Finest Hour 188, Second Quarter 2020
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years Ago
Spring 1895 • Age 20
“Master of My Fortunes”
Churchill famously wrote in his autobiography My Early Life that, after the death of his father in early 1895, “I was now in the main the master of my fortunes. My mother was always at hand to help and advise; but…she never sought to exercise parental control. Indeed she soon became an ardent ally….We worked together on even terms, more like brother and sister than mother and son. At least so it seemed to me.”
Eventually, a relationship similar to the one Churchill described had evolved between him and his mother, but it had not begun that way. Jennie still controlled the family purse strings, and his letters to her during the spring of 1895 tell a different story. They show her exercising parental control:
4 May: “I cannot put it any plainer than that. I am absolutely at the end of my funds—so if you can possibly give me a cheque for all—or any part of this sum—I shall be awfully pleased…,I agree with you it is dreadfully inconvenient & I hate to have to worry you like this—but my mess bill comes in a few days and must be paid somehow.”
8 May: “Very many thanks for the cheque. I will try and manage somehow until 15th when I must pay my mess bill. I am so sorry that things are not going well as regards finance.”
15 May: “I quite understand how difficult it is for you and as you cannot arrange anything at present—I must wait. But I do hope that this deadlock will not last more than a very few days. My mess bill is of course unpaid.…I write this only to show that things are very difficult with me and in order that you will be as quick as you can.”
23 May: “I am sorry you find it necessary to be cross with me. I did not know you had paid my allowance into the bank. I thought I had arranged the whole thing myself & indeed I am still uncertain whether or not you have paid any money into the Bank.…I think therefore my dear Mamma that your scolding was a little undeserved.”
6 June: “I was delighted to get your letter yesterday evening. I understand altogether how difficult my numerous expenses make things for you—& I hate to have money discussions with you quite as much as you do.”
100 Years Ago
Spring 1920 • Age 45
“We Should Have Very Little”
As Secretary of State for War and Air in the aftermath of the Great War, Churchill was confronted with numerous difficulties that involved the safety or evacuation of British troops in troubled areas within and outside the Empire. This included recommending removal of all troops from Persia despite the danger of Bolshevik invasion; removal of the British Military Mission in Crimea; and removal of all troops from Mesopotamia (Iraq), leaving military security there in the hands of the Air Force.
Additionally, Churchill now resumed his official interest in Ireland, which had been put on hold in August 1914 at the outset of the Great War, when even though at the Admiralty, he remained the Liberal Party’s principal spokesman supporting Irish Home Rule. Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote to Churchill on 10 May, asking him to serve on the Conference of Ministers created to deal with the rise of terror in Ireland. Lloyd George blamed Eamon de Valera for the IRA assassination campaign against Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] police officers and local government officials.
Eventually during the 1921 peace negotiations that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, Churchill learned from IRA intelligence chief Michael Collins that Collins himself had been their real adversary and de Valera had nothing to do with it. “Dev” had been safely in America since the middle of 1919 raising funds for the rebellion—some four million dollars—the bulk of which never made it back to Ireland, the rest going into bank accounts controlled by de Valera that he used in 1927 to purchase the Irish Press.
The Commanding General of British troops in Ireland, Nevil Macready, wanted an additional eight battalions. On 11 May, the Conference of Ministers agreed to this request. Churchill, however, brought with him to the meeting the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, who objected. Wilson warned that the diversion would mean “we should have very little for our own internal troubles & nothing for India, Egypt, Constantinople etc.” Churchill came up with an alternative. He suggested raising “a special force of 8,000 old soldiers” to reinforce the RIC and the Conference accepted this.
The new force became the infamous “Black and Tans,” who waged an ultimately unsuccessful counter-terror campaign in Ireland that reached a peak on “Bloody Sunday,” 21 November 1920, when the Black and Tans machine-gunned a helpless civilian crowd at a soccer match, killing fourteen and wounding sixty, a reprisal for an attack Collins ordered earlier that day assassinating fifteen British secret intelligence agents and Irish informers.
75 Years Ago
Spring 1945 • Age 70
“It Is You Who Have Led”
In late March, Churchill went to General Montgomery’s Observation Point in Ginderich, Germany to observe the start of a new offensive across the Rhine. Once there, he flew for an hour and a half at 500 feet in a small four-seater plane observing German defensive positions east of the Rhine and causing his pilot to worry that “the Americans in particular would not know that it was one of our aeroplanes.”
Safely landing without incident, Churchill, along with Field Marshals Brooke and Montgomery, visited General Eisenhower’s headquarters further south on the west bank of the Rhine. There, Churchill spotted a launch and suggested they “have a look at the other side.” Incredibly, Montgomery agreed, and the party went across and walked for half an hour on the east bank of the Rhine. Later in the day, back on the west bank, they came to a bridge with twisted girders and broken masonry and came under heavy shellfire. The general in charge of that section of the front then put an end to Churchill’s excursion. “Prime Minister, there are snipers in front of you; they are shelling both sides of the bridge; and now they have started shelling the road behind you. I cannot accept responsibility for your being here and must ask you to come away.” Reluctantly, Churchill did so. As Brooke later put it, “The look on Winston’s face was just like that of a small boy being called away from his sand castles on the beach by his nurse!”
On 12 April, President Roosevelt died. Churchill made plans to fly to America for the funeral but decided at the last minute not to go. The war in Europe would not end until Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May. Meanwhile, the Cold War with the Soviet Union had already begun. In violation of the Yalta agreement, the Soviets set up a puppet government in Poland on 21 April. Churchill sent a long telegram to Stalin urging him to honor his agreements. Stalin’s response was to set up a puppet government in Austria as well, over the objections of both Churchill and the new American President, Harry Truman.
On 3 May, with Russian troops advancing in the Baltic and intent on occupying Denmark, Montgomery’s troops reached the Baltic Sea and effectively blocked the Russians from moving any further. It had been a close run thing with only “twelve hours to spare,” as Churchill told his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. On 7 May, Churchill urged Eisenhower to have his troops enter Prague. Surprisingly, Ike did so. American troops entered there before the Russians but withdrew once the Russians arrived, and another country fell under Soviet domination.
Final victory followed on 8 May. After a lunch with the King, Churchill broadcast a speech to the British people, telling them of the German surrender and saying, “The German war is therefore at an end.” That night, Eden—in San Francisco for a United Nations conference—sent Churchill a telegram: “It is you who have led, uplifted and inspired us through the worst days. Without you this day could not have been.”