SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL
Winston Churchill emerged as one of the most interesting and colorful Britons to transition from the Victorian to the modern era. (He died just four years before man reached the moon.) Soldier, sportsman, painter, writer, orator, politician and world leader, his fortunes had almost as many “downs” as “ups” and he was often counted out only to re-emerge, often to save the day.
Winston was born in Blenheim Palace, not because his parents lived there but, because his beautiful young mother — late in her pregnancy and against doctor’s orders — was attending a ball. While happily dancing, she had suddenly felt faint and was hurriedly taken to a small bedroom being used as a ladies’ cloakroom. There, among the coats and furs, a plump red-headed infant entered the world.
Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a brilliant young politician in his twenties had met his wife Jennie and within two days had fallen in love and proposed marriage. She was a nineteen-year-old, dark-skinned beauty, one fourth Iroquois Indian, and daughter of a wealthy American, Leonard Jerome. Well-educated and poised, she had an independent streak, which she passed on to her son. Strictly against high-society custom, she had a snake tattoo on her left wrist, which she had done on an impulse as a teenager. She later concealed it with large bracelets. When asked about his heritage, Winston would say he was fifty percent American and one hundred percent British.
At school he was a “troublesome boy” a poor student and rebellious, particularly at having to learn Latin and Greek. Through his father’s influence, he did manage to be accepted at the exclusive private school of Harrow. While still weak in the classics, he demonstrated an extraordinary skill at memorizing the things that interested him. (He won the school prize for memorizing and reciting fourteen hundred lines of Macaulay’s poem, “Lays of Ancient Rome.”) Later in life he would memorize long speeches. At home he collected toy soldiers, which he used to conduct imaginary wars. He did not attend any university but spent two years in the military academy, “Sandhurst.” His relationship with his father, who died when Winston was twenty, was very formal. Like many of his ilk, he addressed his father as “Sir.” Randolph was also highly critical of his son, writing to him at the end of his school days “…if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idly useless unprofitable life you have during your school days and later months you will become a mere social wastrel…”
After graduating from Sandhurst and looking for adventure during a five month holiday period, he took a newspaper reporter job in Cuba where a minor rebellion against Spanish rule was being waged. There, he acquired a taste for cigars and afternoon naps, habits which lasted all his life. Returning to his army regiment he went to India where he developed a love for reading history. He took part in some skirmishes but it was not until he went to the Sudan, under Sir Horatio Kitchener, that he really saw action. Assigned to the famed “Twenty-first Lancers” on September 2, 1898, he rode directly into the lines of 20,000 Dervish riflemen in one of the last great cavalry charges in British history. Twenty Lancers died but the Dervishes were routed. After the horrible battle, he carried a black Sudanese baby, found alive on the field, to the wives of the Dervish tribesmen still waiting in fear nearby.
At 24, he was sufficiently well known to be able to lay claim to a seat in Parliament. He lost the election and headed to South Africa as a war correspondent for the London Morning Post. Britain was at war with the Dutch farmers (Boers) of South Africa. The Boers had lived on the land for a century and a half and resented the hundreds of foreigners flocking to the recently discovered gold fields. They had good reason to believe that British troops would try to take control especially after an abortive attempt was made to raid Johannesburg. It was planned by Cecil Rhodes and led by his friend Dr. Jameson.
War followed and early Boer successes were closely followed in Britain where the new popular press dramatized all such news.
Capture and Escape
Winston was on a train heading for the front, when it was ambushed by Boer raiders. After a brief fight, he was captured by none other than General Louis Botha, who later became Prime Minster of South Africa. Churchill demanded to be released, claiming that he was a war correspondent not a soldier. But the Dutch commander reminded him that he had used a pistol in the fighting and even driven the train in an attempt to escape. “Besides,” smiled the commander “we don’t catch the son of a lord every day.”
After 3 weeks in captivity, he climbed a ten-foot high prison wall and, wearing a stolen Dutch clergyman’s hat, walked through the prison garden, out the gate and down Pretoria’s main street, tipping his hat to passersby. When he reached the railroad yards he jumped on a coal train. The next morning, with no idea where he was, he left the train and hid in a swamp. That night he saw the lights of houses and knocked on one of the doors. The famous Churchill luck held out — he was at the house of the only Englishman in twenty miles. The man hid him in a coal mine while the Boers, furious at his escape, offered a twenty-five pound reward for his capture, dead or alive. After three days he got on another freight train, hiding between two bales of wool. Traveling east, he arrived at Lourenzo Marques in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) and, still black from the coal, presented himself with perfect ease to the British Consul.
This exciting episode made him a famous and his next attempt at election to Parliament succeeded. He was sworn into Parliament in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died. It was a time of much social change. Women demanded equal rights and a new socialist party called for old age pensions. Churchill supported reforms to help the poor and started to cross his party’s lines.
His job as Member of Parliament was an unpaid one and he decided to go on a lecture tour to raise money for himself. He toured Britain speaking to packed houses about his adventures in South Africa, but when he extended his tour to include America, he was met by Americans of Irish descent who had little time for “England.” In Chicago they booed each time he mentioned the British and cheered whenever he mentioned the Boers. Churchill, who was becoming a very accomplished speaker, waited for the next round of boos, raised his voice and roared, “Then the Irish (Dublin) Fusiliers were called forward. The trumpets sounded the charge and the enemy was swept from the field!” The audience cheered and the tension was broken. One suspects that, for the rest of the speaking tour, the Dublin Fusiliers did more charging than they ever did on the battlefield!
Winston Churchill’s strong-minded independence caused such a rift with his own party (the Conservatives) that he joined the opposition (the Liberals). He disliked socialism and particularly communism but felt strongly about improving the lives of working men and women. He pushed for eight-hour working days, the regulation of child employment in factories and for labor exchanges, to help unemployed people find jobs.
At thirty-three years of age he married Miss Clementine Hozier with whom he stayed all his life. As he once wrote “I married, and lived happily ever after.”
World War I
But storm clouds were gathering in Germany where Kaiser William II (Queen Victoria’s grandson) was preparing for war. Churchill warned his fellow members in the Cabinet of the threat from Germany and, as head of the Admiralty, revolutionized the British Navy. Switching from coal to oil, and outfitting all battle-ships with new 15 inch guns, would prove saving strategies when war broke out in 1914, and the power of the German navy was realized.
The following year Winston’s career would suffer a severe reversal when he pushed to have British Empire forces help out the Russians (then allies of Britain) in their fight with Turkey (who had joined the German effort) at the Gallipoli Peninsula near Istanbul, Turkey. The British navy sailed in and, at first, all went well with a tremendous bombardment of the Turkish forts. The three major ships were lost as they sailed into a minefield. Despite this setback, it was decided to go ahead with the invasion and eventually after a series of blunders 55,000 allied soldiers lay dead, most of them young Australians and New Zealanders. The Turkish commander was Ataturk whom we will meet later in “The Turks.”
The disaster cost Churchill his Cabinet position and, after five months of frustration in a well-paid office job, he resigned and volunteered to fight at the front in the appalling trenches. There he won a reputation for coolness under fire. He was brought back to London in 1917 as Master of Munitions where he personally championed the development of the tank and a fighting air force until the war ended with Germany’s defeat in 1918.
In 1917 the Russian army and people overthrew and killed the monarchy — the Tsar and his family. A few months later, communists took over and started slaughtering their enemies. The Labor movement in Britain supported the Communists and Churchill spoke out forcefully against them. When the Liberals lost the election, he started inching towards his old Conservative Party. But many there mistrusted him. Nevertheless, they made him Chancellor of the Exchequer (his father’s old job) in 1924 but when they were defeated in 1929 he retired to his Chartwell house.
He loved the countryside and took pleasure in romping with his children. He painted in watercolor and oils and exhibited successfully under an assumed name. Bricklaying also intrigued him and he personally built a swimming pool and goldfish pond. He also gambled in Monte Carlo and became known as a connoisseur of fine brandy.
Churchill had another gift and that was writing. His four volume biography on his noble ancestor John Churchill “Duke of Marlborough” drew him acclaim as an historian.
World War II
In 1933, for the second time in twenty-five years, Germany started preparing for war. A fanatical leader who had been a corporal in the First World War, Adolf Hitler, was mesmerizing the German people and demanding more “living room” for the “superior” German nation. Still exhausted from the 1914-18 War and the Great Depression of 1929, Britain and America wanted very much to believe that what Hitler was doing would not affect them.
Hitler was building huge munitions factories, planes, submarines, tanks and battle-ships. By providing employment and prosperity he won the affection of his people. He built spectacular highways and cars the average person could afford “People’s cars” or “Volkswagens.”
Churchill, still out of office, kept issuing warnings and recommended preparation, but Parliament and the press mocked him. Britain’s trusting but gullible Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, tried desperately to negotiate peace with a Hitler growing more and more confident. Germany annexed Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia and finally marched into Poland. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany.
Chamberlain appointed Churchill to the same position he had held in World War One — “First Lord of the Admiralty” and cheers rang out on British ships around the world “Winston is back.”
But Hitler was in control and it seemed nothing could stop the German war machine. The British people lost patience with Chamberlain and on May 10, 1940 King George VI called for Winston Churchill to be Prime Minister.
Meanwhile the British Expeditionary force that had gone to help France was pushed into the sea at Dunkirk and most of the stragglers were only saved by thousands of boats, from large ships to small pleasure craft, that crossed the English Channel under enemy fire to pick them up off the beach.
It is important to remember that, in the early days of the war, there were many on both sides of the Atlantic, including US ambassador Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindberg and some of Churchill’s own House colleagues who thought the Germans were invincible and that there was still time to make a deal with Hitler. Prior to war breaking out, German businessmen were in New York talking to attentive industrial groups about possible lucrative deals in the thriving German economy.
Then the Nazi air force struck at the British homeland. First, they hit military targets, then civilian in a round-the-clock bombing of London. During these desperate days, awaiting the seemingly inevitable invasion, it was the words of their Prime Minister that held the Nation and Empire together.
Churchill had no intention of quitting. He stood in the House of Commons like a bulldog. His voice defiant as he growled (memorizing the words as he had at school) “…we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
The Battle of Britain was on and it was being fought in the air. Germany’s bombers, escorted by fighters, were engaged in aerial dogfights with British pilots, most of them in their teens. All this could be watched from the English countryside. The Royal Air Force prevailed, thanks to the courage of its young pilots, plus a new invention, radar, and Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain. But Europe belonged to Hitler and there were more catastrophes in the Far East. Singapore, Hong Kong and Burma fell to the Japanese who had allied themselves with Germany and Italy in order to expand their empire in Asia and the Pacific.
Churchill remained resolute and Britain clung to his brave words. Then the Japanese attacked the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and America entered the war.
Soon there was news, not of defeats but of victories — Alamein in North Africa, Stalingrad in Russia and Midway Island in the Pacific. Italy was invaded and the mammoth task of landing 152,000 allied troops and equipment on the coast of Normandy in France was accomplished. The British, American and Canadian forces closed in on Hitler from the west, while the Russians did the same from the east as Germany was pounded to defeat. By 1945 the war was over.
Holding Britain together in the extreme circumstances was Winston Churchill’s greatest achievement. He proved to be an incomparable leader, resolute in disaster, bold in attack, tireless and invigorating to all who could see or hear him.
Writer and Historian
Ironically, after the war ended the electorate decided that a war leader was no longer necessary and turned to the Labor party instead. Churchill returned to power as Prime Minister in 1951 but retired in 1955 to devote his still considerable energy to writing his “History of the English Speaking Peoples.” He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1953 and was knighted Sir Winston Churchill. In 1963 the United States conferred on him honorary American citizenship.
His death in 1965 at age 90 marked the end of an era in British history. Winston Churchill’s state funeral, given by a grateful nation, was so elaborate that one wishes his father, who believed so little in him, could have been there to witness it.
S E Q U E L
Today the British Empire no longer exists and virtually all its former colonies rule themselves. The fifty-member Commonwealth with its sometimes advantageous, trading benefits remains as the only reflection of the Empire at its height.
Britain shaped much of the North American continent plus Africa, India, the Middle and Far East where English is still the language of law, commerce, government and education. But after 1948 Britain, which sent millions of its citizens to settle in foreign countries, experienced the effects of a reverse immigration as large numbers of West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis and smaller numbers of West Africans, Maltese and Cypriots came to live in Britain. By 1970 it had become a multi-racial country.
With the fourth largest economy in Europe (after Germany, France and Italy) Britain is now part of the European Union.