Edward Louis Spiers and his association with Winston Churchill

Compiled by Ron Spiers  - September 2004


Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in 1874 and died in 1965. He was a statesman of world renown, an historical author of note, an amateur painter and a soldier. He exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy in London. During the Boer War in Africa he was a war correspondent, and he served as an officer in Europe during the first World War. His ancestor was the Duke of Marlborough. In 1963 he was conferred with an honorary citizenship of the United States of America. His mother was an American.

            In the year 2001 Roy Jenkins wrote, and Macmillan published, a book, Churchill, which has been highly regarded. Jenkins is a former British Home Secretary, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and former President of the European Commission. He was Chancellor of Oxford University and President of the Royal Society of Literature.

            In his book Jenkins makes a number of references to the association between Edward Louis Spiers, he was generally known as Louis, and Churchill. Extracts from the book follow. Many of the words are those of Jenkins. It is well worth reading the book, which has 1002 pages. The following comments and extracts from it provide a little of the flavour, it includes episodes concerning Spiers’ part in Churchill’s life. Also worth reading are books by Spiers himself, a superb war historian.

It is 1914, World War 1, and Churchill, a politician, is anxious to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty and take over as commander of Antwerp with the necessary military rank, a Lieutenant General no less. This did not go down well with his political masters, because the highest Army rank he had previously held had been a Lieutenant in the Hussars, how could they allow him to outrank Major Generals, Brigadiers etc,. He did not get it. In November 1915 he sailed to France as a Major to join his old regiment, the Oxfordshire Hussars. When he got to Boulogne he was not treated as an ordinary Mayor, he was met and taken to the Commander-in Chief’s Headquarters in St Omer. He stayed in the army only five and a half months. On his second day he met the Earl of Cavan, who was commanding the Guards Division, and was attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. Churchill, forever ambitious, was now expecting to be given a Brigade to command and he wrote home to his wife Clementine, … ‘I hope to get Spiers as Brigade Major & Archie (Sinclair) as Staff Captain… Please order another khaki tunic for me as a Brigadier General. Let the pockets be less baggy than the other 2 & let the material be stouter.’ It did not happen.

            Spiers was completely bilingual, having been brought up in France, but he was much more than an interpreter. He was almost as good a talker as Churchill himself. On 8 December 1915 Churchill wrote (somewhat self-regardingly but probably also accurately): ‘I like him very much and he is entirely captivated.’ The captivation was both ways, for it led to Churchill, when the brigade was beckoning, as we have seen, to want Spiers as brigade major, and, when he had to lower his sights, as second-in-command. To both of these posts Spiers, a quintessential headquarters and liaison officer if ever there was one, would have been totally unsuited.

            That December Spiers’ more practical role was to take Churchill on two visits to the French armies, an experience curiously alien to most British officers, even those senior to Churchill. The first visit, to General Fayolle and the Tenth Army in front of Arras on 5 December 1915, was the more visually memorable. They gave him (Churchill) a bluish French steel helmet, the shape of which much suited his martial scowl… He wore it when subsequently in the trenches (and quite often out of them)…. It became in a minor way…. a symbol.

            The second visit to the French sector, again with Spiers, was to Vimy Ridge and the view down over the plain of Douai. Spiers recalled… many years later, after Churchill’s death (before which his relations with him had considerably cooled), that the French commanders were polite to Churchill but, at that stage, did not take him seriously.

            In 1916 the Cromer Commission was investigating papers concerning the Dardanelles. Churchill wrote to Spiers on 27 October: ‘I am slowly triumphing in this Dardannelles Commission, and bit by bit am carrying the whole case. I am really hopeful that they will free me from the burden which cripples my action.’

            In October 1922 Churchill was ill and it removed him from political campaigning in the Dundee constituency in Scotland, but his writings did not stop. General Spears (he had in 1919 changed the spelling of his name) arrived in Dundee to campaign, subsequently saying, ‘I knew nothing about politics, Jack Wodehouse knew nothing about politics. There we both were – rivals only in ignorance.’

Spears had, however, just been elected, unapposed, as Member of Parliament (MP) for the Loughborough division of Leicestershire, and Wodhouse had been a Liberal MP for four years from 1906. Wodehouse retired hurt from the stricken field (although returning later to it), but Spears provided an admiring if not altogether optimistic escort for Clementine. ‘Clemmie appeared with a string of pearls’, the General recorded on 7 November. ‘The women spat on her.’ However he added, ‘Clemmie’s bearing was magnificent – like an aristocrat going to the guillotine in a tumbril.’ The outcome was that Churchill lost the seat.

            In 1931 Churchill was in New York staying at the Waldorf Astoria preparing for a forty-lecture tour of America, which would have earned him a considerable amount of money. He had been out in a taxi which had got lost, so he got out of it and walked across Fifth Avenue. On the way he was knocked down by a car travelling at more than thirty miles an hour. After lying conscious, in the roadway, he had been taken to Lennox Hill Hospital where he stayed for eight days. He assured the New York police that it was his fault that he had been run down and not that of the assaulting driver. When he returned to England he was presented with a new car, a Daimler, by his friends, a strange gift in the circumstance. The donors were reported to number 140, and included Beaverbrook, Camrose, Esmond Harmsworth, Edward Grey, Charlie Chaplin, Ian Hamilton, Samuel Hoare, Robert Horne, Maynard Keynes, Harold Macmillan, the Prince of Wales, Lord Moyne, Louis Spears, Duff Cooper, Lord Riddell and the Duke of Westminster.

            In September 1935 Churchill was on a painting holiday at Maxine Elliott’s Château de l’Horizon. She had made her money as an American actress in the early years of the twentieth century. She was then a spirited grande dame of late-Edwardian and inter-war international society. Already by 1915 Louis Spiers, who encounted her in Picardy where she was looking after Belgian refugees on a canal boat, described her as a ‘nice clever woman, must have been very beautiful.’

            By 1936 Churchill had moved towards the centre of British politics helped by amongst others, the so-called Focus Group. This began as a luncheon club and met at the Hotel Victoria on the corner of Northumberland Avenue and only a few yards from the Hotel Metropole, his office as Minister of Munitions twenty years earlier. There was some early doubt about who was to pay the bills for the repasts. This was quickly and satisfactorily resolved, mainly through the generosity of Eugen Spier (no relation to Spiers), a rich German Jew, who was not exactly a refugee, for he had migrated to Britain as early as 1922. He had been interred as an enemy alien and deported to Canada in 1940. Spier returned to Britain in 1945.

            In the summer of 1938 Churchill started to write his A History of the English- Speaking Peoples. In the next four or five weeks, despite the distraction of the developing Czech crisis, he had got 70, 000 words, taking him from the ancient Britons to the Norman Conquest, written and set up in print. In mid-September he went by air to Paris, France for twenty four hours taking Louis Spears with him to see the two most resolutely anti-Nazi figures in the current French government, Paul Reynaud and Georges Mandel. This visit was disapproved by both Sir Eric Phillips in Paris and in London by Sir Maurice Hankey… what, Hankey asked, would we think if some French politician came over and tried to stir up the ‘anti-peace’ members of Cabinet?

            On 4 April 1940 Churchill with the blessing of Chamberlain, went to Paris. He was accompanied by his old francophile and francophone friend General Spears, who recorded some fascinating vignettes, sour and sweet, of this visit…. Spears recorded that on the outward journey: ‘We were shaken in our old de Havilland as if we were a salad in a colander manipulated by a particularly energetic cook.’ But he also recorded as the high spot of the visit a luncheon at Lapérouse, the Jacobean-fronted restaurant on the Quai Grands-Augustins to which Proust’s Swann was drawn because its name was the same as the street in which Odette de Crécy lived, and for which General Georges deserted his field GHQ in order to entertain Churchill (and Spears).’That lunch ã trois’, Spears wrote, ‘remains in my mind as one of the few pleasant occasions I experienced in the war. We were three old friends enjoying each other’s company and remarkable food and wine. Georges was tranquil, gay and confident.’….

            The other interesting residue of this Paris visit was that Spears recorded some general advice which he had received from Clementine Churchill about how to deal with her husband. ‘Put what you have to say in writing.’ Spears recorded her as advising, ‘He often does not listen or does not hear if he is thinking of something else. But he will always consider a paper carefully and take in all its implications. He never forgets what he sees in writing.’

            In the spring of 1940… every significant port in Norway from Olso to Narvik had been smoothly occupied by the Germans… their tactical deployments of the spring of 1940, both in Scandinavia and in France, were carried out with a sureness of planning and of execution which made the Allies look bungling amateurs…..

Even his (Churchill’s) gift for spirit-lifting oratory seemed to desert him during that dismal April ….. Those who left written comments were struck by how tired Churchill looked and seemed. Harold Nicholson went further and wrote; ‘he indulges in vague oratory coupled with tired gibes I have seldom seen him to less advantage… Others (General Spears and the Solicitor General, Terence O’Connor) were more charitable and thought he had done well in difficult circumstances.

            In June 1940 Churchill had wanted to go to France again, but found that a French government preoccupied with packing up, burning archives and finding a destination for evacuation did not want to receive him. On 11 June, however they gave him a rendezvous at Briare, near Orléans, seventy miles south of Paris, to where GQG (Grand Quartier Général) had moved. General Spears, accompanying together with Eden, Dill, Ismay and other more junior staff, gave a somewhat superior but nonetheless amusing account of their late-afternoon arrival at an airfield which seemed to be locked in a perpetual siesta:…

The Supreme War Council (a singularly inapprropriate title in the circumstances of the Allies’ total lack of supremancy) met at 7.00 p.m…. Eden recorded: ‘When the moment came for Mr Churchill to tell the French that we would go on with the struggle, if necessary alone, I watched the expressions opposite. Reynaud was inscrutible and Weygand polite, conceding with difficulty his scepticism. Marshal Pétain was mockingly incredulous, Weygand could not have been more blunt or more defeatist. ‘I am helpless, I cannot intervene for I have no reserves, there are no reserves. C’est la dislocation, ‘ he said (according to Spears’s notes of the meeting)…. The talks did not achieve much, and continued the following day. By then Pétain had gone off in one direction and de Gaulle (a forty-nine year old brigadier-general just appointed under-secretary for war) had gone off in another direction. The Prime Minister and his party flew back to London for a War Cabinet at 5.00 p.m…..He flew over to France the following day, Thursday, 13 June, for an afternoon meeting in the Prefecture at Tours, the French Government now moving ever westwards. They went for luncheon, Spears was as habitually of the party. The meeting resulted in some confusion because of Churchill’s poor French language skills. Whereas de Gaulle, in his own language, used ambiguity to achieve his own ends.

When Churchill took off from the battered Tours airfield later that day it was his last contact with French soil for four years less a day – until 12 June 1944 when, a week after D-day, he was allowed ashore in Normandy to visit Montgomery.

An appeal for decisive intervention by Roosevelt had predictably failed. The last British throw to keep France in the war (or at least the French navy, French North Africa – and maybe a redoubt in Brittany) was one of the most extraordinary and, it might be said, benevolently half-baked plans ever to go through the British government decision-making machinery, which although often negative and unimaginative was mostly fine-combed and realistic. At a luncheon at the Carlton Club on 15 June the idea of amalgamating the British and French states in an indissoluble union had first effectively surfaced. In the next twenty four hours it gathered momentum out of desperation. A 300 word proposal was drawn up between French and British representatives and it was de Gaulle who telephoned the proposal through to Reynaud as soon as it had been agreed in London on the Sunday afternoon, and then for carrying the written document with him when he returned to Bordeaux that evening. He was to remain there for barely eighteen hours before making a last minute decision to board General Spears’s plane and (metaphorically) take the Cross of Loraine to London, where he remained to organise the Free French.



Churchill, Roy Jenkins, Macmillan, 2001, ISBN 0 333 78290 9


Books by Churchill

He wrote numerous books, amongst them –

The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898)

The River War, 2 vols (1899)

Savrola (1900)

The People’s Rights (1909)

The World Crisis, 5 vols (1923 – 31)

The Eastern Front (1931)

Great Contemporaries (1937)

Painting as a Pastime (1948)

The Second World War, 6 vols (1948 – 54)

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, 4 vols (1956 – 58)


Books by Spiers/Spears

Lessons of the Russo-Japanese War. Translated as E. L. Spiers, from the original French by General F. O. de Négrier (1906)

Cavalry Tactical Schemes. Translated as E. L. Spiers, from the original French of Colonel Monsenergue (1914)

Liaison 1914, as Edward Spears (1930)

Assignment to Catastrophe, 2 vols (1954)

Two Men Who Saved France (1966)

The Picnic Basket (1967)

Fulfilment of a Mission (1977)


Books and articles about Spiers

Under Two Flags, The Life of Major General Sir Edward Spears, Max Egremont (1997)

The Spears Mission in the Levant, 1941 – 44, Aviel Roshwald, Historical Journal No. 29, December 1986

Churchill’s Generals, Edited by John