Andrew Dewar Gibb, With Winston Churchill at the Front, Frontline Books, 2016, 256 pages, $39.95/£19.99. ISBN 978-1848324299
In the past few years renewed interest in Winston Churchill’s military career has been accompanied by publication of new books on his active service in Cuba in 1895, on the North-West Frontier of India in 1897, in Sudan in 1898, and in the Second Boer War, 1899– 1900. Frontline Books has done a signal service to Churchillians and military historians by returning to print an important contemporary account of Churchill’s frontline service in the Great War.
With Winston Churchill at the Front by “Captain X” (Andrew Dewar Gibb) was originally published in 1924 by Cowens & Gray, Ltd., as a small (3-1/4 by 6-3/8 inch) paperback priced at one shilling. Long out of print, first editions are now rare and priced in the hundreds of dollars. This reprint, however, is a handsome, hardcover book with a striking dust jacket. This is a welcome addition to the Churchill literature of an almost forgotten classic.
The new edition is much expanded from the original. There is a forward by Churchill’s great-grandson and ICS President Randolph Churchill and an introduction by Gibb’s son Nigel. Also included are excellent photographs and maps of “Plugstreet,” the area of the Western Front defended by the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers while under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill from January through May 1916.
The current edition is divided into three parts. The first consists of four well-done essays written by John Grehan, a senior editor at Frontline Books. These set out Churchill’s army service in four earlier wars together with a capsule history of the Gallipoli Campaign, which led to his leaving the cabinet and rejoining the army to serve in France. Part II contains the original nine-chapter text written by Gibb. Part III provides a streamlined summary of Churchill’s political career from the time he left the front until he became prime minister. There is also a detailed “Visitor’s Guide to Plugstreet” for the modern traveller.
Roger Hermiston, All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition, 1940–45, Aurum Press, 406 pages, £20.
Review by John Campbell
John Campbell’s books include major biographies of F. E. Smith, Aneurin Bevan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and most recently Roy Jenkins.
The title of this book derives from the caption for the great cartoonist David Low’s Evening Standard drawing of 14 May 1940—four days after Churchill became Prime Minister— showing Churchill followed by leaders of the new government, all rolling up their sleeves and marching determinedly forward to start the job of winning the war.
Roger Hermiston’s bright idea is to take this image as the starting point for examining Britain’s war effort not as the achievement of one man—however indispensable his leadership—but rather as the product of the whole coalition government, comprising a remarkable collection of individuals from widely different backgrounds, working together, not always harmoniously but in the end effectively, for the common goal of victory. It is so obviously right that it is surprising that no one, so far as I know, has done it before. His book is skilfully constructed, with successive chapters focussing on the particular contribution of different players while maintaining a broad chronological narrative through the stages of the war, from the defiant unity of May 1940 through the dark days of 1941 to the turning of the tide in 1942 with the entry of the Russians and the Americans and the increasing strains within the coalition, as attention turned towards building the post-war world. Read More >
Dr. Thijs Gras in Amsterdam is editing war memoirs of a Dutch ambulance driver, who mentions a 1941 speech in which Churchill speaks of “Quislings.” Translating the Dutch, the driver recalls a Churchill speech: “the day will dawn on which the crazy attempt to settle a Prussian supremacy based on racial hatred, armoured vehicles, secret police, alien tyrants and even more despicable Quislings, will dissolve like a bad dream.” Dr. Gras wishes the exact wording, and asks how a Dutch ambulance driver might have heard Churchill’s words.
The lines came in Churchill’s broadcast “To the Polish People” on 3 May 1941. From Churchill, The Unrelenting Struggle (London: Cassell, 1942), pages 103-04:
It is to you Poles, in Poland, who bear the full brunt of the Nazi oppression—at once pitiless and venal—that the hearts of the British and American Democracies go out in a full and generous tide. We send you our message of hope and encouragement tonight, knowing that the Poles will never despair, and that the soul of Poland will remain unconquerable. Read More >
After Crete was lost, the evacuation of Allied troops proved almost as costly as the fighting. When half the Mediterranean Fleet had been crippled or lost, the Admiralty ordered the evacuation to stop. Fraser, then in Egypt, could not agree to abandoning the New Zealanders still there and made an eloquent plea in Alexandria to Admiral Cunningham, the naval commander. When he finished speaking the ensuing silence was broken by Cunningham: “Mr. Fraser is right.”
The Admiral resolved to ignore his orders and make one last attempt: “It takes the Navy three years to build a new ship. It will take 300 years to build a new tradition.”1 If the light cruiser HMS Phoebe got back to Egypt, Cunningham said, she would be sent back for one last effort.
In the darkness that night, Fraser and Cunningham stood on the dock at Alexandria, waiting in the hope that HMS Phoebe would arrive. It was nearly midnight before they could make out the faint loom of the ship as she ghosted in. Cunningham told the captain to return to Crete and pack in as many New Zealanders as possible. With a scratch crew, the cruiser left at dawn. She returned safely the next day, though HMS Calcutta, sent out to escort her, was sunk. She brought 3700 soldiers from Sphakia. Cunningham and the Royal Navy, said Fraser, were “beyond praise.”2
1. Quoted in Antony Beevor, Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (London: Penguin, 1992), 217.
2. Fraser to his deputy and eventual successor Walter Nash, 2 June 1941. NZ Documents, I 313.
Winston’s concussion was described as “slight” by Harrow medical adviser G.C. Briggs, who said that he was put to bed “and will require careful watching for a few days.” Today, we know that even mild concussions are not to be treated lightly. Neither of Winston’s parents visited him at Harrow while he was bedridden, not for lack of requests. On 22 June his nanny, Mrs. Everest, arrived and Winston thanked his mother “for letting Woom come down.” Having mentioned that “I do not feel very fit,” he added: “Can’t you come instead—I was rather disappointed at not seeing you as I fully expected to.”
Once again, Winston’s pleas fell on deaf ears but Mrs. Everest came again the next day. He wrote to his mother: “Thanks awfully for letting Woom come down today. Both Doctor & Nurse say that they think I shall need a rest. I hope, most excruciatingly, that I do come home. Do come tomorrow….I am very delighted at the idea of coming home.” Read More >
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