Blood, Toil, Tears, etc.
Is there anything new to be said about Winston Churchill?
Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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.