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More Bark Than Bite

Churchill and a “Black Dog” Centenary Letter
By WILFRED ATTENBOROUGH

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Some historians have suggested that too much has been made of Churchill’s “so-called depression,” otherwise known as his “black dog.” But what did Churchill himself have to say about his mental health? In writing, very little, despite his immense output as journalist, author and private-letter writer. Nevertheless, from his fragmentary disclosures a great deal emerges which is, without question, far from a complete endorsement of Received Opinion on Churchill’s black dog depression. This is particularly evident in one of the many letters he sent to his wife Clementine while serving as a battalion commander on the Western Front during the First World War one hundred years ago this winter. In a letter dated 28 January 1916, Churchill’s includes the following caution:

“You must not suppose that any of my depressions here have any relation to those terrible and reasonless depressions w[hic]h frighten me sometimes. I sorrow only for real things, for g[rea]t enterprises cast away needlessly—wantonly—for not having the power w[hic]h I c[oul]d use better than any other living Englishman to determine the war policy of Britain. It is painful at times; but it is bearable always. Otherwise my spirits are surprisingly good.”

Clearly, Churchill’s post-Admiralty exclusion from political power and a key role in the Dardanelles campaign (for him the greatest of the “g[rea]t enterprises”) did not plunge him into “semi-suicidal” depression. This is so despite his use of the phrase “my depressions here” for what had been discontinuous periods of low mood during less than three months on the Western Front. His true condition is encapsulated by his word “sorrow”; he was enduring severe bereavement, for which painting was a palliative but not a complete remedy.

As a remedy, painting was regarded by Churchill himself as ideal for the “worry and mental overstrain” inseparable from work involving “exceptional responsibilities” and “large scale” duties. He never so much as hinted that painting would restore the sanity of the severely depressed, though some commentators have concluded that he did.

Churchill’s bereavement  (“bearable always,” leaving his “spirits…surprisingly good”) was fully resolved only after 16 July 1917, the date he returned to (some) power in Lloyd George’s Coalition government as an immediately and characteristically dynamic Minister of Munitions.

For all that, there remains in the centenary letter the scarcely minor matter of Churchill and “those terrible and reasonless depressions w[hic]h frighten me sometimes” and have no relation to his episodic “sorrow” as a battalion commander. In the context of the passage quoted, these depressions’ pre-date his arrival on the Western Front, and almost certainly pre-date his ousting in May 1915 from the Admiralty and the ensuing severe bereavement. The only substantial documentary clue to their nature bequeathed by Churchill is the so-called “black dog letter” he sent to Clementine on 11 July 1911.

Implicit in the black dog letter is a comparison by Churchill of the black dog depression from which he had suffered at a time or times in the years before July 1911 with the depression experienced by a relative of his before the complete cure effected by an unnamed doctor in Germany. From this information, taken together with what the history of psychological medicine tells us about the treatments for depression available at the time, it is possible to deduce as a probability that Churchill’s  depression pre-1911 had been a form of mild non-occupationally-disabling anxiety-depression, perhaps including by definition frightening panic attacks in certain situations such as railway platforms.

This black dog depression may well have been for Churchill—a “romantic” according to Elizabeth Longford, inclined to “gild the highlights and blacken the shadows”—the “terrible and reasonless” depression which frightened him sometimes.

Consistent with the foregoing is Lord Moran’s medically informed last word on Churchill’s depression, a last word which has gone completely unacknowledged by those in the grip of Received Opinion on the great man’s mental health. In the final chapter of his lengthy, rambling, mainly diary-format memoir of their years together as doctor and patient, Moran states that Churchill had, by 1914, “managed to extirpate depression from his system.” There may be a touch of hyperbole in this opinion. Certainly, the relevant biographical evidence points unmistakably to greater continuity in Churchill’s lifelong psychological difficulties, their being characterised by work-related worry and anxiety, which could tip over into mild depression at times of great and disgraceful setback, such as the surrenders in 1942 at Singapore and Tobruk.

Wilfred Attenborough is the author of Churchill and the “Black Dog” of Depression.

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