April 11, 2013

Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012

Page 52

Backhanded Compliment

The Treasures of Winston Churchill: The Greatest Briton, by Christopher Catherwood. Andrew Deutsch, hardbound in slipcase, 96 pp. illus. with photos and reproduced documents, £30, £19.50 from Amazon UK.

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The author’s three previous Churchill volumes accuse the “Greatest Briton” of ensuring endless strife in Iraq, communizing Eastern Europe by preventing a 1943 Second Front, and being a depressed, alcohol-dependent “flawed genius.”* So it’s startling to see his byline on what is outwardly a coffee-table tribute sponsored by Churchill Heritage Ltd. Is this his apologia, then? Yes and no.

Some readers, if they can read the small type, will find this a dandy tribute, and it is indeed nicely produced: a big, square book full of familiar photos, and four pockets containing reproduction documents. Those who read it carefully may consider otherwise.

Some of the selected reproductions are oddly insignificant: a school report, love letters between Churchill and Clementine, and Churchill and Roosevelt; a bricklayer union card; a post-D-Day travel permit, election souvenirs. Two are profound: his 1916 letter for his wife to open in the event of his death, and a typescript page from his 1940 tribute to “The Few.”

Other desirable reproductions might include the page from young Winston’s Harrow essay predicting a future war remarkably like World War I; his 1911 cabinet memo accurately predicting the opening of that war; his 1914 Admiralty order sending the Fleet to its war stations; his 1941 message to Roosevelt warning that Britain might fall, whatever he did; Roosevelt’s majestic “Sail on, O Ship of State” letter; the Queen’s letter on his retirement; his sad, revealing plaint to Eisenhower during the Suez Crisis; and so on.

The text is familiar in that Catherwood repeats all his previous charges. In Churchill’s time “mental illness was not understood.” In escaping from the Boers he abandoned his companions. Post-WW1 military spending cuts were made because Britain “was effectively bankrupt.” His support for Edward VIII “greatly harmed” his campaign for disarmament. Over a 1943 Second Front, Churchill’s antiquated notions of warfare thwarted those of Marshall and Eisenhower.

These are pat conclusions based on faulty or partial evidence. Every one of them can be answered with the words “no” or “yes, but.” Germany’s invasion of Britain was “rendered impossible,” Catherwood writes, because of the damage inflicted on the German navy in Norway. (Yes, but…even a whole German navy could not have challenged the Royal Navy and the RAF.)

Churchill’s Folly, Catherwood’s Iraq book, is reflected in “Winston’s Folly,” his chapter on Iraq. Churchill at the 1921 Cairo conference “decided how exactly the arrangement of the former Ottoman provinces would be drawn.” (No, some forty conferees participated, many of them pro-Arab.)

Jordan was “created by mistake.” (Yes, but…this particular Churchill Folly is still there—the most peaceful Arab state in the region.) As Yogi Berra might say, in the Middle East, one success out of two ain’t half bad.

Lawrence of Arabia’s hagiographer was Lowell Thomas, not “Lowell Shepperd.” Lawrence was “a showman,” and “it is said that much of his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, bears little relation to his war reports.”

“It is said”? Why not do the research and find out? The use of such language reminds us of the words “possibly” and “perhaps” that bedizen the author’s previous book, amid the shopworn suppositions of Anthony Storr and Lord Moran about booze and the Black Dog.

I don’t suggest that the book is entirely unworthy. The author has checked his quotes and avoids common mistakes. He is right about his subject’s major mistakes (Dardanelles, India). His appreciations of Churchill as military innovator, as an artist, as a writer and orator, as the seeker of a lasting peace, are well drawn. His sidebars on Montgomery and Eden are brisk and accurate; so is the one on Lloyd George, except for an unexplained claim that government changes in 1916 “enabled Churchill to do so much in 1945.” The author rightly sees Churchill’s memoirs as demonstrating that the end of World War II “was a complete disaster for millions of central Europeans.” He says Churchill’s 1940 declaration for “victory at all costs” was “incontestably right.” His finale, “Churchill and History,” is fair if superficial.

But the reader is constantly distracted by biased sidebars and asides containing unsubstantiated conjecture. In the midst of a paean to WSC as statesman, for example, we find a gratu- itous judgment on Randolph Churchill: “He is perhaps a tragic example of how great men often do not have equally distinguished sons.”

There’s that word “perhaps” again. Randolph had many literary and military distinctions, but would have had to be God Almighty to have been as distinguished as his father.

The author is a “presentist” who reads history backwards, tending to condemn past figures or hold them responsible for not seeing the future. He rarely tries to understand people based on the circumstances of their time. His past has defined him, and this backhanded compliment to Churchill is replete with past misjudgments.

Foot Notes

*The author’s Flawed Genius of World War II and Churchill’s Folly were reviewed in FH 144: 36-37. His response, and our reply, are in FH 146:5. Mr. Catherwood’s His Finest Hour was reviewed in FH 149:58.

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