March 20, 2015

Receiving the Médaille Militaire in Paris

The prewar years were very much on Churchill’s mind as he worked on his Second World War memoirs. His thoughts were carried into the debates of the House of Commons. Speaking on the National Service Bill, he chided Labour for bringing in a conscription bill “after two years of peace, when all our enemies have surrendered unconditionally. Why, these were the very politicians who, four months before the outbreak of the war, led their followers into the Lobby against the principle of compulsory military service, and then had the face to accuse the Conservative Party of being guilty men.” Nonetheless, the Churchill-led Conservatives supported the Bill.

“I feel the blue uniform is for you fancy-dress, and I am proud of my plain Civilian Pig.”

This debate launched a verbal battle between Churchill and Clement Attlee. The Labour Prime Minister retaliated by calling Churchill the “most disastrous Chancellor of the century” for putting Britain back on the gold standard. “He sinned, no doubt in all ignorance, but much of our troubles today can be traced back to that error of ignorance and his simple trust of others in a field where he had little knowledge.” Churchill responded that while he Chancellor “the real wages of our workpeople steadily and substantially increased.” He accelerated his attacks by asking why Britain should be “the only debtor country in the world, while those she had rescued and those she had conquered went into the future without having to drag a terrible chain of debts behind them.” This attack led to a reduction of the British war debt.

Churchill’s Conservatives also supported Labour initiatives on the Indian subcontinent, provided they led to Dominion status for India and Pakistan. Attlee had appointed two Churchill supporters to bring India to independence: Lord Mountbatten and Lord Ismay. But Churchill disagreed with the name “Indian Independence Bill.” Dominion status, he said, “is not the same as Independence, although it may freely be used to establish Independence. It is not true that a community is independent when its Ministers have in fact taken the Oath of Allegiance to the King.” This would have been news to Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. In this case, Churchill was not clearly understanding the evolution of the Empire into the Commonwealth. His attention was focused on Europe, its rebuilding, restructuring and defence. He continued to support the concept of a United Europe and acknowledged the importance of the support of the United States, particularly the recent passage of the Truman Doctrine.

Edinburgh Castle

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With the assistance of his son-in-law, Christopher Soames, he continued the development of farming activities at Chartwell including the purchase of an adjacent one hundred plus acres. His publishing activities prospered. Most significant was the selling of serialization rights of his war memoirs to Life Magazine, The New York Times and the Daily Telegraph. The Times expected the work to be “one of the greatest and most brilliantly written historical documents of all time.” It was.

In May Churchill prepared to go to Paris to receive the Medaille Militaire, a unique honour for a foreign citizen. Clementine gave her husband the following advice: “I would like to persuade you to wear civilian clothes during your Paris visit. To me, air force uniform except when worn by the Air Crews is rather bogus. And it is not as an Air-Commodore that you conquered in the War but in your capacity and power as a Statesman. All the political vicissitudes during the years of exile qualified you for unlimited and supreme power when you took command of the Nation. You do not need to wear your medals to show your prowess. I feel the blue uniform is for you fancy-dress, and I am proud of my plain Civilian Pig.”

This story is illustrative of the problems faced by historians. Official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert found a note from Churchill to his valet stating, “I shall wear civilian clothes and take no uniform at all.” Another victory for spousal common sense! But in his outstanding account of his research, In Search of Churchill, Gilbert recounts how he discovered (In Finest Hour #35, Spring 1982) a photograph taken by William Beatty of Churchill in Paris wearing a military uniform! (That photograph can also be seen in In Search of Churchill facing page 179). While Churchill had honoured his wife’s wishes not to wear an Air-Commodore’s uniform, he had, in fact, worn the uniform of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, his old regiment.

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