Anthony Eden and the First World War

Anthony Eden and the First World War

Anthony Eden, the son of Sir William Eden, was born at Windlestone Hall, Bishop Auckland, in 1897. Eden, like his father and grandfather, was educated at Eton. He hoped to go to Sandhurst before joining the British Army, but was rejected because of his poor eyesight.

With the outbreak of the First World War the British Army reduced its entry standards, and Eden was able to obtain a commission in the King's Royal Rifle Corps. Soon after Lieutenant Eden arrived in France in June 1916, he heard that his sixteen year old brother, Nicholas Eden, had been killed when the Indefatigable had been sunk at the Battle of Jutland.

Eden served on the Western Front and won the Military Cross at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. After one attack at at Delville Wood, Eden's he battalion suffered 394 casualties, of whom 127 were killed. Nearly all the junior officers were either dead or badly wounded and as a result Eden was promoted to adjutant. By the time the war ended, Eden had reached the rank of major.

After the war Eden was undecided about whether to stay in the army. He eventually selected a career in politics and in the 1923 General Election won Warwick & Leamington for the Conservative Party. Three years later he was appointed parliamentary private secretary to Austen Chamberlain at the Foreign Office. A post he held until the government lost power at the 1929 General Election.

In the National Government formed by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, Eden became Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1931-34). When Stanley Baldwin became prime minister in 1935 he appointed Eden as his Foreign Secretary. Eden disagreed with Neville Chamberlain about the way to deal with fascism in Europe and in 1938 he resigned from office. When Winston Churchill took over from Chamberlain in 1940, Eden was reappointed as Foreign Secretary.

After the Labour Party victory in the 1945 General Election, Eden became deputy leader of the opposition. The 1951 General Election saw the return of a Conservative government and once more Eden became Foreign Secretary. A post he held until he replaced Winston Churchill as prime minister in April, 1955.

In November 1956, Eden ordered British troops to occupy the Suez Canal in Egypt ahead of the invading Israeli army. His action was condemned by the United Nations and as a result of international pressure, was forced to withdraw his troops from Egypt. In failing health, Eden resigned on 9th January, 1957.

Created Earl of Avon in 1961, Eden spent his later years writing his Memoirs (3 volumes, 1960-65) and Another World (1976), an account of his war experiences. Anthony Eden died in 1977.

Primary Sources

(1) Anthony Eden was highly critical of the British government during the early stages of the war. This was illustrated in a letter he wrote on the 14th May, 1915.

I should like to hang, draw and quarter Haldane, Asquith, Winston Churchill and McKenna. Ye Gods? What a quartet.

(2) Soon after arriving at the Western Front, one of Eden's lance-corporals was killed by a German sniper. Eden wrote about the incident in his book, Another World, published in 1976.

This was our first sharp contact with sudden death and we were utterly miserable. The passage of years has never blunted it. We had yet to learn that it was the chance deaths in the trenches which left a sharper imprint than the wholesale slaughter of a battle.

(3) In Another World, Anthony Eden described his first night-patrol into No Man's Land.

We worked our way across no-man's-land without incident, and Pratt and Liddell began to cut the enemy wire. This was tough and rather thicker than we had reckoned. Even so we made good progress and there were only a few more strands left to cut, so we were right under the German trench, when suddenly, jabber, jabber, and without warning two German heads appeared above the parapet and began pointing into the long grass. We lay flat and still for our lives, expecting every second a blast of machine-gun fire or a bomb in our midst. But nothing happened.

We lay without moving for what must have been nearly an hour. There were no abnormal noises from the German line nor was the sentry on patrol. Less than four minutes of wire-cutting would complete our task and I had to decide what to do next. I touched Pratt and Liddell to go on.

The job was just about done when all hell seemed to break loose right in our faces. The German trench leapt into life, rifles and machine-guns blazed. Incredibly none of the bombardment touched us, presumably because we were much closer to the German trench, within their wire and only a foot or two from the parapet, than the enemy imagined possible. As a result the firing was all aimed above and beyond us, into no-man's-land or at our own front line.

(4) On one night patrol Anthony Eden discovered a wounded man in No-Man's Land.

We were about fifty yards from our front line when I heard what seemed a groan at my left hand. Signalling to the others to go on I moved a few yards to investigate. There I found Harrop lying in the lip of a shallow shell-hole bleeding profusely from a bad bullet wound in his thigh and two riflemen trying to help him.

Harrop was weak from loss of blood, but still calm and decided. As we fixed a tourniquet on his leg he kept insisting, "Tighter, tighter, or I'll bleed to death." If he was to have any chance, we must get him back to our line without delay. The question was, how. The firing was now sporadic rather than intense, but as I crouched beside Harrop I knew we must have a stretcher if we were to get him in before dawn. I said so, and one of the two young riflemen with Harrop, Eddie Bousefield, at once volunteered to go.

In a few minutes he was to go back in our line, had collected a stretcher and a fellow rifleman, and rejoined us without being spotted. Then came the difficult decision. We had only fifty yards to go, and even though stooped, we would all four have to stand up to carry Harrop's stretcher. The longer we waited the better the hope of the night growing quieter, but the worse for Harrop and the more extended the risk for all of us. I wanted to get it over with, and we did. To this day I do not know whether the enemy saw the stretcher and held his fire, or saw nothing in the flickering light.

(5) On 15th September, 1916, Anthony Eden's battalion attacked at Delville Wood during the Battle of the Somme. The battalion suffered 394 casualties, of whom 127 were killed. As a result Eden was promoted to adjutant. He wrote to his brother about what had happened.

I have not got a Blighty (wound bad enough to be sent home) but I hope that will not be too long delayed. You will have heard about the Colonel being killed and the loss of nearly all our best officers. The battalion fought splendidly and made its name with the people out here, but of course not with the press!!

All the officers in my unit were hit, but the men carried on splendidly in spite of the adverse circumstances of which I shall speak some day. When I get home, Tim my lad, I shall be able to tell you a thing or two. Truth far more surprising than the fiction of the wonderful heroism of the officers and men and the wonderful folly of others.

(6) Anthony Eden, letter to Lady Eden (23rd December, 1917)

Did you read David Lloyd George's speech in the House? Have we not got one single politician who is really out to do his best, holiday or no holiday, or are they all an unscrupulous set of narrow-minded, self-satisfied crassly ignorant notaries! My God! it does make me see red. They they start criticizing the Army! My God, if they would mind their own business and do their own job and let the Army run the fighting we would bring the Germans to their knees.

What about Ireland? Not a word about conscripting them. There are a quarter of a million of the finest fighting men in Europe to be had for the taking and we do nothing.

(7) Anthony Eden, letter to his sister Marjorie (23rd October, 1918)

I am afraid that this war is nothing like as nearly over as people in England seem to imagine. The last German division we had any dealings with fought very well indeed. They fought as well and as treacherously as any Huns I have known. I only heard of one lot surrendering and they picked up their arms and shot our fellows in the back at the first opportunity. Of course we did not want many prisoners after that.

(8) Anthony Eden, letter to his sister Marjorie (12th November, 1918)

Well, it is all over. I sincerely hope for the best. I am not altogether satisfied that we have not fought the war in his country (Germany), but all the same it is wonderful and I don't care a damn what anybody says, the result is not due to Lloyd George, Foch, internal trouble in Germany, the intervention of America, or anything else - but it is due to the British Army.