Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
Review by Douglas S. Russell
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.
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Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
Review by Warren Dockter
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.
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Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
By Lewis E. Lehrman
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
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Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
By Celia and John Lee
In 1996 an article in the American press discussed “great leadership,” based on a work of psychology by Professor Dean K. Simonton published in 1994. It surmised that “only children” made good leaders in times of crisis and deduced that Winston Churchill fitted that category perfectly. It is small wonder that for all of his lifetime Jack Churchill, Sir Winston’s only sibling, remained an enigma. He has been shrouded in a whispering campaign that he was not a Churchill at all and any one of six different men have been cited as being his “real” father. Celia Lee’s six years’ research in the Churchills’ papers shows these allegations to be simply untrue.
John Strange Spencer Churchill (Jack) was born in Dublin on 4 February 1880, during the time his grandfather, the seventh Duke of Marlborough, was Viceroy of Ireland, and his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was serving as his Private Secretary. The family lived there from December 1876 until April 1880. The men variously supposed to be Jack’s father never set foot in Ireland during that time, with the exception of John Strange Jocelyn, the fifth Earl of Roden. This man has been seized upon by various authors because of the unusual use of his second name as Jack’s, and it has been claimed Lady Randolph had an affair with him. Celia contacted the present Earl of Roden and determined that Jocelyn had only arrived in what is today Northern Ireland in January 1880, having inherited the title from his nephew who died of tuberculosis in Paris. Jocelyn was a lifelong friend of the seventh duke and a respectable married man with a wife and daughter living in England. Peregrine Churchill (Jack’s younger son) explained to Celia that Jocelyn, en route to visit an estate he had inherited in County Down, stopped off with the Duke and Duchess at the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin, and Jack was born whilst he was there. He stood as godfather to the child, explaining the honorific use of his middle name, as Jack was primarily named after John Churchill, the great first Duke of Marlborough.
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Winston Churchill as POW © Churchill Archives Centre, Broadwater Collection
More action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. In this last youthful military adventure, Churchill set off and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899. He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers, when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. The following month, having spent his twenty-fifth birthday imprisoned, Churchill made a dramatic escape by climbing over a wall, riding a freight train, hiding in a coal mine and eventually boarding a train into Portuguese East Africa. He made his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. His brother Jack was wounded and became one of the first patients to be treated by their mother, Lady Randolph, on the hospital ship she had organised. But Churchill’s luck held. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was hailed a hero.
‘Here life itself, life at its best and healthiest, awaits the caprice of the bullet … Existence is never so sweet as when it is at hazard.’
Churchill, 4 February 1900 (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)
The onset of the WWI in August 1914 thrust Churchill into the limelight again, but this time at centre stage in an international crisis. For a ‘man of action’, this was the place to be. Eager to emulate the deeds of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill felt anticipation and excitement – and the promise of glories to come – as the prospect of war became unavoidable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill issued the order to the Navy to act – to ‘commence hostilities’. WWI was to be a time of great personal challenge for Churchill; it was to demand personal bravery and resilience in the face of both physical danger and intense mental battles. He did indeed ‘put his head into the lion’s mouth’.
‘I’m finished … I’m done. What I want above all things is to take some active part in beating the Germans … I’d go out to the Front at once.’
Churchill to Violet Asquith, in Champion Redoubtable: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914–1945 (ed. Pottle)
Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener © Imperial War Museum
On his return to London from India, Churchill – keen to get into politics – made a speech at a political meeting in Bradford. But he also desperately wanted to join Kitchener’s army in the Sudan: he saw action in the field – and writing about it – as a way to gain further attention. Persistent as ever, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post. In August 1898 he set off on his next adventure – travelling up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.
‘There is no doubt the charge was an awful gamble and that no normal precautions were possible. The issue as far as I was concerned had to be left to Fortune or to God – or to whatever may decide these things. I am content and shall not complain.’
Churchill in a letter to his mother, Lady Randolph, 17 September 1898
All the Churchills supported their father. The children, to varying degrees, served him – and their country – in the Second World War, too. Diana served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Sarah with the Photographic Interpretation Unit of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Mary served in the armed forces in mixed anti-aircraft (AA) batteries with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Mary also attended the Quebec conference of 1943 as an aide to her father, while Sarah played a similar role at Teheran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945. Randolph served as an Intelligence Officer in the Middle East, was attached to the newly formed Special Air Service (SAS), and undertook missions in the Libyan desert and in Yugoslavia.
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Churchill travelled to India with his regiment to fight against Pathan and Afghan tribesmen on the North-West frontier, armed with a contract as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. The campaign became the topic of Churchill’s first book, published in March 1898 – The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Then in 1895, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers to the Sudan, while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post. He later turned his news reports into a surprisingly sympathetic two-volume account in The River War (1899). In 1899, after a brief return to England and having left the army, the Boer War broke out and Churchill headed off again, with another assignment from the Morning Post.
Contrary to popular opinion (an opinion encouraged by Churchill himself in his autobiography, My Early Life), he was actually quite good at some subjects at school. He was particularly good at English and history, both subjects in which he showed considerable promise. This early promise was borne out when he became a war correspondent, sending dispatches back to London from far-flung parts of the Empire for newspapers. He was determined to get himself noticed and to get himself into politics – and, for an adventurous, reckless young man on a mission, this seemed as good a way as any. Between 1897 and 1900, with the help of his mother’s lobbying, he fought in three of Queen Victoria’s wars while doubling up as a war correspondent. He quickly turned all three experiences into books. His literary career was off to a flying start.
When Churchill sailed to India with his regiment, the Queen’s Hussars, in 1896, polo – and winning regimental polo cups – seemed to be the only action he was likely to see. Eager to make his mark, he took matters into his own hands and persuaded the Daily Telegraph to take him on as a war correspondent. In 1897, he travelled to the North West frontier of India and Pakistan to join the Malakand Field Force fighting against the Afghan tribes in 1897, under the command of Sir Bindon Blood. It took him a total of five uncomfortable weeks (by ship and by train), with the promise of nothing more than a role as ‘correspondent’, to get to the front.
‘Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones.’
Churchill, My Early Life
Churchill knew that the fastest way to political advancement lay in active service – ‘the glittering gateway to distinction’. He bemoaned the fact that the world was growing so ‘sensible and pacific’. There weren’t any battles close to home – as yet – so he had to look further afield to find action. For the moment, though, there was action to be found on a far-distant island – Cuba – and, through his mother’s contacts, Churchill managed to wangle a commission as a war correspondent for the Daily Graphic. Off he went, spirits high, to see some action. In late 1895, he and a friend Reginald Barnes were given leave to travel to Cuba, to observe the military campaign by the Spanish government troops against Cuban guerrilla rebels. Churchill spent some of his twenty-first birthday under fire when the column he was travelling with was attacked. Despite only being in Cuba for sixteen days, he was recommended for the Spanish Cross of the Order of Military Merit.
‘Luckily … there were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes in the Soudan. Some of these might, if they were well-disposed, ’put up a show’ some day.’
Churchill, My Early Life
© Reproduced from Other Deposited Collections Relating to Sir Winston Churchill held at The Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge. Image ref: WCHL 04 041 pt 2 of 2
Churchill later claimed, in that embarking on a military career ‘was entirely due to my collection of soldiers’, although the influence of Blenheim and his ancestor’s glories on the battlefield, as well as Churchill’s determination to follow his father into politics (for which he regarded the army as a great training ground), probably also played key roles. His toy soldier collection, based on the toy army he played with at Blenheim, was set up as an infantry division and he and his brother Jack, even in their teens, played out famous battles, with Jack’s soldiers playing the enemy.
Fighting is vigorously proceeding, and we shall see who can stand the bucketing best — Briton or Boer.
Churchill, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria
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Churchill leaving 10 Downing Street. © Baroness Spencer Churchill Papers
Chamberlain had resigned on 10 May 1940, the day that German forces attacked British and French ground forces and the day the ‘phoney war’ ended. With the only other contender, Lord Halifax, ruling himself out, Churchill’s appointment was inevitable and his time in the wilderness was over.
In the evening of 10 May, Churchill went to see King George VI at Buckingham Palace and became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. He was under no illusions about the enormity of the task that lay ahead.
Churchill, as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, was in a powerful position, with full oversight of both the armed forces (all three of them; the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force) and the government of the country. He was also the only cabinet minister who had held high office during the previous war, and was widely hailed as the necessary war leader. But he did not yet have the full confidence or leadership of his own conservative party, and there were many in government who were worried that he might prove rash and dangerous in his actions. He needed to prove himself.
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