As we live through a period of uncertainty and stress, it is worth recalling that in all of Winston Churchill’s long and eventful life, no period placed him under greater strain than his first weeks as Prime Minister, eighty years ago. By the end of June 1940, France had collapsed; the British army had largely been evacuated from the continent but was denuded of equipment; German invasion seemed imminent. Observing the effects these events had on her husband’s nature, Clementine Churchill wrote him what is the only known letter between them from all of 1940:
27 June 1940
I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know.
One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic, and overbearing manner. It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like schoolboys and “take what’s coming to them” and then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders.
Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming. I was astonished and upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with and under you, loving you. I said this and I was told “No doubt it’s the strain.”
My Darling Winston I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; and you are not so kind as you used to be.
It is for you to give the Orders, and if they are bungled—except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Speaker—you can sack anyone and everyone. Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness, and—if possible—Olympic calm. You used to quote, “On ne règne sure les âmes que par le calme” [One reigns over souls only by calm]. I cannot bear that those who serve the country and yourself should not love you as well as as admire and respect you.
Besides you won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality. (Rebellion in war time being out of the question!)
Please forgive your loving, devoted, and watchful
To this letter no answer exists. However, the Churchills’ daughter Mary speculated that perhaps they spoke and Winston must surely have taken it to heart for although during the years of his greatest power her father “could undoubtedly be formidable and unreasonable, many of the people who served him on levels in those dire years have put on record not only their admiration for him as a chief, but also their love for a warm and endearing human being.”
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