April 11, 2017

Finest Hour 175, Winter 2017

Page 40

By Michael McMenamin

125 Years ago
Winter 1892 • Age 17
“The food is very queer….”

Given the protracted battle Winston had waged with his mother to avoid spending the Christmas holidays with a French family as his Head Master had recommended (“he has bombarded me with letters cursing his fate and everyone,” Lady Randolph wrote), Winston’s letters to his mother after he left for France were decidedly more civil in tone. Upon arrival, he wrote:

Fatigue, the passage, the strange food, the cold, homesickness, the thoughts of what was behind & what was before nearly caused me to write a letter which would have been painful to you. Now I am better & I think I will wait here my month though not one day more….The food is very queer, but there is plenty & on the whole it is good. There is beer and wine to drink. I have a room to myself but it is awfully cold. However with rugs, overcoats, dressing gowns etc. I managed to sleep.…I have already made great progress in French. I begin to think in it….M. Minssen says I know far more than he thought I did. These people are very kind. Of course I would give much to return, if you wish it I will come tomorrow—but considering all things I am prepared to stay my month.

In a subsequent letter, Winston wrote:

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I will remind you of the promise you made me at Harrow of an extra week [at home] if I gave up my Christmas. A promise is a promise & as I have fulfilled my part, I rely on you my darling mummy to do the rest. I know you won’t chuck me like that.

The promise of an “extra week” at home after his exile to France involved seeking permission from Harrow to add the time onto Winston’s holiday recess. He duly wrote his father to make the request, but Lord Randolph dashed his son’s hopes, writing:

I think I will not try and get you an extra week because really every moment is of value to you now before you go up for your examination in June.…After you have got into the army, you will have many weeks for amusement and idleness should your inclinations go in that direction, but now I do pray for you my dear boy to make the most of every hour of your time so as to make your passing a certainty.

100 Years ago
Winter 1917 • Age 42
“…brains will save blood….”

Churchill remained bitter as his first sojourn in the political wilderness continued throughout the winter of 1917. On 25 January, he wrote to Admiral Fisher: “Like you, I have seen no one political. One is quite powerless as far as the war is concerned….Our common enemies are all powerful today & friendship counts for less than nothing. I am simply existing.”

While Churchill waited during this period for the final report of the Dardanelles Commission, which he hoped would restore his political reputation, he continued to criticize the conduct of the war. In the Army Estimates debate on 5 March, he called for a Secret Session of the House so that the Government could explain its policies in greater detail than possible in a public debate and permit other members of Parliament to be more openly critical. Churchill said that the House would be “failing in its duty” if members did not “really address themselves to questions on which the life and fortunes of the country depended.” The new Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was no more inclined than his predecessor to allow such criticism and opposed Churchill’s request.

Churchill persevered. In an open House session, he used his first-hand experiences in the trenches to criticize “those dismal processes of waste and slaughter which are called attrition.” Rather, Churchill called for machines [e.g., tanks] and manoeuvre to save troops from the senseless slaughter that marked the Allied offensive on the Somme in 1916. “Machines save life. Machine-power is a substitute for man-power, brains will save blood, manoeuvre is a great diluting agent to slaughter.” He opposed launching “vast offensives of the kind we had last year” at the Somme unless the Government was certain of “an indisputable result.”

Earlier in February, Lloyd George had given Churchill a draft copy of the Dardanelles Commission Report. This led Churchill to send to the Commission notes on what he believed to be critical omissions in the report, along with a covering letter in which, as Martin Gilbert wrote in Churchill, A Life, he “set out his main grievance, that the Report had failed to set the Dardanelles campaign into the general context of the war.”

This is a failure which has been repeated time and again by critics of Churchill over the years in addressing his role in the Dardanelles. Churchill wrote that, in analyzing military operations on Gallipoli, “it should not be assumed that elsewhere throughout the theatres of war, everything has gone smoothly and well; that other plans have not miscarried; that other battles have been fought without painful incidents, confusion or mischance; that loss of life on the Gallipoli Peninsula was more deplorable and more preventable than loss of life elsewhere; that its suffering and carnage are unparalleled.”

Churchill went on to illustrate that the military incompetence and ignorance on the Western Front far exceeded anything that occurred at Gallipoli, where “the ill-supported armies struggling on the Gallipoli Peninsula…were in fact within an ace of succeeding in an enterprise which would have abridged the miseries of the World and proved the salvation of our cause.” The Somme offensive, Churchill charged, was “based upon a complete and admitted miscalculation of the German Reserves, the error amounting to nearly two millions of men.” If, instead of the slaughter on the Somme, Churchill wrote, “a fifth of the resources…vainly employed” had been used at Gallipoli, it would “have united the Balkans on our side, joined hands with Russia, and cut Turkey out of the war. The choice was open to us; we have built our own misfortune, and no one can tell what its limits will be.”

75 Years ago
Winter 1942 • Age 67
“Papa is at a very low ebb.”

Churchill’s euphoria after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—“So we had won after all [and I] slept the sleep of the saved and thankful”—was short-lived. By the end of winter, the British Empire in the Far East had been exposed as a hollow shell, crushed by the air, naval, and ground forces of Imperial Japan. For Churchill, it was truly the winter of his discontent.

The first crushing blow—Japanese aircraft sinking the Prince of Wales and Repulse on 10 December 1941—was entirely Churchill’s fault. He was the one who had dispatched the Prince of Wales to Asian waters without air cover, boasting to Franklin Roosevelt: “It is grand to have something that can catch and kill any Japanese ship.” He told the cabinet in a meeting on 9 December that the two great ships would “vanish into the ocean wastes and exercise a vague menace” as if they were “rogue elephants.” But Churchill was living in a romanticized past when it came to battleships. Unlike the Churchill of 1916, who urged the use of “machines and manoeuvre” as a better strategy than attrition on the Western Front, the Churchill of 1941 had yet to realize that the era of the battleship had ended.

On Christmas Day, while Churchill was in Washington, Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese. The next evening, after addressing both Houses of Congress, Churchill suffered what his doctor at first thought to be a heart attack but kept a secret from everyone—including Churchill himself. Back in London, Churchill won a vote of confidence in the Commons on 27 January 1942. Four day later, however, the German Navy altered its Enigma machine so as to make messages to its submarines unreadable to British Intelligence for the rest of the year.

On 12 February, eluding British mines, radar, and coastal guns, three German battle cruisers—the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prince Eugen—left Brest and safely made a daylight passage up the English Channel and though the Straits of Dover to their home ports in the North Sea. On 14 February, the garrison at Singapore surrendered, and more than 60,000 troops were taken prisoner by the Japanese. On 28 February, the Japanese invaded the island of Java, and their navy inflicted heavy losses on the defending British and Dutch fleets without losing a single ship of its own. Churchill’s daughter wrote in her diary for 27 and 28 February that “Papa is at a very low ebb. He is not too well physically and he is worn down by the continuous crushing pressure of events…saddened—appalled by events…desperately taxed.”

On 5 March, in a telegram to FDR, Churchill wrote: “I find it difficult to realize how gravely our British affairs have deteriorated since 7 December.” Developments only got worse. On 8 March, the island of Java surrendered, and more than 90,000 Dutch, British, Australian, and American troops were taken prisoner. That same day, the city of Rangoon in Burma fell to the Japanese, who landed 20,000 troops and took control of the Irrawaddy delta, the rice surplus from which was critical to avoiding starvation in the Indian state of Bengal.

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