February 27, 2015

Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14

Page 41

By The Editors


It is often said that on 4 August 1914, the night World War I began, Churchill dined with Lloyd George at the Carlton Hotel, where Ho Chi Minh was employed as a cook. I recall seeing a plaque on the building, now New Zealand House. But senior editor John Plumpton points to the official biography, vol. 3 (30-31), where Martin Gilbert writes that Churchill dined with his mother, brother and the editor of The Times in Admiralty House, and later met with Lloyd George and Asquith. What are the facts?

Our first guess is that Sir Martin had the vol. 3 date wrong and learned about Ho later, but before his talk to the Second Churchill Tour, 17 September 1985, published as Churchill’s London, http://xrl.us/bpyib9:

One of the most bizarre stories I came across was when I tried to find where Churchill was on the night war was declared in August 1914….The Cabinet had broken up at about 9-9:15, and Churchill and Lloyd George had a favourite restaurant within walking distance of 10 Downing Street—the Carlton Hotel at the bottom of the Haymarket, unfortunately later destroyed by Hitler’s bombs. (Its replacement is New Zealand House, a modern building.)…And in the Churchill Papers—such is their wealth—is the Carlton Hotel bill of what they ate and drank, a pleasant repast. But what is bizarre: the register of the staff at the Hotel survives, and among the vegetable cooks at the bottom, well under the chefs and anybody of culinary significance, was a recent recruit to the staff from French Indo-China: Ho Chi Minh. Yes, Ho Chi Minh had been in London as a vegetable cook on the outbreak of war, when he had gone to the French Embassy in London to volunteer his services to fight, as a patriotic Indo-Chinaman (as they were then called). He was turned down, crossed the Channel to Paris, and began his career of disgruntlement and revolution.

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Aside from conflicting with vol. 3, the young Ho was known then as Nguyen That Thanh (see Wikipedia). Of course, that might have been the name Sir Martin found on the Carlton records, and researched to learn that he later became Ho Chi Minh. But the plaque on New Zealand House states that Ho was a waiter, not a cook, and in 1913, not 1914. Plaques can be wrong. We do know Sir Martin was quite serious in 1985. Perhaps he was referring to the night of the 2nd or 3rd? (On the 5th WSC dined with the Other Club). There are no other references in his other books. Or, could he have been correcting vol. 3, published nine years earlier?

That volume also says the Cabinet met on the evening of August 2nd, when Britain issued its ultimatum to Germany. The next Cabinet was the evening of August 4th; at 11pm the ultimatum expired and war was on. In 1985 Sir Martin said: “The Cabinet had broken up at about 9-9:25….” Clearly Churchill had already dined by then.

Carlton Hotel vs. Carlton Club

The Carlton Hotel stood on the corner of Pall Mall and the Haymarket, the site of today’s New Zealand House. It is often confused with the Carlton Club, a famous Conservative Party bastion. Both hotel and club were damaged by German bombs on 14 October 1940, but it was to the hotel that Churchill and Lloyd George would go for dinner. Liberals would not go to the Carlton Club which, after the bombing, moved to its current premises at 69 St. James’s Street.

Many droll stories emerged from that fiery night on Pall Mall. The historian Andrew Roberts recalls Lord Hailsham (Quentin Hogg) telling him of carrying his father out of the burning Carlton Club, which Hailsham compared to Aeneas carrying Anchises from the ruins of Troy. Simon Schama wrote of the simultaneous demolishment of the Reform Club next door, whose butler answered telephoned requests for information with a Jeevesian “The Club is burning, sir.”

Ho’s Movements

Born in 1890, Nguyen That Thanh was a student in Hue when he became involved in his first social uprising, on behalf of poor peasants. His student status in jeopardy, he traveled abroad, working as a kitchen helper aboard French liners. In 1913-19, he lived in West Ealing, and later in Crouch End, Hornsey. He may have been a chef or dishwasher at the Drayton Court Hotel in West Ealing. At the Carlton Hotel it has been said that he trained as a pastry chef under August Escoffier, but there is scant evidence to support this. But New Zealand House’s plaque says only that he was a waiter in 1913.

The mystery remains unresolved.

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