At the point that Andrew Roberts sat down to write a new biography of Winston Churchill, there were a total of 1009 biographies of the man in print, examining every aspect of his life from a multitude of viewpoints. Works include the encyclopedic three-volume The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid, and Roy Jenkins’ single-volume Churchill: A Biography, which concentrates on Churchill’s political career. Such books may seem to many readers to say just about everything about Churchill there is to be said from the abundant documentation available for his life. What could a new biography possibly add to the story?
As the author demonstrates in this magnificent and weighty book (1152 pages, 982 of main text), a great deal. Earlier Churchill biographers laboured under the constraint that many of Churchill’s papers from World War II and the postwar era remained under the seal of official secrecy. These included the extensive notes taken by King George VI during his weekly meetings with the Prime Minister during the war and recorded in his personal diary. The classified documents were made public only fifty years after the end of the war, and the King’s wartime diaries were made available to the author by special permission granted by the King’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
The royal diaries are an invaluable source on Churchill’s candid thinking as the war progressed. As a firm believer in constitutional monarchy, Churchill withheld nothing in his discussions with the King. Even the deepest secrets, such as the breaking of the German codes, the information obtained from decrypted messages, and atomic secrets, which were shared with only a few of the most senior and trusted government officials, were discussed in detail with the King. Further, while Churchill was constantly on stage trying to hold the Grand Alliance together, encourage Britons to stay in the fight, and advance his geopolitical goals which were often at variance with even the Americans, with the King he was brutally honest about Britain’s situation and what he was trying to accomplish. Oddly, perhaps the best insight into Churchill’s mind as the war progressed comes not from his own six-volume history of the war, but rather the pen of the King, writing only to himself. In addition, sources such as verbatim notes of the war cabinet, diaries of the Soviet ambassador to the U.K. during the 1930s through the war, and other recently-disclosed sources resulted in, as the author describes it, there being something new on almost every page.
The biography is written in an entirely conventional manner: the author eschews fancy stylistic tricks in favour of an almost purely chronological recounting of Churchill’s life, flipping back and forth from personal life, British politics, the world stage and Churchill’s part in the events of both the Great War and World War II, and his career as an author and shaper of opinion.
Winston Churchill was an English aristocrat, but not a member of the nobility. A direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. As only the first son inherits the title, although Randolph bore the honorific “Lord”, he was a commoner and his children, including first-born Winston, received no title. Lord Randolph was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, the year of Winston’s birth, and would serve until his death in 1895, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State for India. His death, aged just forty-five (rumoured at the time to be from syphilis, but now attributed to a brain tumour, as his other symptoms were inconsistent with syphilis), along with the premature deaths of three aunts and uncles at early ages, convinced the young Winston his own life might be short and that if he wanted to accomplish great things, he had no time to waste.
In terms of his subsequent career, his father’s early death might have been an unappreciated turning point in Winston Churchill’s life. Had his father retired from the House of Commons prior to his death, he would almost certainly have been granted a peerage in return for his long service. When he subsequently died, Winston, as eldest son, would have inherited the title and hence not been entitled to serve in the House of Commons. It is thus likely that had his father not died while still an MP, the son would never have had the political career he did nor have become prime minister in 1940.
Young, from a distinguished family, wealthy (by the standards of the average Briton, but not compared to the landed aristocracy or titans of industry and finance), ambitious, and seeking novelty and adventures to the point of recklessness, the young Churchill believed he was meant to accomplish great things in however many years Providence might grant him on Earth. In 1891, at the age of just 16, he confided to a friend,
I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world, great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. … This country will be subjected, somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. … I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.
He was, thus, from an early age, not one likely to be daunted by the challenges he assumed when, almost five decades later at an age (66) when many of his contemporaries retired, he faced a situation uncannily similar to that he imagined in boyhood.
Churchill’s formal education ended at age 20 with his graduation from the military academy at Sandhurst and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the cavalry. A voracious reader, he educated himself in history, science, politics, philosophy, literature, and the classics, while ever expanding his mastery of the English language, both written and spoken. Seeking action, and finding no war in which he could participate as a British officer, he managed to persuade a London newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent and set off to cover an insurrection in Cuba against its Spanish rulers. His dispatches were well received, earning five guineas per article, and he continued to file dispatches as a war correspondent even while on active duty with British forces. By 1901, he was the highest-paid war correspondent in the world, having earned the equivalent of £1 million today from his columns, books, and lectures.
He subsequently saw action in India and the Sudan, participating in the last great cavalry charge of the British army in the Battle of Omdurman, which he described along with the rest of the Mahdist War in his book, The River War. In October 1899, funded by the Morning Post, he set out for South Africa to cover the Second Boer War. Covering the conflict, he was taken prisoner and held in a camp until, in December 1899, he escaped and crossed 300 miles of enemy territory to reach Portugese East Africa. He later returned to South Africa as a cavalry lieutenant, participating in the Siege of Ladysmith and capture of Pretoria, continuing to file dispatches with the Morning Post which were later collected into a book.
Upon his return to Britain, Churchill found that his wartime exploits and writing had made him a celebrity. Eleven Conservative associations approached him to run for Parliament, and he chose to run in Oldham, narrowly winning. His victory was part of a massive landslide by the Unionist coalition, which won 402 seats versus 268 for the opposition. As the author notes,
Before the new MP had even taken his seat, he had fought in four wars, published five books,… written 215 newspaper and magazine articles, participated in the greatest cavalry charge in half a century and made a spectacular escape from prison.
This was not a man likely to disappear into the mass of back-benchers and not rock the boat.
Churchill’s views on specific issues over his long career defy those who seek to put him in one ideological box or another, either to cite him in favour of their views or vilify him as an enemy of all that is (now considered) right and proper. For example, Churchill was often denounced as a bloodthirsty warmonger, but in 1901, in just his second speech in the House of Commons, he rose to oppose a bill proposed by the Secretary of War, a member of his own party, which would have expanded the army by 50%. He argued,
A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community. … A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.
Bear in mind, this was a full thirteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, which many politicians and military men expected to be short, decisive, and affordable in blood and treasure.
Churchill, the resolute opponent of Bolshevism, who coined the term “Cold War”, was the same person who said, after Stalin’s annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939, “In essence, the Soviet’s Government’s latest actions in the Baltic correspond to British interests, for they diminish Hitler’s potential Lebensraum. If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system than the German one.”
Churchill, the champion of free trade and free markets, was also the one who said, in March 1943,
You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave. … [Everyone must work] whether they come from the ancient aristocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler. … We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service.
And yet, just two years later, contesting the first parliamentary elections after victory in Europe, he argued,
No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.
Among all of the apparent contradictions and twists and turns of policy and politics there were three great invariant principles guiding Churchill’s every action. He believed that the British Empire was the greatest force for civilisation, peace, and prosperity in the world. He opposed tyranny in all of its manifestations and believed it must not be allowed to consolidate its power. And he believed in the wisdom of the people expressed through the democratic institutions of parliamentary government within a constitutional monarchy, even when the people rejected him and the policies he advocated.
Today, there is an almost reflexive cringe among bien pensants at any intimation that colonialism might have been a good thing, both for the colonial power and its colonies. In a paragraph drafted with such dry irony it might go right past some readers, and reminiscent of the “What have the Romans done for us?” scene in Life of Brian, the author notes,
Today, of course, we know imperialism and colonialism to be evil and exploitative concepts, but Churchill’s first-hand experience of the British Raj did not strike him that way. He admired the way the British had brought internal peace for the first time in Indian history, as well as railways, vast irrigation projects, mass education, newspapers, the possibilities for extensive international trade, standardized units of exchange, bridges, roads, aqueducts, docks, universities, an uncorrupt legal system, medical advances, anti-famine coordination, the English language as the first national lingua franca, telegraphic communication and military protection from the Russian, French, Afghan, Afridi and other outside threats, while also abolishing suttee (the practice of burning widows on funeral pyres), thugee (the ritualized murder of travellers) and other abuses. For Churchill this was not the sinister and paternalist oppression we now know it to have been.
This is a splendid in-depth treatment of the life, times, and contemporaries of Winston Churchill, drawing upon a multitude of sources, some never before available to any biographer. The author does not attempt to persuade you of any particular view of Churchill’s career. Here you see his many blunders (some tragic and costly) as well as the triumphs and prescient insights which made him a voice in the wilderness when so many others were stumbling blindly toward calamity. The very magnitude of Churchill’s work and accomplishments would intimidate many would-be biographers: as a writer and orator he published thirty-seven books totalling 6.1 million words (more than Shakespeare and Dickens put together) and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1953, plus another five million words of public speeches. Even professional historians might balk at taking on a figure who, as a historian alone, had, at the time of his death, sold more history books than any historian who ever lived.
Andrew Roberts steps up to this challenge and delivers a work which makes a major contribution to understanding Churchill and will almost certainly become the starting point for those wishing to explore the life of this complicated figure whose life and works are deeply intertwined with the history of the twentieth century and whose legacy shaped the world in which we live today. This is far from a dry historical narrative: Churchill was a master of verbal repartee and story-telling, and there are a multitude of examples, many of which will have you laughing out loud at his wit and wisdom.
Roberts, Andrew. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Viking, 2018. ISBN 978-1-101-98099-6.
Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about Churchill and this biography.
This is a lecture by Andrew Roberts on “The Importance of Churchill for Today” at Hillsdale College in March, 2019.