Much has been written about the leaders of the Second World War. However, something in common that many of the leaders of the Second World War share is their experience in the First World War. Here we will take a look at how the period of the First World War shaped and affected the future of those who led the Allied nations during the Second World War.

Winston Churchill

A half-length portrait from 1900 showcasing a young Winston Churchill, dressed in formal attire, exuding confidence and determination.
A half length portrait of Winston Churchill in 1900, Wikipedia

Churchill came from a wealthy, if neglectful, background. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a powerful statesman in his own right, did not look fondly at his son’s bad marks in school and so pressured him to find his career in the army. It would take a young Winston Churchill three attempts to pass the entrance exam for the Royal Military College Sandhurst. When he finally passed, Churchill would thrive in the environment and would graduate in the top 20 of his class.

Upon graduation, Churchill would take up a post with the 4th Hussars. More than combat, Churchill would spend much of his time in the army acting as a war correspondent, wherein he served in, and reported on, conflicts the world over. These include the War of Cuban Independence (reported on while on leave), the North-West Frontier in India, the Nile Expedition, and, most famously, the Second Boer War in South Africa.

He was lauded as a war hero for his actions in the latter. Buoyed by this, he would enter the House of Commons, after winning an election at Oldham. This would be the start of a very long and storied career in politics.

The First World War would find Churchill serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty, under Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who had appointed Churchill to the post in 1911. Churchill had long foreseen conflict with Germany, going back as far back as the Agadir Crisis. On August 2, 1914, he ordered the mobilization of the British Navy. In October, he would insist on personally organizing the defenses of the besieged city of Antwerp, which would lead to widespread ridicule.

Failure at Gallipoli

His greatest failure would come in 1915, however. Churchill, with the support of the British Cabinet, would order the opening of a new front in the Dardanelles in Anatolia. Known as the Gallipoli Campaign, the goal was to seize the Dardanelles Straits. This was in an effort to, a. Divert the resources of the Central Powers from the Western Front, and b. To open up the Black Sea to supply Russia. However, this campaign became one of the biggest Allied disasters of the war. 

Using a significant number of troops from Australia and New Zealand (ANZAC), the Allies under the leadership of General Sir Ian Hamilton attempted to storm Ottoman defenses at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. However, despite their valiant efforts, the campaign would end in Allied defeat. As a whole, the campaign resulted in over half a million casualties: 205,000 Commonwealth, 47,000 French, and 251-289,000 Ottoman.

While Churchill was not solely responsible for the campaign, he nonetheless garnered much of the blame for its failures. He would be ultimately forced out of his position under the pressure of the Conservatives in the British Government. Resigning in November of 1915.

Vintage photograph of a group of soldiers in uniform, with Winston Churchill highlighted in the center by a circle. Churchill is seen wearing a military cap and uniform, commanding the 6th Battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, in 1916.
Winston Churchill commanding the 6th Battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1916

Rather than stay in the government under the demoted position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster,  he rejoined the army and served as a lieutenant colonel for the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. While he served on a comparatively quiet part of the front, he and his unit still faced near-constant shelling. In May of 1916, his unit would be merged with the 15th Division, which he opted to not seek a new command and instead requested permission to leave the army. 

Despite major Tory protests, Churchill would be appointed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to the post of Minister of Munitions, which he held until 1919. It was here that he threw his support behind the development of the tank, which would be the weapon that ultimately helped break the stalemate of the war. After the conclusion of the war, he was appointed as the Secretary of State for Air and War, a post he held until 1921.

Unlike many of his contemporary political leaders, Churchill would already have had a great amount of experience in politics by the outbreak of the Second World War. The war itself would be a time of deep disappointment for Churchill politically, however, he would recover during the interwar years. It would impress upon him the need to be prepared for war and would shed Churchill of much of his erratic behavior. While he kept his zeal, he would become far more stable in his future roles. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Vintage sepia-toned portrait of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt, wearing round eyeglasses and a suit with a white collared shirt and tie. Roosevelt is depicted as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, taken between 1909 and 1919.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary Navy, between 1909 and 1919, Library of Congress

Ironically, the First World War would also find Franklin Delano Roosevelt (known popularly as FDR) in a very similar position as Churchill as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. A two-term state senator from New York, Roosevelt was nominated by President Woodrow Wilson to take on the role of Assistant Secretary on March 12, 1913. Ironically, his cousin President Theodore Roosevelt had held the same position prior to becoming president.

While the then Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels handled the political and policy aspects of the Navy, Roosevelt handled many of the issues of personnel, operations, and contracting. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Roosevelt began arguing for a dramatic expansion of the Navy. However, he was out of step with the public and the administration that it had elected, who did not want, as of yet, to enter the war.

Regardless, FDR still continued to advocate for the United States to prepare for war. It would not be until late 1915, that the U.S. would allocate $600 million to modernize and expand the U.S. Navy. It would not come too soon, as in 1917 German U-boats began unrestricted warfare against Allied shipping, including any ships supplying the Allies. Wilson would go to Congress requesting a declaration of war; on April 6, 1917, Congress would oblige. The U.S. was at war.

FDR would be encouraged by his elder cousin Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to enlist, but FDR proved to be too valuable in his position. In 1918, he traveled to Europe to meet with French officials and witnessed first-hand the front lines. FDR would remain in his position until 1920 when he made an unsuccessful run as vice-president with Democrat Governor James M. Cox.

FDR’s time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy would do much to prepare FDR for his time leading in the Second World War. In this position, he had strongly argued for the expansion and preparation of the U.S. military for what he saw as an inevitable conflict. However, in another bit of irony, he would be reluctant to increase spending for the U.S. military in the lead-up to the  Second World War.

Joseph Stalin

Sepia-toned portrait of a young Joseph Stalin from 1917, featuring his distinct mustache and a prominent swept-back hairstyle. He is wearing a dark jacket with a buttoned collar.
Joseph Stalin, 1917, Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Stalin would never see combat in the First World War. However, the war proved to be an opportunity for Stalin and his fellow Bolshevik Revolutionaries. At the time of the outbreak of the War, Stalin was in exile in the town of Turukhansk in Siberia for his revolutionary activities against the Imperial Russian government. However, in 1916 he and his fellow exiles were mobilized and conscripted into the Imperial Russian Army and sent to Krasnoyarsk.

It would be here that a medical examiner would determine that Stalin was unfit for military service. He would be sent to serve out the remaining four months of his exile to the city of Achinsk. While here the February Revolution would break out, leading to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. The country was now under the de facto control of the Provisional Government, which was dominated by political liberals.

He traveled to Petrograd (previously and presently the city of St. Petersburg) where he and another Bolshevik named Lev Kamenev would assume control of the newspaper Pravda (Truth) and was appointed as a representative for the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. During this time, the Provisional Government still advocated a position of “revolutionary defencism” which argued for the continued Russian participation in the First World War. This was a position that Stalin and the other Bolsheviks disagreed with, arguing that Russia needed to end the war.

The Coup

Sepia-toned photograph of participants at the 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1919. The group is assembled in a wooden room. Central figures include Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin, surrounded by other delegates dressed in a mix of military and civilian attire.
A group of participants in the 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, 1919. In the middle are Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin.

Initially, however, Stalin still argued for collaboration with the Provisional Government, but continued conflict with said government and the influence of Vladimir Lenin caused him to change this position. Stalin would work with Lenin and the other Bolsheviks to bring about a coup against the Provisional Government. This would take place on October 25-26, 1917 (November 7 by the Gregorian calendar) and would result in the Bolsheviks seizing political power in Russia. It would also result in the immediate outbreak of the Russian Civil War.

The Bolsheviks would end Russia’s official involvement in the First World War with the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. While Stalin played no part in the war on the combat level, he was an integral member of the group that would bring about the end of Russia’s involvement. The war also taught him several lessons which the historian Erik van Ree states are:

First, he advised communist parties abroad not to attempt to seize power in the absence of war. Second, in order to improve conditions for Soviet revolutionary expansion, it became a main goal of his foreign policy to induce war among the capitalist powers. Third, he suspected oppositional forces in the USSR of working towards foreign military intervention in the country so as to create favourable conditions for the overthrow of the Soviet regime.

The First World War proved to be a time of opportunity for Stalin and his fellow Bolsheviks, for the fact that the old system was so badly damaged and undermined by the war that it was the optimal time for revolution to strike Russia.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle in his Saint-Cyr Military Academy uniform, adorned with a tall hat featuring a white plume, 1910.
Charles de Gaulle in his Saint-Cyr Military Academy uniform, 1910, Wikimedia Commons

Much like Churchill, de Gaulle entered into military life early. In 1909, de Gaulle was accepted into Saint-Cyre military academy. As per French law, de Gaulle would be forced to spend a year as an enlisted soldier in the French Army. De Gaulle would opt to join the storied 33rd Infantry Regiment under a certain Colonel Henri Philippe Joseph Pétain.

After this, de Gaulle entered Saint-Cyre and graduated in 1912 where he requested to return to the 33rd. By 1913, he would be promoted to a second lieutenant. During this time, de Gaulle and Colonel Pétain would develop a mutual admiration for each other centered around their shared beliefs about the importance of superior firepower in war. These beliefs would be tested soon with the outbreak of the First World War on August 3, 1914, when Germany declared war on France.

De Gaulle experienced action early in the war. On August 15, de Gaulle and his unit met the advancing Germans at Dinant, where the Germans were attempting to cross the Meuse River. Here de Gaulle led his men in a charge on the German machine guns where he, and most of his men, fell at the withering machine gun fire. De Gaulle survived with a bullet wound to the leg. He would not be able to return to the line until October 1914.

Upon his return, he was promoted to regimental adjutant. Disregarding his staff position, de Gaulle volunteered for several reconnaissance missions into “no man’s land,” for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre in January 1915. He was promoted to captain that September. He was wounded a second time, this time in the hand, at the First Battle of Champagne, which would necessitate him to take four months of convalescence.


Charles de Gaulle standing against a brick wall during his captivity in Poland in 1916, wearing the Cross of War medal awarded to him in March 1916.
Charles de Gaulle in captivity in Poland in 1916, Wikimedia Commons

Upon his return, he took command of the 10th company of the 33rd. That February, the Germans launched an all-out assault on the city of Verdun on 21 February 1916. De Gaulle and his unit were sent to reinforce the beleaguered defenders. In the thick of the fighting, and surrounded on three sides, de Gaulle was wounded in the thigh by a German bayonet and captured. Believing him to be dead, the now-General Pétain, who also commanded the city defenses, awarded de Gaulle the Legion d’Honneur

While a prisoner of war, de Gaulle made a total of five escape attempts. Ultimately, he was sent to Fort IX at Ingolstadt where the Germans sent their most recalcitrant POWs. While de Gaulle believed that he was missing out on the war, he took the time he was imprisoned to continue studying and thinking of military strategy. Talking to fellow POWs like Roland Garros and Mikhail Tukhachevsky, de Gaulle became convinced that the future of warfare was mechanized. This was cemented by his reading about the first use of tanks at the Battle of Cambrai.

De Gaulle was released from German captivity on December 1, 1918. He was despondent over the fact that he had missed so much of the war (although his captivity had likely saved his life). However, he continued to serve, being sent on a military mission to the nascent Polish Republic where he fought his one-time friend Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s Red Army. He spent the rest of the interwar period arguing for a more offensive rather than defensive posture in war. This position ultimately put him at odds with his one-time friend Pétain, but it would seem to be proven correct as evidenced by the rapid collapse of France in the Second World War. 


When looking at the Allied leader’s time during the First World War, we see rather varied experiences. While Churchill and Roosevelt both served in high political office, Churchill himself actually spent time in the military, not only prior to the war but briefly during it. Roosevelt never did, only getting brief glimpses of the battlefield. Stalin used the chaos of the war to help propel the Bolsheviks and himself into political power. De Gaulle was the only one to be a careerist in regard to the French military.

However, despite their differences in experience, the war shaped them all. For all of them, it showed them the necessity of preparing their nations for war. For Roosevelt and Churchill, this was in the form of the allocation of resources (although Roosevelt would step away from this position while president) and for de Gaulle it was in the type of strategy the French military ought to employ. For Stalin, wars provided the opportunity for revolution, both at home and abroad. It was these experiences and lessons that shaped these leaders and gave them the ability to lead their nations in the future.