ACTION THIS DAY:
125-100-75-50 YEARS AGO
125 Years Ago, Spring 1883, Age 8
“Does not quite understand the meaning of hard work”
Winston was not doing well at St. George’s School, where he ranked eleventh among eleven boys in the Winter term. He moved up to ninth in the spring term only because there were only nine boys in his Division.
The Spring Report showed why: “Does not quite understand the meaning of hard work—must make up his mind to do so next term. Writing good but so terribly slow—Spelling about as bad as it well can be.”
Churchill’s mother would not have been surprised by the spelling report, as evidenced by a letter in early June: “My dear Mamma, I hope you will come and see me soon. Did Everest give you my flour I sent you. Give my love to my ants, and tell not to forget to come down. I am coming home in a month.”
While Winston’s general performance had “improved,” the number of days he was late increased to nineteen against four the previous term.
100 Years Ago, Spring 1908, Age 33
“That made a bad impression”
Winston had begun to court the beautiful Clementine Hozier. The match was by no means foreordained. In fact, on the first occasion when Churchill was in Clementine’s company, he did not make a good impression.
Their first meeting had occurred at a dance in 1904, where Churchill lived up to a description of him by his first love Pamela Plowden, who said that the first time you meet him you see all his faults, but “the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.” Winston had noticed Clementine and asked his mother Jennie to introduce them. Years later, Clementine politely recalled to her son that his father “…just stared. He never uttered one word and was very gauche—he never asked me for a dance, he never asked me to have supper with him. I had of course heard a great deal about him, nothing but ill. I had been told he was stuck up, objectionable etc. And on this occasion he just stood and stared.”
Winston met Clementine again at a dinner party in March 1908, in his last days at the Colonial Office. The party was given by Clementine’s great-aunt who, while ostensibly asking her to attend at the last minute because there were only thirteen for dinner, was obviously intent on matchmaking. Churchill was late as usual and was seated between Clementine and the guest of honour, who thought herself an authority on colonial matters and had a low opinion of the Undersecretary for the Colonies. Not surprisingly, Churchill ignored the guest of honour and devoted all his attention to Miss Hozier.
That Churchill fell in love with a girl as beautiful and brilliant as Clementine is no surprise. That he was able to win her love after not one but two inauspicious debuts is a testament to the accuracy of Pamela Plowden’s endearing observation.
75 Years Ago, Spring 1933, Age 58
“He thinks England is going Fascist”
Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for less than three months when, on 23 March, the Reichstag passed legislation giving him full dictatorial powers. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald spoke in the House of Commons that same day on his government’s disarmament proposals. Notwithstanding his deep involvement in foreign affairs generally and disarmament specifically, including the naval disarmament treaty of 1930, Mr. MacDonald casually observed that “I cannot pretend that I went through the figures myself.”
Winston Churchill immediately rose to his feet and objected to giving Germany “equality of status” in the forthcoming disarmament conference and to urging France to disarm: “…when we watch with surprise and distress the tumultuous insurgence of ferocity and war spirit, the pitiless ill-treatment of minorities, the denial of the normal protections of civilized society to large numbers of individuals solely on the ground of race—when we see that occurring in one of the most gifted, learned, scientific and formidable nations in the world, one cannot help feeling glad, that the fierce passions that are raging in Germany have not found, as yet, any other outlet but upon Germans….As long as France is strong, and Germany is but inadequately armed there is no chance of France being attacked with success, and therefore no obligation will arise under Locarno for us to go to the aid of France.”
Churchill then attacked Ramsay MacDonald for the Disarmament Conference in Geneva, declaring it “a solemn and prolonged farce” and that “we have been brought much nearer to war.” Anthony Eden has a reputation as one who opposed appeasement throughout the 1930s. Eventually, he did, but not in 1933. He delivered the government’s rebuttal to Churchill, in the course of which he said that to blame MacDonald for the deterioration of international relations was a “fantastic absurdity.”
On 7 April 1933, Hitler ended the autonomous status of the regional German states and made himself Governor of Prussia, ousting his vice-chancellor, Franz von Papen. On 13 April, Jews were banned from national, local and municipal office. Churchill spoke the same day in the House of Commons and once more attacked MacDonald’s disarmament policy:
“The rise of Germany to anything like military equality with France, or the rise of Germany or some ally or other to anything like military equality with France, Poland or the small states, means a renewal of a general European war.
“What the Prime Minister proposed so recently for the disarmament of Europe seems to move towards German equality in armaments. He is suspected all over the continent of wishing to help Germany at the expense of her neighbours. The other day he spread on the table at Geneva a vast plan for bringing all the armaments down and thus bringing Germany much nearer to equality with her neighbours. He told us an (extraordinary admission) that he had not gone through the figures himself, but he took responsibility for them. It is a very grave responsibility. If ever there was a document upon which its author should have consumed his personal thought and energy it was the immense disarmament proposal. I doubt very much whether even the Committee of Imperial Defence was consulted upon it. We have not been told whether the heads of all our fighting services were consulted upon it. Unknown hands have prepared it and its author tells us that he has not mastered it either in its scope or detail. “
Contemporaneously with Hitler’s early months in office, Churchill continued to fight a rear-guard action against the government’s policy of giving dominion status to India. As a consequence, his many enemies in the Conservative Party attacked his motives. Samuel Hoare was in the forefront of those doing so. In one letter in early April, Hoare wrote:
“Winston has convinced himself that he will smash the Government sooner or later….I believe that at the back of his mind he thinks that he will not only smash the Government but that England is going Fascist and that he, or someone like him, will eventually be able to rule India as Mussolini governs north Africa. I believe that he is wrong, but no doubt he sees around him at the moment a good deal of evidence in the break-up European governments that gives colour to his thought.”
50 Years Ago, Spring 1958, Age 83
“A medical marvel”
Churchill had been invited by President Eisenhower to visit the United States in the spring of 1958. He had been ill during March while in France and his wife did not want him to go. She wrote to their daughter Mary:
“Papa, for the first time, shows hesitation about going to America….Of course—I hope he won’t go. If he does not make one or two speeches & television appearances, the visit will be a flop as regards the American People who want to see and hear him. Then if he lets himself be persuaded to make public appearances, it will half kill him.”
Churchill cancelled his trip and returned to England in April. His illness returned but he had recovered by mid-month. Brendan Bracken wrote to Lord Beaverbrook on 21 April after he visited with WSC:
“Our friend Winston is, of course, a medical marvel. He had disregarded all the normal life-lengthening rules and has witnessed, doubtless with regret, but with some complacence, the burial of most of his doctors, save Charles. The sun is Churchill’s greatest life-maintainer and the lack of it has probably played some part in creating his present condition.“