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Winston Churchill
1874 - 1965

 

 

The master statesman stood alone against fascism and renewed the world's faith in the superiority of democracy
By JOHN KEEGAN for Time Magazine
 


The political history of the 20th century can be written as the biographies of six men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The first four were totalitarians who made or used revolutions to create monstrous dictatorships. Roosevelt and Churchill differed from them in being democrats. And Churchill differed from Roosevelt — while both were war leaders, Churchill was uniquely stirred by the challenge of war and found his fulfillment in leading the democracies to victory.

Churchill came of a military dynasty. His ancestor John Churchill had been created first Duke of Marlborough in 1702 for his victories against Louis XIV early in the War of the Spanish Succession. Churchill was born in 1874 in Blenheim Palace, the house built by the nation for Marlborough. As a young man of undistinguished academic accomplishment — he was admitted to Sandhurst after two failed attempts — he entered the army as a cavalry officer. He took enthusiastically to soldiering (and perhaps even more enthusiastically to regimental polo playing) and between 1895 and 1898 managed to see three campaigns: Spain's struggle in Cuba in 1895, the North-West Frontier campaign in India 1897 and the Sudan campaign of 1898, where he took part in what is often described as the British Army's last cavalry charge, at Omdurman. Even at 24, Churchill was steely: "I never felt the slightest nervousness," he wrote to his mother. "[I] felt as cool as I do now." In Cuba he was present as a war correspondent, and in India and the Sudan he was present both as a war correspondent and as a serving officer. Thus he revealed two other aspects of his character: a literary bent and an interest in public affairs.

He was to write all his life. His life of Marlborough is one of the great English biographies, and The History of the Second World War helped win him a Nobel Prize for literature. Writing, however, never fully engaged his energies. Politics consumed him. His father Lord Randolph Churchill was a brilliant political failure. Early in life, Winston determined to succeed where his father had failed. His motives were twofold. His father had despised him. Writing in August 1893 to Winston's grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Marlborough, he said the boy lacked "cleverness, knowledge and any capacity for settled work. He has a great talent for show-off, exaggeration and make-believe." His disapproval surely stung, but Churchill reacted by venerating his father's memory. Winston fought to restore his father's honor in Parliament (where it had been dented by the Conservative Party). Thirty years after Lord Randolph's death, Winston wrote, "All my dreams of comradeship were ended. There remained for me only to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory."

Churchill entered Parliament in 1901 at age 26. In 1904 he left the Conservative Party to join the Liberals, in part out of calculation: the Liberals were the coming party, and in its ranks he soon achieved high office. He became Home Secretary in 1910 and First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. Thus it was as political head of the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that he stepped onto the world stage.

A passionate believer in the navy's historic strategic role, he immediately committed the Royal Naval Division to an intervention in the Flanders campaign in 1914. Frustrated by the stalemate in Belgium and France that followed, he initiated the Allies' only major effort to outflank the Germans on the Western Front by sending the navy, and later a large force of the army, to the Mediterranean. At Gallipoli in 1915, this Anglo-French force struggled to break the defenses that blocked access to the Black Sea. It was a heroic failure that forced Churchill's resignation and led to his political eclipse.

It was effectively to last nearly 25 years. Despite his readmission to office in 1917, after a spell commanding an infantry battalion on the Western Front, he failed to re-establish the reputation as a future national statesman he had won before the war. Dispirited, he chose the issue of the Liberal Party's support for the first government formed by the Labour Party in 1924 to rejoin the Conservatives, after a spell when he had been out of Parliament altogether. The Conservative Prime Minister appointed Churchill Chancellor of the Exchequer, but when he returned the country to the gold standard, it proved financially disastrous, and he further weakened his political position by opposing measures to grant India limited self-government. He resigned office i n 1931 and entered what appeared to be a terminal political decline.

Churchill was truly a romantic, but also truly a democrat. He had returned to the gold standard, for instance, because he cherished, for romantic reasons, Britain's status as a great financial power. He had opposed limited self-government for India becaus e he cherished, for equally romantic reasons, Britain's imperial history. It was to prove more important that as a democrat, he was disgusted by the rise of totalitarian systems in Europe. In 1935 he warned the House of Commons of the importance not only of "self-preservation but also of the human and the world cause of the preservation of free governments and of Western civilization against the ever advancing sources of authority and despotism." His anti-Bolshevik policies had failed. By espousing anti-N azi policies in his wilderness years between 1933 and 1939, he ensured that when the moment of final confrontation between Britain and Hitler came in 1940, he stood out as the one man in whom the nation could place its trust. He had decried the prewar app easement policies of the Conservative leaders Baldwin and Chamberlain. When Chamberlain lost the confidence of Parliament, Churchill was installed in the premiership.

His was a bleak inheritance. Following the total defeat of France, Britain truly, in his words, "stood alone." It had no substantial allies and, for much of 1940, lay under threat of German invasion and under constant German air attack. He nevertheless re fused Hitler's offers of peace, organized a successful air defense that led to the victory of the Battle of Britain and meanwhile sent most of what remained of the British army, after its escape from the humiliation of Dunkirk, to the Middle East to oppos e Hitler's Italian ally, Mussolini.

This was one of the boldest strategic decisions in history. Convinced that Hitler could not invade Britain while the Royal Navy and its protecting Royal Air Force remained intact, he dispatched the army to a remote theater of war to open a second front against the Nazi alliance. Its victories against Mussolini during 1940-41 both humiliated and infuriated Hitler, while its intervention in Greece, to oppose Hitler's invasion of the Balkans, disrupted the Nazi dictator's plans to conclude German conquests in Europe by defeating Russia.

Churchill's tendency to conduct strategy by impulse infuriated his advisers. His chief of staff Alan Brooke complained that every day Churchill had 10 ideas, only one of which was good — and he did not know which one. Yet Churchill the romantic showed acute realism in his reaction to Russia's predicament. He reviled communism. Required to accept a communist ally in a struggle against a Nazi enemy, he did so not only willingly but generously. He sent a large proportion of Britain's war production to Russia by Arctic convoys, even at a time when the convoys from America to Britain, which alone spared the country starvation, suffered devastating U-boat attacks.

From the outset of his premiership, Churchill, half American by birth, had rested his hope of ultimate victory in U.S. intervention. He had established a personal relationship with President Roosevelt that he hoped would flower into a war-winning alliance. Roosevelt's reluctance to commit the U.S. beyond an association "short of war" did not dent his optimism. He always hoped events would work his way. The decision by Japan, Hitler's ally, to attack the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, justified his hopes. That evening he confided to himself, "So we had won after all."

America's entry into the Second World War marked the high point of Churchill's statesmanship. Britain, demographically, industrially and financially, had entered the war weaker than either of its eventual allies, the Soviet Union and the U.S. Defeats in 1940 had weakened it further, as had the liquidation of its international investments to fund its early war efforts. During 1942, the prestige Britain had won as Hitler's only enemy allowed Churchill to sustain parity of leadership in the anti-Nazi alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin.

Churchill understandably exulted in the success of the D-day invasion when it came in 1944. By then it was the Russo-American rather than the Anglo-American nexus, however, that dominated the alliance, as he ruefully recognized at the last Big Three conference in February 1945. Shortly afterward he suffered the domestic humiliation of losing the general election and with it the premiership. He was to return to power in 1951 and remain until April 1955, when ill health and visibly failing powers caused him to resign.

It would have been kinder to his reputation had he not returned. He was not an effective peacetime Prime Minister. His name had been made, and he stood unchallengeable, as the greatest of all Britain's war leaders. It was not only his own country, though, that owed him a debt. So too did the world of free men and women to whom he had made a constant and inclusive appeal in his magnificent speeches from embattled Britain in 1940 and 1941. Churchill did not merely hate tyranny, he despised it. The contempt he breathed for dictators — renewed in his Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Mo., at the outset of the cold war — strengthened the West's faith in the moral superiority of democracy and the inevitability of its triumph.
 


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Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill

The English statesman and author Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) led Britain during World War II and is often described as the "savior of his country."

Sir Winston Churchill's exact place in the political history of the 20th century is, and will continue to be, a subject of debate and polemical writing. Where he succeeded, and how much he personally had to do with that success, and where he failed, and why, remain to be established. That he was a political figure of enormous influence and importance, belonging in many ways to an age earlier than the 20th century, and that he fitted uneasily into the constraints of British party politics until his moment came in 1940 are not in doubt. Until recently his reputation during the years from 1940 onward was scarcely questioned. But now historians are beginning to reassess his career in just the same way as Churchill himself tried to revise T. B. Macaulay's account of the Duke of Marlborough by writing a multivolumed Life of his distinguished ancestor (completed in 1938).

Churchill's record both before 1939 and after 1945 was for the most part undistinguished. But as Anthony Storr writes: "In 1940 Churchill became the hero that he had always dreamed of being. … In that dark time, what England needed was not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader. She needed a prophet, a heroic visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost. Winston Churchill was such a man; and his inspirational quality owed its dynamic force to the romantic world of phantasy in which he had his true being."


Early Life

Winston Churchill was born on Nov. 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace - the home given by Queen Anne to his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough. He was the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a Tory Democrat who achieved early success as a rebel in his party but who later failed and was cruelly described as "a man with a brilliant future behind him." His mother was Jenny Jerome, the beautiful and talented daughter of Leonard Jerome, a New York businessman.

Winston was conventionally educated following the norms of his class. He went to preparatory school, then to Harrow (1888), then to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He was neither happy nor successful at school. Winston idolized his mother, but his relations with his father, who died in 1895, were cold and distant. It is generally agreed that as a child Winston was deprived of openly expressed warmth and affection.

Churchill very early exhibited the physical courage and love of adventure and action that he was to keep throughout his political career. His first role was that of a soldier-journalist. Having joined the 4th Hussars in 1895, he immediately went to Cuba to write about the Spanish army for the Daily Graphic. He took part in the repulse of the insurgents who tried to cross the Spanish line at Trochem. In 1896 he was in India, and while on the North-West Frontier with the Malakand Field Force he began work on a novel, Savrola, a Tale of the Revolution in Laurania, which was published in 1900. More important, however, were his accounts of the military campaigns in which he participated. A book about the North-West Frontier and the Malakand Field Force was followed by a book about the reconquest of the Sudan (1899), in which he had also taken part. He went to Africa during the Boer War as a journalist for the Morning Post, and the most romantic of his escapades as a youth was his escape from a South African prison during this conflict.


Young Politician

In 1899 Churchill lost in his first attempt at election to the House of Commons. This was to be the first of many defeats in elections and by-elections during his career - he lost more elections than any other political figure in recent British history. But in 1900 he entered the House of Commons, in which he served intermittently until 1964. Throughout this long span his presence and oratory exercised a magnetic attraction in an institution he always refused to leave for the House of Lords.

Churchill's early years in politics were characterized by an interest in the radical reform of social problems. In 1905 he completed a biography of his father, which is perhaps his best book. Lord Randolph had tried to give coherence and organization to a popular socially oriented Toryism; Churchill carried that effort into the Liberal party, which he had joined in 1904 because of his disagreement with the revived demands for protectionism by the Chamberlain section of the Tory party. The major intellectual achievement of this period of Churchill's life was his Liberalism and the Social Problem (1909). In this work he stated his creed: "Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. … Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely by reconciling them with public right." Churchill was very active in the great reforming government of Lord Asquith between 1908 and 1912, and his work in palliating unemployment was especially significant.

In 1912 Churchill became first lord of the Admiralty - the range of offices which he held was as remarkable as the number of elections which he lost. He switched his enthusiasm away from butter toward guns, and his goal was the preparation of Britain's fleet for impending war. While at the Admiralty, Churchill suffered a major setback. He became committed to the view that the navy could best make an impact on the 1914-1918 war in Europe by way of a swift strike through the Dardanelles. This strategy proved unsuccessful, however, and Churchill lost his Admiralty post. In 1916 he was back in the army and served for a time on the front lines in France.


Interwar Years

Churchill soon reentered political life. Kept out of the Lloyd George War Cabinet by conservative hostility to his style and philosophy, by 1921 Churchill held a post in the Colonial Office. A clash with Mustapha Kemal in Turkey, however, did not help his reputation, and in 1922 he lost his seat in the House of Commons. The Conservative party gained power for the first time since 1905, and Churchill now began long-term isolation, with few friends in any part of the political spectrum.

In 1924 Churchill severed his ties with liberalism and became chancellor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin's government. His decision to put Britain back on the gold standard was a controversial one, attacked by the economist John Maynard Keynes, among others. Although he held office under Baldwin, Churchill did not agree with the Conservative position either on defense or on imperialism. In 1931 he resigned from the Conservative "shadow cabinet" as a protest against its Indian policy. Ever the romantic imperialist, he did not want to cast away "that most truly bright and precious jewel in the crown of the King." Baldwin and he also disagreed on how to react to the crisis caused by the abdication of King Edward VIII.

Churchill's interwar years were characterized by political isolation, and during this period he made many errors and misjudgments, among them his bellicosity over the general strike of 1926. Thus he cannot be viewed simply as a popular leader who was kept waiting in the wings through no fault of his own. In fact, it is not completely evident that he was aware of the nature of the fascist threat during the 1930s.


World War II

The major period of Churchill's political career began when he became prime minister and head of the Ministry of Defense early in World War II. "I felt as if I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour," he wrote in the first volume of his account of the war. (This account was later published in six volumes from 1948 to 1953). His finest hour and that of the British people coincided. His leadership, which was expressed in noble speeches and ceaseless personal activity, stated precisely what Britain needed to survive through the years before United States entry into the war.

The evacuation of Dunkirk and the air defense of the Battle of Britain have become legend, but there were and are controversies over Churchill's policies. It has been argued that Churchill's oversensitivity to the Mediterranean as a theater of war led to mistakes in Crete and North Africa. The value of his resistance to the idea of a second front as the Germans advanced into Russia has also been questioned. And there has been considerable debate over the wisdom of the course he pursued at international conferences (such as those at Yalta in February 1945) which reached agreements responsible in large part for the "cold war" of the 1950s and 1960s. But although criticisms may be made of Churchill's policies, his importance as a symbol of resistance and as an inspiration to victory cannot be challenged.


Last Years

The final period of Churchill's career began with his rejection by the British people at the general election of 1945. At that election 393 Labour candidates were elected members of Parliament as against 213 Conservatives and their allies. It was one of the most striking reversals of fortune in democratic history. It may perhaps be explained by Churchill's aggressive vituperation during the campaign combined with the electorate's desire for patient social reconstruction rather than for a return to prewar economic mismanagement.

In 1951, however, Churchill again became prime minister. He resigned in April 1955 after an uneventful term in office. For many of the later years of his life, even his iron constitution was not strong enough to resist the persistent cerebral arteriosclerosis from which he suffered. He died on Jan. 24, 1965, and was given a state funeral, the details of which had been largely dictated by himself before his death.
 


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British; Home Secretary 1910 – 11, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1924 – 9, Prime Minister 1940 – 5, 1951 – 5; KG 1953 The son of Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston had an undistinguished education at Harrow. After Sandhurst, he joined the 4th Hussars and had extensive overseas experience. In 1899, he fought Oldham as the Conservative candidate, lost, and then went as a journalist to cover the Boer War in South Africa. He returned a national hero, having fought to protect British troops and having escaped from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp. He was elected as Conservative MP for Oldham in 1900. In 1904 he crossed the floor of the House to join the Liberals, doing so on the issue of free trade. He was quickly rewarded, being made a junior minister in the new Liberal government in 1906. Two years later he joined the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. In 1910 he was appointed Home Secretary. He was 35. He implemented some prison reforms but alienated radicals by his willingness to sanction the deployment of troops in Wales during a coal strike. A year later he was made First Lord of the Admiralty. He helped modernize the navy but his reputation declined in the early years of the First World War and he was blamed for the failure of the attack on the Dardanelles. In 1915 the Conservatives insisted on his removal from the Admiralty as one of the conditions for joining a coalition. He was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but resigned within a matter of months in order to see active service. After a year at the front, he returned to Westminster. Excluded initially (on Bonar Law's insistence) from the Lloyd George government, he was brought in as Minister of Munitions in 1917. When the war ended, he was appointed Minister of War and used the post as a platform for attacking the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. He was then promoted to be Colonial Secretary. His ministerial career as a Liberal MP ended in 1922. He lost his seat. He wrote a two-volume work entitled The World Crisis, and — believing that the Conservatives were the party best placed to combat the threat of socialism — returned to the Conservative fold. In 1924 he was elected as the "constitutionalist" candidate in Epping and within days Stanley Baldwin, wanting to separate him from creating an alliance with Lloyd George, had appointed him as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was a remarkable political rehabilitation. As Chancellor, Churchill presided over a return to the gold standard and the General Strike. He served as Chancellor throughout the parliament (1924 – 9). However, he proved a difficult and demanding colleague and Baldwin decided not to appoint him again to government. When the Conservatives returned to office in 1931, dominating the National Government, he was consigned to the back benches.

The 1930s were Churchill's wilderness years. He antagonized his own side by his vehement opposition to the Government of India Bill, giving the country dominion status, and by his demands for more rapid rearmament. He was also unpopular because of his support for the King, Edward VIII, during the abdication crisis. By 1937, wrote one biographer (Virginia Crowe), "his influence had fallen to zero".

The failure of the Munich agreement and the declaration of war vindicated the stance taken by Churchill. Neville Chamberlain brought him into his wartime government as First Lord of the Admiralty. Chamberlain's resignation in 1940 created a vacancy that Churchill was to fill. Though Labour leaders and most Conservative MPs would have supported Lord Halifax as Prime Minister, Halifax demurred in favour of Churchill. Churchill was appointed Prime Minister and threw himself into the office with vigour. He eventually overcame criticisms and political sniping by critics on the Conservative benches. His carefully crafted speeches proved inspirational. He took the House of Commons seriously. His strategic leadership was sometimes flawed but often brilliant. He dominated a powerful War Cabinet. He overcame some difficult moments in the House of Commons, especially in 1942, when a united house was essential to the war effort. When victory was in sight, he wanted to continue the coalition government until a general election could be held. Labour leaders disagreed, and so a caretaker Conservative government was formed in 1945. It held office until the general election later that year, when the Labour Party was returned to power with its first working majority. The result shocked Churchill. His wife told him it might be a blessing in disguise. He replied that, in that case, it was very well disguised.

In Opposition, Churchill proved a lacklustre leader, making some important pronouncements on foreign affairs, but leaving it to others to prepare the party for a new era. He was fortunate in having lieutenants who were up to the task. His own position was variously criticized and some MPs wanted him to retire gracefully. He rebuffed any suggestions that he should step down and he led his party into the 1950 and 1951 general elections. The latter resulted in a Conservative victory and Churchill forming his first peacetime administration. He had little feel for what should be done. He confided to Oliver Lyttleton that "In the worst of the war I could always see how to do it. Today's problems's are elusive and intangible." He was keen to ensure social harmony and was willing to appease the unions to avoid industrial unrest. He had able ministers but he had doubts about Eden's ability to succeed him. Despite being laid low by strokes, he carried on. He eventually gave up office in April 1955, at the age of 80. He stayed in the House of Commons until the 1964 general election, though making no significant contribution to parliamentary debates. He died on 24 January 1965 and was given a state funeral.

Churchill was difficult, impulsive, prone to depressive moods, extreme at times in pursuing his views, and sometimes plain wrong. He was also brave, determined, at times clear-sighted, and the outstanding Englishman of the century. He provided inspirational leadership as Prime Minister in time of war, towering above his colleagues. He died as the great commoner, having declined a dukedom.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008