Mr. Churchill spent a blissful two hours demonstrating with decanters and wine-glasses how the Battle of Jutland was fought. It was a thrilling experience. He was fascinating. He got worked up like a schoolboy, making barking noises in imitation of gunfire and blowing cigar smoke across the battle scene in imitation of gunsmoke.
—James Lees-Milne, describing an experience at Chartwell in January 19281
Churchill’s improvised table-top recreation of one of the most complex battles in naval history was remarkable not only for the fascination it held for Lees-Milne, but also because just a few years earlier Churchill had admitted to his friend, ViceAdmiral Sir Roger Keyes, that he had “only the vaguest idea of what had taken place” at Jutland.2 The indecisive battle had been fought on 31 May 1916, a full year after Churchill’s forced resignation from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty, and his only connection with it came when he was asked to make a morale-boosting statement for the press to compensate for an earlier, and depressingly honest, Admiralty communiqué.3 Though an effective piece of propaganda, his statement was not based on a deep knowledge of the events of the battle.
Map of the Battle of Jutland
But by 1924 Churchill’s work on his history of the Great War, The World Crisis, was approaching the point where he would have to provide some account of the battle. By this time the “Jutland controversy” was already in full swing, an unseemly quarrel between the supporters of the two chief British commanders at Jutland, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Although he had not previously studied the battle in detail, Churchill was by no means a disinterested party in this debate. Beatty had served as his naval secretary for fifteen months in 1911–13, and the young admiral had impressed him deeply; in a navy that, in Churchill’s famous phrase, “had more captains of ships than captains of war,” Beatty seemed to him a man possessing “shrewd and profound sagacity” who “viewed questions of naval strategy and tactics in a different light Read More >
“If you want to succeed in politics,” Lloyd George is said to have observed, “you must keep your conscience well under control.
As Churchill approached the twilight of his final Premiership in his eighty-first year, it proved an apt precept. His relationship with the two figures who were eventually to follow him as Prime Minister—Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan— became increasingly fractious.
In 1955 it was fifty-five years since Churchill had first entered Parliament, and he did not find enticing the prospect of going gently into the political night. Eden and Macmillan, respectively Foreign Secretary and Minister of Defence, both felt that Churchill had overstayed his welcome, and were increasingly seen by the aged Prime Minister as rivals, rather than colleagues.
How different things were in 1938 at the time of Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler at Munich when Eden and Macmillan were staunch opponents of appeasement. Churchill regarded them both as loyal, even heroic, figures, famously describing Eden as “the one strong figure standing up against long dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender.”1 On 16 June 1942 Churchill advised King George VI that in the event of his death, “He should entrust the formation of a new government to Mr Anthony Eden.”2 Eden ruefully stated in his memoirs: “The long era as Crown Prince was established, a position not necessarily enviable in politics.”3 The Treasury benches are full of the bleached bones of future Prime Ministers. It would be thirteen years before Eden succeeded Churchill in Number 10. Read More >
When Winston Churchill died in January 1965, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to attend the funeral. Startled by LBJ’s decision, Dwight D. Eisenhower was equally surprised that he, the top Allied commander in Europe during the Second World War, was not named to the official funeral delegation of the United States. No matter, the former American president received a personal invitation from the Churchill family to attend the funeral of his friend, the former British Prime Minister.
Despite different backgrounds, the Prime Minister and Eisenhower had much in common. The General was a good writer. He enjoyed the writer’s art. He once turned down an offer to be a military correspondent that would have paid nearly seven times his army salary. Like Churchill, Eisenhower would write important memoirs of the history of the Second World War. The two had first met at the White House on 22 June 1942, when the Prime Minister also met General Mark W. Clark. “I was immediately impressed by these remarkable but hitherto unknown men,” recalled Churchill.1 The British would have their own reasons to be impressed by the American Commander over the next three years. Eisenhower, as the Prime Minister would affirm, embodied Anglo-American cooperation during the war.
By war’s end, both leaders were heroes. “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends,” Eisenhower told a Guildhall audience on 12 June 1945. “My most cherished hope is that, after Japan joins the Nazi in utter defeat, neither my country nor yours need ever again summon its sons and daughters from their peaceful pursuits to face the tragedies of battle. But—a fact important for both of us to remember—neither London nor Abilene [the general’s hometown]…will sell her birthright for physical safety, her liberty for mere existence,” the Kansas native told the London crowd.2 Read More >
Their first meeting was not promising. In the summer of 1918, fifteen months after the United States had entered the First World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American Assistant Secretary of the Navy, crossed the Atlantic to undertake an inspection tour of US naval bases and Marine combat in Europe. His first stop was London. On the evening of 29 July, he was one of the guests at a formal dinner in honor of the British war ministers. It was there that he had his first personal encounter with Winston Churchill.
Exactly what transpired is unclear. One has an impression of two big egos competing for attention. Churchill quickly forgot the event. Roosevelt nursed his annoyance. Twenty-one years later, he told Joseph P. Kennedy that Churchill had “acted like a stinker” toward him.1
Their contacts over those years were few and perfunctory. Most notably, Churchill gave President Roosevelt a copy of his multi-volume biography of the first Duke of Marlborough. Roosevelt thanked him and seems never to have gotten around to reading it. Surely, however, the president sympathized with Churchill’s opposition to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. In September 1939, a few days after the Second World War broke out in Europe, Roosevelt sent messages to Chamberlain and Churchill, who was back in the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, inviting them to stay in touch with him on matters of mutual concern. Chamberlain did not respond. Churchill, who asked for and received permission from the Cabinet, did. Neither man could have imagined that an initial brief exchange was the first of nearly 2,000 communications that would pass between them over the next five and a half years. Nor could they have foreseen the way in which an alliance of necessity would develop into a fruitful but ambiguous personal relationship.2 Read More >
The River War: Churchill’s Firsthand Account of the Charge at Omdurman
Lines printed in bold italics appeared in the first edition of The River War but not in later editions.
As the 21st Lancers left the ridge, the fire of the Arab riflemen on the hill ceased. We advanced at a walk in mass for about 300 yards. The scattered parties of Dervishes fell back and melted away, and only one straggling line of men in dark blue waited motionless a quarter of a mile to the left front. They were scarcely a hundred strong. I marvelled at their temerity. The regiment formed into line of squadron columns, and continued at a walk until within 300 yards of this small body of Dervishes. I wondered what possessed them. Perhaps they wanted to surrender. The firing behind the ridges had stopped. There was complete silence, intensified by the recent tumult. Far beyond the thin blue row of Dervishes the fugitives were visible streaming into Omdurman. And should these few devoted men impede a regiment? Yet it were wiser to examine their position from the other flank before slipping a squadron at them. The heads of the squadron wheeled slowly to the left, and the Lancers, breaking into a trot, began to cross the Dervish front in column of troops. Thereupon and with one accord the blue-clad men dropped on their knees, and there burst out a loud, crackling fire of musketry. It was hardly possible to miss such a target at such a range. Horses and men fell at once. The only course was Read More >
John Kelly, Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940, New York: Scribner’s, 2015, 370 pages, $30.
Churchill, at his disingenuous best, wrote in his war memoirs that “the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda.”
Roy Jenkins, in his 2001 biography Churchill, called this “the most breathtakingly bland piece of misinformation to appear in all those six volumes” because, over a three-day period from 26 through 28 May, there were what Jenkins termed “nine tense meetings of the War Cabinet” on that very subject.
John Kelly has written a compelling narrative about the events leading up to the decision by Britain’s War Cabinet on 28 May 1940 not to take even preliminary steps to ascertain Hitler’s terms for peace. Read More >
Richard M. Langworth, Churchill and the Avoidable War: Could World War II have been Prevented? Moultonborough, NH: Dragonwyck, 2015, 122 pages, $7.95.
The origin of Mr. Langworth’s book is Churchill’s 1945 labeling of the Second World War as “The Unnecessary War.” Churchill proceeded to offer two “ifs,” one having to do with the United States and the other with the League of Nations. It should be noted that of the four ubiquitous conjunctions, “and” is decidedly dull, “or” involves choice, “but” is often a weasel word (“I believe in absolute free speech, but this is too much,” meaning you do not believe in absolute free speech), and “if” is a reality re-constructor (“If pigs had wings”). “If” presumes to improve on God’s creation of the world, as well as to challenge our reliance on the factual and the mundane. It is a product of, and tribute to, the imagination. And it is, of course, at the heart of counterfactual history. “Much virtue in ‘if,’” says the Bard.
Langworth lines up, like balls on a pool table, the key junctures when events could have taken a different course. The writing is compelling, the documentation rich, the arguments persuasive. Other biographers and historians have, to be sure, dealt with these flashpoints, but only in the setting of a narrative that encompasses numerous other issues. The virtue of this approach is to focus entirely on several isolated incidents and trace their common theme. The power of Langworth’s handling of the theme is that he avoids dogmatic folly. He repeatedly invokes a necessary skepticism: “We will never know,” “We do not know,” “We know now” what was not known “at the time.” Read More >
Steve Cliffe, Churchill, Kitchener, and Lloyd George: First World Warlords, Fonthill, 2014, 160 pages, £14.99.
Of the three “First World Warlords” who are the subject of this enjoyable volume, it is Horatio Kitchener who presents the greatest enigma. Churchill was an extremely prolific writer and speaker. Although he was not always straightforward, he frequently wore his heart on his sleeve; he sometimes attempted to be devious but he was not very good at it, so it was generally fairly clear to other people what he was up to. Lloyd George was—in his prime—a much more effective manipulator and, unenthusiastic about letter writing, left a much less extensive paper trail for historians to follow. Nevertheless, the records of three key diarists (Lord Riddell, Frances Stevenson, and A. J. Sylvester) allow a great deal of insight into his views and actions.
Kitchener, by contrast, was closed-off and inscrutable. He had insight and talent—if not quite as much as was popularly attributed to him—but was a difficult colleague, particularly after he joined the cabinet at the outbreak of war in 1914. He was one of the first to predict that the conflict would be long and drawn-out and would require an enormous number of Read More >
In the first volume of his Second World War memoirs, Winston Churchill published the following account based on a German report:
At 01.30 on October 14, 1939, H.M.S. Royal Oak, lying at anchor in Scapa Flow, was torpedoed by U.47 (Lieutenant Prien). The operation had been carefully planned by Admiral Doenitz himself, the Flag Officer (Submarines). Prien left Kiel on October 8…course N.N.W., Scapa Flow….The boat crept steadily closer to Holm Sound, the eastern approach to Scapa Flow. Unfortunate it was [for the British] that these channels had not been completely blocked. A narrow passage lay open between two sunken ships. With great skill Prien steered through the swirling waters….Then suddenly the whole bay opened out. Kirk Sound was passed. They were in. There under the land to the north could be seen the great shadow of a battleship lying on the water, with the great mast rising above it like a piece of filigree on a black cloth. Near, nearer—all tubes clear—no alarm, no sound but the lap of the water, the low hiss of air pressure and the sharp click of a tube lever. Los! [Fire!]—five seconds—ten seconds—twenty seconds. Then came a shattering explosion, and a great pillar of water rose in the darkness. Prien waited some minutes to fire another salvo. Tubes ready. Fire! The torpedoes hit amidships, and there followed a series of crashing explosions. H.M.S. Royal Oak sank, with the loss of 786 officers and men…. U.47 crept quietly away back through the gap.1 Read More >
“On the Brink of the Abyss” Winston Churchill in the Great War
“Plugstreet” under shellfire, early 1916 (painted by Winston S. Churchill)
When the Great War began for Winston Churchill on 4 August 1914, he was at his war station, the Admiralty in London, where he had served as First Lord since 1911. After several signal successes in that office at the outset of the conflict, the mounting casualties and looming failure of the Dardanelles campaign in Turkey led to his forced resignation from the cabinet on 21 May 1915. He was then appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which was a cabinet office but one with no duties related to management of the war. His cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, wrote to him, “I gather you have been thrown a bone on which there is little meat.”1 Try as he might to be heard in cabinet meetings, Churchill’s influence on war policy was at an end.
When the Cabinet War Committee was reorganized in October 1915, Churchill was not included, and he resigned as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster the same day. Being excluded from an effective political role in the direction of the war was a humiliating blow to Churchill, who feared his political career was over. As his wife Clementine later told Martin Gilbert, “When he left the Admiralty he thought he was finished. He did not believe he would ever be asked back into the government. I thought he would never get over the Dardanelles. I thought he would die of grief.”2 Read More >
As the armoured train inched along the low, rolling hills and flat, open spaces of the South African veldt on the morning of 15 November 1899, every man on board knew that the enemy was watching. Where exactly they were, however, and whether they would attack, remained a dark, seemingly impenetrable mystery. Although the Boer War had begun just a month earlier, the British had already learned a painful lesson: the harder it was to find the Boers, the more dangerous they were likely to be.
Of Dutch descent, the deeply religious Boers had not wanted war. On the contrary, they wanted nothing more than to be left alone. War, however, like wealth, had found them. The trouble had begun more than thirty years earlier, when diamonds and, later, gold were discovered in the Transvaal, one of two Boer republics. “This gold,” said Paul Kruger, who served as president of the Transvaal during the war, “will cause our country to be soaked in blood.”1
Kruger’s prediction had come true just a few years later. In 1880, Britain annexed the Transvaal, leading to what became known as the First Boer War, a war that, to the shock and horror of the British people, ended in Britain’s defeat. Although, as a condition of the peace agreement, Britain agreed to respect the independence of the Boer republics, before long it was once again pressing in on the Transvaal, amassing troops at its borders and claiming large swaths of new territory that effectively cut it off from the sea. Having had enough, the Boers issued an ultimatum in October 1899 that the British disdainfully ignored. Read More >
It was a grey day in January 1989 when I discovered that my leather-bound copy of The River War, one of thirty-four volumes of the Collected Works of Sir Winston S. Churchill that I had recently purchased, was but an abridgment. Like Churchill himself, if on a more modest scale, I have always lived a charmed life; and, by extraordinary good fortune, my wife Judith and I were halfway through a fifteen-month wedding trip, for most of which we lived in civilized but straitened splendor in London at William Goodenough College, near Russell Square. I was an academic visitor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working on a book about Churchill’s writings. But half a dozen noble distractions—books on and by Churchill that I have been editing since then—are my apology for my original work remaining incomplete more than a quarter-century later. Four of these distractions have been published, with two more soon to appear: new editions of Churchill’s autobiography My Early Life: A Roving Commission and his most impressive early book The River War: An Historical Account of the reconquest of the Soudan.
Having just finished in autumn 1988a draft chapter about Churchill’s experiences on the Nile nine decades earlier, I was learning that winter about his time in South Africa. But an entry in the bound catalogue of the old British Library stating that the first edition of The River War, published in November 1899, was a two-volume work had led me to look at it. A rare book, it had to be consulted not at my usual seat in the round Reading Room, where Karl Marx had written his book on capital, but in the North Reading Room, where rules were stricter. After the book was delivered to me there, I kept it for days to find out what the differences were between it and the version I owned. It turned out that the first edition had Read More >
Churchill in Combat – By David Freeman, January 2016
One hundred years ago this winter Winston Churchill took command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and led it into combat on the Western Front. This was to be his last experience as a uniformed officer in battle but not his last time under fire. To mark the anniversary we have invited leading specialists to recount Churchill’s many adventures in combat.
The regions along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan remain as dangerous today as they were in Churchill’s time. Con Coughlin, who reports on this area of the world, vividly describes Churchill’s first journey into battle on the North-West Frontier and notes the striking similarities between then and now.
Churchill’s account of his charge with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman (page 50) and the campaign surrounding it has excited readers for more than a century. Unfortunately, the full account set forth in the rare and costly first edition of The River War has remained unknown to most, since all subsequent editions have been abridgments. James W. Muller explains his prolonged effort to bring the restored and now fully annotated original text back into print this year. Read More >
Mark Herman, Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace, GMT Games, 2015, $70. ASIN: B013SCRACW
Three personalities dominated the allied conferences of the Second World War, whether or not they were all present in person: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Roosevelt, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Now the ten major conferences are the subject of a new board game, appropriately named Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace, a 2015 release from GMT Games, one of the leading producers in the genre of table-top, conflict simulations.
Though technically classified as a “war game,” Churchill is more of a political design of simultaneous cooperation and competition where each of the three sides (the US, the UK, and the USSR) strives to advance its own national agenda. Long-time conflict simulation designer Mark Herman has injected a series of innovative concepts into the game that compel players to think and act in a manner similar to their historical counterparts.
This is not a family board game along the lines of Monopoly or Risk, nor is it nearly as easy to learn and as quick to play as chess. A session requires a minimum commitment of three hours for the tournament game (the last five conferences) and may take the majority of a day for all ten conferences. But the game is never boring because, unlike other multiplayer games, players are constantly involved, with almost no “down time.” Read More >
Charles L. Mee, Jr., The Deal: Churchill, Truman, and Stalin Remake the World, New World City, 2014, 348 pages, $2.99 on Kindle. ASIN B00HO6ZEHC
In 1975 Charles L. Mee published Meeting at Potsdam. His account of the July 1945 summit between the victorious “Big Three” Allied leaders became a standard popular history of the subject, one frequently reprinted for new audiences. Last year, on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the conference, a book by Mee on the same subject but with a different title was released by Kindle. Has Mee revisited his work?
The answer is no. Mee’s The Deal is simply Meeting at Potsdam in a new format. Apart from the title, everything in the original text has been imported intact into the electronic version, with no effort to correct, modify, or update Mee’s original work. The only difference in the new format is the addition of Wikipedia links embedded within the text, which provide a useful way for readers to learn more about the principals and some of the other subjects that the author mentions in the text. Yet this alone is poor compensation for the deficiencies it contains. For all of the strengths that The Deal inherits from Mee’s original book, it is now burdened with an even greater share of weaknesses. Read More >
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
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