By Allen Packwood
“THE GREATEST MAN OF ACTION EVER KNOWN TO HUMAN RECORDS” —WSC
“DISARMAMENT AND THE MAN” • LEONARD RAVEN-HILL IN PUNCH, 5 OCTOBER 1921
THE CAPTION READ: “MR. WINSTON CHURCHILL (late Minister of War by Land and Sea):
‘Of course my true genius is bellicose; but if they insist on my representing my country at the Washington Conference I must make the sacrifice.’”
A disarmament conference was duly held in Washington, but the Colonial Secretary did not attend.
There are numerous parallels in the careers of Churchill and the great Emperor he admired. Separated by a century, both began their careers in the army. Napoleon Bonaparte was the young artillery officer who captured Toulon for the French Revolutionary Government in 1793. Winston Churchill was the Victorian cavalry officer who famously charged the Dervishes with the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, and who was brought to national, if not international, prominence by his escape from Boer captivity in 1899.
Both enjoyed spectacular early successes. Napoleon gained command of the Artillery of the Army of Italy aged just twenty-four, and within two years was commanding the French Army of the Interior and then the Army of Italy, leading his troops to spectacular victories against Austria and even into an occupation of Egypt and an invasion of Palestine. In November 1799, in a spectacular coup d’état, he made himself First Consul. He was only thirty-five in December 1804 when he famously crowned himself Emperor of the French.
Some of Churchill’s critics vested him with Napoleonic ambitions, though he didn’t rise to quite that level. But Churchill was elected to Parliament in 1900; became a Cabinet minister in 1908, aged just thirty-three; and was not yet forty when, as First Lord of the Admiralty he headed the largest navy in the world at the outbreak of the First World War. These were young men in a hurry, operating on a global stage.
Napoleon undoubtedly got out of the blocks first, establishing himself as the arbiter of Europe and the breaker of the ancien régime. In a series of spectacular campaigns he humbled the mighty Austrian and Russian Empires, destroyed the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, invaded Spain, and even contemplated an invasion of Britain. His brothers were established as puppet kings, and France was remodelled in his image with the introduction of Napoleonic institutions of law and government. It is fair to say that his style of lightning warfare and his great victories at Marengo, Hohenlinden, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Wagram shook and shaped the 19th century world.
By comparison, Churchill’s career proved more problematic. There was the setback of losing office over the Dardanelles crisis, almost exactly 100 years after Napoleon met his own final defeat. Churchill came back, serving in many high offices, only to be eclipsed again in his Wilderness Years of the 1930s. These were famously overcome, and perhaps they gave him a sense of perspective that Napoleon never had.
It is also right to point out that Churchill willingly accepted the constraints of a Parliamentary system, while Napoleon deliberately swept aside all limitations on his own power and actions. Ultimately, however, on 10 May 1940, Churchill like Napoleon walked with destiny, and assumed the heavy burden of the premiership at a moment of supreme national crisis.
Thus both men led their countries in time of war, becoming in the process iconic figures, inextricably linked to questions of national identity and honour. The British bulldog and the glory of France both remain the subject of intense popular and academic scrutiny and interest. Of course, Napoleon ultimately led his Empire and armies to defeat at the hands of a European coalition, while Churchill helped build and lead a global coalition to victory against a European despot. It is true that Churchill was defeated in the 1945 general election, but he returned to play a role on the world stage and ended his career with a second term as prime minister, lauded with the Order of the Garter, a Nobel Prize, and honorary American citizenship. Napoleon also attempted a comeback, but his 100-day return ended with defeat on the battlefield of Waterloo and his exile on the island of St. Helena.
The comparisons are interesting, but can we trace more direct connections from one man to the other? They shared a common influence, in that both studied the 18th century campaigns of Churchill’s ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. More significantly, Napoleon exerted a potent influence on the thinking and writings of Sir Winston Churchill.
In my office at the Churchill Archives Centre is a bust of the Duke of Wellington. It did not belong to Churchill, but was given to me by a French gentleman who saw service as a young soldier during the Second World War—an admirer of Churchill and de Gaulle, and an Anglophile. He presented this bust so that he could stand next to it when Lady Thatcher visited the Archives Centre in 2002, to open the new wing that was to house her papers, and say to her, “An Iron Duke for an Iron Lady”—which he did.
Why do I mention this? Because he was a French admirer of Wellington. You might expect Churchill, given his lineage and training as a cavalry officer, to be firmly on Wellington’s side, but the truth is that he was the opposite: an Englishman who admired Napoleon.
On 8 April 1936, over seventy-six years ago, Churchill wrote a review of a play for the Daily Mail. Entitled St. Helena, it was about the final days of Bonaparte in lonely exile. WSC could not have been more enthusiastic, entitling his piece, “Napoleon Lives Again in ‘St. Helena.’” His concluding paragraph reveals his deep knowledge of the subject. Wellington, he writes, had himself stayed on St. Helena on his way back from India, in the very same house, “The Briars,” where the French Emperor was later forcibly accommodated. Churchill uses that fact to make an observation which reveals his true feelings about these two great military figures:
Even the fame of Wellington who had slept at “The Briars” on his way from India is lessened, and his stature limited when he could write to Admiral Malcolm, “Tell Boney that I find his apartments at L’Elysée-Bourbon very comfortable, and that I hope that he likes mine at ‘The Briars’ as much.” The victor of Waterloo should have had a truer sense of proportion.1
Napoleon may have been “a military tyrant, a conqueror, a man of order and discipline, a man of mundane ambitions and overwhelming egotism,” Churchill continues, “but his grandeur defied misfortune and rises superior even to time.”
The bust on Churchill’s own desk was of Napoleon. Churchill was a lifelong fan. In 1920 he was prepared to accept a place on the Honorary Committee for the Centenary of Napoleon’s death.2 Enter “Napoleon” into our electronic catalogue of the Churchill Papers and you get back fifty-two relevant entries. These show Churchill purchasing and collecting books on the Emperor from at least 1909, and continuing into the 1930s. His large collection, much of it in French, survives at Churchill College, having been given by his widow Clementine, along with one autograph Napoleon manuscript.
It is pretty clear that Churchill was collecting with a sense of purpose, and that he intended to write a book about Napoleon, perhaps the one great book that he did not get round to producing. In January 1932 he told Robert Ballon that he would write a 5000-word introduction to Ballon’s Napoleon book on condition that he had the right to reuse any of the ideas or phrases “as he might one day write a book on the subject.” In April Stanley Baldwin sent Churchill a card from the Hostellerie de la Poste at Avallon, where Napoleon had stayed on his return from Elba, suggesting that Churchill might like to stay there when he began the biography.3
While he never wrote the book, Churchill regularly used his speeches and writings to place his views on Napoleon firmly on the record, and beyond any shadow of doubt or misinterpretation. In September 1944 he nailed his colours to the mast when he said in the British House of Commons, “I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler, as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to connect him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher.” Book IX of his The Age of Revolution, Volume 3 of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, drafted in the 1930s and finally published in the 1950s, is entitled simply “Napoleon.” It is clear from the text that he sees this non-English-speaker as central to the story of the English-speaking nations. In his 1936 review Churchill had described Bonaparte as “the greatest man of action ever known to human records.” In his book he leavens this to “the greatest man of action born in Europe since Julius Caesar”—still considerable. Churchill reflects at the end:
The impetus of the French Revolution had been spread by the genius of Napoleon to the far quarters of Europe. Ideals of liberty and nationalism, born in Paris, had been imparted to all the European peoples. In the nineteenth century ahead they were to clash resoundingly with the ordered world for which the Congress of Vienna had striven. If France was defeated and her Emperor fallen, the principles which had inspired her lived on. They were to play a notable part in changing the shape of government in every European country, Britain not excepted.4
This view is markedly different from that of many more recent British historians. Correlli Barnett, writing in 1978, paints the French Emperor not as a great strategist or defender of liberty, but as an opportunist and a mafia godfather. Andrew Roberts, comparing him to Wellington in 2001, sees Bonaparte as a master propagandist and cultivator of his own myth, while Paul Johnson paints him as the architect of modern total warfare and the precursor of Hitler and Stalin.5 Compare to Churchill’s assessment these passages from Paul Johnson’s biography:
The First World War itself was total warfare of the type Bonaparte’s methods adumbrated, and in the political anarchy that emerged from it, a new brand of ideological dictator took Bonaparte’s methods of government as a model, first in Russia, then in Italy, and finally in Germany, with many smaller countries following suit. The totalitarian state of the 20th century was the ultimate progeny of the Napoleonic reality and myth.
Johnson’s conclusion on Napoleon and his legacy is almost diametrically opposed to Churchill’s: “We have to learn again the central lesson of history: that all forms of greatness, military and administrative, nation and empire-building, are as nothing—indeed are perilous in the extreme —without a humble and a contrite heart.”6
Why did Churchill hold Bonaparte in such high regard? Firstly, we must remember that Winston Churchill was educated and steeped in a different historical tradition. It is easy for us to forget that Napoleon was venerated in his own lifetime and immediately after, not just by the French but also by British politicians, writers and poets. As an historian Churchill stood in the British liberal Whig tradition. The Whigs had originally welcomed the French Revolution, and hailed Napoleon as the modernising force that had swept away old tyrannies and established a new Europe based more on law and liberty. The French Emperor was celebrated by the romantic poets, and immortalised in the hagiographic biographies that form a large part of Churchill’s own collection.
To Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1841, Napoleon may have had a fatal moral flaw but he was nonetheless the “true Democrat” and “our last Great Man.” To Walter Scott he was the epitome of fallen greatness; to the American writer Emerson he was the archetype of the self-made man.7
All those who lived through the Napoleonic years, whatever their political persuasion, acknowledged his greatness. To the Whig politician Lord Holland he was “the greatest statesman and the ablest general of ancient or modern times,” and even the Tory politician Lord Canning was prepared to acknowledge “the superiority of his talent” and “the dazzling ascendancy of his genius.”8 As a soldier and a student of military history, as a romantic who lived for great men and great events, and as a Victorian brought up in a society steeped in the cult of Napoleon, Churchill was naturally drawn to the story of this amazing man.
Secondly, we must remember that Churchill was a Francophile. It is easy to forget that France is the country that Churchill visited more than any other; more even than the United States (for all the talk and writings on the Special Relationship). From grumpy adolescent to benign elder statesman, it is to France that Churchill came to relax, to paint, to drink his favourite wines, to enjoy life. He had a faith in France and in its military glory: a faith nurtured by his study of Napoleon and a belief that he maintained even in France’s darkest hour.
For forty years I have been a consistent friend of France and her brave army; all my life I have been grateful for the contribution France has made to the culture and glory of Europe, and above all for the sense of personal liberty and the rights of man which has radiated from the soul of France. But these are not matters of sentiment or personal feeling. It is one of the main interests of Great Britain that a friendly France should regain and hold her place among the major powers of Europe and the world. Show me a moment when I swerved from this conception, and you shall show me a moment when I have been wrong.
Thirdly, Churchill saw in Napoleon a man of action, ability, energy and dynamism: a force of nature that he could admire and—in some respects—seek to emulate.
Napoleon did not suffer from modesty or lack of ambition. Andrew Roberts in his book has some wonderful Napoleon quotes, such as: “At twenty-nine years of age I have exhausted everything. It only remains for me to become a complete egoist”; and: “In war men are nothing: it is a man who is everything”; and finally: “Nobody has conceived anything great in our century: it falls to my lot to give the example.”10
This is monumental egoism. Churchill’s ego was never in the same league, but he was ambitious and shared a faith in his star. This after all is the young man who apparently told Violet Bonham Carter that, “We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glow-worm.” From the Indian North West Frontier he wrote to his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, on 5 September 1897 before going into battle:
As to fighting—we march tomorrow, and before a week is out, there will be a battle—probably the biggest yet fought on the frontier this year. By the time this reaches you everything will be over so that I do not mind writing about it. I have faith in my star—that is that I am intended to do something in the world. If I am mistaken—what does it matter? My life has been a pleasant one and though I should regret to leave it—it would be a regret that perhaps I should never know.11
Years later as a war leader, he led his administration with the motto “Action this Day” and famously declared of himself, “I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded. In fact, if anything I am a prod.”
These quotes touch on a bigger truth, one that I believe clarifies the real Churchillian interest in Napoleon. For Churchill, like Napoleon, believed in the ability of men to shape their own destiny, and consequently in the power of great men to achieve great things. He did not subscribe to a world view which relegated the actions of men to outside causes, whether divinely pre-ordained or dictated by economics, class or race. He spent his life writing, speaking and leading the charge against totalitarian systems that espoused such views. To Churchill, Napoleon was proof that man could rise above his background and his environment, and, to go back to the quote I gave earlier, prove himself “superior even to time.”
Clearly from his own writings, Churchill was not an uncritical admirer. Quite the contrary, I believe that Churchill’s penetrating study of Napoleon, his life and his campaigns, informed his own views and actions. He was certainly able to invoke Napoleon at key moments. Let me give you a couple of good examples:
In 1915, in the midst of the First World War, the relationship between First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Fisher, his First Sea Lord— respectively the political head and service chief of the Royal Navy—broke down over the failure of an operation to use ships to force passage of the Dardanelles Straits. The argument was conducted through an exchange of dramatic letters that survive in our archive.
Fisher was always an eccentric correspondent, favouring a strong use of quotations and underlinings to emphasize his points. On 5 April he wrote to Churchill complaining about the amount of time that was being used up on the Dardanelles operation: “D –m the Dardanelles! They’ll be our grave!” and ending, “We could have had the Greeks & everyone else at the right time but we are ‘too late’ ALWAYS! This war might be described as ‘Procrastinations—vacillations—Antwerps.’ (That’s copyright!).”
How did Churchill respond? Three days later, on April 8th, Churchill wrote out a note in his own hand for Fisher, expressing his dissatisfaction with a paper that Fisher had sent him advocating delaying the Dardanelles operation or replacing it with a smaller show of force against Haifa. Fisher’s perceived lack of resolution led Churchill to produce his red pen, quoting Napoleon:
“We are defeated at sea because our Admirals have learned—where I know not—that war can be made without running risks.”12
My second example comes from the Second World War. On 21 October 1940 Churchill broadcast a message on the BBC to the people of occupied France: “Frenchmen—rearm your spirits before it is too late. Remember how Napoleon said before one of his battles: ‘These same Prussians who are so boastful today were three to one at Jena, and six to one at Montmirail.’ Never will I believe that the soul of France is dead. Never will I believe that her place amongst the greatest nations of the world has been lost for ever!”13
Stirring words! I am grateful to Sir Martin Gilbert for pointing out to me that what Churchill tactfully omits to tell his French audience is that Napoleon said these words to his Marshals immediately before his defeat at Waterloo. But, as I hinted above, Churchill did not just quote Napoleon; he also learned from him.
What defeated Bonaparte? In the end he was brought down by British dominance of the seas, by an Allied coalition, by a war of attrition in Spain, and by huge losses in Russia. What was the strategy that Churchill pursued against Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1945? Did he did not triumph by winning the Battle of the Atlantic, by building and maintaining his Grand Alliance with Stalin and Roosevelt, by wearing Hitler down in North Africa and in the so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe, and by doing everything in his power to facilitate the smashing of the German war machine on the Eastern Front?
Churchill’s view, learned from history, was that the final mortal stroke had to wait until the enemy was weakened. This surely was the lesson of Napoleon. The irony, of course, is that it is a lesson Napoleon had failed to learn.
Mr. Packwood is Director of the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge; and Executive Director of The Churchill Centre (UK). This article is adapted from his remarks made at sea off Corsica, Napoleon’s homeland, while participating in a “Chasing Churchill” cruise in September 2011.
1. Winston S. Churchill, “Napoleon Lives Again in ‘St. Helena,’” Daily Mail, 8 April 1936, Churchill Papers, CHAR 8/540. This article is reprinted overleaf.
2. WSC, correspondence with the President of the Comité du Centenaire de la mort de Napoléon, October-November 1920, Churchill Papers, CHAR 2/111/44 & 49.
3. WSC to Ballon, 1932, Churchill Papers, CHAR 1/398B/107; Stanley Baldwin postcard to WSC, 14 April 1934, Churchill Papers, CHAR 1/255/9.
4. Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. III, The Age of Revolution, Book IX, “Napoleon.”
5. Correlli Barnett, Bonaparte (Ware: Wordsworth Military Library, 1978); Andrew Roberts, Napoleon and Wellington (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001); Paul Johnson, Napoleon: A Life (London: Orion, 2002).
6. Paul Johnson, Napoleon, x, 193.
7. Ibid., 191-92.
8. Andrew Roberts, Napoleon and Wellington, 61.
9. Minutes of the Supreme War Council Meeting, 13 June 1940, Churchill Papers, CHAR 23/2.
10. Andrew Roberts, Napoleon and Wellington, 14, 29, 59.
11. WSC to Lady Randolph Churchill, 5 and 19 September 1897, Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/52.
12. Admiral Lord Fisher to WSC, 5 April 1915; WSC note to Admiral Lord Fisher, 8 April 1915, Churchill Papers, CHAR 13/57/2-3.
13. Winston S. Churchill, broadcast of 21 October 1940, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/145.
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