Finest Hour 186, Fourth Quarter 2019
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years Ago
Autumn 1894 • Age 20
“Wild With Excitement”
Winston was still smitten with Molly Hackett. On 8 October he wrote his mother, who was on a round the world holiday with his ailing father, “I have seen Miss Hackett a good deal lately & she is most constant in her enquiries after you.” Winston knew his father was ill but not how ill. He was allowed to read reports from Dr. Keith to his grandmother. In a 21 October letter to his mother, Winston wrote that he was “very much disturbed by Dr. Keith’s last letter which gives a very unsatisfactory report about Papa. I hope however that there is still an improvement and no cause for immediate worry.” But Winston soon learned the full gravity of the situation and wrote his mother on 2 November: “I persuaded Dr. Roose to tell exactly how Papa was… he told me everything and showed me the medical reports….I had never realized how ill Papa had been and had never until now believed that there was anything serious the matter.”
On 3 November, Winston gave his first public speech. It involved “a riot” at the Empire Theatre, once a stage for serious ballet, and now a music hall where unchaperoned women gathered in the promenade behind a wooden partition that purported to separate them from young men. A public campaign was underway to shut the Empire down. Winston opposed this effort and treated the incident as a lark, writing to his brother on 7 November: “Did you see the papers about the riot at the Empire last Saturday? It was I who led the rioters—and made a speech to the crowd. I enclose a cutting from one of the papers, so that you may see.”
A month later Churchill wrote triumphantly to his father on 9 December on the occasion of his placing second in the Sandhurst Riding Examination: “I was wild with excitement. I rode I think better than I have ever done before but failed to win the prize by 1 mark being 2nd with 199 out of 200 marks.” Three weeks earlier, however, his mother had suffered a major personal disappointment when her long time lover, Count Charles Kinsky, sent her a telegram announcing his engagement. Lady Randolph was devastated. In early December, she wrote her younger sister Leonie imploring her help: “Oh! Leonie darling do you think it is too late to stop it? Nothing is impossible you know. Can’t you help me—for Heaven’s sake write to him.…I am frightened of the future all alone—& Charles is the only person on earth that I could start life afresh with.” The affair, however, was finished.
100 Years Ago
Autumn 1919 • Age 45
“You Will Not Get Rid of Russia”
In early autumn, Churchill had cause to be optimistic about the anti-Bolsheviks’ chances for prevailing in the Russian civil war. By 13 October, General Denikin’s armies had advanced toward Moscow along a broad front and were 250 miles south of Moscow preparing for a final assault. Meanwhile his colleague, General Yudenitch, was only thirty -five miles from Petrograd and had cut the Petrograd-Moscow railway. Churchill was so optimistic that he proposed going himself to Russia “to help Denikin mould the new Russian Constitution” and sending a British general to accompany Yudenitch into Petrograd “to prevent excesses in the event of victory.” Alas, neither Churchill nor a British general went to Russia for, as Martin Gilbert wrote: “As rapidly as they had risen, the fortunes of the anti-Bolsheviks waned.” The advances of both Denikin and Yudenitch were halted, and their armies began a retreat. On 6 November, Churchill gave an account of the situation to the Commons, prompting Arthur Balfour, after the speech, to tell Churchill, “I admire the exaggerated way you tell the truth.”
By 15 December, the Russian civil war was just about over, the Bolsheviks having won. Churchill wrote to the War Cabinet on that day: “It is a delusion to suppose that all year we have been fighting the battles of the anti-Bolshevik Russians. On the contrary, they have been fighting ours; and this truth will become painfully apparent from the moment they are exterminated and the Bolshevik armies are supreme over the whole vast territories of the Russian Empire.”
Churchill’s obsession with defeating the Bolsheviks severely strained his relations with his long time political ally Lloyd George. There was an exceptionally bitter exchange of long letters between them on 22 September, obviously written for the historical record rather than an effort by one to persuade the other.
Lloyd George wrote: “The reconquest of Russia would cost hundreds of millions. It would cost hundreds of millions more to maintain the new government until it had established itself. You are prepared to spend all that money, and I know perfectly well that is what you really desire. But as you know that you won’t find another responsible person in the whole land who will take your view, why waste your energy and your usefulness on this vain fretting which completely paralyses you for other work?”
Churchill replied in kind: “I find the suggestions of your letter very unkind & I also think unjust…[A]bout Russia: there the difficulty has been that you have had one policy in your heart & have carried out another. I have publicly asked to be told what commitment in Russia is due to me. No one has been able to reply…I may get rid of my ‘obsession’ or you may get rid of me: but you will not get rid of Russia; nor of the consequences of a policy which for nearly a year it has been impossible to define.”
Seventy-Five Years Ago
Autumn 1944 • Age 70
“A Naughty Document”
On 9 October, Churchill met with Stalin and handed him what Churchill called “a naughty document,” a half-sheet of paper on which he outlined in percentages the influence Russia and the Allies should have in certain eastern European countries:
• Roumania: Russia 90%; the Allies 10%
• Greece: Great Britain and the U.S. 90%; Russia 10%
• Yugoslavia: 50%/50%
• Hungary: 50%/50%
• Bulgaria: Russia 75%; the Allies 25%
Stalin agreed to the proposal. Churchill suggested they burn the paper, but Stalin told him to keep it. On 11 October, Churchill suggested that Albania be included on the list at the same 50%/50% basis as Yugoslavia. Stalin agreed about Albania, but demanded that Hungary be changed to 80%/20% in Russia’s favor. Churchill had little choice but to agree as the Red Army was already occupying the country just as it already had with Bulgaria and Roumania. In light of this reality, Churchill’s letter to his wife three days later seems naïve: “I have had very nice talks with the Old Bear. I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us here & I am sure they wish to work with us—I have to keep the President in constant touch & this is the delicate side.”
Unlike the British Foreign Office, which was both pro-Arab and anti-Semitic, Churchill had long been a Zionist. Meeting on 4 November with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, he told him that if the Jews could “get the whole of Palestine” as their State, that would be “a good thing.” Half a loaf was better than none, however, so that if the choice was between no Jewish state at all or Palestine partitioned into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, “then they should take the partition.”
Churchill’s support for Zionism, however, was sorely tested by the assassination of his good friend Lord Moyne, the top British minister in Palestine, who was killed by Jewish terrorists from the Stern Gang engaged in an armed rebellion against the British in Palestine. In addressing the Commons, Churchill called the killers “a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany,” and added that if they came to power, “Many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past” for Zionism. In the event, Weizmann and other prominent Zionists denounced the terrorists and Moyne’s assassins were caught, tried, and hanged in Egypt. Churchill’s strong support for Zionism remained unchanged.
From September 1944 through March 1945, German V-2 ballistic missiles, carrying a much larger payload than the subsonic V-1 rocket planes, rained down on London with high explosives, killing more than 2,700 and wounding 6,500. It could have been much worse. Unknown to the Allies, who had no comparable weapons, the Germans had in the 1930s developed the deadly nerve gases Tabun and Sarin, for which there was no antidote. By the end of 1944, Germany had stockpiled 12,000 tons of Tabun with 2000 tons in shells and 10,000 tons in bombs. Despite being urged to do so by Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann, Hitler—who was gassed himself in the First World War—never authorized their use.