Finest Hour 172, Spring 2016
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years ago
Winter 1891 • Age 16
“Your Tooth Tormented…Son”
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:
There was rather a row about some broken windows not long ago. I, young Milbank, and three others went out for a walk a week ago and discovered the ruins of a large factory, into which we climbed. Everything was in ruin and decay but some windows yet remained unbroken; we facilitated the progress of time with regard to these, with the result that the watchman complained to Welldon, who having made enquiries and discoveries, “swished” us. However this is not a serious row, and Welldon never even mentioned it to Mama yesterday.
100 Years ago
Spring 1916 • Age 41
“We Are Still Young, but Time Flies”
Notwithstanding the wise political counsel to the contrary from Clementine, Churchill had decided in the spring to leave the Army and return to political life. The only question for him was when to do so. The politically perceptive Clementine was more concerned with him explaining why he did so. In a 24 March letter she wrote that “When you do return, the reason should be apparent to the man in the street, tho’ he need not necessarily agree with it.”
Late in March, Clementine raised a non-political issue that caught Churchill flat-footed—their love life or lack of it. “When next I see you,” she wrote, “I hope there will be a little time for us both alone. We are still young, but Time flies, stealing love away and leaving only friendship which is very peaceful but not very stimulating or warming.” Taken aback, Churchill promptly replied, assuring her of his continuing ardor for her: “Oh my darling do not write of ‘friendship’ to me—I love you more each month that passes and feel the need of you and all your beauty. My precious charming Clemmie—I too feel sometimes the longing for rest & peace….”
Churchill received a letter in early April from Sir George Ritchie, the Chairman of the Dundee Liberal Association that, he told his wife, “makes a serious impression upon me.” Ritchie had written that Churchill’s constituency regarded his call last winter for the return of Fisher to the Admiralty to have been “unfortunate” and that they would look with disfavor on any attempt by Churchill to “endanger the stability of the present [Asquith-led] government.” With this in mind, Churchill wrote to his wife, “I am not in any hurry now, & will certainly ‘wait & see.’” In fact, Churchill was very much in a hurry. For the rest of that month, Martin Gilbert writes in the Official Biography, “Churchill tried to discover what issues would threaten to bring Asquith’s government down, who were the politicians willing to exploit them, and whether they would be willing to let him work with them and join them in any new administration.”
Knowing this doubtless caused his wife to renew her advice. Churchill had written to her saying that she was “deluded if you think that by remaining here and doing nothing I shall regain my influence on affairs.” No, Clementine promptly wrote back, “That is not what I think. What I do think is that remaining there you are in an honourable, comprehensible position until such time as a portion of the country demand your services for the state. If you come back before the call you may blunt yourself.”
Churchill was not buying it. Late in April, the “why” for leaving the Army presented itself, and he wasted no time in taking advantage of it. His understrength battalion of The Royal Scots Fusiliers was combined with another understrength battalion commanded by a regular officer who was to be given overall command, leaving Churchill without an assignment. Churchill then went to see General Douglas Haig, commander of British forces in France, who offered him a promotion to Brigadier General and command of a Brigade. Churchill recounted to his staff that Haig then had told him that he believed Churchill “could do so much more for the war effort by returning to Parliament and using his energy and skill to get conscription through the House.” It was just the fig leaf the politically ambitious Churchill had been looking for, and he told his staff that he “had seen the force of Haig’s arguments and had reluctantly agreed to return to England.”
75 Years ago
Spring 1941 • Age 66
“Quite the Most Wonderful Man I Have Ever Met”
Roy Jenkins wrote in his Churchill biography: “It was a dreadful spring for Churchill and the British war prospect.” Air raids were killing thousands at home. U-boats wreaked havoc in the Atlantic. HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck, the world’s newest and most powerful battleship. Germany invaded Yugoslavia. Rommel’s Afrika Corps continued to push back British forces and approached Tobruk. Greece surrendered to Germany, and British troops were driven out of Crete.
In addition to these defeats, Churchill and others in his government were not always on the same page. On 3 April, based on Enigma intercepts, Churchill sent Stalin a message about German troop movements to its border with Russia in Southern Poland. Incredibly, the British ambassador in Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps, refused to deliver the message because he thought it might provoke hostilities between Russia and Germany, which, of course, was Churchill’s intent. He ordered Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to deliver the message, saying, “The Ambassador is not alive to the military significance of the facts. Pray oblige me.” Eden did, and Cripps delivered the message not to Stalin but to the Soviet Foreign Minister. Churchill later wrote to Eden that “It was astonishing that the Ambassador should have had the effrontery to delay this message for sixteen days and then merely hand it to” the Foreign Minister.
On top of Cripps’s insubordination, Churchill was also angered to discover that others in his government were undercutting his cherished goal of pulling the United States into the war. In late April, the Foreign Office had refused a request from the United States for British warships to escort US troops to Iceland because it “would inconvenience British shipping schedules.” Churchill was livid. “What does the convenience of our shipping mean,” he scolded Eden on 29 April, “compared to engaging the Americans in the war?” A few days later, the head of the British naval mission in Washington declined an official United States suggestion to move a substantial portion of its Pacific fleet to the Atlantic. Churchill told the Defence Committee on 1 May that Britain’s “chance of victory was almost certainly bound up with American participation” and that he thought it “disturbing” that the American suggestion of “an advance into the Atlantic…had been received with a cold douche.”
Positive developments were few and far between. The United States did occupy Iceland and extended its naval patrols in the Atlantic to the 25th meridian. On 7 May, despite the setbacks in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete, Churchill won an overwhelming vote of confidence in the House by 447 to 3. On 11 May, to the German government’s great embarrassment, Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland on an unsanctioned peace mission. On 27 May, the Royal Navy sank the Bismarck.
Churchill held a meeting of the Defence Committee on 27 May. General Alan Brooke, later appointed by Churchill Chief of the Imperial General Staff, frequently wrote critically of Churchill in his diary. He did not do so on this occasion:
PM in great form and on the whole a very successful meeting. It is surprising how he maintains a light-hearted exterior in spite of the vast burden he is bearing. He is quite the most wonderful man I have ever met, and it is a source of never-ending interest studying him and getting to realize that occasionally such human beings make their appearance on this earth—human beings who stand out head and shoulders above all other.
On page 50 of this issue, Michael McMenamin reviews the novel The Finest Years & Me.