This week marks the tenth anniversary of these blogs. To date I have written and published some 441 blogs totalling 650,000 words. From these blogs I have published two books and am working on a third. I originally started them to drive readers to my website but they have taken on a life of their own and I now write them just for pleasure and the satisfaction of engaging in a conversation with a wide readership, many of whom respond with comments, questions and ideas. To commemorate the anniversary I want to return to one of my favourite subjects, Sir Winston Churchill.
I blogged about Britain’s greatest hero in 2015 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death.[i]
I had attended an event at the Carlton Club to mark the occasion and had met three of his descendants, granddaughter, Celia Sandys, grandson Sir Nicholas Soames and great-grandson Randolph Churchill and had a long conversation with Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge. I have 30 books at home either by or about Churchill and have read others so what more can I say about him? Well, I have now read a new biography about him by the great historian Andrew Roberts that does indeed shed new light on his amazing life.[ii]
‘Far too much has been and is being written about me,’ Churchill told his great friend Professor Lindemann – and that was in the 1920s. Despite all that literary activity (which has continued unabated), General Sir Alan Brooke wrote in August 1943, ‘I wonder whether any historian of the future will ever be able to paint Sir Winston in his true colours.’ In 1960, when he started writing his memoirs Lord Ismay, Churchill’s chief military assistant in the Second World War, told President Eisenhower that an objective biography of Churchill could not be written until at least the year 2010. That proved accurate in that Roberts had access to archives that have only recently been open to researchers including King George VI’s unexpurgated diary, Lawrence Burgis’s verbatim reports of the War Cabinet meetings, Churchill’s children’s private papers, and much more.
‘To do justice to a great man,’ Churchill himself wrote, ‘discriminating criticism is necessary. Gush, however quenching, is always insipid.’ Roberts does not hold back from criticism which is certainly discriminating. There were many times when Churchill’s judgment could legitimately be called into question, including his opposition to votes for women, personally attending the Sidney Street Siege, appointing Jackie Fisher in the First World War and Roger Keyes in the Second, continuing the Gallipoli operation, employing the paramilitary Black and Tans in Ireland, rejoining the Gold Standard, supporting Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis, mismanaging the Norway Campaign, failing to appreciate the military capacity of the Japanese, describing the Italian peninsula as a ‘soft underbelly’, allowing the deportation of the Crimean Cossacks to Stalin and of anti-Tito Yugoslavs to Tito, remaining as prime minister after his stroke in 1953, and much more besides. Yet as he told his beloved wife Clementine from the trenches of the Great War, ‘I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes.’ And that is true of all of us.
Many questioned his judgement but when it came to all three of the mortal threats posed to Western civilisation, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgement stood far above that of the people who had sneered at his. One of those, Clement Attlee was still opposing rearmament and conscription before the Second World War long after Churchill had called for both.
Churchill was the man who got the grand fleet ready for the outbreak of war in 1914; the father of the tank; the initiator of much social legislation to alleviate the suffering of the grindingly poor in Edwardian Britain; a reforming liberal home secretary, particularly in the treatment of prisoners; one of those who helped bring the Irish Free State into existence, and the creator of the state of Jordan. He settled Great War debts, preached magnanimity after the General Strike, wrote tax-cutting budgets and was the peacetime premier who built a million homes and abolished rationing. Above all, he was the first significant political figure to spot the twin totalitarian dangers of Communism and Nazism, and to point out the best ways of dealing with both.
He is remembered above all for his wartime premiership. But all his past life had been but a preparation for that. His early mastery of the ‘noble’ English sentence, and his wide reading as a subaltern, enabled him to produce his magnificent wartime oratory. His time in Cuba taught him coolness under fire, and how to elongate his working day through siestas. His experiences in the Boer War exposed him to the deficiencies of generals. His time as a pilot and as secretary of state for air made him a champion of the RAF long before the Battle of Britain. His biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough prepared him for synchronized decision-making between allies. His penchant for always visiting the scenes of action, such as the Sidney Street Siege and Antwerp, prepared him for the morale-boosting visits around Britain during the Blitz. His fascination for science led him to grasp the military application of nuclear fission. His writing about Islamic fundamentalism prepared him for the fanaticism of the Nazis. His prescient, accurate analysis of Bolshevism laid the ground for his Iron Curtain speech, and his introduction of National Insurance and old age pensions with Lloyd George before the First World War prepared him for accommodating the welfare state after the Second. Above all his experiences in the First World War – preparing the Navy, the Dardanelles debacle, his time in the trenches as a soldier and as minister of munitions – all gave him vital insights that he put to use in the Second World War. His experience of Gallipoli made him particularly careful in the planning of the invasion of Normandy.
His written output was immense. He published over six million words in 37 books – more than Shakespeare and Dickens combined – and delivered five million in public speeches not counting his voluminous letter- and memorandum-writing. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 ‘for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.’
The important point about Churchill in 1940 is not that he stopped a German invasion that year, but that he stopped the British Government from making peace. If Churchill had not been prime minister, Halifax undoubtedly would have been, and he wanted at least to discover what Hitler’s terms might have been. Halifax could not see how Britain could possibly win once driven off the continent, when France was about to fall, the Soviet Union was a German ally, Italy was about to become another and the United States was in no mood to declare war on Germany. Halifax was merely a logical rationalist when the need was for a stubborn, emotional romantic. Churchill understood that a German victory in the East would have soon afterwards spelt disaster for Britain and that signing an ignoble peace would have demoralised the British and destroyed their credibility with the Americans. Churchill could not offer the British a realistic plan for victory until Hitler invaded Russia, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war against the United States in 1941, but he kept Britain in the war.
He is often criticised for poor strategy but in fact it was his strategy that won the war. He explained it to the Americans many times and it was followed faithfully. And while it was right two weeks ago to commemorate the contribution of the Americans on the 75th
anniversary of D-day, in fact more British soldiers, sailors and aircrew took part in that than Americans.
In a survey of 3,000 British teenagers in 2008, no fewer than 20% of them thought Winston Churchill to be a fictional character. (In the same survey, 58% thought Sherlock Holmes and 47% thought Eleanor Rigby were real people.) Of course this is an indictment of the way history is taught in schools, but in a sense it also a tribute that people think of him, insofar as they know about him at all, as someone whose life story could not possibly be true, someone who had achieved the status of myth. It all seems so improbable that a single person could have lived such an extraordinary life. He succeeded despite parental neglect, the disapproval of contemporaries, a prison incarceration in the Boer War, a dozen close brushes with death, political obloquy, financial insecurity, military disaster, press and public ridicule, backstabbing colleagues, continual misrepresentation and even, from some quarters, decades of hatred, among countless other setbacks. With enough spirit, he believed that we can rise above anything, and create something truly magnificent of our lives.
Another recent biographer of Winston Churchill is a certain Boris Johnson. I think he may see something of the great man in himself. I hope he is right because while we do not face a crisis like 1940 it is the most serious crisis since then.