Finest Hour 174, Autumn 2016
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years ago
Autumn 1891 • Age 17
“He is just at the ‘ugly’ stage”
Lady Randolph had written Lord Randolph in late July that Winston “has improved very much in looks.” She wrote to him again on 25 September that “on the whole he has been a very good boy— but honestly he is getting to be too old for a woman to manage and he really requires to be with a man…He is just at the ‘ugly’ stage—slouchy and tiresome.” In the first volume of the Official Biography of his father, Randolph Churchill wrote of his grandmother that “Unless Winston’s looks greatly fluctuated, it would seem that Lady Randolph was somewhat capricious in her judgment for only two months earlier she had written that he had improved very much in looks.”
His mother’s “ugly” comment, however, was not directed toward her son’s looks. Rather, it was directed at Winston’s manners and maturity, especially towards his mother. That “ugliness” of which she wrote was in full bloom as he reached his seventeenth birthday. The occasion for such a prolonged display of “ugliness” was the desire of Harrow’s Head Master that Winston stay the Christmas holidays with a French family so as to improve his French in preparation for the Sandhurst exams. In this, the Head Master was simply carrying out Lord Randolph’s desire that everything be done at Harrow to ensure that Winston made it into Sandhurst.
Winston knew he had to go to France over the holidays, but he was determined to do so on his own terms and timetable and said so in a remarkable string of ill-tempered letters to his mother. He won this battle as his mother persuaded the Head Master to change from the French family in Rouen, with whom original arrangements had been made, to the home of a Harrow French master in Versailles. Having prevailed on his terms, Winston now set to work on his own timetable. The Head Master wanted him to go immediately after the term ended. Winston wanted to spend Christmas at home, and his efforts to persuade his mother to do so are indeed “ugly.”
Lady Randolph wrote back that “the tone of your letter is not calculated to make one over lenient. When one wants something in this world, it is not by delivering ultimatums that one is likely to get it…Meanwhile I will think it over…but I tell you frankly that I am going to decide, not you.” Winston was not dissuaded.
Winston soon learned that his mother was indeed angry with him, for she wrote on 15 December that “I have only read one page of yr letter and I send it back to you as its style does not please me….My dear, you won’t gain anything by taking this line.” Perhaps, but that didn’t stop Winston from trying.
In the event, Lady Randolph prevailed and Winston did not. Still, it is instructive to learn that the future savior of Western Civilization was once a typical teenager challenging and trying his parents.
100 Years ago
Autumn 1916 • Age 42
“He felt he had been duped”
Churchill’s first sojourn in the political wilderness continued throughout the autumn of 1916, but his expectations that the Dardanelles Commission would restore his political reputation coupled with the fall of Asquith as Prime Minister would bring him back to the corridors of power were not fulfilled. It would be mid-July 1917 before he once more returned to the Cabinet.
On 28 September, Churchill finally appeared in person to testify before the Dardanelles Commission in support of the vast amount of evidence he had provided to them. He read his statement and submitted to questions from the Commission in support of what he believed were five undeniable conclusions: first, the War Cabinet gave full authority to everything done at the Darnanelles; second, there was a reasonable prospect of success; third, greater interests in the war were not compromised; fourth, all possible care and forethought were exercised in the preparation for the naval operations and subsequent military landings; fifth, vigor and determination were shown in the execution of the overall plan. In the event, however, the commission never published any of the numerous documents he had submitted or his prepared statement and answers to cross-examination by the commission members.
On 5 December, Churchill’s hopes for a return to power soared in the early evening, only to be dashed by evening’s end. Earlier that day, David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law, Lord Curzon, Austen Chamberlain, and Lord Robert Cecil resigned from the Cabinet. Realizing it meant the end of his government, Asquith tendered his own resignation to the King at 7 pm. By 9:30, the King had asked Bonar Law to form a new government.
Meanwhile, Churchill and his friends F. E. Smith and Max Aitken (later Lords Birkenhead and Beaverbrook respectively) were at the Turkish Bath of the Royal Automobile Club when Smith telephoned Lloyd George to remind him of their dinner engagement that night. He mentioned that Churchill was with him and Lloyd George promptly asked that he be invited as well. At the dinner, all four men talked of nothing but who would be in the next government, in Aitken’s words, “on terms of equality.” When Lloyd George left the dinner party to meet Bonar Law, he asked Aitken to accompany him. On the way, Aitken wrote, Lloyd George told him Churchill was “too confident” of high office in the new cabinet and asked him upon his return to the dinner party “to convey a hint” that enormous pressure was being brought to exclude Churchill from the new government.
Lloyd George had been correct that Churchill was confident of high office in the new regime after spending the entire evening discussing with people he considered his friends just who would be best suited for which posts. When Aitken delivered his “hint,” Churchill understood the message at once. “He felt he had been duped…and he blazed into righteous anger,” according to Aitken, and “with that…walked out into the street.”
Churchill obviously thought he was being treated unfairly, and perhaps he was—but why? Martin Gilbert offers an explanation at the conclusion of Volume III of the Official Biography (pp. 823–26):
Clementine Churchill realized why he did not inspire trust. She saw how far his strident confidence frightened those with whom he worked and with whom he had to look for support. She alone of those closest to him told him of his faults; others, like Asquith and Lloyd George, added to his self-deception by frequent praise and encouragement when they were with him, but by severe censure of him in their private talk and correspondence. Clementine Churchill cautioned him directly. In her letters to him, she stressed the danger to his career of the impatience and scorn which he often showed towards those who disagreed with him….She warned him that these weaknesses of character were accentuated by his often brusque and dictatorial manner and by his overriding impatience. She saw clearly that the ideas which he produced with such extraordinary energy and conviction were seen by others as lacking in judgment; and that the more fiercely he pressed forward with a course of action, the more lacking in perspective he appeared to those colleagues without whose support he could not act.
75 Years ago
Autumn 1941 • Age 67
“He is a loveable person in spite of his impatience”
The impatience, which his wife observed in the middle-aged Churchill, may have mellowed since his younger days, but it was still there. On 12 October, one of his secretaries, Elizabeth Layton, wrote to her parents that he was “not in a very good temper this morning” and recounted his “roar of rage” when she mistook “right” for “ripe” even though she had initially read the phrase back to him as “right,” and, Miss Layton wrote, “he had not mentioned to her that ‘right’ was ‘wrong.’” Still, she wrote, “I can’t help feeling rather fond of him—he is a loveable person, in spite of his impatience.”
By the end of November, things were looking up for Churchill and Great Britain. The Russians were keeping the German Army at bay, some fifty miles west of Moscow; the United States had amended the Neutrality Act to allow its merchant ships to be armed; and General Sir Alan Brooke had agreed to become Chief of the Imperial General Staff. What Brooke wrote in his diary about accepting the position illustrates how Churchill had indeed mellowed somewhat but not entirely: “I am fully aware that my path will not be strewn with rose petals. But I have the greatest respect and real affection for him, so that I hope to be able to stand the storms of abuse which I may well have to bear frequently.”
On 29 November the siege of Tobruk was lifted, and the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December. The next day Churchill made plans to leave for the United States on 10 December, but FDR put him off. He could not possibly see Churchill for at least a month. Thanks, however, to the baffling decision by Adolf Hitler on 11 December to declare war on the United States without seeking a quid pro quo declaration of war by Japan against the Soviet Union, Churchill’s understandable disappointment at being kept at arms length by Roosevelt did not last. After Germany declared war, the President’s schedule magically cleared up, and Churchill sailed for America in heavy seas on 12 December.