By Michael McMenamin
Winston spent Christmas at home with his brother Jack and their parents. Lord Randolph wrote to his mother, the Duchess of Marlborough, on 30 December that “Of course the boys have made themselves ill with their Christmassing, & yesterday both were in bed…Jack is better this morning but Winston has a sore throat & some fever.” WSC’s son writes in the Official Biography that “this did not seem to have prevented Lord and Lady Randolph from going away.”
Winston kept his mother advised, writing on January 2nd: “My throat is still painful & swelled – I get very hot in the night – & have very little appetite to speak of…How slow the time goes – I am horribly bored – & slightly irritable – no wonder my liver is still bad – Medicine 6 times a day is a horrible nuisance. I am looking forward to your return with ‘feelings, better imagined than described.’”
He was soon feeling better and making a presumably futile attempt to return to school late: “…the Dr says I ought to go to the seaside, & then I shan’t see you at all. My holidays are utterly spoilt, a week in one room that leaves little more than a fortnight. 2 or 3 days in the park & 1 week at the seaside leaves 1 week & that one week you will be away….I don’t know what to do. I think I ought to have it made up to me and go back a week late…a week would make no difference to anyone but you & me.”
That Churchill had many enemies in the Conservative Party goes without saying. That he had many within the Liberal Party is not so well known. The battle over 1914-15 Naval Estimates gave his Liberal critics an opportunity to force his resignation if the Cabinet rejected his plan to build four dreadnoughts and reduced their number to two. On January 5th Sir Francis Hopwood wrote to Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary: “The fact is the Cabinet is sick of Churchill’s perpetually undermining & exploiting its policy and are picking a quarrel with him. As a colleague he is a great trial to them…The whole affair may blow over but it looks very ugly. Winston writes that he has his ‘back against the wall.’”
Before Christmas Lloyd George made known his opposition to WSC’s Naval Estimates. On Christmas Day, Churchill wrote Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey: “I see my duty quite plainly and am willing to pay any forfeit the fates may exact while on that path.” Churchill asked Grey to consider the effect backing down from the already announced four battleships “would have upon the position of England in Europe.” The Cabinet had approved his statements on naval construction, Churchill went on, “in the name of Britain. We have offered the Germans to reduce or drop our quota if they will do the same. They have refused: and now it is suggested—seriously that we should do for nothing what only last October we said we would not do except they do the same. The country will be made ridiculous before the whole world.”
At one point, Lloyd George said he would support Churchill’s 1914-15 estimates if he would commit to the substantial reductions for 1915-16. Both Churchill and his Cabinet critics rejected the compromise. Asquith appealed to the Cabinet for a “spirit of mutual accommodation.” On February 1st he wrote WSC: “Very largely in deference to my appeal, the critical pack (who know well that they have behind them a large body of party opinion) have slackened their pursuit. I think that you on your side should… show a corresponding disposition and throw a baby or two out of the sledge.”
Churchill wrote back the next day: “The sledge is bare of babies, & though the pack may crunch the driver’s bones, the winter will not be ended.”
On March 9th Asquith introduced a compromise bill enabling each Ulster county to opt out of Home Rule for six years from the date of its enactment. This was intended to give Tories two general elections in which to reverse Home Rule. But Ulster leader Edward Carson called it a “sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years.”
But when Churchill’s colleagues needed him, they didn’t hesitate to call on him. When reports indicated Ulster volunteers intended to seize police and military barracks and depots of arms and ammunition. The Cabinet decided that a specific warning needed to be given, and Churchill was their man. Lloyd George reportedly told him: “This is your opportunity. Providence has arranged it for you. You can make a speech that will ring down the corridors of history. I could not do it. You are the only member of the Cabinet who could make such a speech.”
Churchill’s speech at Bradford on March 14th may not have rung down history’s corridors, but the Tories certainly remembered it several years later when they demanded Churchill’s scalp as the price for entering a coalition government: “As long as it affects the workingman in England or nationalist peasants in Ireland, there is no measure of military force which the Tory party will not readily employ. They denounce all violence except their own. They uphold all law except the law they choose to break. They are to select from the Statute Book the laws they will obey and the laws they will resist… The veto of violence has replaced the veto of privilege…If all the loose, wanton and reckless chatter…is in the end to disclose a sinister revolutionary purpose, then I can only say to you ‘Let us go forward and put these grave matters to the proof.’”
On his way to the South of France early in January, Churchill stopped in Paris where he met with French Finance Minister Paul Reynaud and former Prime Minister Leon Blum. His talks convinced him that his proposals to resist German aggression before Munich had been correct. He wrote to Clementine, who was cruising the West Indies on Lord Moyne’s yacht, that the French had told him “the Germans had hardly any soldiers at all on the French Frontier during the Crisis” and that the French Generals Gamelin and Georges “were confident that they could have broken through the weak, unfinished German line, almost unguarded as it was, by the fifteenth day at the latest.”
Churchill concluded that “if the Czechs had held out only for that short fortnight, the German armies would have had to go back to face invasion.” As a consequence, Churchill wrote his wife, “I have no doubt that a firm attitude by England and France would have prevented war, and I believe history will incline to the view that if the worst had come to worst, we should have been far better off than we may be at some future date.”
Until the rump of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germans, however, Chamberlain disagreed. He wrote to his sister on February 19th: “All the information I get seems to point in the direction of peace & I repeat once more that I believe we have at last got on top of the dictators. Of course that doesn’t mean that I want to bully them as they have tried to bully us; on the contrary I think they have had good cause to ask for consideration of their grievances, & if they had asked nicely after I appeared on the scene they might already have got some satisfaction.”
Chamberlain favorably mentioned Hitler’s 30 January Reichstag speech, when he said: “It would be fortunate for the whole world if our two peoples could cooperate in full confidence with one another.” Chamberlain told his sister he had “full confidence” in Hitler: “These words of the Fuehrer were all the more impressive because they were spoken at the end of a year which was full of international tension & crises, yet that year found solutions for problems which seemed almost insuperable…[I am] convinced that a new & fruitful element for cooperation between the nations has been established.”
“Solutions for problems” was a seemingly innocent phrase, yet Hitler had used it in a far more menacing way where he boasted of having “settle[d] the Jewish problem” in Germany. He added that if Jewish financiers “succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result…[will be] the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Chamberlain made no mention of this in his letter. Instead, the day before, Chamberlain had told the press that “the international situation now seems to give less cause for anxiety than for some time in the past.” Home Secretary Samuel Hoare said that Europe was at the dawn of a new “Golden Age.”
On 15 March, the German Army occupied Prague and Hitler slept that night in the Hračany Palace.
Churchill wrote the next day to Horace Rumbold, British Ambassador to Germany: “I have had several difficult and depressing situations to deal with in the course of my career and I have, on the whole, been inclined to optimism. But I have never felt so depressed or nauseated as I feel now…. I can only hope it will not enter the PM’s head to pay Hitler another visit.”
Churchill began 1964 with what his Private Secretary Anthony Montague Browne described to Lord Beaverbrook in a 17 January letter as an “astonishing comeback.” While Churchill “has basically been in decline,” Anthony Montague Browne wrote Lord Beaverbrook, he “suddenly staged one of those astonishing come-backs with which he has so often surprised us. Last night, for instance, he talked to me clearly and connectedly about the Prime Minister’s speech in the House, to which he had listened. So one simply cannot tell but I do rather wish that he would not go to the House, so that people will remember him from his great days.”
If Churchill knew of his Private Secretary’s wishes in this regard, he paid them no heed. He visited the House of Commons on 20 January and 20 February and dined at the Other Club on 23 January and 20 February. Harold Macmillan came to lunch with Churchill in February and Sir Winston’s dinner guests in February included Randolph Churchill, Jock and Lady Margaret Colville, and seven others, old friends all.
This column last issue. Page 42, lower right, for “Wimbourne” read Wimborne. Page 43, last paragraph, for “Douglas-Hume” read Douglas-Home.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.