was solved to Churchill’s satisfaction. As for Palestine, the main role Churchill played was that of defender of the Balfour Declaration, which ensured that it would remain the basis of Palestine policy. His role in the formulation of the White Paper of 1922, known as the ‘Churchill White Paper,’ was a pas­sive one.

An item basic to the success of Churchill’s plans was peace with Turkey. The main reason why a definitive instrument had not yet been signed was the Turkish nationalist resurgence let by Mustafa Kemal. In the autumn of 1922, Kemal’s westward move towards the Dardanelles and the war­like response of Lloyd George and Churchill caused a crisis which, in part, brought the downfall of the Coalition Government. Again, Churchill’s career was affected by the role he played in shaping Middle East policy.


1. A. G. Gardiner, Prophets, Priests and Kings (London: 1914), 231.

2. Stephen Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets (London: 1970), Vol. I, 185.

3. D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs (Boston: 1933), Vol. 3, 27.

4. Ralph G. Martin, Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: 1971), vol. 2, 69.

5. A. G. Gardiner, op.cit, 231. 

Sara Reguer is Professor of History in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College. She earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in Middle East history. She has published on a variety of topics, both scholarly and popular, including articles on Winston Churchill during World War I. She currently lives in New York, NY.

Winston S. Churchill and the Shaping of the Middle East is currently available wherever you buy your books.