The Place to Find All Things Churchill

Watching Churchill Take Command of History

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 47

IF YOU’VE SAVED YOUR COUNTRY, what do you do for an encore?

By David Reynolds


What are you writing now?'” asked a friend.

When I told him, he frowned: “I thought there was nothing more to say about Churchill.” His words made me think hard, but I decided there were unquestionably some new things to say about one of the most celebrated figures in modern history. And that’s why I wrote In Command of History.

First of all, my book exposes a neglected side of this multi-faceted man. Much has been written about Churchill the politician, from his earliest days as a fiery Liberal to the “Indian Summer” of his second premiership. We also know an enormous amount about Churchill the warrior and strategist, particularly during the two world wars; likewise about his prowess as an orator and his long career as a parliamentarian.

Yet Churchill made his living as a writer. Much of his literary output was journalism, ranging from hard-hitting political commentary to lightweight money-spinners such as “Are There Men on the Moon?” But he also produced some forty books, from the war reportage that made his name in the 1890s to his History of the English Speaking Peoples some sixty years later.

Thanks to Richard Langworth’s Connoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill I had an invaluable overview to all the various editions. Robin Prior has written a perceptive analysis of The World Crisis and James Muller’s definitive edition of The River War will soon be available. But those two books represent only a fraction of Churchill’s oeuvre. Moreover, virtually all his literary correspondence is now open to researchers in the superb Archives Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, enabling us to trace how Churchill wrote his great works.

I’ve followed that paper trail for the six volumes of The Second World War, which were published in the United States between 1948 and 1953 (1954 in Britain because Cassell’s in London were hamstrung by continued paper rationing). In the Churchill archives there’s a file for almost every chapter. From them you get a good idea of the way Churchill wrote, what I call in shorthand his three D’s: documents, dictation, and drafts.

By documents I mean the telegrams, minutes and directives he dictated during the war. Printed month by month at the time, these were literally cut and pasted to form the basis of a chapter. To connect the documents Churchill dictated reminiscences of crucial wartime moments, particularly his meetings with the French in 1940 and his conferences with Roosevelt and Stalin later in the war. His “Syndicate” of research assistants contributed drafts on batdes such as Alamein, often drawn from confidential Whitehall archives to which they were given privileged access. The result was some “state-of-the-art” accounts of many key episodes of the war.

Each chapter went through numerous versions—maybe up to a dozen—so one can see what Churchill put in and decided to take out. In the process he sometimes toned down intemperate comments about wartime colleagues—generals who had failed to attack with sufficient gusto; or foreign leaders who had become postwar statesmen, such as Tito, Eisenhower and de Gaulle. These cuts denied readers some of his choicest epithets about the French leader, such as “symptoms of a budding Fiihrer” or “a combination of Joan of Arc and Clemenceau.”

Under pressure from Whitehall, he also removed all reference to the Ultra Secret—the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in cracking the German Enigma machines. Churchill’s grasp of signals intelligence and his support for Bletchley rank among his most significant achievements as a war leader. The omission of this story from his memoirs was not only to the detriment of his reputation, until rectified in the 1980s. It also subtly distorted his account of many of the major battles, implying that success or failure turned solely on the personal qualities of the commanders. That, of course, fitted Churchill’s great-man theory of history.

Even from this brief summary, it is evident that what we call in shorthand “Churchill’s memoirs” were complex pieces of work. All those documents and drafts made the volumes more than simply memoir; the contributions from the Syndicate also made them more than simply Churchill’s.

Some British reviewers of my book seemed to think that this demeaned him, but it wasn’t my opinion. Churchill went through the drafts remorselessly. Although he nodded through some peripheral material—the defeat of Poland in 1939, for instance, is mostly the work of his assistant, General Sir Henry Pownall—Churchill gave close attention to passages that really mattered, sharpening the language and clarifying the argument. He also had a sense of the work as a whole. Sometimes his assistants suggested further revisions to a chapter but Churchill usually wanted to push on. He alone saw the memoirs as part of his larger agenda.

This brings me to the second big reason why I wrote In Command of History—to illuminate what I call “Churchill’s Forgotten Years”* between 1945 and 1951. In comparison with the Wilderness Years of the 1930s and his Finest Hour as Britain’s war leader against Hitler, this period has tended to fall under the dustsheets of history. Yet I came to realise, first, that one can’t understand the war memoirs without appreciating what else Churchill was trying to do at the same time; and, second, that those years after 1945 offer a fascinating insight into what made him tick.

Let me explain what I mean with an archival anecdote. Turning over page after page can sometimes become tedious but there are revelatory moments as compensation. For instance, leafing through a file of background material for Churchill’s final volume six, I found an outline chronology of 1945 prepared by his assistants. Against the entry for the election of July 1945 Churchill had scrawled, “I Was Kicked Out.”

He wrote this in 1950, a reminder of how Labour’s massive victory still rankled. That election became the starting point of my book.

In July 1945 Churchill could easily have retired from public life: if you’ve saved your country, what do you do for an encore? Most men with his achievements would have accepted the fact of political defeat and bowed out gracefully. But Churchill, as we know, was not like most men.

For one thing, he had to keep on going. In my book I’ve noted how his experience in the 1910s in piloting early propeller airplanes provided him with a metaphor for living. “To stop is to fall” he said repeatedly. That was one reason why he wouldn’t give up the Tory leadership after the war.

But I think he was also reluctant because the election of July 1945 was not just a defeat but a humiliation. Steeped as he was in British history, Churchill knew one had to go back to 1906, and before that 1832, to find a greater landslide against the Tories. What hurt even more was that in 1940 he was the voice of embattled Britain, the lion who gave the people’s roar; yet in 1945 he had seemed out of touch with the electorate. “I have no message for them,” he murmured sadly at one point in the campaign. In May 1940 he had become Prime Minister not through election but because of a Commons revolt against Chamberlain. When he went to the people for a mandate in 1945, they gave him, it seemed, a resounding “no.”

So Churchill kept going because of his nature but also, I think, in a search for vindication. He was determined to get back to Ten Downing Street as the people’s choice. This, I came to realize, was the essential backdrop to his writing of the war memoirs. Yes, Churchill was determined to get his own account of the war into print as soon as possible, as a preemptive strike on the verdict of history. He also intended to make big money from the venture, to set himself and his family on a secure financial footing. But the memoirs were only part of his postwar agenda.

Still hankering after the limelight, he accepted invitations to give major speeches. Fulton and Zurich during 1946 were perhaps the most influential orations of his career: “Iron Curtain” and “United Europe” became sound bites that echoed around the world, proving that Churchill had found his voice again. He ignored Tory pressures to resign, bamboozling Anthony Eden, his professional heirapparent, into handling much of the daily grind in the Commons. That gave him time to concentrate on speeches and on the memoirs.

By law the next General Election had to take place within five years, in other words by July 1950. Churchill therefore felt he had to finish the memoirs, or the bulk of the work on them, before that date. But the Twenties and Thirties, which he initially expected to breeze through in five chapters, expanded to take up half of volume I as he became fascinated by the counterfactuals, the what-ifs, of appeasement. Volume II covered only May to December 1940, as Churchill revisited his finest hour in passionate detail. After three years work, in the summer of 1949 he was still trying to finish volume three, which covered only 1941. All the time, the electoral clock was ticking.

In August 1949 the pressure increased dramatically. While on a working vacation on the French Riviera, Churchill suffered a stroke. (See “Churchill’s Dagger, FH 87:14. —Ed.) Compared with June 1953 this was a minor affair, but another revelatory piece of paper I found in the files alerted me to its psychological importance. In November 1949 Churchill dictated a reminder to his secretary: he must talk to his publishers about what to do with the memoirs in two contingencies—either a return to Downing Street or in the event of his death.

Reading this note, I realized that Churchill, never one to take long life for granted, was sobered by this new intimation of mortality. This helped to explain why he sent volume III to the publishers in what was clearly an unsatisfactory state, with too many documents and too little narrative. By the following spring he was admitting it was not his best work. From now on he cut corners in an effort to finish the race, but the combined pressures of health and politics make this understandable. To borrow his own vivid image about the servitude of authorship, Churchill had to kill the monster before the monster killed him.

Even at this new pace, Churchill would have been caught short had he won the election Attlee called in February 1950. Fortunately for him, Labour scraped back with a tiny majority, lasting another twenty months before Churchill finally won from the British voters the vindication he craved. By then, October 1951, five volumes had been published and the last was in serviceable draft.

There are many memorable passages in The Second World War. In The Gathering Storm, one of his best books, I particularly like Churchill’s account of a tedious farewell dinner in 1938 for the German Ambassador which he ends, deadpan, with the words: “This was the last time I saw Herr von Ribbentrop before he was hanged.”

Overall, however, the work is not Churchill’s finest piece of composition. In many places the documents, dictation and drafts are not fully blended—his publishers kept complaining about too many documents and too little narrative—and the volumes are much fuller on the first half of Britain’s war than the second. My book helps explain some of these flaws by showing what else was on Winston Churchill’s agenda at the time.

But that varied agenda— redeeming himself politically, delivering some of the greatest speeches of his career, and generating nearly two million words to stamp his version of the war on posterity—makes him seem all the more remarkable.

I finished writing In Command of History mindful of the comment of Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s workaholic emissary, after his first encounters with Churchill in January 1941: “Jesus Christ! What a man!”


David Reynolds is author of In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, reviewed in FH 127. It was awarded the Wolfson Prize in 2004.

* This was the title of the 90-minute film made by the author with director Russell Barnes and Blakeway Productions, which was shown on BBC4 in the spring of 2005 and on BBC2 last September.

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