The Magazine

Blood, Toil, Tears, etc.

Is there anything new to be said about Winston Churchill?

Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the Footsteps of Churchill

A Study in Character

by Richard Holmes

Basic, 352 pp., $27.50

"OF THE WRITING OF biographies of Sir Winston Churchill there shall be no end" should be an established publishers' mantra. Yet writers really do now need a very good reason to join such an overcrowded field. Fortunately, the military historian Richard Holmes provides a truly fresh interpretation of the great man, something this reviewer was beginning to doubt was still possible.

Holmes acknowledges with enthusiasm the magnificent achievement of Churchill in Britain's annus mirabilis, those amazing 12 months between the evacuation from Dunkirk in June 1940 and Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941. Yet he also appreciates how, to have climbed to that towering position as prime minister, Churchill had spent a lifetime cutting corners and imposing what Holmes calls his "monumental egoism" across the entire political scene. There is an edgy, harsh, occasionally downright unpleasant, side to Churchill in these pages that Holmes argues was the inevitable obverse side to an otherwise great character.

Holmes's mature, and even occasionally wise, portrait is studded with facts about the period and episodes in Churchill's life that amuse, engage, and entice. The author's eye for the telling detail, as well as his deep immersion in all the relevant archives, raises this book far above the common ruck of revisionist Churchilliana. Holmes puts a strong case "for seeing Churchill as a Shakespearean character, in fact three of them if Henry V, King Lear and Falstaff are allowed." (There is nothing of the vacillating introspection of a Hamlet there.)

The sheer quality of writing also distinguishes this work from many others on the same well-worn subject. "His birthplace Blenheim Palace still sends its glare of cold command across the landscape," writes Holmes of Churchill, "his London apartment in Morpeth Mansions sits comfortably in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral; one can almost catch the whiff of his cigar in the Pinafore Room of the Savoy, and his presence at his beloved Chartwell is somehow palpable."

Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, between François Mauriac and Ernest Hemingway--they gave it to real writers in those days--but as Holmes points out, much of Churchill's writing was devoted to proving how he had always been right throughout his career. Many politicians write solely for that reason, of course; but then, we are accustomed to viewing Churchill as somehow different. Furthermore, Holmes shows how Churchill was not a scintillating orator all his life; in fact, as he puts it, "In the Thirties Winston became a long-winded bore, and his habit of leaving the chamber after speaking made other MPs less inclined to give him a respectful hearing." (Holmes's use of Churchill's Christian name throughout the book is the only thing that slightly jars in this otherwise fascinating and original study.)

Despite Holmes's occasionally astringent criticisms of Churchill, this is by no means overall a critical book, just one that puts searing honesty before fawning veneration. Whenever Churchill fell below the level of events, Holmes says so; but when he soared far above them--as in 1940 and 1941--he says so, too, with an enviable eloquence.

One of the curious aspects of Churchill historiography is that the heaviest blows against his reputation have been dealt by historians who generally admire him, like Holmes, rather than the "revisionist" historians like David Irving and Ralph Raico who detest everything he stood for. Richard Holmes unreservedly lauds Churchill for what he achieved when Britain stood alone; but otherwise, the man who emerges from these pages is a deeply flawed individual, so grindingly ambitious that he will do almost anything to get ahead.

In particular the young paladin Churchill receives as serious a roasting as any I have read. Sounding more like Sherlock than Richard, Holmes writes: "I confess to a deep sense of sadness when my enquiry led me to a close study of the documents in the Companion to the first volume of Winston's life. I defy anyone to like the young man who emerges from these pages."

According to Holmes, Churchill bullied his widowed mother for cash unmercifully, even charging to her the cost of his wreath on the grave of his beloved nursemaid Mrs. Everest. At 19 he nearly accidentally killed his 13-year-old brother Jack while out rowing on Lake Lausanne, and afterwards made himself out to be the hero of the incident. As a young Hussar officer he took part in the vicious and hypocritical ostracism of a fellow second-lieutenant, who was forced to resign his commission because he only had an income of £500 a year (when Churchill's own was £300).

Holmes charges that, soon after that unpleasant incident, Churchill was possibly involved in a race-fixing scandal over the Subaltern's Cup jump race and that, in the Boer war, he escaped from the Pretoria prisoner of war camp without his colleagues, after having arranged to go over the wall as a team. He is also accused of loving power more than valuing freedom, and of leaving the trenches of the Western Front ("when it suited him") in order to rebuild his shattered post-Dardanelles career. As Holmes caustically comments: "Over five million of his countrymen did not have that option."

Of some--if not most--of these harsh charges, Churchill was most probably innocent; hardly any of those five million soldiers were MPs who could make a brilliant wartime minister of munitions, for example. But for Holmes they, together, amount to a character indictment that stands really until the Wilderness Years of the 1930s, when Churchill redeemed all in his lonely and principled stand against the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

This book was timed to coincide with an eight-part BBC television series, which was controversial and widely watched for the same accusations made in the book. Even after the anti-appeasement struggle, Churchill is accused of vindictiveness against the losers; when he was asked for an eightieth birthday tribute to Stanley Baldwin in 1947, he came up with this line: "It would have been better for our country if he had never lived." (Which was, unsurprisingly, not used by the organizers.) It was hardly in the spirit of his well-known phrase: "In victory, magnanimity."

In a sense, all of Holmes's criticisms of Churchill's earlier and later career merely serve to put into greater perspective the sublime Churchill of 1940-41, when the prime minister "nothing common did, or mean / Upon that memorable scene." Of the effective sacrifice of the British Empire for the sake of winning the war, Holmes writes that Churchill "spent a windfall inheritance to assure a future for those values the civilized world regards as inevitable " which is a wise judgment far removed from that of the so-called revisionist school of Second World War Churchill-knockers.

Yet Holmes can also be boldly politically incorrect when it suits him, as when he points out that, if the movement for self-government for India, which Churchill resolutely opposed in the thirties, had got its way, Britain would have been denuded of the largest all-volunteer army in the history of mankind in the struggle against Nazism. These facts need to be stated, and Holmes does so with refreshing candor.

This book is suffused with quotes that will delight cognoscenti of Churchilliana. "There is not one single social or economic principle or concept in the philosophy of the Russian Bolshevik," he once wrote, "which has not been realized, carried into action, and enshrined in immutable laws a million years ago by the White Ant." For all the criticisms of individual aspects of Churchill's "monumental egoism"--which not even the most devout Churchill-worshipper would deny did exist--Holmes has written an intelligent, nuanced but, overall, an affectionate elegy. Churchill was indeed a man you'd want to go tiger shooting with. It would just be afterwards, hearing the exaggerated tales of his bravery, that would have been frustrating.

Andrew Roberts is the author, most recently, of Hitler and Stalin: Secrets of Leadership.