June 21, 2015

Finest Hour 100, Autumn 1998

Page 58


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From: [email protected] (Thomas Reinehr):

In the second volume of the first edition of The River War (pl7-19), Churchill complains that the dam to be built at Aswan would be eight feet shorter than ideal, resulting in 2.5 times less water storage. This was required to save the Temple of Philae, an ancient Egyptian building. The incident makes one think about a modern problem: weighing the preservation of heritage versus the public good. In a different form the question arises in efforts to prevent development in order to protect an obscure species. I wondered how (or if) Churchill addressed similar situations in his lifetime.

From: [email protected] (Editor):

In “Churchill vs. Philae,” Finest Hour 29, page 2b, Dalton Newfield wrote: “It is typical of Churchill that in the midst of his exciting book The River War, and while expounding on the progress of his squadron up the Nile, he comes to a full stop and digresses with several pages on the Aswan dam, then under construction. All is written in brightly optimistic tones until he comes to the Temple of Philae, the preservation of which imposed a reduction of more than 50% on the capacity of the dam.”

Newfield then quotes Churchill, who would not apparently win approval of preservationists with this:

“I will not assail the small but beautiful ruin. Let us believe that the god to whom it was raised was once worthy of human reverence, and would willingly accept as a nobler memorial the life-giving lake beneath which his temple would be buried. If it were not so, then, indeed, it would be time for a rational and utilitarian generation to tear the monument of such a monster to pieces….”

Newfield adds: “The dam, finished in 1902, left the Isle of Philae awash except from June to September. It was raised in 1912 and again in 1934, but suffered little damage until the Aswan High Dam was completed recently. Now strong currents from the new dam threaten to destroy this most beautiful and historic site. UNESCO is heading a drive to raise the $14 million required to dismantle the ruins and rebuild them on the nearby island of Agilkia.” Finest Hour 29 was published twenty-five years ago. Can anyone update us on the status of the Temple of Philae?

From: [email protected] (James W. Muller):

The temple of Philae was removed to the island in question some years ago and saved for posterity. Some further particulars will be included in a note in the new edition of The River War that I am preparing.

From: Drichm7768 (Dan Richmond):

I did an Internet search and brought up 205 references to Temple of Philae! Most are from tour agencies. You can visit the following website: www.beachsite.com / gypsy / egypthtm to see a photo of the Temple (most definitely above waterline). Here’s an excerpt from one agency’s brochure:

“Day 3: Cruise southwards to Edfu and visit the Temple, the most complete of Egypt’s temples. Rejoin the MS Serenade and sail to Kom Ombo and moor overnight. Day 4: In the morning see the Ptolemaic temple then cruise on to Aswan. In the afternoon visit the Aswan High Dam which is over two miles long, 360 feet high and affords spectacular views over Lake Nasser. Continue to the Temple of Philae, returning to the ship by local felucca along the shores of Elephantine and Kitchener Islands.”


Some of the editor’s fifteen examples of Churchill “flaws and mistakes” (last issue, page 37) drew criticism and debate on the Listserv. I do not have the writer’s permission to list his name, but since his points are interesting, here is the exchange, with the counter-argument in italics, and the response following arrows (»):

• “Deserting the Tory Party, at an opportune political moment only to be forced to return to it later.”
***Moving to another party is always an act of great risk and little reward, requiring personal courage and conviction. It enabled him to take a major role in government before and during WW1.

»What I mean is, WSC sacrificed long-term political advantage for (relative) short-term opportunity. Not everybody believed his crossing the floor was an act of “courage and conviction” but rather opportunism and ambition. Tories had long memories, and never trusted him again, even when he was handling the nation’s purse, and later, to his greater disadvantage, trying to warn the nation of Hitler. The irony is that he left them over Free Trade, in 1931.

• “Championing the Dardanelles operation, without plenary authority to bring it to a successful conclusion.”
***The record shows that the failures of this strategically correct idea were due to the gross errors made by the commanders on the ground, Kitchener’s insufferable indecisiveness and cabinet cowardice.

»I wasn’t arguing the strength of the idea, only Churchill’s mistake in relation to it. Strategically correct? One List member suggested that even if he had full authority, Churchill couldn’t have pulled it off because the Turkish mobile batteries were able to protect the minefields. Suppose the fleet did get through and appeared off Constantinople? Churchill was sure this would have caused the Turks to surrender. But would they?

• “Restoring the Gold Standard without commensurate reforms in employment and wage policies, which helped bring about the 1926 General Strike.”
***Sofar of the mark that band width is not wide enough to tackle on the list.

» See Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front, pp251-2:

Keynes had argued that as a consequence of the return to gold, attempts would be made to reduce wages. In the summer of 1925, events appeared to prove him correct. The Gold Standard was by no means the only cause of the coal industry’s troubles, but was certainly an aggravating factor. At the end of June 1925 the mine owners gave notice of their intention to reduce wages as from 31 July. As an alternative they invited the miners to work longer hours for existing rates of pay. The miners rejected the terms, and the Government was faced by the prospect of a long and damaging dispute in the coal trade.

• “Wasting political capital opposing the India Bill, which was clearly going through with big majorities in all three major parties.”
***India’s independence brought death, destruction and misery to millions, all sacrificed on the altar of de-colonisation. Churchill was right and political correctness (then and now) wrong.

» The easy answer to this is: “So you think India should have remained a possession?” Death, destruction and misery also accompanied American independence. Manfred Weidhorn, in his Foreword to the new edition of Churchill’s India (1991) admitted that the bloodbath following independence proved Churchill was not entirely wrong. But, Weidhorn concluded, a people prefer to be governed by their own rascals. Even the bloodbath might largely have been averted had Mountbatten not arbitrarily evacuated British authority and troops in August 1947, almost a year in advance of the Labour Government’s target date, and before the boundary disputes had been settled. (See Roberts’s Eminent Churchillians) This Churchill knew, telling Mountbatten later, “What you did in India was like striking me across the face with your riding crop.”

• “Trying to skewer Sam Hoare on an issue of Parliamentary Privilege when Sam’s orthodox Tory pals could stack the deck to protect him.”
***Big character flaw this one.

»Not a flaw, an error, and it cost him. The original request was, Why doesn’t someone ever discuss “an error or a flaw in his character?”

• “Sticking up for Mr. David Windsor in the Abdication Crisis, long after that worthy had lost the right to support from anybody.”
***Windsor was a miserable specimen, but loyalty to a friend and to principle is not a flaw. Clearly Churchill saw the big picture, which you do not understand.

» Not a flaw, a mistake. What was the big picture? Surely by 1936 it was Nazi Germany. By then WSC was beginning to be heeded. His best friends admitted that his defense of the King put him in political eclipse. Thanks to Hitler, this was only temporary. (See Gilbert, Vol. 5, Chapter 41, “The Abdication.”)

In fact, Hitler saved WSC on many occasions, such as holding up his forces at Dunkirk and forgetting about the Russian winter, which WSC so charmingly noted—”We all learned about it in school. He must have been very loosely educated.”

This begs another, wider question. Once World War II started, Churchill defended every action of his like this: “I have only one purpose [defeating Hitler] and my life is much simplified thereby.” He used that to justify aiding Stalin, attacking the French fleet, mining neutral waters, approving a plot to assassinate Hitler, etc.

Now, let’s accept that these were acts of realpolitik and courage on his part. But if he recognized Hitler as the all-embracing menace, why didn’t he simplify his life in the 1930s by concentrating on Hitler, instead of defending the indefensible (Edward Vm) and leading the diehards over India? Part of the answer is, as you infer, his indomitable nature. But part of it also is that being human, he too made mistakes.

• “Placing his faith in the French Army.”
***No reasonable person could have expected even the miserable French to collapse with quite the suddenness and panache with which they did.

» Just before the war Churchill exclaimed, after observing the state of German preparations, “Thank God for the French Army.” He was wrong.

• “Confusing Blitzkrieg with the static warfare of WW1.”
***No evidence for this exists.

» See The Second World War, Vol. 2, Their Finest Hour (repeated demands to strike at the panzer columns and assurances that they’d have to stop, as in WW1.) See also Spears’s Assignment to Catastrophe, Vol. 1. (London:Heinemann 1954). There is much historical debate on the subject. The French actually had more tanks than the Germans, they just didn’t use them properly.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that Churchill confused Blitzkrieg with WW1 when he said things like: “All experience shows that the offensive will come to an end after awhile. I remember the 21st of March, 1918.” (Finest Hour, p. 42 U.S. ed.). WSC himself wrote, a few paragraphs later, “I had seen a good deal of this sort of thing in the previous war, and the idea of the line being broken, even on a broad front, did not convey to my mind the appalling consequences that now flowed from it.” And (p. 60): “I was shocked by the utter failure to grapple with the German armour, which, with a few thousand vehicles, was compassing the entire destruction of mighty armies….” Followed by his suggestions to Reynaud, all futile, about how to deal with panzers: “Undue importance should not be attached to the arrival of a few tanks at any particular point.” I haven’t bothered to look up what some of Churchill’s critics say on this point.

• “Accepting leadership of the Conservative Party upon the death of Chamberlain.”
***Which party should he have become leader of?

» See Gilbert Vol. 6. The error was in making himself a partisan instead of remaining a national leader. He might well have been able to hold the coalition together long enough to “do the peace,” as he wanted, had he stood above the political fray—as his sensible wife urged him to do.

• “Believing he could trust Stalin.”
***The total, opposite of the case.

» True, by April 1945 Churchill was warning the dying FDR, as he would continue to warn Truman, of Stalin’s perfidy; but I was thinking of an earlier period. See Colville, Fringes of Power (NY: Norton 1985, p. 562: “The P.M. was rather depressed, thinking of the possibilities of Russia one day turning against us, saying that Chamberlain had trusted Hitler as he was now trusting Stalin (though he thought in different circumstances)….”

In our new Churchill Proceedings 1994-1995, Wm. F. Buckley Jr. refers to a similar statement: “To his cabinet, he reported that he was certain that he could trust Stalin. The same man whose death he so eagerly anticipated at M.I.T. five years later, in 1945 he spoke of as hoping he would live forever. ‘Poor Neville Chamberlain,’ he told Mr. Colville, ‘he believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.'”

• “Comparing poor Clem Attlee and his friends to ‘a kind of Gestapo’ during an otherwise effective reelection broadcast in 1945.”
***Election rhetoric, history was against him.

Nevertheless this was a major error. Sarah Churchill had urged her father not to say “Gestapo,” realizing that the idea of Attlee as Lenin was derisory. As Martin Gilbert has noted, few of WSCs critics look beyond the “Gestapo” statement to the solid substance in this speech. See Victory (London: Cassell, Boston: L. Brown 1946).

• “Staying on too long as Prime Minister in the 1950s.”
***No alternative. (His successor was not exactly a rip-roaring success.)

» Gilbert, memoirs of colleagues and family, uniformly hold that WSC stayed too long. There were plenty of alternatives besides Eden. Macmillan was considered by many (if not this writer) a rip-roaring success.

Recent critics have made a livelihood floating off-the-wall theses about Churchill and, when criticized, claiming that their critics are sycophants who have swallowed the Churchill “myth,” just as WSC hoped they would. If we expect to take issue with them, we must be able to concede that the great man was not infallible. As Paul Addison wrote recently, “I always feel that, paradoxically, it diminishes Churchill when he’s regarded as super-human.”

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