As with many of the notable figures of his political generation, Clement Attlee served in the First World War. The ‘modest man’ signed up not long after war broke out in August 1914, yet his decision was not greeted with universal acclaim. Atlee’s elder brother, Tom, was a conscientious objector and spent much of the war in prison.
Clement Attlee served with the South Lancashire Regiment and was deployed to Gallipoli, in a campaign masterminded by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty to tackle the clearly pro-German Ottoman Empire. Attlee’s first involvement was very brief at first, for he quickly became ill with dysentery and was carted back to Malta to recover. This could be viewed as a lucky escape, for this resulted in Attlee missing one of the most brutal stages of the campaign: the Battle of Sari Bair in August 1915. Many of his colleagues were killed in what was the last attempt by the British Army to seize Gallipoli.
Clement Attlee returned to his regiment in time for the evacuation and this was undoubtedly the best-executed segment of the campaign. There were some examples of brilliant military tactics, such as the use of self-firing rifles to disguise the Allied retreat. Attlee’s regiment was located in Sulva, which was chosen as one of the final places to be evacuated. Thus, the modest man was the penultimate solider to be evacuated from Gallipoli, followed by the wonderfully named General Sir Stanley Maude.
So Attlee was not just the public school educated, crossword obsessed, pipe smoking individual who Churchill often quipped about. He was a war veteran through and through. Following Gallipoli the future Prime Minster would go on to serve in the Mesopotamia campaign, where he would be badly injured by flying shrapnel, and then at the Western Front for the final six months of the Great War.
The Gallipoli Campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Estimates vary but around about forty-four thousand men died for the Allies (with many coming from India, Australia and New Zealand) and eighty-six thousand for the Ottomans. Despite this, Attlee was impressed by the bold nature of the assault, thus he developed an admiration for the planner of the offensive: Winston Churchill. This contributed somewhat to their working relationship in the Wartime Government. Furthermore, Clement Attlee’s experience of war saw some of his inner qualities flourish, which would prove vital in managing one of the most influential governments in British history.