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Great Contemporaries: Louis Spears, Liaison to the French
Edward Spears MP was Winston Churchill’s long-time friend and staunch supporter. This did not stop Churchill from asking for his resignation as British Minister to Syria and Lebanon in 1944. Spears’s departure was delayed for the sake of appearance, but their formerly close friendship emerged somewhat bruised.
Edward Louis Spears (he changed the spelling from Spiers in 1918) was born to English parents in Paris in 1886. He spent his childhood in France, leaving him with a love of France and a fluent command of French. Possessing charm, wit, courage and intelligence, Spears also had an “aggressive manner.” He was an intriguer, dedicated to his loves and hatreds with equal passion. Churchill, however, had the highest opinion of him calling him, “a Paladin worthy to rank with the truest knights of the great days of romance.”1
In the First World War
Gazetted to the 8th Hussars in 1906 by way of the Kildare militia, Spears could make a claim of being the first British officer at the front in the First World War. Attached to the French War Ministry, he left Paris by car after the German invasion of Belgium on 5 August 1914. He soon reached the French army’s general headquarters at Vitry-le-François. Within a few days, he was appointed liaison officer to the French Fifth Army, commanded by General Charles Lanrezac. During Lanrezac’s initial retreat he saved the British Expeditionary Force from by advising them that they were dangerously isolated and exposed.
Spears continued as a liaison officer with the French Tenth and Sixth Armies and the Groupe des Armees du Nord. He was then appointed head of the British Military Mission in Paris. A 32-year old brigadier-general by the end of the war, Spears was wounded four times. He received the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre, a CBE and CB, and was made commander of the Legion d’Honneur.
Churchill and Spears
Churchill had met Spears socially before the war. In 1915, having resigned from the Asquith cabinet to join the army, he again met Spears in France. He was impressed with Spears’ courage and abilities: “I like him very much and he is entirely captivated,” WSC wrote his wife. Churchill and Spears formed a friendship.2 Appointed battalion commander of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916, Churchill asked for Spears as his second-in-command. Spears was considered too important to release, so the assignment fell to Archibald Sinclair.
Churchill was out of favor at the time, so his friendship was not of immediate benefit. After being passed over for a decoration, Spears was “beginning to think my being asked for by Churchill did me no good.”3 Nevertheless, after Churchill became Minister of Munitions in 1917, Spears introduced him to Georges Clemenceau. They admired “Le Tigre” equally, and were certain Clemenceau would keep France fighting till victory.
After the 1918 Armistice, Spears continued as head of the British Military Mission in Paris. When Churchill was appointed War Secretary in January 1919, he was looked upon as “Winston’s spy” in Paris. With the military mission being wound down, Churchill pressed for Spears to be appointed military attaché at the British Embassy in Paris. The appointment was resisted, as was Churchill’s attempt to send Spears to the Baltic to join an Allied Military Mission. Unfortunately, Spears then suffered a nervous collapse and resigned from the army in 1920 to go into business.
Spears in Parliament
Churchill encouraged Spears to pursue politics. In the 1922 general election Spears was elected to Parliament as a National Liberal for Loughborough, Leicestershire. Ironically, Churchill lost his own seat in the same election. Spears offered to vacate Loughborough in his favor, but Churchill tried elsewhere, failing twice. Ironically, when Churchill returned to Parliament in 1924, Spears lost his own seat.
Appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill rejoined the Conservative Party in 1925. Spears followed suit, writing his friend: “Once more I have nailed my colours to your mast.”4 Spears was elected to the House of Commons in 1931 for the constituency of Carlisle, a seat he held in the 1935 election.
When Hitler rose to power in 1933 Spears made one of the earliest warnings to Parliament. Like Churchill—and many MPs who had actually fought in the Great War—he staunchly opposed Appeasement. In 1937 he was a founder of the December Club, about 40 MPs opposed to Chamberlain’s policies. In 1938 he joined Churchill in abstaining on the Munich agreement. The Chamberlainites attacked him as overly pro-French, labeling him “the Member for Paris.” In the May 1940 Norway Debate that brought down Neville Chamberlain, Spears voted against the government. Churchill became prime minister on May 10th, as Germany launched its attack on the Low Countries and France.
Liaison to the French
The Francophile Spears, now a Major-General, was ideal as Churchill’s personal representative to the French government of Paul Reynaud. Churchill wrote that he “could say things to the high French personnel with an ease and force which I have never seen before.”5 Such skills were very much needed. As the situation deteriorated, Spears tried to keep Churchill informed of events and decision-making in Paris.
Spears was appalled by the rampant defeatism in the French army and government. As France disintegrated, Spears followed the French government as it left Paris for Bordeaux for the final act of the Third Republic. Witnessing the Fall of France stung Spears deeply. As he wrote: “A lifetime steeped in French feeling sentiment and affection was falling from me.”6
Spears’s greatest accomplishment helping to get Charles de Gaulle, then a junior cabinet minister, out of France. After Reynaud had resigned, it seemed likely that de Gaulle would be arrested by the collaborationist Vichy Government. On 17 June 1940 came this classic cloak and dagger operation. De Gaulle went to the airport, ostensibly to say farewell to Spears who was leaving for England. As planned, just as the plane was about to depart, Spears pulled de Gaulle aboard for his escape. De Gaulle downplayed the drama in his memoirs, writing: “There was nothing romantic or difficult about the departure.”7 Nevertheless, as Churchill wrote: “De Gaulle carried with him, in this small aeroplane, the honour of France.”8
Spears and de Gaulle
Spears encouraged a myth that he’d “created” de Gaulle by bringing him to Churchill. In fact the Prime Minister had already met and had been impressed by the General. Still it seemed natural to appoint Spears as liaison to de Gaulle’s Free French—but things did not work out entirely satisfactorily.
Spears joined de Gaulle on the failed Dakar expedition in September 1940, and on missions to the Middle East and Africa in 1940-41. In June 1941, the British invaded Syria and Lebanon to oust the Vichy regime. He advocated the invasion against the advice of the other British generals and officials in Cairo. Authorized to communicate directly with Churchill, he pressed this advantage, but in doing so he alienated nearly everyone in Cairo.
On 7 June 1941, the day before the invasion, Churchill told Spears to communicate with London via the War Office. He would no longer have direct access to the Prime Minister. Spears took the implied rebuke very hard. It “hurt me so much,” he wrote in his memoirs, “that I can recall its pain today.”9 Although his immediate reaction was to demand to be recalled, Spears remained at his post. The Syrian campaign lasted a month and ended with a surrender terms, which Spears thought preposterous. The terms much to Vichy and ignored the Free French. De Gaulle, he thought, had reason to be exasperated with the inept British handling of the situation.
Ends of affairs
Although they agreed about the Syrian outcome, the event hastened Spears’s break with de Gaulle. Vain and haughty, the Free French leader who was constantly ready to conjure any matter as a slight or insult. By mid-1941, goodwill between the two had evaporated. Spears became a Francophobe, while the Frenchman despised his “intractable and spiteful enemy.” Their breach was inevitable. Later Spears said, “it has been a very bitter experience to find myself opposed and having to oppose French policy so often. That is the tragedy of my life.”10
In September Churchill told Parliament that Britain had “no ambitions in Syria” and was only there to win the war. Government policy was to hand Syria over to the Syrians at the earliest possible moment. Appointed minister to Syria and Lebanon in 1942, Spears became obsessed with implementing the promise of independence. This further angered the French. British officials, having removed the German threat there, now wished only to keep Syria quiet. They wanted to commit no more resources there than necessary, a policy which Spears was intent on disrupting.
While the Foreign Office viewed Spears as an obstacle to good relations with de Gaulle, Churchill supported his old friend. In August 1942 on a visit to Cairo, Churchill met Spears again. “Louis Spears has a great many enemies,” he remarked, “but he has one friend”—and hit his chest.11 Thus encouraged, Spears set out to bring independence to Syria and Lebanon, considering this his chance for “lasting achievement, even greatness.”12 In his efforts, he ignored vehement French opposition and attempts to stymie these efforts.
By 1944, a host of British officials including Anthony Eden, Duff Cooper, and Harold Macmillan were pressing for Spears to go. He was needlessly provoking the French; Syria and Lebanon could be left until after the war. Macmillan said “Spears wants a Fashoda,” referring to the Anglo-French 1898 clash in East Africa. Having long resisted such calls, Churchill finally relented. After an emotional visit to liberated Paris in November 1944, which was said to have rekindled the Prime Minister’s love of France, Churchill asked for Spears’s resignation. On 23 November he cabled Spears that he could resign citing political reasons and a desire to resume his parliamentary duties. The resignation would be effective on December 15th.
The denouement in the Levant came in May 1945 as the French bombarded Damascus. In the House of Commons, Spears urged the government to take “very strong steps to bring home to the French our insistence that this bloodshed must cease and that they must respect the independence of the two Republics, which they and we have guaranteed.”13 With France and Britain coming very close to war, the British army intervened against the French in Syria and Lebanon.
Spears was one of the many prominent casualties in the Conservative defeat at the general election in July 1945. He lost Carlisle by 5149 votes.
After his defeat, Spears returned to a career in business and writing. He held a number of directorships and was founder of the Institute of Directors. Spears had a turbulent personal life. In 1918 he married a divorcée, Mary Borden, heir to a wealthy Chicago family. Borden was a writer who organized field hospitals and ambulances in both world wars. She lost her fortune in the 1929 stock market crash. After her death in 1968, Spears married Nancy Maurice, with whom he had had a long affair. Maurice was dedicated to Spears’s career and encouraged him in his vendettas. Spears died on 27 January 1974.
A brilliant writer, Spears wrote a two-volume memoir of the Fall of France, Assignment to Catastrophe. It appeared in 1954 to excellent reviews. Both volumes were dedicated “by permission” to Winston Churchill, who had quietly demurred from writing the Foreword. Having returned as prime minister in 1951, Churchill explained, “it would not be suitable for me to write a preface to your new book, as it raises so many points of controversy with the French.”14
Memories and reflections
Spears recalled a “decline in intimacy” with Churchill after the war. Nevertheless, in 1953, Churchill thought enough of his old friend to put him forward for a baronetcy. Spears in turn gave Martin Gilbert some priceless vignettes for the Official Biography, including how they’d conceived of the tank in the First World War. In his volume about its writing Gilbert tells how Spears remembered
…the boundless energy of his friend, and the often bewildered response of those around him to “Winston’s latest.” Although a lifelong admirer of Churchill, Spears once confided in me that “even Winston had a fault.” My ears pricked up: every biographer searches for just such a clue, the flaw, the Achilles’ heel of his hero. “What fault?” I asked. “He was too fond of Jews,” Spears replied. It was only after Spears’s death that I came upon a personal telegram from Churchill to Spears, sent in 1942, warning him “against drifting into the usual anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic channel which it is customary for British officers to follow.”
Spears not only gave me his recollections but, as he came to know me better, produced two tiny First World War pocket diaries. In them he had noted down Churchill’s remarks to him during their journeys together. In one such note, from December 1915, he had recorded Churchills view: ‘”Thinks we will have disasters in Serbia, Dardanelles & Baghdad—but we will win in end as ruin is better, so all England thinks, than a bad peace.” This was a foretaste of what Churchill was to say in 1940, believing then that despite the setbacks that would still surely come, the British public would not want to make peace with Hitler.15
1 Martin Gilbert. The Churchill Documents, vol. 7, “The Escaped Scapeoat” May 1915-December 1916 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 1578.
2 Martin Gilbert. Winston S. Churchill, vol. 3, The Challenge of War 1914-1916 (Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 600.
3 Egremont, Max. Under Two Flags: The Life of Major-General Sir Edward Spears (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), 47.
4 Egremont, 114.
5 Winston S. Churchill, Their Finest Hour (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 109.
6 Edward Spears, Fulfillment of a Mission: The Spears Mission to Syria and Lebanon, 1941-1944 (London, Cooper, 1977), x.
7 Charles de Gaulle, The Complete War Memoirs (New York, Carroll & Graf, 1998), 80.
8 Churchill, 218.
9 Spears, 94.
10 Spears, ix.
11 Egremont, 241.
12 Egremont, 239.
14 Egremont, 284.
15 Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Journey (London, HarperCollins, 1994), 89-90.
Bradley Tolppanen is a professor at Booth Library, Eastern Illinois University and is the author of Churchill in North America, 1929: A Three Month Tour of Canada and the United States. He maintains a blog on Winston Churchill.
Egremont, Max. Under Two Flags: The Life of Major-General Sir Edward Spears. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.
Spears, Edward. Assignment to Catastrophe, vol. 1: Prelude to Dunkirk, July 1939-May 1940. London: Heinemann, 1954.
Spears, Edward. Assignment to Catastrophe, vol. 2: The Fall of France, June 1940. London: Heinemann, 1954.