July 24, 2015

Finest Hour 166, Winter 2015

Page 14

By Michael Shelden

With the centenary of the First World War now at hand, Michael Shelden, author of Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill (2013), examines Churchill’s relationship with the Prime Minister in the first year of the war and finds a transition between passing and approaching political styles.

Asquith and Churchill, 1911.Asquith and Churchill, 1911.

For Britain’s top three leaders in 1914—1915, the First World War was waged not only on the Continent and the seas but also in their neighborhood. All three men lived and worked within a short distance of each other and were able to meet on a moment’s notice to plan strategy or debate the latest issues. Each kept a wary eye on the others, like neighboring tradesmen living above their respective shops.

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Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Chancellor of  the Exchequer David Lloyd George resided, of course, in the Downing Street houses reserved for them at numbers Ten and Eleven. But it is useful to remember that Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, lived just over the garden wall, so to speak. Asquith’s daughter, Violet, liked to think of the Churchills as her closest friends in this highly select neighborhood and recalled with delight in later years that “only the width of the Horse Guards Parade separated the Admiralty from the garden door of No. 10, and it was often crossed hot-foot.”1

For the prime minister and his wife, Margot, Winston Churchill was not just another member of the Cabinet. He was almost like family, something similar to a distant cousin whom they didn’t quite trust but couldn’t help liking. Depending on her mood, Margot could claim him as a devoted friend or an untrustworthy foe. The prime minister also went to extremes, thinking Churchill a brilliant ally one month and complaining the next that he was a vainglorious bumbler.

The only consistent one in the family, where Churchill was concerned, was Violet, who was twelve years his junior. “My faith in him and in his fortunes was absolute,” she later wrote.2 She loved him, romantically at first, and then—after he chose Clementine over her in 1908—she became for a time the sister he never had, a trusted confidante eager to support him against everyone but her father.

Before the war, when Churchill entered by the garden gate of No. 10, it would have been hard to tell whether he was coming to see Violet or the prime minister. The house itself did not have quite the aura attached to it then that it has now. Margot Asquith used to complain that it was so architecturally undistinguished that “even the most ardent tourist would scarcely recognize it again.”3 It was very much a family home, and Churchill came to regard it as the next best place after the Admiralty to hang his hat, especially since he liked to imagine himself as the next official resident.

It is not surprising that the first hours of the war unfolded in this Whitehall neighborhood like a scene in a theatrical drawing room. The stage was the Cabinet Room at No. 10, with Asquith and others sitting at their places on the night of August 4, 1914. All eyes were on the mantelpiece clock as they waited for the ultimatum to Germany to expire at eleven o’clock. The windows were open on that warm night, so the hour passed with the sound of Big Ben chiming in the distance. Everyone sat in silence, and then—like an actor entering on cue— Churchill appeared at the door, having just crossed the Parade in haste after sending his dramatic signal from the Admiralty to commence hostilities against Germany.

Lloyd George later described the scene as though recalling the moment when a bumptious relative crashed a solemn family gathering. “Winston dashed into the room radiant—his face bright, his manner keen; and he told us, one word pouring out on the other, how he was going to send telegrams to the Mediterranean! the North Sea and God knows where.”4

Over the next several months Churchill would often be seen racing toward his neighbors’ official homes for meetings, but as the war dragged on, the many disappointments and disasters of the early fighting were reflected in a slowing of his step. By December 1914, as he was struggling to contain the German threat in the North Sea, that short walk from his house to Asquith’s seemed to get longer. “With what a heavy heart did I cross again that Horse Guards Parade,” he says of this period in The World Crisis.5

But unlike Asquith and Lloyd George, he wasn’t content to do most of his work in the neighborhood. He was constantly visiting the Continent or various British ports to see at first hand how the war was progressing. His homecoming from Antwerp in October 1914, after he had tried to save the city against the German advance, had an especially intimate quality to it, greeted as he was in both No. 10 and the Admiralty as a returning hero. Until the city surrendered a few days after Churchill left it, the Cabinet was generally in awe of his courageous mission. Asquith welcomed him home like a brave son, and it was at this time that he made his most famous remark about Churchill’s character: “He is a wonderful creature, with a curious dash of schoolboy simplicity…and what someone said of genius—‘a zigzag streak of lightning in the brain.’”6

When victory began to seem ever more elusive with each passing month, Churchill became increasingly frustrated by Asquith’s often detached view of the fighting as an unpleasant burden on his otherwise comfortable life in Downing Street. There was never any lack of determination from Churchill in his mission to make sure that the Royal Navy saved Britain from defeat. “He had served it with the passion of a lover,” said Violet of his time at the Admiralty.7

But, as she was later to learn of her father, Asquith’s greatest passion in 1914—1915 was reserved for young Venetia Stanley, who was also one of Violet’s closest friends. The contrast between Asquith obsessively scribbling love notes to Venetia every day—even during Cabinet meetings—and Churchill risking his life to save Antwerp could not be greater. But because the public was unaware of their prime minister’s romance, and his general lack of engagement with the most pressing problems of the war, it was Churchill who received most of the criticism when Antwerp fell, and later when the Dardanelles campaign began to collapse.

In the Cabinet “family,” Asquith was supposedly the wiser parent and Churchill the wild, impetuous son. But these stereotypes were always false. Asquith was never so wise, and Churchill was far less impetuous than his critics have claimed. By a strange twist of fate, the intimate, family-like atmosphere of Churchill’s Whitehall neighborhood collapsed in an ugly heap for everyone at the same time in May 1915. At almost a single stroke Asquith was forced not only to share power in a coalition government but also to replace Churchill at the Admiralty, to move Lloyd George from the Treasury to the new Ministry of Munitions, and to accept Venetia’s decision to break off their relationship.

The last blow hit him the hardest. “This breaks my heart,” he told her when she wrote on May 12 to announce her engagement to his Liberal colleague Edwin Montagu. “I can only pray God to bless you—and help me.”8 Exactly one week later Churchill was forced to confront the sudden end of his rapid rise to power, as his Conservative enemies demanded an end to his career at the Admiralty. And once again the moment came with a vivid scene, this time at his office in the Commons with a tearful effort by Violet to console him. She tried to assure him that “there was a future which belonged to him as surely as a birthright.” But such words failed to comfort him. “I’m finished,” he told her.9

It was a messy end that was made even messier by the intimate nature of Churchill’s relationships with the Asquiths. To his credit, and no doubt in deference to Violet’s feelings, Churchill was never so critical of Asquith in public as he could have been.

But in private he did not feel obliged to soften the truth. In a newly discovered remark to his old friend Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, he was blunt. “Asquith thinks the War will just finish itself,” he complained to her in June 1916. “He hasn’t realised that this is Armageddon. Every country of the Western World is sizzling in the melting pot. We must win, we must win.”10

Michael Shelden teaches English at Indiana State University, and is the author of Young Titan.


1. Violet Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait (New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1999 [1965]), 190.

2. Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill, 330.

3. Mark Bonham Carter, ed., The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), 250.

4. Michael and Eleanor Brock, eds., Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary, 1914—1916: The View from Downing Street (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 108.

5. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911—1914 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1923), 511.

6. Michael and Eleanor Brock, eds. H.H. Asquith Letters to Venetia Stanley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 266—67.

7. Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill, 279.

8. Brock, H.H. Asquith Letters to Venetia Stanley, 593.

9. Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill, 330.

10. Millicent Sutherland, “Political Memoirs,” 4 June 1916, typescript in the Sutherland Collection, Staffordshire County Archives.

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