Author SIMON READ Discusses his New Book about Churchill the Young War Correspondent
Winston Churchill Reporting is a new book by author Simon Read published this month in Britain and North America. The Chartwell Bulletin recently discussed with Read the subject of his work and what drew him to Churchill.
CB: How did you become interested in Winston Churchill?
SR: Although I have lived my entire adult life in the States, I am British by birth. Both my maternal grandparents served in the British military during the Second World War. My grandfather was a tail gunner with RAF Bomber Command and my grandmother served in the British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. As most people of that generation, they held Churchill in very high regard; I discovered Churchill through them. They had many of Churchill’s books on their living room bookshelf, so I first became aware of Churchill as a writer before anything else. Because of them, I had a fascination with the Second World War from a very young age, and so my interest in Churchill ultimately grew out of that.
I should add that my paternal grandfather, an airman in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, was also a huge Churchill admirer. He and his family lived in London, where he was a detective with the Metropolitan Police Service, during the Second World War. They were bombed out of their home during the Blitz when my father was a boy. After the war, my grandfather bred bulldogs and named every one of them Winston.
CB: What made you decide to examine Churchill’s career as a war correspondent?
SR: Most people, if they think of Churchill, tend to think of him as Britain’s iconic war leader and all that entails: the soaring oratory, the ever-present cigar, the never-surrender spirit. It’s easy to forget he was sixty-five years old when he became prime minister, yet history has primarily immortalized one aspect of Churchill’s incredible life. Although fascinated by Churchill as warlord, I have always been curious as to what shaped the man he became. Looking back at all he did, I think his adventures as a war correspondent rank as one of the most formative periods of his life.
CB: Which episodes of Churchill’s life do you focus on in this book?
SR: The book chronicles Churchill’s exploits as a war correspondent between 1895 and 1900, during which time he covered various conflicts of empire in Cuba, India’s North-West Frontier, the Sudan, and South Africa. Although the book has elements of history and biography, I consider it first and foremost a non-fiction tale of adventure. I described it to friends when writing it as “Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones,” for his adventures on those foreign battlefields were thrilling. Many of them, it should also be said, were quite horrific. Some readers may be surprised to learn just what he went through in his quest for excitement.
CB: Did you discover anything new?
SR: Churchill’s been written about so much, I am not sure it is possible to uncover something wholly new about the man—but it is certainly possible to present him in a new light. His life was so multi-faceted that it is easy to examine it from multiple angles. As previously stated, we tend to think of Churchill as a politician and war leader—and not necessarily as an adventurer or—to use a modern-day phrase—adrenaline junkie.
Churchill is remembered for his moral courage and the strength of his convictions. He always voiced what he believed to be right. What I found particularly striking about Churchill in his twenties was his physical courage: he displayed no fear on the battlefield. In fact, he went out of his way to insert himself into the action.
CB: Did you discover anything about Churchill that surprised you?
SR: Well, certainly his physical courage—as previously alluded to. He was not content simply to report on the fighting; he was always desperate to take part in the struggle. Even in letters to his mother, where you think a young man might share his sense of fear or uncertainty, he voiced his thrill for being under fire. He actually described his time on the North-West Frontier, where he saw savage fighting, as one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life.
CB: How do you think Churchill’s experience as a war correspondent shaped or informed his subsequent development?
SR: Churchill was a great lover of history, enthralled by stories of the Napoleonic wars and the exploits of his own illustrious ancestor, John Churchill—the first Duke of Marlborough, who won acclaim for defeating the French in the early eighteenth century. As such, Churchill had a romantic view of war. His time as a war correspondent, however, altered his perception of combat. Seeing firsthand the carnage of war, he began to view armed conflict through a more bloodied lens—but he remained a creature of war, fixated by is complexities and scope, riveted by its human drama. Although he came to acknowledge fully the horrors of the battlefield, the heroes and tales of daring forged in its blast furnace never ceased to enthrall him. That said, he was appalled by the human cost. This is clearly evident in the wake of the Battle of Omdurman, where the sight of thousands of dead Sudanese warriors scattered about the desert plain sickened him. Some of his critics tend to dismiss Churchill as a warmonger, but that’s incorrect and an over-simplification.
His time as a war correspondent also saw the shaping of what we now identify as key Churchill traits. In Cuba, he discovered his true passion for cigars; in the mountains of the North-West Frontier, where the most palatable thing for a British soldier to drink was whisky, Churchill developed an ever-lasting love of the libation. Most importantly, it’s during this time that Churchill masters his command of the language. He was, without a doubt, already a great writer when he took his first assignment in Cuba—but as he moved from campaign to campaign, the language in his dispatches becomes more vivid, painting pictures both horrifying and exhilarating. His reporting taught him to relate the battlefield experience to everyday people. As prime minister, he would use this to his advantage to convey to the British public in Shakespearean tones the horror and glory of their most desperate hour.
When Britain faced the German onslaught alone, Churchill’s words proved to be his nation’s greatest weapon.
CB: How do you think Churchill’s career as a war correspondent compared with the way reporting on war takes place today?
SR: Churchill was a journalist for various London newspapers while simultaneously serving as a soldier, reporting on the battles he fought in and criticizing—when appropriate—the generals from whom he took orders. That is definitely not something you will see today, where journalists from professional news organizations are “embedded” with certain units and removed from the military chain of command. Even back in the day, Churchill’s situation was unique and, as detailed in the book, caused some angst among his superiors. But Churchill benefitted from his family name and was able to take advantage of his father’s connections. Also, his mother—one of London’s more prominent socialites—exercised her considerable powers of persuasion and lobbied tirelessly on her son’s behalf, routinely working her charm on politicians and generals. In the end, what Churchill wanted he almost always got!
CB: What is the one thing that you would like people to take away from reading your book?
SR: Well, I hope they come away with a better sense of how Churchill evolved into the man who stands so large over history—but, no less important, I hope they find it a fun, action-packed read.
Winston Churchill Reporting is published by De Capo Press in both the United States and the United Kingdom.