To date, 1,009 biographies of Winston Churchill have been published. What, then, made Churchill’s latest biographer, Andrew Roberts, decide that a 1,100th was needed? In a fascinating talk at the Chelsea History Festival, Roberts shared a number of intriguing insights into Churchill’s personality, achievements and failures. As always, I will leave it to you to decide how to interpret his conclusions:
Over the past eight years, Roberts told us, an “avalanche” of important new sources have arrived on the scene, providing fresh information about the 20th century icon. For example, the Queen allowed Roberts to read her father, King George VI’s, wartime diaries: the first time a historian had been allowed to do so. The king was a close friend of Churchill’s, and the two met weekly during World War II. Churchill trusted the king with all his secrets – and the king wrote everything down. George VI referred to Churchill as a friend and addressed him by his first name, unlike the other three Prime Ministers who served him.
Churchill’s daughter, Mary Soames, has also published new material. These new sources, Roberts told us, give a powerful sense that Churchill was not the buttoned-up Victorian he’s sometimes perceived as today. He was driven by his emotions and, during WWII, burst into tears in public no fewer than 50 times: “He was a throw-back to the Regency aristocrats who wore their hearts on their sleeves.”
Roberts was keen to dispel a number of myths. Churchill did not suffer from clinical depression, nor was he bi-polar. He did experience some very dark times, especially during the calamitous Gallipoli campaign – but that, as Roberts pointed out, would affect anyone. Churchill also wasn’t an alcoholic; rather, he had an iron constitution and drank a lot: “Alcohol was his servant, not his master”.
What circumstances had led to King George VI appointing Winston Churchill Prime Minister on 10th May 1940, causing Churchill to state “I felt as if I was walking with destiny”? Were all his previous roles preparation for leading the country during wartime and to eventual victory over the Nazis?
That’s the question Roberts set out to answer when writing his book – and it is clear that Churchill did, indeed, have a driving sense of personal destiny. Aged just 16, he told his best friend that he foresaw terrible troubles in their life times, but that he would be called upon to save Britain and, ultimately, the British Empire.
Churchill had an extraordinary number of brushes with death before he did so. Having been born two months prematurely (usually fatal, in Victorian times), aged 10 Winston survived being stabbed in the stomach by a school friend, only to nearly die from pneumonia aged 11. As an adolescent, he almost drowned in Lake Lausanne – and in later years survived two plane crashes and three car crashes.
Those were just the peacetime brushes with death. As a soldier, Churchill fought on four continents in five campaigns, risking death many times and escaping a Boer prisoner of war camp on one occasion. During the First World War, he entered No Man’s Land 30 times, his reasoning being that he should not ask his men to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself.
This sense of destiny, commented Roberts, gave Churchill an “extraordinary calmness”, together with the ability to make jokes at the most unlikely moments.
That is not to excuse or hide the many decisions that Churchill got terribly wrong, including the Dardannelles (Gallipoli) campaign – although, argues Roberts, the concept was a “brilliant” one which, had it worked, would have taken the Turks out of the war. Instead, disaster ensued – and Britain did not forgive Churchill until the 1930s.
He was, however, a politician who learned from his mistakes. Never again, even during WWII, would he overrule his Chiefs of Staff, although constitutionally he was entitled to do so.
Churchill’s upbringing had not been particularly happy. Neither parent had much time for him, even by Victorian standards; his father’s letters to him are painful to read, smacking of disdain and contempt. Yet even after Randolph’s death, when Winston was 20, he continued to love his father, writing his biography and naming his own son after him.
Jennie Jerome was a society beauty and socialite, who was “uninterested in her son until he was old enough to become a signatory on her trust fund.” As with Randolph, Winston continued to love his mother come what may. Like his parents, Winston was broke most of his life. Like them, he was a spendthrift who enjoyed the finer things in life, employing 14 servants at his most impecunious.
How was it that he saw the dangers fascism was presenting across Europe long before many of his contemporaries? Churchill had many Jewish friends and colleagues and, from them, he learned about some of the horrendous events happening during the 1930s. He was also a historian, able to identify the dangers of Hitler and the Nazis and put them into historical context. Churchill had encountered fascism previously and saw the same traits in the Nazis. This insight would lead him, in due course, to predict Soviet imperialism.
In the years leading up to World War II, it took “extraordinary moral courage” on Churchill’s part to defend his convictions. He was frequently shouted down in the House of Commons, and called a war-monger. Yet, he never deviated from his views or reacted to opinion polls. Nor did he employ a speechwriter during either of his premierships. Instead, he used his natural eloquence to win people over – and worked on hard on his speeches.
Churchill had three rules when it came to writing morale-boosting speeches:
- Keep your sentences short;
- Use short words: don’t show off;
- Where possible, use Anglo Saxon words, i.e. the language the English people have been using for the past 500 years. In Churchill’s famous “Fight on the beaches” speech, only two words aren’t derived from the English language.
Churchill displayed the same bravery as our wartime PM that he had as a soldier, travelling thousands of miles over the course of six years by plane or boat, constantly under the threat of attack. Legend has it that he insisted on having a machine gun on his boat, so that if attacked by a submarine he could open fire on it.
The only time Churchill is on record as saying that Britain might lose the war is in June 1940, when France was falling. Returning home from an airfield, he made a comment implying that Britain would be lost within three months; small wonder that he felt so, given that Russia was still allied with Germany and that the U.S. was refusing to join the war. Churchill was desperately frustrated by President Roosevelt’s attitude, unable to understand why the world’s largest free democracy refused to stand up to, in Churchill’s eyes, the most heinous political organisation ever to exist.
Many questions have been asked about how much the Allies knew of the Holocaust. There were indications, Andrew Roberts told us, in particular from Polish escapees from Auschwitz, who had made it clear that some kind of mass extermination was taking place. However, Allied intelligence was not able to build a clear picture that 12 other camps were carrying out the same crimes – and thus the Holocaust was not given the prominence it should have been. In autumn 1944, the Allies did manage to warn the Hungarian government that they should stop the country’s Jews from being taken to camps – although not all of them could be saved. And the challenges presented by destroying the camps and the methods of getting people to them were extreme; it might have been possible to bomb the camps themselves, but it was virtually impossible to be successfully bomb railway lines from the air.
The 1945 general election result came as a “great shock” to Churchill. During the election campaign he had travelled the length & breadth of the UK and been cheered by huge crowds. But he had underestimated the appeal of free healthcare and the nationalisation of the banks. Roberts believes that – as Clemmie suggested at the time – the loss was a blessing in disguise; Churchill was exhausted, and going directly into another term of office may well have killed him. Instead, he was able to recover, recharge his batteries and enjoy his beloved Chartwell – before being re-elected in 1951.
A complex character, Winston Churchill. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, many books have been dedicated to analysing his personality, victories and failures – and no doubt many more will follow. I’ll conclude this post with Roberts’s closing remarks: that Churchill was a man who undoubtedly made mistakes, but one who learned from them. That he was a man of tremendous eloquence and great foresight. And that not only did he do as he predicted and save Britain and her Empire from disaster; ultimately, he saved civilisation itself.