32nd International Conference Hailed as Most Successful Ever
Ditchley, the Duke, Blenheim, Boris & More: Full Report
The thirty-second International Churchill Conference took place from 26–29 May in Oxfordshire. With the Heythrop Park Hotel serving as General Headquarters, events also took place at nearby Ditchley Park, Blenheim Palace, and Bladon. Speakers included London Mayor Boris Johnson, Sir David Cannadine, and Andrew Roberts, but most people agreed that the highlight of the conference was the presentation made by the Imam Ahmed Abdel-Rahman El-Mahdi. To watch his speech, please CLICK HERE.
The Mahdi, seen above with Prof. James Muller, Chairman of The Churchill Centre’s Board of Academic Advisors, is the grandson of the Mahdi whose actions brought about the demise of General Gordon in Khartoum in 1885, which in turn led to the River War of 1898 involving a young Lieutenant Churchill. The Mahdi spoke as part of a panel examining Churchill’s relationship with the Moslem world. He was a late-addition to the programme and flown in from his residence in Omdurman. His remarks calling for a peaceful understanding and relationship between Islam and other faiths were followed by a standing ovation.
This year’s conference sold out early with over three hundred people attending from at least ten different countries including, Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Sudan. The first night of the conference took place at Ditchley Park, where Churchill stayed a dozen times during the Second World War. Before dinner guests gathered in the great hall to hear Prof. Ashley Jackson relate the history of Churchill’s association with the manor house. After a banquet in the dining room, attendees were allowed to tour the rooms used by Churchill and other famous guests including Her Majesty the Queen.
The second day of the conference unfolded at Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill and home of the dukes of Marlborough. The Palace was hosting not only The Churchill Centre but the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which this year celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of providing grants to students throughout the English-speaking world. A Spitfire performed a fly-over and aerial acrobatics before a band performed retreat with Randolph Churchill taking the salute.
On Thursday the 28th, formal panel sessions took place at Heythrop Park. The highlight of the morning was the presentation by Boris Johnson, a robust and unapologetic champion of Churchill, whose 2014 book The Churchill Factor has been enormously successful. To watch his presentation in full, please CLICK HERE. Also that morning broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby moderated a panel discussing “Why celebrate Churchill’s Life?” with professors Sir David Cannadine and Margaret Macmillan.
In the afternoon Minnie Churchill discussed “Churchill & Painting” and Piers Brendon talked about “Churchill & Animals.” Panel sessions concluded with an examination of “Churchill and the Dardanelles: 100 Years On.” Dr. Mark Hamilton surveyed the recent literature, and Professor Antoine Capet described the nearly forgotten involvement of French military forces. Harry Atkinson of the Royal Australian Navy summarized the contemporary Australian perspective.
Evening festivities took place at Blenheim Palace with a Pol Roger reception followed by dinner in the Orangery with His Grace the Duke of Marlborough hosting. Before the meal Robert Hardy and Celia Sandys read excerpts from letters between Winston and Clementine Churchill. After dinner the Duke joined Randolph and Jack Churchill along with students from Harrow in singing their traditional school songs. The performance concluded with everyone joining in to sing God Save the Queen, O Canada, and the Star Spangled Banner.
On the final day of the conference Celia Sandys remembered her grandmother Clementine Churchill, and biographer Sonia Purnell discussed the relationship between Clementine and Eleanor Roosevelt. Historian Andrew Roberts described Churchill’s fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte, and actor Christian McKay examined the many dramatizations of Churchill’s career. Formal sessions ended with novelist Michael Dobbs discussing his own efforts at depicting Churchill in fiction.
The conference closed with a service of remembrance at St. Martin’s Church, Bladon, the final resting place for Churchill and members of his immediate family. The memorial stone for our late patron Mary Soames, who passed away one year ago, had only just been installed. On display inside the church was Mary’s banner as a Lady of the Garter that had hung over her stall at Windsor Castle and which she willed to St. Martin’s. Also newly visible was the spectacular stained glass window dedicated to Winston Churchill due to be formally dedicated on 9 June by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall.
Everyone agreed that this was the most impressive conference ever held by The Churchill Centre. All are indebted to conference committee members Allen Packwood, Derek Greenwell, Scott Johnson, and Robert Courts. The organizers of the 2016 conference to be held in Washington, D.C. will have a real challenge to maintain the standards set this year by this outstanding team.
Photo credits: Top and bottom Graham Wiltshire
Centre: John David Olsen