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Action This Day – Summer 1893, 1918, 1943

Finest Hour 181, Summer 2018

Page 40

By Michael McMenamin


125 Years Ago
Summer 1893 • Age 18
“I Had at Length Got In.”

Winston spent the summer of 1893 with his brother Jack on holiday in Switzerland. Shortly before leaving, he learned he had passed the Sandhurst entrance exam. He promptly sent a telegram to Lord Randolph telling him of this and, in Lucerne on 6 August, wrote a letter to him saying, “I was so glad to be able to send you good news last Thursday.”

Lord Randolph’s reply on 9 August did not reciprocate the enthusiasm. He expressed his “surprise at your tone of exultation over your inclusion in the Sandhurst list.” His father was primarily displeased that Winston’s score was not high enough to secure him a position in the infantry, only the cavalry. Thus, he complained, Winston had “imposed on me an extra charge of 200 pounds a year” to purchase and care for horses. “With all the advantages you had and all the abilities which you foolishly think yourself to possess & which some of your relations claim for you, with all the efforts that have been made to make your life easy & agreeable & your work neither oppressive nor distasteful, this is the grand result that you come up among the 2nd and 3rd rate class who are only good for commissions in a cavalry regiment.”

On the same day, Winston wrote to his mother, clearly upset about his father’s displeasure: “I can tell you it was a disappointment to me to find that he was not satisfied. After slaving away at Harrow & James’ [his “crammer”] for this Exam, & trying, as far as I could to make up for the time I had wasted I was only too delighted to find that I had at length got in.”

Clearly writing candid letters to his mother was therapeutic for young Winston. In September, he wrote to her: “It is a great pleasure to me to write to you unreservedly instead of having to pick & choose my words and information.”

100 Years Ago
Summer 1918 • Age 43
“Something Almost Boyish”

Deprived of a role in deciding war policy, Churchill took every opportunity to visit the front in France. He was encouraged in this by Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, who wrote him on 20 June that “We shall always be glad to see you out here whenever you can find the time to come.” Indeed, so frequent were Churchill’s visits to the front that, at Churchill’s request for a “permanent lodging…in France somewhere in the zone of the armies,” Haig earlier had placed an entire chateau at Churchill’s disposal to use as his headquarters.

When he was not in France, Churchill lived and slept during the week in the Ministry of Munitions building, because “it has many conveniences from the point of view of getting work done.” Weekends were spent with his wife and children at their country house, Lullenden.

On 8 August, a major British offensive began, and the tanks that Churchill had fostered were to play a major role. So he flew to France, staying for the first time in the chateau General Haig had procured for him in May. On the first day of the attack, supported by seventy-two tanks, the British army broke through the German lines, capturing 400 artillery pieces and 22,000 soldiers. Churchill sent a telegram to Haig that night: “I am so glad it has all come right. I was always sure it would this year. Please accept my sincere congratulations on today’s brilliant event.” Haig replied on 9 August that “I shall always remember with gratitude the energy and foresight which you displayed as Minister of Munitions, and so rendered our success possible.”

During this period, Lieutenant Lane, Churchill’s pilot of a DH4 twoseat biplane that had been placed at his disposal, stayed at the chateau and later recalled what it was like: “Mr. Churchill did most of the talking with others joining in when they had something to contribute.”

After discussing “the appalling loss of life at Ypres, the Somme and at Arras…the conversation changed to a brighter topic when Mr. Churchill started to tell us about the preparation of his speeches. Apparently, he went through a routine, even to making gestures with arms and hands, and I believe before a mirror, in the seclusion of his study at home.”

That Churchill’s reputation at the time as someone who loved war was undeserved is illustrated by another anecdote from Lane who recounted that Churchill at one dinner at the chateau began to recite from memory several of the poems of Siegfried Sassoon: “I had never heard of Sassoon or his poems and we were soon told something of this man’s history. It was obvious that the Minister held the greatest admiration for Sassoon as a man, as a soldier and as a poet. We quickly realized the main theme of the poems was anti-war, the futility of war and the misery war brought. We heard that the Generals were seriously worried at the damage to morale these poems might inflict on the troops. And that it would be preferable for Sassoon to remain in England, out of harm’s way. Mr. Churchill then stated that, on our return to England, he intended to get in touch with Sassoon and make some amends to him, possibly I believe by offering him a job in the Ministry of Munitions.”

Churchill was as good as his word. Back in London in mid-September, he had his secretary Edward Marsh set up a meeting with Sassoon at which the poet was offered a post in the ministry if he wanted one. Sassoon recounted the meeting with Churchill at length in his 1945 memoir Siegfried’s Journey: “His manner was leisurely, informal and friendly. Almost at once I began to like him…. He then made some gratifying allusions to the memorable quality of my war poems, which I acknowledged with bashful decorum….Having got through these preliminaries, he broached—in a good-humoured way—the subject of my attitude to War, about which—to my surprise— he seemed interested to hear my point of view….Overawed though I was, I spotted that the great man aimed at getting a rise out of me, and there was something almost boyish in the way he set about it. My shy responses were, however, quite out of character with the provocative tone of my war poems, which may have led him to expect an exhibition of youthful disputatiousness.…Nevertheless, he was making me feel that I should like to have him as my company commander in the front line.”

While still in France on 10 September, Churchill wrote a letter to his wife to reach her on their tenth wedding anniversary: “My darling one….Ten years ago, my beautiful white pussy cat, you came to me. They certainly have been the happiest years of my life, & never at any moment did I feel more profoundly and eternally attached to you. I do hope & pray that looking back you will not feel regrets. If you do, it is my fault & the fault of those who made me. I am grateful beyond words to you for all you have given me. My sweet darling, I love you vy dearly. Your own unsatisfactory, W.”

75 Years Ago
Summer 1943 • Age 68
“It Was a Very Tense and Tortuous Time”

The summer of 1943 saw the successful invasion of Sicily and the downfall of Mussolini. Churchill was nervous about the invasion, which began early on 10 July. His daughter-in-law Pamela stayed up all night with Churchill as he awaited news of the landings. “He was so preoccupied with whether it would be a success or failure,” she later recalled. “It was a very tense and tortuous time for him and he would keep going back to the little operations room and then he would come back again.”

On 16 July, with the invasion of Sicily a success, Churchill began making plans for meeting Roosevelt once more to discuss the invasionof Italy itself. Oliver Harvey, the private secretary to Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, wrote in his diary, “I must say the PM doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet. He is anxious to pin the Americans down before their well-known dislike of European operations except cross-Channel get the better of them again, and they pull out their landing-craft and send off their ships to the Pacific.”

While watching a film on the evening of 25 July, Churchill received word that Mussolini had been deposed and the King had taken control of the Italian Armed Forces and named Marshal Badoglio as Prime Minister in place of Mussolini.

The Quebec conference in August involved much travel by Churchill, Clementine, and their daughter Mary, starting at Hyde Park with Mary, but not Clementine; back to Quebec for the conference; off to a retreat in the Laurentian mountains where, in addition to fishing, Churchill went shooting the rapids in a canoe; to Washington where they stayed at the mercifully air-conditoned White House; then back to Hyde Park where the Churchills celebrated their thirtyfifth wedding anniversary with the Roosevelts. Clementine was not so impressed with FDR, however, and told her daughter Mary that she thought it “great cheek of him calling me Clemmie!” As Mary wrote in her mother’s biography, “My mother always regarded the use of her own… Christian name as a privilege marking close friendship or long association. The President was not the only one to earn a straight look over this personal foible of hers.” Churchill, meanwhile, poured oil over troubled waters. As reported by Mary, Clementine told her that Winston had said on their anniversary that “he loved her more and more every year.”

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