Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
Books, Arts & Curiosities – Churchill As Soldier / A standard Work
Winston Churchill—Soldier: The Military Life of a Gentleman at War, by Douglas S. Russell. Brassey’s, 388 pages, £20.
By Paul H. Courtenay
Full disclosure first: Douglas Russell has been Secretary and a Governor of The Churchill Centre, also a District Court judge. With these credentials one might expect a knowledgeable and lucid account of this important phase of Churchill’s life, and the author does not disappoint. His own army experience gives him a better feel for military life than that available to many other writers, while his exceptional understanding of the British Army’s regimental system adds to the confidence of the reader.
Russell is also the author of The Churchill Centre publication The Orders, Decorations and Medals of Sir Winston Churchill, and his comprehensive, not to say encyclopaedic, knowledge of this subject adds authenticity to the flair with which he tackles the fascinating theme of this book.
Much of what his book discloses has inevitably been published elsewhere, but one of the strengths of this offering is the way in which each of Churchill’s military adventures is covered in some detail and contributes to the whole picture of how the Army shaped his early life. We read comprehensive accounts of his days at the Royal Military College (as Sandhurst was then called), in Cuba, with the 4th Hussars, in India, the Sudan and South Africa, with the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars in the Territorial Army, and finally his return to fulltime soldiering during the First World War, which was unique for an ex-cabinet minister.
An early poem, written at Harrow, reveals Churchill’s patriotic outlook, while a rarely quoted extract from his speech to a mob in Leicester Square, which he led in tearing down barricades outside a theatre while a Sandhurst cadet, struck a similar chord. WSC’s achievements at Sandhurst are noted and the diligence which he applied to the subjects he especially enjoyed (such as horsemanship) is fully detailed.
More and tougher riding instruction in the 4th Hussars is highlighted before the scene switches to Cuba, from where one of Churchill’s press reports showed great insight into guerrilla warfare: “The Spanish officers anticipate a speedy end to the war….I confess I do not see how this can be done. As long as the insurgents choose to adhere to the tactics they have adopted…they can be neither caught nor defeated.” Russell leaves Cuba concluding that WSC had proved to be steady under fire and sturdy enough to endure the rigours of active service in the field; he had had his “private rehearsal” and as a result knew for certain that he was well suited to the demands of the profession of arms.
Russell notes that Churchill always used his highly placed connections “as a springboard, not as a sofa,” and always to get into a battle—never to avoid it. Thus he found his way to the Malakand Field Force, where his ambition to be known for personal courage could be temporarily satisfied. Returning to Bangalore, he wrote his account of the campaign and started to write Savrola . It is good to have confirmation of what any reader of Savrola must quickly realise, namely (as WSC wrote to his mother) that “All my philosophy is put in the mouth of the hero.” In another letter home at this period he wrote, “Nor shall anyone be able to say that vulgar consideration of personal safety ever influenced me.”
And so to the Sudan, where the journey up the Nile and its climax in the charge at Omdurman are well known (and will become even more so when James Muller’s new edition of The River War is published). After the battle WSC opined, “…I speculated on the shoddiness of war. You cannot gild it. The raw comes through.”
Next came the Boer War. Russell reports a conversation on the voyage to South Africa in which another journalist recalled Churchill’s words to him: “The worse of it is that I am not a good life. My father died too young. I must try to accomplish whatever I can by the time I am forty.”
Russell considers that this revelation does much to explain WSC’s unabashed ambition and his reputation for being pushy and egotistical: his heartfelt reason for acting boldly to make a name for himself and for his impatience about getting into politics at an early age. The famous armoured train incident, and Churchill’s capture and subsequent escape, cover familiar ground. Later, describing the relief of Ladysmith, the author reveals some interesting, if minor, discrepancies between WSC’s own recollections and those of some other participants.
Territorial Army service in the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars is of interest, not least because it is a major activity in Churchill’s life which has been largely overlooked. WSC was a conscientious TA officer, who brought his squadron to a high state of efficiency. One noteworthy event was when doubling his roles as a QOOH major and First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill took two squadrons of the regiment to Portsmouth for a tour of naval ships and installations.
Finally, we reach the First World War and are told about Churchill’s intervention at Antwerp; although he later admitted that his presence had been a mistake, a number of eye-witnesses asserted that his energetic activities there gained an extra five or six days for the Allies and played a valuable part in ensuring that the Channel ports in France were not overrun. Churchill’s service on the western front is covered in detail, with familiar accounts of his time with 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, followed by command of 6th Battalion, The Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Douglas Russell has been most successful in drawing together all the strands of Churchill’s military life into one coherent whole and—familiar though much of the story may be—he keeps up the momentum, so that the reader never becomes bored by repetition of the well-known. His footnotes are very full and informative, revealing the depth of his knowledge and the quality of his research.
Having recounted the facts, the author draws perceptive conclusions. He stresses that, following the First World War, Churchill came to recognise the significance of both aerial and armoured warfare. He was reminded of what he had already discovered in the Sudan and Natal: that frontal assaults by infantry alone were doomed to fail against modern weapons and were a futile waste of lives. He laid emphasis on the importance of close coordination between sea and land forces in amphibious operations, so that the failure of the Dardanelles should not be repeated. He learnt the strategic importance of multiple fronts against an enemy—the failure of Gallipoli and the collapse of Russia notwithstanding.
Alliances, too, were crucial. Where, after all, would Great Britain have been without the French army, the troops and resources provided by its Commonwealth partners and, finally, the weight of American manpower and industry? He laid stress on logistics, particularly the provision of adequate manpower and munitions and their allocation. Strong, unified political leadership in the Cabinet was essential to guide the course of a war. Churchill learnt the value of an open mind to new strategies and tactics and especially to new technologies. Finally, he came to view war not as romantic or glorious, but as merely tragic; he was profoundly moved by the suffering of the common people and junior ranks. He never forgot them.
Despite a high number of typographical and similar errors (largely the fault of the publisher rather than the author, which will be corrected in future editions, this is a most valuable, well-written and scholarly work on a neglected theme; Churchillians will want to read and admire it.