Finest Hour 108, Autumn 2000
PART I: A CONNOISSEUR’S GUIDE TO THE BOOK OF THE CENTURY
By RICHARD M. LANGWORTH
Let us begin by recording all the major criticisms of Winston Churchill’s most famous book. 1) It is not history. 2) It is filled with grandiose prose, which was inflicted on apathetic readers who only wanted peace and a quiet life. 3) It is highly biased—the author never puts a foot wrong, and publishes hundreds of his own memoranda and directives but few replies to them. 4) It moralizes incessantly about dictators and their empires—but not die British Empire. 5) The impact of the war on Britain and the details of Cabinet meetings are vague; Churchill alone confronts the appeasers, the French, Hitler, the Soviets, the Americans. As one critic says, “Every instance of adversity becomes an occasion for the narrator’s triumph.”
In die words of former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, these indictments contain much that is true and much that is trite, but what’s true is trite, and what’s not trite is not true.
Professor J.H. Plumb, in Churchill: Four Faces and the Man (London: 1969, published as Churchill Revised in New York: 1969), refers to Churchill’s work as A History of the Second World War and then says it is not history. The faux title is often repeated. Churchill himself insisted, “This is not history—this is my case”—his “life effort,” on which he was “content to be judged.” In other places he calls it “a contribution to history.” Some of his admirers would say he dissembles and is too modest. Professor John Keegan, in an introduction to a recent new edition, calls The Second World War “a great history” of “monumental quality..extraordinary in its sweep and comprehensiveness, balance and literary effect; extraordinary in the singularity of its point of view; extraordinary as the labour of a man, already old, who still had ahead of him a career large enough to crown most other statesmen’s lives; extraordinary as a contribution to the memorabilia of the English-Speaking Peoples.”
If that seems too pro-Churchill a view, consider die verdict of Malcolm Muggeridge, longtime editor of Punch and no mean critic, who wrote that the volumes are “historic rather dian historical.” Or of Manfred Weidhorn, that eminent and measured judge of Churchill’s screed, in his famous Sword and Pen: “a record of history made rather than written….No odier wartime leader in history has given us a work of two million words written only a few years after the events and filled with messages among world potentates which had so recently been heated and secret. Britain was led by a professional writer.” As a professional writer wishing to build up “the Churchill Legend,” goes another familiar refrain, our author ignored or buried unpleasant facts, or twisted them to suit his purpose. Have you ever read a memoir that didn’t? Yet few memoirs are so magnanimous, as illustrated by a principle Churchill adopts in his preface: “never criticising any measure of war or policy after the event unless I had before expressed publicly or formally my opinion or warning about it.” The effect, Keegan remarks, “is to invest the whole history with those qualities of magnanimity and good will by which he set such store, and the more so as it deals with personalities.”
Churchill’s prose “could often be aversive [sic] to modern readers,” wrote another recent analyst, and, by the time the books appeared, “the world had moved on into an exhausted flatness that had little to do with, and little time for, the high-flown attitudes and language of Churchillian rhetoric.” If that’s so, why was The Second World War able to sell over 300,000 copies of each volume as it was published, millions since, eighteen translations into foreign languages, three major serializations and several million abridgements?
So much for the nontrite and non-true. The other criticisms are mainly valid but hardly crippling. The Second World War is indeed intensely personal, considering the war from Churchill’s angle, not Britain’s; and it moralizes because our author passionately believed in those morals. He even gave the work its own moral: “In War: Resolution; In Defeat: Defiance; In Victory: Magnanimity; In Peace: Good Will.” I am not sure what is wrong about that.
Churchill had a right to make his case. Many times in his career he had been second-guessed or misjudged: over Antwerp and the Dardanelles in World War I; over how to respond to Bolshevism; over the General Strike of 1926; over India, the Abdication, Franco, Mussolini, Hider, rearmament, the Americans, the Soviets. During the war he had attacked an ally’s fleet, fired generals, lost battleships, stalled on launching a second front, argued with Roosevelt and Stalin, engaged in carpet bombing….Perhaps he felt the need to defend his actions, knowing that very soon he would be second-guessed by postwar critics eager to seize on and emphasize his faults and mistakes— which were manifestly there.
“Revisionism” had actually begun as he worked: “In view of the many accounts which are extant and multiplying of my supposed aversion from any kind of large-scale opposed-landing, such as took place in Normandy in 1944,” Churchill wrote in Volume II, Chapter XII, “it may be convenient if I make clear that from the very beginning I provided a great deal of the impulse and authority for creating the immense apparatus and armada for the landing of armour on the beaches….”
Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies (recently named as the shouldhave-been replacement to Churchill as wartime premier by an eager revisionist) told Churchill in 1948: “You realize that five years after your death…clever young men will be writing books explaining that you were never right about anything?” Churchill snorted, “You think so, do you?” “Yes,” Menzies added, “but not many years later, the clever young men will have been forgotten, and your name will be seen clearly at the pinnacle.” Well, the recent Churchill critiques (some good, some dreadful) are going out of print, and The Second World War is still selling.
The merits of our author’s six substantial volumes tend rather to eclipse their evident flaws. There is, first, what Robert Pilpel calls “the warm sense of communion,” through which only a great writer can place the reader at his side in the march of events. Those events are conducted like a symphony. “In the great drama, he was the greatest,” said de Gaulle of our author, and The Second World War is nothing if not dramatic. Manfred Weidhorn compares its great scenes with those of a first class novel:
Such is the eerie sense of dejd vu and ubi sunt upon his return in 1939, as First Lord [of the Admiralty], to Scapa Flow, exactly a quarter of a century after having, at the start of the other world war, paid the same visit during the same season in the same capacity….The collapse of the venerable and once mighty France and Churchill’s agony are beautifully rendered by the sensuous detail of the old gentlemen industriously carrying French archives on wheelbarrows to bonfires….Near the end of the work appears one of the greatest scenes of all. On the way to the Potsdam conference, Churchill flies to Berlin and its “chaos of ruins.” Taken to Hitler’s chancellery, he walks through its shattered halls for “quite a long time”….The great duel is over; the victor stands on the site from which so much evil originated…. “We were given the best first-hand accounts available at that time of what had happened in these final scenes.”
Amid the pathos, humour bubbles incessantly to the surface, Pilpel writes, “as if Puck had escaped from A Midsummer Nights Dream and infiltrated Paradise Lost. Few other memoirs, let alone histories, leaven their wisdom with such merry wit.” There is Churchill’s famous desert conference with his Generals, “in a tent full of flies and important personages”; an amusing lunch with King Saud of Arabia, whose religion forbids tobacco and alcohol, which Churchill says are mandated by his religion; his courtly letter to the Japanese Ambassador, signed “your obedient servant,” announcing “with highest consideration” that a state of war exists with his country (WSC: “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite”); parties with Stalin where Churchill pooh-poohs the storied drinking bouts (“I had been properly brought up”). All this levity “somehow sits well with the cataclysmic and lugubrious matter of the story,” Weidhorn adds, “for Churchill does not allow the humor to take the sting out of events or reduce war to a mere game. He simply refuses to overlook the light side….Such a tone, markedly different from the histrionics of the other side, may well be a secret of survival. As Shaw said, he who laughs lasts.”
Remember that The Second World War is not entirely memoirs. Each volume contains lengdiy appendices of personal minutes, telegrams and directives to military and civilian officials which Churchill had secured permission to publish. Here again he has been accused of bias, selectivity and an air of infallibility; some of the documents are trivial—even unworthy of him. But in the main diey kept everyone’s eyes on the prize.
My favorite example is Appendix C of The Grand Alliance, where Churchill questions General Brooke on an invasion exercise called VICTOR, which presumes the Germans land five divisions on the Norfolk coast and establish a beachhead within forty-eight hours. Churchill writes:
I presume the details of this remarkable feat have been worked out by the Staff concerned. Let me see them. For instance, how many ships and transports carried these five Divisions? How many Armoured vehicles did they comprise? How many motor lorries, how many guns, how much ammunition, how many men, how many tons of stores, how far did they advance in the first forty-eight hours, how many men and vehicles were assumed to have landed in the first twelve hours, what percentage of loss were they debited with? What happened to the transports and store-ships while die first forty-eight hours of fighting were going on? Had they completed emptying their cargoes, or were they still lying in shore off the point protected by superior enemy daylight Fighter formations? How many Fighter airplanes did the enemy have to employ, if so, to cover the landing places?…I should be very glad if the same officers would work out a scheme for our landing an exacdy similar force on the French coast at the same extreme range of our Fighter protection and assuming that the Germans have naval superiority in the Channel…
Professor Eliot Cohen, citing this memo in “The Problems of Supreme Command” (see Churchill Proceedings 1992-93) tells us that General Brooke gamely replied, and Churchill gamely kept questioning his assumptions and comparing similar exercises by the British Army, until die exchange petered out. “What is the significance of this episode?” Cohen asks:
It is noteworthy, first, that the commander in charge of the exercise, Brooke, stood up to Churchill and not only did not suffer by it, but ultimately gained promotion to the post of Chief of Imperial General Staff and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. But more important is Churchill’s observation that “It is of course quite reasonable for assumptions of this character to be made as a foundation for a military exercise. It would be indeed a darkening counsel to make them the foundation of serious military thought.” At this very time…Churchill was arguing— against the position of several of his military advisers—that the risks of invasion were sufficiendy low to make the TIGER convoy [of armored vehicles to the Middle East] worth the attempt. TIGER went through, losing only one ship to a mine and delivering some 250 tanks to the hardpressed forces in the Middle East. By no means did Churchill always have it right, but he often caught his military staff when they had it wrong. Churchill exercised one of his most important functions as war leader by holding their calculations and assertions up to the standards of a massive common sense, informed by wide reading and experience at war.
Space is running out and I haven’t told you die half of it. The Second World War, a prose epic like The River War and Marlborough, belongs with them amongst die first rank of Churchill’s books. Flaws and all, it is indispensable reading for anyone who seeks a true understanding of the war that made us what we are today. Manfred Weidhorn summarizes it better than anyone: “When viewed beside die achievements of its statesman-narrator [The Second World War] remains not just a unique revelation of the exercise of power from atop an empire in duress but also one of die fascinating products of the human spirit, both as an expression of a personality and a somewhat anomalous epic tale filled with the depravities, miseries, and glories of man.”
Next issue: Part II, The Editions.
Excerpted from the New Revised Extended Edition of A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill (London: Brasseys 2000), published at £40, member price $30 (see page opposite). Tine author is editor of Finest Hour.