Mark Woodburn, The Finest Years & Me, Valley Press, 2015, 320 pages, $13.00. ISBN 978-1908853561
Portrayal of Churchill ***
Worth Reading **
The Finest Years & Me is a sequel of sorts to Mark Woodburn’s excellent first novel Winston & Me [reviewed FH 160] that featured a young fifteen-year-old Scottish hero Jamie Melville, who lies about his age to enlist in the Army and ends up in Churchill’s battalion in 1915. Jamie and his age eventually come to Churchill’s attention in an unfortunate way when Churchill’s batman is wounded and Jamie is chosen to take his place. Churchill takes the young man under his wing, and Jamie repays the kindness by saving Churchill’s life when he gets entangled on barbed wire in No-Man’s Land. When Churchill returns to politics in 1916, he takes Jamie with him as an assistant, a position he holds until 1919, when he left to join his brothers in the family business.
Flash forward to February 1942, where The Finest Years & Me begins. We learn through flashbacks that Jamie has remained a close friend of Churchill and Clementine over the years and that he is a widower with three daughters. America is in the war, but things are not going well for Churchill. Hong Kong and Singapore have fallen and, at home, Beaverbrook and Cripps see themselves as Churchill’s replacement. Winston’s spirits are at low ebb, and Clementine decides that her husband needs at his side a loyal friend Read More >
Churchill’s Secret, First broadcast by ITV on 29 February 2016
Review by Robert Courts
Sir Michael Gambon as Churchill in Churchill’s Secret
Churchill’s Secret is an adaptation of Jonathan Smith’s 2015 novel The Churchill Secret, KBO (reviewed FH 168), with an all-star cast, and shot in part on location at Chartwell.
It tells the story of Churchill’s 1953 stroke, suffered whilst entertaining an Italian delegation at 10 Downing Street, his struggle to recover before the Conservative Party conference that year, and the extraordinary conspiracy between the press, politicians, and Churchill’s family to keep his critical condition a secret.
The film is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of a pristine sun-dappled Chartwell in June. Like a soft-focus Downton Abbey, the camera lingers on the rooms of the house, the wooden panelling, and the sun shining in brilliant beams through small windows illuminating dust and the busts on Churchill’s desk. And this superb set is not Chartwell; the external shots are, but the internals are incredibly good representations of the originals. Read More >
Jonathan Sandys and Wallace Henley, God & Churchill, Tyndale Momentum, 2015, 352 pages, $26.99. ISBN 978-1496406026
When St Martin’s Church, Bladon decided to install a stained glass window to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, the most thorny question was how to commemorate—in a Church—a man who, whilst undoubtedly the saviour of Christian civilisation, was in no intellectually honest sense a Christian. In trying to grapple with that question, the authors of this book make two radical, but ultimately unconvincing, arguments.
First, the authors appear to argue that Churchill was—sort of—a Christian. It was just that he did not realise it himself. Sandys develops this argument more candidly on his blog (which you can find here) where he makes the startling claim, “Churchill not only believed in God and the words in the Bible…his faith was foundational to his character and leadership.” Thus, Churchill quoted the Bible because it formed part of his psychological foundation. Perhaps it did, but he also quoted Shakespeare and Tennyson; because he loved literature. Further, it is counterintuitive to suggest that Churchill’s opposition to Nazism was because of Mrs. Everest’s Biblical lessons, rather than a long-established humanity and geopolitical understanding. Churchill simply valued the morality that underpinned Western life and recognised that as stemming from Christianity. But that did not make him a Christian, be that as a “religious pietist” or otherwise. Read More >
Robin Prior, When Britain Saved the West, Yale University Press, 2015, 360 pages, $35 / £20. ISBN 978-0300166620
When I was young, I remember a book by Herbert Agar, Britain Alone, left lying on the stairs by my parents. I was intrigued by the picture of the Tommy on the cover staring in defiance at the clouds of aircraft swarming over the cliffs of Dover. I became dimly aware that this was something that had happened to my country, not so long ago, and that it was a “big deal.” When older, I read the book, which told in ringing tones what is still one of the most stirring stories in all history: the lonely, vital stand of Britain and the Commonwealth between the fall of France and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. This is the story that Robin Prior tells here, and it is told in equally memorable style.
This is an accurate, straightforward, narrative history of a compelling story. It is predominantly a military history, describing the Battle of France, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and of Fighter Command’s immortal stand. We have the detail of squadron tactics and aircraft capabilities. Consequently, there is no mention of Churchill for large sections of the book, as is right given that he is not the primary focus. He is, however, given his rightful place. Read More >
Jonathan Dimbleby, The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War, Viking, 2015, 560 pages, £17. ISBN 978-0241186602
The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest sustained campaign of the European theater in the Second World War, began with the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939. It continued to rage right up to the German surrender in 1945. Yet, the term “Battle of the Atlantic” is a misnomer, according to Jonathan Dimbleby. Rather than a traditional Trafalgar-like battle, the Atlantic struggle encompassed a series of naval campaigns over an expansive geographical region from the icepack in the Arctic deep into the vastness of the South Atlantic. The primary German weapon was the U-boat. The desired victim was merchant shipping with the object of attacking Britain’s greatest vulnerability: its critical dependence on resources coming from overseas.
The subtitle of Dimbleby’s book, How the Allies Won the War, is certainly provocative but reflects his thesis that the Atlantic battle was the decisive struggle in the war. To prove his point he quotes President Franklin Roosevelt: “I believe the outcome of this struggle is going to be decided in the Atlantic” (xxvi). Nothing, to Dimbleby, more clearly explains the battle’s significance. He maintains that nearly everything else in the war was contingent upon the grinding, attritional campaign occurring in the stormy waters of the Atlantic. Read More >
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949, Viking, 2015, 593 pages, $35.00. ISBN: 978-0670024582.
Review by Kevin Matthews
A young Winston Churchill wrote in 1901: “The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.” The next fifty years proved he was right, and it is fitting that Ian Kershaw opens his history of twentieth-century Europe with Churchill’s prediction. The first of a projected two–volume work, this book, like the years it covers, is dominated by war, a period when Europeans sank “into the pit of barbarism” (1).
Readers of Finest Hour may be disappointed that Churchill plays only a walk-on role here and there in Kershaw’s account of these events. To Hell and Back is part of a trend that has refocused the telling of these years on central and eastern Europe, what he calls the continent’s “killing grounds” (19). Even so, most will find it a worthy addition to their bookshelves.
In many ways, To Hell and Back echoes the observation made by Churchill long ago that, between 1914 and 1945, Europeans waged a second Thirty Years’ War. Others call it a “European Civil War,” an ideological struggle between liberal democracy, Soviet-style communism, and fascism in which, until the very end, it looked as if liberal democracy would come out the loser. Kershaw’s contribution is in the way he constructs this story. In this telling, Europe’s near- suicide can be explained by four inter-related causes: “an explosion of ethnic-racist nationalism,” “bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism,” “acute class conflict” further inflamed by Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, Read More >
All of the books described in this review can be found through online sites such as Amazon.
There are various statistics floating around in the public domain that predict the demise of print books. In 2011, Amazon reported that e-books outsold print books for the first time. There is likely a ceiling, however, on the number of people who prefer e-books to print books, and as a result the print book industry remains healthy and has more recently outpaced e-book sales. Given this audience’s historical inclination and sympathy for the traditional, most subscribers to Finest Hour likely fall into the camp that prefers print.
Despite this preference, e-publishing is not just a wilderness of insipidity. It can provide the Churchill diehard with the ability to enjoy out-of-print books that are otherwise difficult to access outside university libraries. One such work is a 1941 classic by British barrister and witty historical and travel writer Philip Guedalla. Mr. Churchill has now been made available for Kindle for the first time by leading digital publisher Endeavour Press.
Those who have enjoyed Churchill’s own tales of his early adventures in My Early Life and From London to Ladysmith via Pretoria will no doubt relish Guedalla’s account of Churchill’s years before he became Prime Minister. Guedalla emphasizes the long shadow of Lord Randolph’s influence on his son’s early years in politics and places the future Prime Minister firmly within the context of his family’s dramatic history. The author is perhaps at his best when articulating Churchill’s discomfort with the political upheaval in the years following the Great War. Read More >
Charles Clarke, Toby James, Tim Bale, and Patrick Diamond, editors, British Conservative Leaders, Biteback Publishing, 2015, 384 pages. ISBN 978-1849549219
This study of the leadership of the British Conservative Party illustrates what happens when political scientists are permitted to forage in pastures historians have long tended to consider their own preserve. The authors use several straightforward criteria to determine the relative effectiveness of leaders of the British Conservative Party from the time of Sir Robert Peel onwards. Charts, tables, and graphs lend a statistical verisimilitude to the overall conclusions and invite the reader to ponder whether there might not be a solid evidentiary basis both for and against commonly held judgments about political success and failure. Most of the Conservative party leaders under consideration became Prime Minister at least once, and in many (but not all) cases this study tends to confirm the generally held verdict as to whether a particular leader was a success or a failure in the position of party leader.
The authors seek to assess the effectiveness of party leaders in terms of electoral success, at both national and constituency level, and attempt to link electoral success with the leader’s ability to craft an attractive and unifying message as Britain emerged into a new democratic age. The exigencies of mass politics and party unity may have left reduced scope for a certain kind of charismatic leadership, though leaders such as Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli were able to reconfigure the party message effectively for the masses who were Britain’s new masters by the end of the Victorian Age. Under their skilled leadership, a political philosophy emerged that was visceral, traditional, and at the same time forward-looking. Read More >
Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. Volume Two: Everything She Wants, Allen Lane, 821 pages, £30. ISBN 978-0713992885
Just three years after her death, Margaret Thatcher ranks second only to Churchill as the towering figure of twentieth-century Britain. The second instalment of Charles Moore’s monumental official biography—now projected to take three volumes—is very different from the first, but equally good. This one covers just five years—the central five years of her decade in power—so that it deals almost entirely with the business of government, since Mrs Thatcher had no other interests and allowed herself virtually no time off. This middle chunk of her life could easily have been a shapeless chronicle of events. That it is not, but grips the attention for 700 pages, is due to three things: the historic scale of the issues she had to deal with, Moore’s skill in drawing together a truly enormous range of public and private sources, and the hyperactive and commanding personality of the Prime Minister herself.
With the luxury of hindsight these years were the high noon of Thatcherism when the Iron Lady, triumphantly re-elected on the back of military victory in the Falklands war, transformed the British economy by selling back to private enterprise most of the public utilities nationalised by the Labour government after 1945—notably telephones, gas, electricity, and British Airways—opening up the London financial market to global competition, cutting taxes, and facing down the challenge of the militant trade unions, greatly assisted by a divided opposition and cushioned by the bonus of North Sea oil, before cruising to another landslide majority and an unprecedented third term in 1987. Read More >
Philippe Alexandre and Béatrix de l’Aulnoit, Clementine Churchill: La femme du Lion, Paris: Tallandier / Robert Laffont, 2015, 397 pages, €21.50. ISBN 979–1021007406
By coincidence, two new books on Clementine Churchill appeared, one on each side of the English Channel, in 2015. In addition to Sonia Purnell’s First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill (Aurum, 2015), the first-ever biography in French also appeared in the same year, written by two well-known journalists. The difficulty for English-language authors is to appear not to rely too much on Mary Soames’s standard life, Clementine Churchill (1979, revised 2002). But French buyers of La femme du Lion (The Lion’s Wife) are unlikely to be familiar with Lady Soames’s book, which is an advantage since the authors can—and do—draw freely from it. The intended readership is not clear—probably le grand public (the general public) since there are no footnotes. A large proportion of the book reminds one of the Court Circular in the quality press, and an even larger one of the People & Celebrities gossip columns of the popular press.
The Churchill circle of family, friends, and professional acquaintances is of course enormous, and the authors have made a commendably thorough investigation of the various people and places which featured in the Churchills’ world at some stage or other of their long lives. The name-dropping aspect of the text is absolutely remarkable for its extensiveness. Inevitably—and most often, interestingly—the book offers mini-biographies of the dramatis personae, for instance Blanche Hozier, with fewer paragraphs devoted to Clementine’s father. The description of Dieppe and its British colony around 1900 is excellent. Read More >
Leon Bennett, Churchill’s War Against the Zeppelin 1914–18: Men, Machines and Tactics, Helion, 2015, 406 pages, $59.95. ISBN 978-1909982840
Long interested in both airship history and Churchill, I had high expectations for this book that melds both topics. To a great extent they were met, though with a few frustrations along the way.
Leon Bennett’s book centers on the German Zeppelin (airship) bombing raids against England (and especially London) during the First World War and the defense measures taken to meet the new air threat. German fliers tried to bomb the city for months after the war began in August 1914, but initially managed only sporadic raids against easy-to-find coastal towns. Weather was often the chief culprit—especially capricious winds that could push the huge rigid airships miles off course. Crude nighttime navigation was hit or miss, often the latter. British airships (also covered here) faced the same limitations—a key reason that Churchill, after initial enthusiasm, became a consistent critic of the technology. Despite his misgivings, however, the British continued their expensive airship program after the war until the R 101 tragedy in 1930 shut down the effort.
When the huge and clumsy Zeppelins succeeding in hitting something in the Great War, public panic far exceeded the casualties or physical damage. For here was an invasion for which, at first, there seemed no defense. Gradually the fledgling British Royal Flying Corps and Naval Air Service developed methods of fighting the floating “baby killers,” including the use of searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, plus slowly improving fighter aircraft. The airship’s chief weakness was its reliance on highly flammable Read More >
Simon Read, Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent, Da Capo Press, 2015, 309 pages, $26.99. ISBN 978-0306823817
Read, a former California journalist born in England, begins his book with a clear disclaimer: “I don’t consider this a biography or a work of history—though it contains elements of both. It is, instead, a true tale of adventure featuring Winston Churchill in the starring role. When writing the book, I described it to friends as ‘Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones’” (ix). And therein lies both the appeal and drawback of this latest addition to the ever- growing “Churchill and _____” shelf.
Read’s breezy style stitches together the adventuresome story of Churchill’s first four wars on which the initial newspaper columns and several of WSC’s early books are based. These include his trip to Cuba to observe Spanish forces fighting rebels (1895–96), the fighting role of the Malakand Field Force in what is now Pakistan (1897), the “river war” in Sudan (1898), and the bitter South African Boer War on which Churchill reported (1899–1900). In all save the first, Churchill was also a serving officer in the British Army, an odd combination that raised eyebrows.
Churchill’s “lucky” placement in four such widespread conflicts over less than five years was no mere happenstance. His well-connected mother Jennie opened the right London doors to reach key government and army officials who surrendered to her charm and persuasion, often against their own better judgment. The seeming Churchill luck created more than a bit of envy and jealousy among many of the soldiers with whom he served. Read More >
Max Arthur, Churchill, The Life: An Authorised Pictorial Biography, Cassell Illustrated, 2015, 272 pages, £25.00. ISBN 978-1844038596
Churchill’s life was extraordinarily rich in visual imagery. He loved the camera and the camera loved him, as did cartoonists and portrait painters. His face exhibited a range of deep emotions that others preferred to conceal behind a stiff upper lip. His eccentricities of dress and theatrical gestures were the work of a great actor who could play Falstaff one day and Henry V the next. It is no wonder that his life has always lent itself to pictorial treatment, nor that so many photographs and portraits of him have achieved iconic status over the past fifty years. Most readers of Finest Hour will therefore probably be familiar with the majority of pictures in Max Arthur’s new compilation. He has, however, been at pains to vary the menu by including a number of hitherto unpublished pictures together with reproductions of original documents and a bonus item: specially commissioned shots of such Churchill memorabilia as his gramophone record of HMS Pinafore. He has also embedded the pictures, which are beautifully produced, in the text of a brief biography. Read More >
Larry Arnn, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government, Thomas Nelson Books, 2015, 240 pages, $22.99. ISBN 978-1595555304
Churchill’s Trial by Larry Arnn is a must-have book for anyone who wants to know more about Sir Winston Churchill, the challenges he faced as a leader in public life, and the values he upheld as a statesman. Arnn has achieved much in this volume: he has written a serious, learned book, without being tedious; a thoughtful meditation on leadership, without losing sight of the ugly realities and the difficult choices that confront leaders living in dark, troubled times.
To Arnn, Churchill is a heroic figure, a champion of the cause of freedom, who changed the course of history, despite sometimes having to fight against fearful odds. Hence, understanding what motivated Churchill to take up the challenges before him, to fight the trials of his era, is of great value for us in facing the dangers of our own times.
The international environment in the first half of the twentieth century presented a deadly trial for Churchill and Britain. In Nazi Germany and the Russia of Lenin and Stalin, the liberal world order was menaced by well-armed extremist regimes bent on spreading their tyrannical creeds. Arnn writes: “Nazism is understood to be a movement of the Right. There was also a growing tyranny in Europe, and eventually on other continents, of the Left. Churchill did not think this distinction between Left and Right so important: he said that the two tyrannies differ as the North Pole differs from the South” (xxvi). Read More >
In April, Winston came down with “an awful toothache” and wrote to his nanny Mrs. Everest to make an appointment with the dentist, which she promptly did. He wrote to his mother that his face was “swelled up double its natural size” and signed the letter, “Your tooth tormented—but affectionate—son.” His mother’s reply indicated this was not the first time Winston’s dental hygiene—or lack thereof—had been addressed by her. “I am so sorry,” she wrote on 29 April 1891, “to hear you have a toothache….I don’t want to lecture on the subject—but I am sure if you wd take a little more care of yr teeth you wd not suffer so much. Quite apart from the ‘pigginess’ of not brushing them!!”
Winston wrote his mother on 19 May that he and four of his Harrow classmates “have just been in a deuce of a row for breaking some windows at a factory…& only 2 of us were discovered. I was found, with my usual luck, to be one of those 2.” Lord Randolph was on his way to South Africa in May and, in a long, chatty letter to him, Winston surprisingly elaborated on what he had told his mother about the factory incident: Read More >
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.