Winston Churchill believed that he had found in Cuba the formula to propel him into public life. His 1895 newspaper reporting on the Cuban rebellion was the prototype that he followed tirelessly over the next four years until his election to Parliament in the fall of 1900. In the summer of 1896, he attempted on three occasions, unsuccessfully, to duplicate what he had done in Cuba the year before. It would not be until the latter part of 1897, however, that Churchill finally found another conflict to cover as a soldier-correspondent.
First, Churchill tried to persuade London’s Daily Chronicle to engage him as their Special Correspondent to cover a conflict in Crete. His offer was turned down. Instead, the Chronicle offered to pay him £10 a letter, twice the amount paid for his dispatches from Cuba, if Churchill went there at his own expense. Churchill declined and next sought an assignment in Sudan, where General Kitchener was organizing an expedition. Again, he was unsuccessful. Undeterred, Churchill attempted to use his mother’s influence to be sent to South Africa, where a native uprising had broken out in nearby Rhodesia. Once more, he was unsuccessful.
At this time, Churchill was desperately trying to avoid India because nothing was going on there. He expressed his disappointment in a letter to his mother on 4 August 1896 accompanied by an unsubtle and unfair suggestion that she was not trying hard enough to help him: “[M]y dear Mamma you cannot think how I would like to sail in a few days to scenes of adventure and excitement—to places where I could gain experience and derive advantage—rather than to the tedious land of India—where I shall be equally out of the pleasures of peace and the chances of war….A few months in South Africa would earn me the S.A. medal and…the [British South Africa] company’s Star. Thence hot foot to Egypt—to return with two more decorations in a year or two—and beat my sword into an iron despatch box. Both are within the bounds of possibility and yet here I am out of both. I cannot believe that with all the influential friends you possess and all those who would do something for me for my father’s sake—that I could not be allowed to go—were those influences properly exerted.”
The summer of 1921 would be the most tragic of Churchill’s long life. His mother had broken her ankle in a fall in late May. Through inept medical attention, gangrene set in, and, in the second week of June, her left leg had to be amputated above the knee. She appeared to be sufficiently recovered by 23 June for Churchill to send a telegram to Jennie’s husband, Montagu Porch: “Danger definitely over. Temperature going down.” His mother thought so as well and wrote a cheery letter to Lord Curzon on 26 June making light of her “poor departed leg” that “served me well for 67 years.” Three days later, however, she had a sudden hemorrhage and went into a coma. Her sons Jack and Winston, her sister Leonie Leslie, and her one-time lover from 1895, Bourke Cockran, were by her side when she died.
Cockran’s presence was coincidental for, by this time, he was related by marriage to the extended Churchill family. His wife’s sister Marjorie had married Churchill’s first cousin Shane Leslie. Marjorie was having a difficult pregnancy, and Cockran and his wife Anne had come to England to be by her side. Leonie and the Cockrans were in the hospital waiting room immediately after Marjorie had given birth to a son when they learned of Jennie’s condition. Cockran then drove Leonie to Jennie’s side, where they were joined by her sons. She never regained consciousness.
Churchill received many letters of condolence, but the one from his close friend, Lord Birkenhead, best reflected and celebrated the relationship he had with his mother: “We shall not…see anyone like her in our day. Dear Winston, it must be a joy to you to reflect upon the constant love and the understanding kindness which she met in such measure at your hands. It was a wonderful relationship between two wonderful people and its severance will be mourned by others than yourself. Yours in deep friendship, F.”
The death of his mother, however unexpected, paled in comparison to the tragedy Churchill and his wife suffered on 23 August when their two-year-old daughter, Marigold, died of septicemia after a brief illness that antibiotics would have cured today. Both distraught parents were with her when she died. Archie Sinclair wrote to Churchill that Marigold was “such a lovely, sparkling, winning little child that we were already completely captivated and we can’t bear to think what her loss must mean to you & Clemmie.”
When the 1945 general election resulted in the defeat of the Conservative Party and the end of his time as prime minister, Churchill’s wife Clementine suggested it might be a blessing in disguise. To this he replied that it was “quite effectively disguised.” By the summer of 1946, however, he was beginning to feel different. Working on his war memoirs energized him, but politics did also. After speaking in the House of Commons early on the morning of 27 June, Churchill told his physician Lord Moran that he was feeling much better and could do a great deal without getting tired. A week later, he said much the same thing, telling Lord Camrose that he was full of energy.
Churchill told both men his future plans. Moran records that he said, “Yesterday, I dined out and sat talking until two o’clock, and on my way home, I saw a light in the Commons and found them sitting. I listened for half an hour, and then I made a very vigorous speech. I don’t see why the Government shouldn’t be beaten up….A short time ago, I was ready to retire and die gracefully. Now I’m going to stay and have them out. I’ll tear their bleeding entrails out of them.” Churchill was not so graphic with Camrose, but the message was the same: “Feels much better than when he returned from America and full of energy. Had intended to retire then but hates ‘the enemy’ so much that he will stay on to put them out.”
Conservative admirers on both sides of the Atlantic with only a superficial knowledge of Churchill like to claim him as one of their own. Detractors similarly portray him as a hidebound conservative. The record is otherwise at all stages of his life. In 1896, he wrote his mother from India that “There are no lengths to which I would not go in opposing” the Conservatives were he in the House of Commons. “I am a Liberal in all but name,” he continued, “My views excite the pious horror of the Mess.” In 1903, he wrote in an unsent letter to his friend Lord Hugh Cecil, “I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory party, their men, their words & their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them.” By 1929, he hadn’t changed. The Conservative MP Leo Amery noted in his diary that Churchill “on essentials…is still where he was 25 years ago, in intellectual conviction at least…. He just repeats the old phrases of 1903.”
It was no different in 1946. On 12 August, in an insightful letter that Churchill treasured, George Bernard Shaw wrote to him: “You have never been a real Tory. [You have] a foundation of American democracy, with a very considerable dash of author and artist and the training of a soldier [that] has made you a phenomenon that the Blimps and Philistines and Stick-in-the muds have never understood and have always dreaded.”
Martin Gilbert agreed and wrote in the final volume of the Official Biography: “Although Leader of the Conservative Party, Churchill never abandoned the radical instincts of his two decades as a Liberal.” Gilbert then quoted from Churchill’s 10 August 1946 letter to his son: “I am opposed to State-ownership of all the land, but we must not conceal from ourselves that we should be much stronger if the soil of our country were divided up among two or three million people, instead of twenty or thirty thousand.”
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