125 Years ago
Spring 1893 • Age 18 “A Little Paternal Advice”
Winston spent the spring of 1893 “cramming” with Captain Walter James for the Sandhurst Entrance Examination scheduled for late June. Having twice failed the examination, Winston would have been expected to redouble his efforts, especially after Captain James had written to Lord Randolph in early March to say that Winston “means well but he is distinctly inclined to be inattentive and to think too much of his own abilities” and was “too much inclined up to the present to teach his instructors instead of endeavouring to learn from them.”
True to form, Winston did not meet those expectations in the seven weeks following that letter. On 29 April, Captain James once more wrote to Lord Randolph that, while he had no definite complaints to make, “I do not think his work is going on very satisfactorily.” James told Lord Randolph that he had spoken to Winston about this and suggested that he give his son “a little paternal advice and point out, what I have done, the absolute necessity of single-minded devotion to the immediate object before him.” Read More >
The Regent meets with his military chiefs of staff
Finest Hour 180, Spring 2018
By Christos Bouris
Christos Bouris is a postgraduate student in the faculty of History and Archaeology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.
At Christmastime 1944, Winston Churchill travelled to Athens. It was a perilous journey, but the stakes were high: the future of Greece. Recently liberated from the Axis, Athens was now beset by confrontation between the communist-controlled EAMELAS (the first being a communist-led resistance group and the second her military counterpart) and British forces positioned in the Greek capital, assisted by Greek army units and security forces loyal to the Greek government. Both sides sought control of the city. The armed clash that ensued became known as “Dekemvriana” and ended with a British victory over the Greek communists.
Churchill arrived in Athens determined to use his influence in the negotiations between the Greek government and EAM in order to create a provisional government and avoid the outbreak of civil war. He also wanted to keep Greece free of communist control. Read More >
Fred Glueckstein is a frequent contributor to Finest Hour and author of Churchill and Colonist II (2014).
On 9 December 1905, Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman sent Winston Churchill, MP for Manchester North West, a telegram at his house, 29 Belgrave Square: “Greatly obliged if you would come and see me here at six o’clock.”1 During their meeting, Campbell-Bannerman invited Churchill to join his Government as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. The offer was accepted.
On Churchill’s first evening as a junior member of the Government, he attended a party in London where he was introduced to Edward Marsh, a clerk in the West African Department of the Colonial Office:
“How do you do?” asked Marsh. “Which I must now say with great respect.”
“Why with great respect”? Churchill responded.
“Because you’re coming to rule over me at the Colonial Office,” Marsh replied.2
After announcing the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Winston Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. This had been the position held by Churchill when the First World War began a quarter of a century earlier. In 1914 Churchill took a typically proactive role, drafting signals and having a problematical relationship with his First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, Lord Fisher. This culminated in a very public clash over the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 and marked a major reverse in Churchill’s career.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, Churchill fought a campaign against the Admiralty’s shipbuilding plans. He seemed much more interested in the Royal Air Force than the Royal Navy when he adopted rearmament as a cause in the 1930s. Only late in the decade did Lord Chatfield, the First Sea Lord masterminding naval rearmament, mobilise Churchill to the navy’s cause by granting him access to secrets and obtaining his support for a successful campaign to bring the Fleet Air Arm under full naval control. Given this somewhat chequered record, the signal “Winston is back!”—often believed but not proven to have been sent out to the fleet in 1939— would have been as much a warning to senior officers as a morale booster for the younger generation.
A Privilege and Honour
Churchill was visibly moved by his return to the Admiralty. Third Sea Lord Bruce Fraser remembered: “As he took the First Lord’s chair in the famous Board Room, Churchill was filled with emotion. To a few words of welcome from the First Sea Lord [Sir Dudley Pound], he replied by saying what a privilege and honour it was to be again in that chair, that there were many difficulties together we would overcome. He surveyed critically each of us in turn and then, adding he would see us all later on, he adjourned the meeting, ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘to your tasks and duties.’”1
Illustration showing Churchill in consultation with Lord Fisher
Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By Christopher M. Bell
One of the most damning charges regularly levelled against Winston Churchill for his role in the Dardanelles campaign is that he either ignored or overruled his principal naval advisers, who unanimously warned of disaster if a naval offensive were launched without troops to support it. Churchill always insisted that this was untrue, that he had had the support of the admirals. But there is almost no hard evidence to back him up. No minutes were taken of the deliberations among Churchill and his top naval advisers in early January 1915, when the proposal to force the Dardanelles by ships alone was first considered at the Admiralty. Historians have therefore had to rely on later testimony from the participants to reconstruct what happened.
The best—though far from perfect—source we have on these deliberations is the voluminous testimony provided to the official Dardanelles Commission, established by an Act of Parliament in 1916 to investigate why the campaign had been launched, and what had gone wrong. Over the course of twenty days, from September to December 1916, the Commission examined thirty-five witnesses, including all the surviving members of Asquith’s War Council, as well as the admirals who had taken part in the Admiralty’s decision-making process. Did they complain that Churchill had failed to heed repeated warnings that the naval offensive was doomed? A recent study of Churchill’s part in the Dardanelles campaign claims that the testimony of naval leaders “leaves no doubt” that their “opposition to a purely naval operation at the Dardanelles by Fisher, Jackson and all of the naval experts, had been neither half-hearted nor hesitating.”1
At the start of his parliamentary career in 1901, Winston Churchill promoted the old Victorian themes of “peace, retrenchment, and reform,” but at the conclusion of his first decade as an MP, he was a champion of what was known as “New Navalism” and a vocal advocate of a greatly enlarged Royal Navy. At mid-decade, he had changed his party political affiliation from Conservative to Liberal.
The Royal Navy for centuries had been a central fabric in British life, with a glorious and long history. In the first decade of the twentieth century, however, the Senior Service found itself threatened by rival naval powers, which it had never experienced in a global supremacy lasting a hundred years. In 1914, the British Navy was almost as sacred as the Crown—and just as popular. Public interest in the strength of the Royal Navy heightened as the total amount of naval expenditures surpassed all previous records.
The period of “New Navalism” stretched from 1889 until 1914, during which time there was but one three-year period (1905–1908) when naval expenditures were not increasing. The “New Navalism” was a natural product of the combination of economic nationalism and national imperialism, as promoted by the American “Father of the New Navalism,” Alfred Thayer Mahan.
An Emeritus Professor of the University of Edinburgh, Ged Martin is a native Londoner who now lives in Ireland. He took First Class Honours in History at Cambridge, where he later earned his Ph.D. During his career he taught in Australia, Ireland, and Canada and received the United Kingdom’s first permanent Chair in Canadian Studies. As a schoolboy, he witnessed a notable intervention of Sir Winston in Parliament.
Aged fourteen, I was given a ticket for the gallery of the House of Commons. My family were Conservative, and I was reared with a fixed belief that Labour were decidedly not up to the mark. Hence it came as something of a surprise to spot that the Conservative Minister of Education answering questions had evidently inherited every advantage that privileged birth could give, except brains. A very shrewd Labour MP, I think from Southampton, wanted to know why the government had been offered land for a new school for £8,000, turned it down—and eventually bought it for £80,000.
I suspect that the Government’s spin-doctors, for I am sure they existed then, had Churchill ready and wound up in the wings and got a “send-him-now” signal from the Treasury Bench. For it was 30 November 1959—the old boy’s eighty-fifth birthday. Sir Winston entered the chamber just under the gallery, and at first I could not see him. But the House erupted, waving order papers. He stood there, and Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell jumped up to ask: “I hope that it will be in order, Mr. Speaker, if I offer to the rt hon. Gentleman, the Member for Woodford (Sir Winston Churchill) our warmest congratulations and best wishes and affectionate greetings, on his 85th birthday.” The Leader of the House, R. A. Butler, added: “May I support the Leader of the Opposition, Sir, and on behalf of the whole House include in the rt hon. Gentleman’s and hon. Friends’ offer our most heartfelt good wishes to my rt hon. Friend.” An obviously moved Churchill rose and replied: “May I say that I most gratefully and eagerly accept both forms of compliment.” And ’twas for all the world as if Southampton had never existed.
Jonathan Asbury, Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms, Imperial War Museum, 2016, 224 pages, £30/$45. ISBN: 978–1904897491
Visiting the Churchill War Rooms is a powerful experience. The secrecy, urgency, and importance housed within the walls immediately surround and intoxicate your senses. Solemnly pacing the halls, peering into the map room, and perusing the exhibits gives you a feeling of their immense historical importance. You can almost smell wafts of Churchill’s cigar smoke as you contemplate how he and others like General Brooke and General Ismay directed the war. Replicating that experience with a book might prove a difficult task. Jonathan Asbury’s Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms, however, does so with aplomb. Published by the Imperial War Museum, the book provides an informative and engaging account of life in Churchill’s bunker.
Asbury’s book joins the ranks of several other texts written on the subject including The Cabinet War Rooms (1996), The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms (2005), and more recently Richard Holmes’s final book, Churchill’s Bunker: The Secret Headquarters at the Heart of the War (2011). Like those books, Asbury relies a great deal on the account of the first “inhouse” historian at the War Rooms, Peter Simkins. Asbury admirably pays respect to Simkins’s work, The Cabinet War Rooms (1968) in his acknowledgements and notes that Simkins himself “played a major role in the preservation and restoration of the site” (219). But as a testament to Asbury’s thoroughness and thoughtfulness, he reminds his readers of the role Nigel de Lee, a historian from the Royal Military Academy, played in preparing an unpublished history of the War Rooms. De Lee’s work informed both the accounts of Simkins and that of Jon Wenzel, the first Curator of the War Rooms, in his curation of the site right down to the correct furniture required.
125 Years ago
Spring 1892 • Age 17
“His Quick and Dashing Attack”
Winston ’s parents knew of his interest in fencing, but he modestly downplayed his talents, telling his father in a mid-February letter, “I am getting on with my fencing and hope, with luck, to be school champion.” A month later he wrote his mother: “I am awfully excited about the fencing which comes off on Tuesday. I know I shall get beaten yet…!”
On 24 March, Winston wrote his mother, telling her that he had “won the Fencing” at Harrow and received a “very fine cup.” His earlier modesty was cast aside as he went on to say, “I was far and away the first. Absolutely untouched in the finals.” He had also written to his father about it, and Lord Randolph replied on 25 March: “I congratulate you on your success. I only hope fencing will not too much divert your attention from the army class.” His father enclosed a twopound note “with which you will be able to make a present to yr fencing master.”
Winning the fencing championship at Harrow meant that Winston would represent his school at the all-Public Schools gymnastic, boxing, and fencing competition to be held at Aldershot in early April. He wrote to his father on 27 March asking him if he would be able to attend, as “I would so much like you to go.” Unfortunately, he also asked his father if he “could send me a sovereign for myself,” since it “would be great service in making up my accounts.”
In peace and in war, Abraham Lincoln became a master of his craft by intense study. Military historian T. Harry Williams argued that President Lincoln was “a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals.” But the commander-in-chief had also studied the works of great military strategists in books drawn from the Library of Congress. As President during the Civil War, Lincoln found himself in uncharted territory—legally and militarily. He needed to feel and study his way into both spheres.1 General Grant wrote in his memoirs of Lincoln: “All he wanted, or had ever wanted was someone who would take the responsibility and act, and call on him for all the assistance necessary, pledging himself to use all the power of the government in rendering such assistance.”2
The presidency of Abraham Lincoln began and ended in a civil war of national survival. The first prime ministership of Winston S. Churchill began and ended in a global war of national survival. Churchill had inherited his war. Lincoln’s war had not yet begun when he took office. Many generals in America and Britain scoffed at the military strategy and tactics of Lincoln and Churchill. Both proved essentially sound in their strategy of deploying an anaconda-like armed embrace of the enemy to squeeze the life from it. Subordinates would chafe at their suggestions.
Developing a Strategy
T he reality of the Civil War presented itself as largely an ad hoc affair—necessarily with ad hoc strategy and tactics. Corelli Barnett wrote of Lincoln: “Unlike Churchill in 1940, he had no previous experience as a member of a wartime administration. Unlike Churchill again, he had never taken a deep interest in military and naval history.”3 Yet during the first year of the war, Lincoln developed his own strategy for a coordinated series of actions in both the eastern and western United States, which he defined in a letter to General Don Carlos Buell: “I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”4
The author campaigning with his father Winston and mother Minnie, 1967. Photo credit: Alamy.com
Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
By Randolph Churchill
My father, the younger Winston, like his father Randolph, was born during a tumultuous world war. He loved the fact that he was born on 10 October 1940, during the Battle of Britain, at the Prime Minister’s country house Chequers. The night before, his imminent arrival was foreshadowed by the delivery of a German bomb landing one hundred yards from the house. My father liked to say that he was the next bombshell to arrive at Chequers!
Thus began a life full of adventure, daring, and a role on the international stage, which lasted six decades. He inherited the energy and dynamism of his father—my grandfather—who in 1941 in the Libyan desert with SAS founder David Stirling talked his way into the Benghazi German naval base, remained there for twenty-four hours and succeeded in doing no damage to the enemy before they talked their way out. Randolph had an eventful life, full of political opinion and a good measure of drama. Winston’s mother Pamela, the irrepressible daughter of Lord and Lady Digby of Minterne, met Randolph in autumn 1939 on a blind date and married him three weeks later. Theirs was a generation where the cocktail of the war years provided impetus to getting married expeditiously.
Growing up Winston
It was never going to be easy growing up as effectively an only child (his half-sister Arabella was nine years younger) and also as the namesake and grandson of the legendary wartime Prime Minister. My father noted: “I had come to realise from an early age that the name of Winston Churchill, which I was so proud to bear, was both a lot to live up to and a lot to live down.” He was a young man in a hurry. He would often escort his mother on her travels and lacked the benefit of growing up with siblings and other young ones around him. He never liked structure or authority, and he did not enjoy his time at school. He wanted to get on and make his mark in life.
Lord Randolph Churchill ’s life has long been over-shadowed by the enduring fame of his son. By comparison with Winston’s heroic feats as a war leader, the father’s political career was brief, embedded in the obscure and long-forgotten politics of late Victorian Britain, and a conspicuous failure. It is no surprise, therefore, that he attracts comparatively little attention, but in one respect, at least, the situation fails to do him justice. Winston Churchill was, in more ways than one, his father’s creation.
Randolph Churchill (1849–1895) was the second surviving son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough. After Eton, and Magdalen College Oxford, where he obtained a respectable degree in law and history, he devoted most of his time to fox hunting. In 1874 he was elected to the House of Commons as the Conservative MP for Woodstock, a small country town at the gates of Blenheim Palace, where the duke’s influence over the electors virtually guaranteed his victory. Randolph contested the seat partly from loyalty to his family, and partly in return for his father’s permission to marry Jennie Jerome, a match of which he initially disapproved. As yet he gave no sign of ambition and neglected politics in favour of high society. He and Jennie were a dazzling young couple at the heart of the “Marlborough House Set,” the favourite friends and companions of “Bertie,” the philandering Prince of Wales.
In 1876 a scandal plunged Randolph into conflict with “Bertie.” The Earl of Aylesford, a companion of the Prince, planned to divorce his wife on the grounds that she had committed adultery with Randolph’s elder brother, the Marquess of Blandford. In an attempt to prevent the scandal from becoming public, Randolph threatened to produce compromising letters the Prince had written to Lady Aylesford some years before. It was a daring move, driven by ferocious loyalty to the good name of the Churchills. Aylesford dropped the divorce proceedings, but the Prince was furious and instructed his friends to ostracise Randolph, in effect banishing him from high society. For the next eight years, until a reconciliation occurred, Randolph lived under the shadow of royal displeasure. “In the interval,” wrote Winston in his father’s biography, “a nature originally genial and gay contracted a stern and bitter quality, a harsh contempt for what is called ‘Society’, and an abiding antagonism to rank and authority.”1
Winston Churchill once observed about a photo of his grandfather Leonard Jerome that he was “very fierce.” “I’m the only tame one they’ve produced,” he said modestly.1 Jerome, like his grandson, spent a lifetime beating the odds.
Despite an historic disdain for hereditary aristocracy, Americans love to create their own—if transitory—nobility. They are the wealthy, stars, glamorous, or notorious. Leonard Jerome was all that and more: he was a feisty, flamboyant, ultra-wealthy investor, sportsman, diplomat, raconteur, and arts patron. He easily made fortunes and easily lost them. His friends were a “Who’s Who” of the nouveau riche elite, and by age forty his informal moniker was “The King of Wall Street.”
Jerome’s life started humbly in 1817: he was one of ten children who tended chickens and other livestock on father Isaac’s farm in Palmyra, New York. Arriving in Palmyra at the same time was the family of a young Joseph Smith, who went on to found the Mormon church. The Jeromes had their own religious antecedents. Their French Huguenot forebears immigrated in 1710.
At age fourteen, Leonard toiled in a store, where he learned to haggle. He followed brothers to Princeton University, but, struggling with math and expenses, he transferred to and graduated from the less expensive Union College in Schenectady, New York. He then studied law and started a practice before an entrepreneurial spirit led him to found a newspaper and printing business. Both succeeded thanks to his shrewd management and hard-hitting political editorials.
Despite Churchill’s belief in the importance of family and family life, he was also a relentlessly ambitious man and politics and government naturally took up huge amounts of his time, regularly taking him away from his family. He was often away from home – ‘more urgently occupied’, as Mary later wrote – either fighting wars or fighting elections. Clementine was politically astute and well-informed and, not content to sit on the sidelines, played an influential part in his political life. Like most women of her day, Clementine accepted that her own interests must always come second to those of her husband, but she acted as his political agent in London while he was serving in the trenches in the First World War (after he was sacked from the Admiralty and then resigned from government in 1915). She offered advice and met up with political leaders in London, determined to protect his political reputation in his absence.
‘I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know … There is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner … I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be … I cannot bear that those who serve the Country & yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you.’
Clementine in a letter to Churchill, 27 June 1940, in Soames, Speaking for Themselves
Away from the field of battle, Churchill’s risk-taking continued unabated. By January 1910, he was Home Secretary (his exploits in the war zones of the British Empire having succeeded in getting him into ‘the game of politics’) – and managed to engineer himself into the centre of the action.
‘The vastly publicized affair fortified Churchill’s … reputation for being far from a calm and judicious Home Secretary. He was perceived more as a trigger-happy boy scout, or at best a junior officer, who wished to behave in the streets of London as though he was still with the Malakand Field Force or on the armoured train in Natal.’
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
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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.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.