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By Robert Blake
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Robert Blake,
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Youth and Adventure
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill is generally regarded as one of Britain's greatest statesmen, ranking with the two Pitts, Peel, Gladstone and Lloyd George. But his reputation fluctuated violently during his lifetime. A distinguished historian, Sir Robert Rhodes James, tracing his career to 1939, could plausibly entitle his book Churchill, A Study in Failure. He was an object of blazing controversy from his youth onward. It was his role in war which established his fame, but this occurred only in the Second World War. His part in the First World or 'Great' War was a matter of bitter dispute at the time and still is. Nor have all his decisions during the Second World War gone unchallenged.
He was born prematurely in Blenheim Palace on 30 November 1874, the elder of two sons of Lord Randolph Churchill (younger son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough) and of Jennie Jerome, daughter of Leonard Jerome, a prominent and wealthy New York businessman. He was directly descended from the great Duke of Marlborough, who had no male heirs. The dukedom went by special remainder through the Duke's eldest daughter Anne, who had married Charles Spencer, Earl of Sutherland. It was not until 1817 that the family assumed the name of Churchill in addition to Spencer. The family had a bad reputation in society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were dissolute and debt-ridden. By ducal standards they were far from wealthy (only £35,000 per annum) compared with Devonshire, Portland, Norfolk, Westminster and others. The expense of keeping up this style of life became increasingly irksome.
After a long line of mediocrities Lord Randolph was a throw-back to the earlier brilliance of the family. Like many younger sons within a heartbeat of grandeur, he was intensely ambitious. He was also very clever and had a command of language, which his son was to inherit. But he was reckless, extravagant and promiscuous. He had a bitter quarrel with the Prince of Wales at a time when royalty mattered politically. There were threats of a duel and his father the Duke accepted exile to Dublin as Viceroy of Ireland, taking his son as secretary to keep him out of mischief.
But he bounced back, entered Parliament for the family borough of Woodstock and, from 1880 onwards, headed a small group of Tory dissidents who in opposition made the life of their leader, Sir Stafford Northcote, almost as uncomfortable as that of the Prime Minister, Gladstone. Lord Randolph aimed high. But Lord Salisbury, the new leader of the party, was a very different proposition from Northcote. Back in office, he made Lord Randolph Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886. The leadership seemed almost within his grasp. But he overreached himself by resigning in December on a trivial issue as a trial of strength. Lord Salisbury accepted at once. It was a classic case of rising like a rocket and falling like a stick. Salisbury repelled all efforts at reconciliation, observing that it would be odd for someone who had got rid of a carbuncle on his neck to want it back. Lord Randolph never held office again. His health rapidly declined. His speeches in the House became embarrassingly confused and incoherent. He died of tertiary syphilis at the beginning of 1895.
Winston Churchill had an unhappy childhood. His father, whom he loved and admired, was remote and cantankerous, given to outbursts of ill temper – possibly a symptom of his disease. His mother too was aloof and lacking in affection. His efforts to get either of them to turn up on parents' day occasions at his preparatory school or at Harrow nearly always failed. The one woman who gave him sympathy and love was his nurse, Mrs Everest, for whom he retained lasting affection till the day of her death when he was twenty, and whose funeral he tearfully attended. At Harrow, which he entered when he was twelve, the climate of the Hill being considered healthier than that of Eton, he made little mark. He was no good at Greek or Latin, the regular diet of public schools in those days, nor did he take to mathematics. But he did well in history and essay-writing. And he won a prize open to the whole school by reciting by heart the 1,200 lines of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome without a single mistake. His diminutive height made it hard for him to flourish in games but did not prevent him winning the Public Schools Championship in fencing.
The Law, the Church and the Services were the obvious careers for an upper-class boy in those days. The first two presupposed an Oxford or Cambridge education, but this was ruled out by Churchill's weakness in classics. In any case, Lord Randolph regarded him as too stupid for the Bar, and, observing his son's passion for collecting toy soldiers – at the age of seven he had amassed over 1,000 – decided that the Army would be acceptable. The question was whether it would accept him. It did, but only on his third attempt, after leaving school and being taught by a 'crammer'. His affection for Harrow, however, was long-lasting and he attended its famous 'Songs' whenever he could, long into old age. His third attempt got him into Sandhurst as a cavalry cadet, a position easier to secure than one in the infantry but with the drawback of requiring a private income. This greatly annoyed Lord Randolph, who wrote a crushing letter of reproof instead of the congratulations that his son expected. But Churchill enjoyed Sandhurst and learned to ride well. 'No hour of life is lost', he wrote, 'that is spent in the saddle.' He followed his father's political career with the keenest interest and often went to the Strangers' Gallery to hear him. But there was no rapport between them. 'When once I suggested that I might help his private secretary to write some of his letters, he froze me into stone.' Lord Randolph died leaving a load of debts and an estranged wife, just before Winston joined his regiment, the 4th Hussars, early in 1895.
A young cavalry subaltern did not count for much in the world but an elder son of Lord Randolph Churchill did, especially when he was intensely ambitious, very clever and seldom lacking in effrontery. Churchill never regarded his military career as more than a launching pad for politics. So enlisting his hitherto aloof mother, he took full advantage of his grand connections. He sought as many campaign medals as he could get and resolved to use the power of his pen to make money. MPs were not paid in those days. An independent financial base was essential. The problem in the search for campaign medals was that there were scarcely any campaigns. The year 1895 was singularly peaceful. British troops were not engaged in fighting anywhere. This lull was not destined to last. Meanwhile, Churchill decided that, if he could not fight in a war he could at least watch one. A prolonged guerrilla campaign in Cuba between the libertarian rebels and the Spaniards who ruled the island as a colony was reaching its final stages. He obtained introductions from his father's friend Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, who was Ambassador in Madrid.
Cavalry officers in time of peace were entitled to a lavish total of five months' leave every year, including ten continuous weeks. The normal form was to spend the time fox-hunting. Churchill reckoned that a visit to Cuba as an observer would be more interesting and actually cheaper. The Commander-in-Chief, Lord Wolseley, gave permission slightly reluctantly. The rebel cause was popular in England, the Spanish government was not. Churchill and a fellow subaltern, Reginald Barnes, sailed for New York at the beginning of November. Churchill had made an arrangement with the Daily Sketch to send occasional letters from the Cuban Front for publication at £5 a time. His father had been paid £100 each for his letters from South Africa in 1891 but Churchill could hardly expect anything like that. It was his first foray into the journalism that was to be such a useful support for his style of life for much of his career.
The two young subalterns were courteously received in Havana and then joined a mobile column that had the double task of visiting the various townships and posts garrisoned by Spanish troops, and attacking the rebels wherever they could be found. On 30 November, his twenty-first birthday, Churchill had his baptism of fire in a brief skirmish early in the morning. No bullets seemed to come near him and he felt reassured, writing later 'I felt like the optimist "who did not mind what happened, so long as it did not happen to him"'. After a few more days fighting the column returned to its base and Churchill and his companion sailed for home. He had sent five letters to the Daily Sketch. The publicity that attended his Cuban foray was far from favourable. In vain he denied having fired against the rebels on behalf of an odious tyranny, as the Radical Press saw it. The episode led to the myth that in 1898, when American forces intervened in Cuba, Churchill had fought on the 'wrong' side in the Spanish–American war. In fact, he was in India throughout the year and could not possibly have done anything of the sort.
In 1896 Churchill enjoyed for half a year the pleasures of the social round. 'I now passed', he wrote, 'a most agreeable six months; in fact they formed almost the only idle spell I have ever had.' His account of it is vivid and compelling. The high point was the famous fancy dress ball at Devonshire House in 1897, which Churchill attended with his mother but this was when he was on leave from India to which his regiment had been posted, sailing from Southampton on 11 September 1896. He was far from enthusiastic at departing and tried hard to get himself attached to the 9th Lancers, who were going to Durban and thence to the war in Matabeleland (Zimbabwe). 'A few months in South Africa', he wrote to his mother, whom he was constantly importuning to pull strings, 'would earn me the SA medal and in all probability the [British South Africa] Company's star. Thence hot foot to Egypt – to return with two more decorations in a year or two.' But his efforts were in vain and he tried to reconcile himself to the prospect of several years of tedious exile in India away from the centres of power and prestige.
Churchill's career in the sub-continent had an inauspicious start. While landing at Bombay from a small boat in a heavy swell he dislocated his shoulder. The matter did not seem serious at the time. 'I scrambled up all right, made a few remarks of a general character, mostly beginning with the earlier letters of the alphabet, hugged my shoulder and soon thought no more about it.' In fact, the injury was to dog him all his life. He could never play tennis again, only play polo with one arm strapped to his side and endured repeated dislocations on inconvenient and unpredictable occasions.
India proved to be far less boring than he had feared. When and if time hung heavy on his hands he made it pass more quickly by a course in self-education. Lady Randolph sent him large book parcels. He read Gibbon, Macaulay and Lecky, and also Plato, Aristotle and Schopenhauer in translation. He was greatly impressed by a now long-forgotten book, Winwood Reade's The Martyrdom of Man – 'a universal history of mankind, dealing in harsh terms with the mysteries of all religions and leading', as Churchill wrote in My Early Life, 'to the depressing conclusion that we simply go out like candles'. Another favourite book was Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. 'It is a good thing', he wrote, 'for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.'
There was also polo, at which he became adept despite his injury, to keep boredom at bay. Then while on leave in England he learned early in 1897 that a potential patron, Sir Bindon Blood, was to lead a punitive expedition against the rebellious Pathan tribes on the north-west frontier. Sir Bindon said there were no vacancies and he should come out as a war correspondent – which he did on behalf of the Pioneer, an important Indian newspaper, and the London Daily Telegraph. To his fury his letters in the latter were published unsigned. He soon found a place in the Malakand Field Force and took part in a ferocious campaign that nearly cost him his life. He made his experiences the basis of a book with the same title, written in great haste to forestall a similar work projected by a rival war correspondent, Lord Fincastle. Churchill won the race, but no one would read either book as a definitive account. Churchill was not interested in accuracy anyway – only in publicity. His next effort in that direction was a temporary posting to the Sudan, again as a war correspondent. Strings had to be pulled at the highest level. The commander of the force to avenge the death of General Gordon was Sir Herbert Kitchener. He regarded Churchill as a medal-hungry pusher whose despatches would be critical and damaging, as indeed they turned out to be. In 1898 Churchill took part at Omdurman in what is often – though wrongly – said to be the last cavalry charge in the history of the British Army. The episode is brilliantly described in My Early Life, and his Sudan experiences were the basis of Churchill's second book, The River War (1899).
Churchill's military career had almost ended. He returned briefly to India, where he was part of the winning team in the inter-regimental polo tournament. He began a novel, Savrola, which he temporarily put aside. In the autumn of 1899 the Boer War broke out and he got himself sent once more as a war correspondent, but no longer an Army officer, to South Africa, though he was far from welcome to Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief, and even less so to Kitchener, Robert's Chief of Staff. As correspondent to the Morning Post he was paid £250 a month and all expenses – a very large figure for the time. He had by now resigned his commission and had stood as a Conservative candidate for Oldham in July. He lost narrowly. On 15 November, in the course of the South African war, he was taken prisoner while on an armoured train in Natal but escaped from Pretoria a month later, making his way after numerous vicissitudes by rail to Lourenço Marques (Maputo) and thence by boat to Durban, where he was given a hero's welcome. The news spread all over the world. Like Byron he awoke to find himself famous, though for different reasons.
He was ready for a political career. He had the money for independence. From writing and lecturing he had made by 1900 some £10,000 – the equivalent of at least £400,000 in modern money, though such comparisons are always difficult. He had fallen in love with one Pamela Plowden in India, but nothing came of it. He was unattached as he embarked into the stormy sea of politics. He was somewhat worried when his mother, with whom he had had warm relations latterly, decided to marry someone twenty years younger. Her finances were as erratic as his had been until he struck oil as a writer and lecturer, and her new husband was not rich. Churchill could no longer depend on her to pull strings, but by now he hardly needed that help.CHAPTER 2
Member of Parliament
By 1900 Churchill, at twenty-six, was a well-known but by no means generally well-liked public figure. There were stories about his behaviour as a subaltern – rigging the result of a steeplechase challenge cup and bullying an unpopular brother officer, Alan Bruce, into resignation. A cloud hung over his escape from capture in South Africa – the charge that he broke his parole, also that he reneged on a pledge for a joint escape with two others and left them in the lurch. There is no truth in the escape allegations, though they dogged him for many years. The earlier charges have more substance. His son, Randolph, in his biography, writes, 'Neither the story of the Challenge Cup nor that of Bruce's reception into the Regiment reads very prettily,' but concludes that 'although Churchill's conduct may have been injudicious it was in no way dishonourable'. Not everyone took this charitable view.
'With words we govern man,' Disraeli once said. Churchill was a master of words and took immense trouble over his writing, his speeches and lectures. His style with its overtones of Gibbon, and Macaulay (whom he later came to hate), commanded attention and produced money. He could now confidently seek a seat. He left South Africa in 1900 and stood for Parliament, again for Oldham, in the general election of that year. The tide was flowing for the Conservatives and he got in but his views about his party soon became increasingly disenchanted. An element in this change may have been his undertaking to write a life of his father. On reading the documents, he came to believe that Lord Randolph had been badly treated by the Tory establishment. But there were other reasons for his subsequent decision to move to the Liberals – above all his grave doubts about the policy of tariff reform that was sweeping the party under the influence of Joseph Chamberlain.
Meanwhile, he made, characteristically ignoring tradition, a contentious maiden speech, praising the Boers. 'If I were a Boer', he said, 'I hope I should be fighting in the field.' He caused great offence to the Conservatives and continued to do so on many other issues, including a fierce and well-argued attack on expenditure on armaments – the issue on which his father had resigned in 1886. In 1903, when the split between Conservative free traders and tariff reformers had become ruinously divisive, he proclaimed himself 'an Independent Conservative'. In the landslide election of 1906 he stood as a declared Liberal and was returned for North-West Manchester with a large majority.
His reward was office as Under-Secretary for the Colonies. His chief was in the Lords, so Churchill had the task of dealing with the Commons which of course he greatly welcomed. The colonies meant Africa and Churchill was well qualified by his experience to cope with the problems of British rule. His main task was to prepare a new constitution for South Africa, an arrangement for 'responsible government'. He wanted it to be a matter of all-party support, 'a gift of England'. Edward VII congratulated him on putting country before party. Churchill made another visit to South Africa in the autumn of 1907, which produced another book, My African Journey. His energy and assiduity were immense. He never relaxed. He had a finger in every pie within his reach. But he combined these qualities with an insensitivity to the feelings of others which lasted for the whole of his long life.
Excerpted from Winston Churchill by Robert Blake. Copyright © 2012 Robert Blake,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Youth and Adventure,
2 Member of Parliament,
3 Admiralty 1911–15,
4 Recovery and Relapse 1915–39,
5 War 1939–45,
6 Coda 1945–65,