Kevin Ruane is author of Churchill and the Bomb (2016) and teaches history at Canterbury Christ Church Univeristy.
David Cohen, Churchill and Attlee: the Unlikely Allies Who Won the War, Biteback Publishing, 2018, 356 pages, £22. ISBN: 978–1785903175
As a cursory internet search will confirm, the popular perception of the Winston Churchill-Clement Attlee relationship is largely shaped by two purportedly Churchillian remarks. The first—the wording alters marginally depending on where one looks— goes thus: “An empty taxi drew up outside Number 10 Downing Street and out stepped Mr Attlee.” The second has Churchill dismissing Attlee “as a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” From these quotes, it is reasonable to infer that Churchill regarded Attlee, the Labour Party leader (1935–55) and his deputy as Prime Minister during the Second World War, as a vacuous non-entity. There is, though, a problem with such an inference: Churchill did not actually utter the remarks upon which it rests. Indeed, when apprised of the barbs he was supposed to have shot in Attlee’s direction, Churchill became angry and upset.
Popular perceptions are quick to set but slow to shift. In 2002, the BBC commissioned a public television poll to determine the “Greatest Britons” of all time. Churchill came top. Attlee did not even make the top 100. In contrast, David Cohen reminds us in his new book Churchill and Attlee that in 2004 British historians were polled on the most successful UK Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Attlee came first, Churchill second. Historians, then, as opposed to the public, have never lost sight of Attlee and his importance.
Allen Packwood, How Churchill Waged War, Frontline, 2018, 260 pages, £25/$34.95. ISBN 978–1473893894
Reflecting on his reputation after the war, Churchill noted: “People say my speeches after Dunkirk were the thing. That was only a part, not the chief part. They forget that I made all the main military decisions.” Indeed, Churchill did not just lead by inspiration; he waged war—exactly what he said he would do in his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister. How Churchill went about it is the subject of this gripping new study by Allen Packwood.
For many years Packwood has served as Director of the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge. His deep familiarity with the papers of Winston Churchill has resulted in this his first (and, I hope, far from last) book. Every page illustrates his extensive knowledge of the primary documents, for this book uses citations at the bottom of each page and not endnotes following the chapters or buried in the back. A quick glance down shows that Packwood is supporting his arguments with original archival documents. Even his secondary sources are mostly the published versions of primary materials, such as diaries, letters, and memoirs.
Armed with this formidable knowledge, Packwood does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of Churchill as warlord. Instead he has chosen ten subject areas that interested him in particular as he set out “to try and answer the question what did Churchill do? How did he wage war?” Each chapter is a thoughtful but fast- paced and self-contained study. The chapters give a good chronological spread of the war years, starting in 1940 with Churchill’s decision as Prime Minister to serve also as Minister of Defence and concluding with his determination to run an aggressive campaign in the general election of 1945.
125 Years ago
Winter 1894 • Age 19 “Keep Down the Smoking”
With graduation from Sandhurst pending, Winston began to consider his future service in the Army. On 11 January, he wrote to his mother and listed five reasons why he preferred a cavalry regiment rather than an infantry regiment. First, promotions came faster in the Cavalry than in the Infantry. Second, commissions also came “much sooner” in the Cavalry. Third, the 4th Hussars were going to India, and, if he joined the regiment before it left, he “would have 6 or 7 subalterns below me in a very short time.” Fourth, Cavalry regiments were “always given good stations in India and generally taken great care of by the Government,” whereas the Infantry “have to take what they can get.” Fifth, keeping a horse was much cheaper in the Cavalry, because the government provided stabling, forage, and labor.
Winston had also listed these same reasons in a letter to his mother’s friend, Colonel Brabazon of the 4th Hussars. In the letter to his mother, he added a sixth reason that included more attractive uniforms, the advantages of riding over walking, as well as being in a regiment where his mother knew some of the officers.
Courage meant a great deal to Winston Churchill. In his 1931 profile of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII titled “Alfonso the Unlucky,” subsequently published as a chapter in Great Contemporaries, Churchill wrote,
Men and kings must be judged in the testing moments of their lives. Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.
Indeed, courage was a personal quality frequently attributed to Churchill himself. Colonel Thomas (Tommy) Macpherson, a highly decorated Second World War officer, wrote of Churchill’s “extraordinary mixture of emotional sentimentality and steely courage.” Churchill’s, Macpherson elaborated, was “not heedless, reckless, momentary animal courage, but the self-disciplined, durable mental courage knowing all the dangers and still holding course.”
John Maurer is the Alfred Thayer Mahan Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College. An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Journal of Strategic Studies.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Great Britain faced a serious strategic challenge in imperial Japan, whose nascent sea power threatened the security and interests of the British Empire in Asia. At the center of British decision making about Japan’s naval challenge in 1924–29 was Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill, who reviewed spending requests of government departments, set priorities, sought revenue, prepared budgets, and managed the economy in the hurly-burly politics of the public arena.
Churchill had just turned fifty and, at the height of his powers when he became Chancellor, was determined to take an active role in directing Britain’s grand strategy. One colleague described Churchill as “the most forceful personality in the Cabinet.”1 But he forcefully challenged the idea of conflict with Japan. In an oft-quoted letter to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill wrote: “why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.”2 Instead, he foresaw a “long peace, such as follows in the wake of great wars.”3 In a tragic irony of history, Churchill’s words would later come back to haunt him when Japan attacked the British Empire in December 1941. Read More >
John Bird’s reconstruction of Churchill’s route at Witbank
Finest Hour 180, Spring 2018
By John Bird
John Bird lives in Witbank, South Africa
On 12 December 1899, Winston Churchill escaped from the State Model School in Pretoria, where he had been held prisoner by the Boers since his capture the previous month. After brazenly walking out of town, he found a railway line, which he hoped led on to his goal: the Portuguese colony at Delagoa Bay. In the evening, he scrambled onto a freight train and caught some sleep. But he knew he could not continue on the train after dawn, since he might be spotted on board and he would need to find water.
In the early hours of the 13th, Churchill jumped from the train and began to make his way on foot until he miraculously happened upon help at the Transvaal & Delagoa Bay Colliery near Witbank. While he subsequently recorded what he could of this journey, the precise route he then took has hitherto remained a complete mystery. It took many years of research, but I have now been able to put together a plausible itinerary. To do this, I found two keys were necessary to trace Churchill’s journey from the time he sprawled off the train at a quarter to four on the morning of 13 December until he was taken down a mineshaft at the colliery at a quarter to five the following morning. Read More >
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
Join or Renew NowPlease join with us to help preserve the memory of Winston Churchill and continue to explore how his life, experiences and leadership are ever-more relevant in today’s chaotic world. BENEFITS >BECOME A MEMBER >
Finest Hour Image
The most recent issues of Finest Hour are available online to members. Join to automatically receive a subscription to BOTH Finest Hour and the Churchill Bulletin.LEARN MORE >VISIT FINEST HOUR ARCHIVE >
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.