Finest Hour 189, Third Quarter 2020
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years Ago
Summer 1895 • Age 20
“I Shall Never Know Such a Friend Again”
Mrs. Everest, Winston’s beloved childhood nanny, died on 3 July. He wrote to his mother the same day: “She was delighted to see me on Monday and I think my coming made her die happy. Her last words were of Jack. I shall never know such a friend again.
” Churchill continued to have his mind on politics and had no intention of making a career in the Army. Writing to his mother on 16 August, he said, “It is a fine game to play—the game of politics—and it is well worth waiting for a good hand—before really plunging….The more I see of soldiering—the more I like it—but the more I feel convinced that it is not my métier. Well, we shall see—my dearest Mama.”
On 24 August, Churchill again wrote his mother: “I find I am getting into a state of mental stagnation….It is a state of mind onto which all or nearly all who soldier—fall. From this ‘slough of Despond’ I try to raise myself by reading & re-reading Papa’s speeches—many of which I almost know by heart—but I really cannot find the energy to read any other serious work.” He went on to tell her that he intended, once situated in London, to study one or two hours a week with a scholar in Economics or Modern History because “I need someone to point out some specific subject to stimulate & to direct my reading in that subject.”
Churchill was keenly aware of the deficiencies in his education. He wrote his mother that “my mind has never received that polish which for instance Oxford or Cambridge gives. At these places one studies questions and sciences with a rather higher object than mere practical utility. One receives in fact a liberal education.” Churchill intended to give himself just such an education, which he did throughout his time in India.
100 Years Ago
Summer 1920 • Age 45
A difficult issue for the coalition Government of David Lloyd George that summer was the debate in Parliament over the decision to relieve General Dyer from his command. The previous year, Dyer had ordered his troops to open fire on an unarmed crowd of Indians at Amritsar, killing 300 and wounding 2,000. A Government Commission investigated the incident—the Amritsar Massacre—and, eight months after the tragedy, condemned the general’s actions. Dyer was relieved of his command, and Churchill—the Secretary of State for War and still a member of the Liberal Party—had the Army Council refuse Dyer any further command. Many Conservative MPs were upset by these decisions. Although the Tories belonged to the coalition, they had a free-standing majority in the House of Commons and, with it, the power to bring down the Government. Motions were filed by both Conservative MPs and opposition Labour MPs to reduce the salary of the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, who was a Liberal and only the third practicing Jewish man to serve in the Cabinet.
Montagu led off the debate for the Government and did poorly. One MP observed in a note to the Prime Minister that “Montagu thoroughly roused most of the latent passions of the stodgy Tories and many of them could have assaulted him physically, they were so angry.” Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists, spoke after Montagu and pointed out that Dyer’s actions had been approved at the time by both his Commanding Officer and the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab. Andrew Bonar Law, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Conservative party, who was directing the debate for the Government, thought things were going so badly that he called upon Churchill earlier than he had intended in order to save the day. Churchill proceeded to do just that.
After patiently explaining the procedural process whereby an officer is relieved of command, Churchill suggested that the Government Commission’s findings “might furnish the fullest justification for removing him from his appointment.” When another Member shouted “No, No!” Churchill replied, “I am expressing my opinion. When my honourable and gallant Friend is called, he will express his opinion. That is the process we call Debate.” Turning to the merits of Dyer’s dismissal, Churchill said the Amritsar Massacre was “an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.…It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.” Churchill then described “certain broad lines…every officer had to follow, certain questions he had to ask” and explained that Dyer had failed in this.
After that, Churchill referred to “one general prohibition which we can make. I mean a prohibition against what is called ‘frightfulness.’ What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorizing not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country.” Churchill then smoothly segued into an attack on Bolshevism, one that he knew would appeal to his Conservative critics. His hatred of Bolshevism, he said, “is not founded on their silly system of economics, or their absurd doctrine of an impossible equality. It arises from the bloody and devastating terrorism which they practice in every land from which they have broken, and by which alone their criminal regime can be maintained.”
The Times described Churchill’s speech as “amazingly skillful…not only a brilliant speech but one that persuaded and made the result certain.” The Government easily defeated the two motions filed against it over Dyer’s relief from command.
75 Years Ago
Summer 1945 • Age 70
“A Blessing in Disguise”
With Germany defeated, an election was scheduled for 5 July, the first general election in the United Kingdom for ten years. The results would not be announced until three weeks after the polling day in order to allow the votes of military personnel overseas to be counted. This meant that Churchill would attend the Big Three summit conference in Potsdam that month without knowing the outcome of the election. Consequently, Churchill invited Labour’s leader, Clement Attlee, to attend the conference with him in order to provide continuity in the event that the election results did not return the Conservatives to power.
Churchill arrived in Berlin with his daughter Mary on 15 July and had his first meeting with President Truman the next morning. He told his daughter that he liked the new President immensely and was sure he could work with him. At lunch that day with Truman and US Secretary of War Henry Stimson, word was received that the first atomic bomb had been successfully tested. On 18 July, Churchill hosted a lunch for Truman. While they were alone together for two hours, he unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Truman to drop the term “unconditional surrender” conceived by President Roosevelt and to find “some other way” to describe their peace terms to Japan. Notwithstanding their failure to agree on this point, Truman told Churchill that it was “the most enjoyable luncheon that he had had for many years.”
That evening, Churchill dined alone with Stalin. At the plenary session that afternoon, Stalin had assured Churchill that there would be free elections in Poland. Now, Stalin gave him the same assurance with respect to the nations of Central Europe. He also told Churchill that the Conservatives would have a majority of eighty in the election. Churchill was skeptical of both the promise and the prediction.
Stimson gave Churchill a private briefing on 22 July about the effects of the atomic bomb test—a one-mile circle of total devastation. On 24 July, Truman finally told Stalin of the successful test. The Soviet leader did not appear surprised, but the explanation for that would only be discovered later. On 25 July, the conference was interrupted for two days so that Churchill and Attlee could return to Britain to learn the results of the election. On 26 July, it was announced that Labour had won in a landslide, with a majority of 146 seats in the House of Commons. Clementine Churchill told her husband that “It may well be a blessing in disguise.” “At the moment,” Churchill replied, “it seems quite effectively disguised.”